Exploring the life of da Vinci

As if his myriad artistic accomplishments weren't enough, Leonardo da Vinci has appeared onscreen with Captain Kirk and Dr. Who, given his name to an oversized turtle with martial arts skills, and more recently been branded as a co-conspirator in one of history's greatest cover-ups. Da Vinci seems to have a busy schedule even half a millennia after his death, but his best work still comes from that especially productive 'pre-mortem' period in the 15th and 16th centuries - and for those interested in that earlier, more factual da Vinci, this year is witnessing a multi-national celebration of history's most famous polymath. Universal Leonardo looks at the master from multiple angles and multiple locations, and builds a comprehensive portrait of the quintessential Renaissance man.

A collaborative project taking place in museums and galleries across Europe, Universal Leonardo examines da Vinci's many areas of expertise (painter, sculptor, writer, mathematician, scientist, inventor ...) and connects works from these diverse fields to effectively illustrate the concept of the 'Homo Universalis.' In terms of its physical manifestation, the project takes the unusual approach of avoiding a single, travelling, 'blockbuster' exhibition in favor of parallel shows being held in venues from Budapest to Oxford - with each focusing on a particular facet of da Vinci's work. Launched in January and expanded through the spring, the project's online presence provides the only means to see elements of all the exhibits in one place, and also serves to gather content from the assorted venues into thematic tours.

The virtual embodiment of the program's decentralized approach can be seen in the main navigational tool at the top of every Universal Leonardo webpage. Using a timeline, layered by subject (Drawings, Inventions, Manuscripts, and Paintings), and employing an interactive linking tool which traces specific themes (Light and Vision, Forces of Nature, Rule of Mathematics...) across both subject and time, the interface can explore a single aspect of da Vinci's life while instantly taking visitors to exhibits which are physically hundreds of miles apart. (So while individual artifacts may be geographically isolated, they're not presented in isolation.) Choose any of the more than 100 interactive points in this timeline, and the site will reveal a floating caption box outlining that point's significance, and provide a link to details and related entries. Mouseover any of the eight theme-based, 'Trail' icons, and the timeline will draw a virtual route through all exhibits relevant to that theme. (While you're exploring, the timeline also 'pulses' the point for the exhibit you're viewing, giving constant feedback about your location.)

While this is certainly an unusual and engaging method for exploring the online Leonardo, if you're concerned that you might miss something in all that jumping around from point to point, there is also a more conventional option. Immediately below the timeline is a standard navigational toolbar, and for the sake of an intelligible tour of the site's content, this is probably the best place to start.

AfterVisit (an overview of participating venues, mainly of use to those with access to the physical exhibits), Universal Leonardo's next option is Explore, which presents the eight themed tours. Each tour gathers together ten geographically scattered works (all of which can be enlarged and studied in minute detail) and ties them together to survey a specific aspect of the master's work. As an example, Remaking Nature examines da Vinci's use of foreshortening and lighting to bring a three-dimensional feel to his paintings, looks at one of his attempts to recreate birds' wings in a proposal for a flying machine, and reveals his plan that supporting stones in the Milan Cathedral be made to interlock like vertebrae. Pages dedicated to each work close with a few pertinent words from da Vinci himself, and include a cluster of related links - though if you'd rather move directly through each theme, most of the related materials are also available under their own categories.

Categories such as Play, where exercises include trying your hand at mirror writing, piloting a pair of flying machines, and assembling a monster from a selection of available parts. (Of course, every game has its educational value as well - with the "Make a monster" feature, for example, explaining da Vinci's own methods in using components of living creatures to create his mythological beasts.) Discover adds scientific analysis to the mix, employing such tools as infrared and ultraviolet photography to allow users to look beneath the oil-painted surface of the "Madonna of the Yarnwinder." Browse divides the online collection into sets of Paintings, Manuscripts, Inventions, and Drawings. Research provides documentary sources central to the exhibition, as well as suggested websites, and "In Depth" examinations of questions that captivated the artist through his lifetime.

Populating a website with interesting content isn't difficult when you're drawing on the portfolio of Leonardo da Vinci, but presenting such a diverse body of work in a way that both makes sense and keeps the viewer engaged can be a bit more of a challenge. Universal Leonardo manages to do both. The timeline reveals connections and contexts that may have never crossed the visitor's mind, while the toolbar stands by with straightforward navigation. (And surfers can switch seamlessly from one to the other as they choose.) The wide use of thumbnails linking to zoomable images avoids long downloads of initial content while still providing access to the equivalent of larger than full-screen images for those who want a closer look. And touches like short quotes from the master and Make and Do exercises (including Leonardo's advice on "Creative Day Dreaming") help to minimize 'fact fatigue.'

But the stories told in Universal Leonardo are even more important than the Web magic used in their delivery. We all know about da Vinci's multi-faceted genius, but we don't think of the infinite variety of thoughts simultaneously occupying the man - until we are shown something as simple as a note about the similarities between the motions of water and hair, or see the connection he made between mathematics and plant growth. This is a glimpse of da Vinci as "Universal Man," open to limitless possibilities and limitless connections all of the time. One is left wondering if he was ever able to turn it off.

Universal Leonardo can be found at www.universalleonardo.org.

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