See It, Feel It, Touch It

The Da Vinci Esperience stimulates all the senses at Palm Springs Air Museum, which transformed a hangar into 15th century Italy for the exhibition's U.S. debut.



Ethan Kaminsky

Five days before what could be a seminal moment for Palm Springs Air Museum, a crew of museum staffers, contractors, and two men from Italy wearing shirts with a Vitruvian Duck on the back (a comic take on Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man) appear calm despite the monumental amount of work ahead of them to mount The Da Vinci Experience.

Luigi Rizzo — one of the Italian artisans responsible for replicating machines designed by Leonardo da Vinci who came to Palm Springs to oversee installation of the machines (and repair any damage that occurred in transport) — distills the scene as he talks about his participation in their fabrication.

"Everybody has to do everything," he says. "It's the da Vinci principle to be holistic in the way we operate: the research, the studying first, and then the application" — and, now, the installation.

The exhibition, which opened in November and runs through March 25, 2007, follows a global route that began in Germany at the Frankfurt Book Fair. That's where public policy consultant and author Godfrey Harris, an Englishman living in Los Angeles, met Rizzo, a Viennese book distributor and former physicist living in Australia. The two men became friends, and Rizzo began distributing Harris' books in Australia and New Zealand.

When Rizzo returned to Italy, he discovered the scope of da Vinci's legacy in a Florence museum. "He recognized the enormous power of the da Vinci name, given the book The Da Vinci Code," Harris recalls. "He came to me in 2004 and said, 'There must be a way to take advantage of this interest in Leonardo.'"

The "way" became a Web site that drew advertisers as well as the curious public. "That was when I first started reading heavily [about da Vinci]," Harris says. "We wanted to offer new information, comparisons, and time lines." Harris read material from "prominent, recognized scholars of recent days, as well as the 1920s, which was the other big da Vinci period."

Rizzo then met with a family of three artisans in Florence who had been commissioned by museums to replicate da Vinci's numerous machines from the artist/inventor's drawings and notes. After proposing to take an exhibition on the road, Rizzo went to New Zealand, where he had once lived, to visit his children and while there talked to the Auckland War Memorial Museum about presenting a collection of replica da Vinci machines.

"They thought they would get 27,000 and ended up with 104,000 visitors," Harris says of the show that ran Nov. 18, 2005, to March 5, 2006. The fact that museum patrons were accustomed to free museum admission and the da Vinci exhibition cost $14.50 (about $9 U.S.) makes attendance even more impressive.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2005, Rizzo offered Harris another proposition: Would Harris be interested in finding host venues in the United States?

Harris asked his friend Kenneth Katz, a Coachella Valley resident, for his thoughts and Katz suggested Palm Springs Air Museum. "From the very beginning, I said to Luigi that I wanted something like this," Harris recalls. "This is more entertainment[-oriented] and educational, not curatorial. Museums in L.A. where I live would be more difficult to get excited about this."

He says that allowing visitors to touch exhibits is anathema to traditional museums. "My attitude is that this exhibit's strength was in the interactivity between the visitor and the machine. Our job is to get them to see it, to like it, and to appreciate it."

The air museum also offers the kind of space typical museums lack — an airplane hangar — that can transport visitors to another time and place. Harris tapped his consulting contacts to replicate 15th century Italy: a Florentine street, vestibule, and garden.

The street scene at the entrance sets the mood, thanks to a contact Harris made in the early 1990s while importing Russian pollution control equipment to the United States.

"I asked the chief chemist on that project [if he could] create the smells of autumn in Italy." The chemist said he could, so Russia also plays a role in this international affair. Harris also called on television and film set designers he knew and found a vestibule that had been used for a Discovery Channel program. He bought the large, domed structure to display copies of da Vinci's paintings.

The garden, which can be reserved for private receptions, provides a mood setting for visitors to enjoy Italian sandwiches, pizza, and other food and drink items or have their portraits drawn in charcoal by local artist Dan Kelly while listening to Renaissance music and the splash of water in a fountain.

Harris and Katz, however, want to whet appetites for more than food — especially among young people. An educational area for children offers model-making workshops and computer workstations with da Vinci-themed lessons and games.

"We hope to spark interest in history, science, nature, and art," says Katz, co-manager of the exhibition. "That period of the Renaissance is so valuable. There was a giant leap of greatness."

To aid in that goal, they created an educator’s guide to be offered to teachers in Riverside and Orange counties and Los Angeles.

But the exhibition — which came to Palm Springs from Melbourne, Australia, and then goes to the Aerospace Museum of California in Sacramento — is intended to be educational for adults as well. Harris' favorite memory of the Auckland exhibition came after watching a woman come to grips with how gears worked.

"She played with the machine for about 20 minutes, then got a big smile on her face and left there happy as a clam," he says. "And that’s the purpose of this thing."

The Da Vinci Experience continues through March 25, 2007, at Palm Springs Air Museum, 745 N. Gene Autry Trail, Palm Springs. Information: 778-6262.

The Art Of Replication

Photos from The Da Vinci Experience

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