‘The greatest genius ever’: remarkable Leonardo da Vinci manuscripts to go on show in Australia

<span>Leonardo da Vinci’s priceless Codex Atlanticus is coming to Australia for the first time for the Lume Melbourne’s new blockbuster experience.</span><span>Photograph: Lume Melbourne</span>
Leonardo da Vinci’s priceless Codex Atlanticus is coming to Australia for the first time for the Lume Melbourne’s new blockbuster experience.Photograph: Lume Melbourne

Original pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s epic 12-volume Codex Atlanticus will arrive in Australia for the first time this month, as part of an immersive digital exhibition on the High Renaissance’s most celebrated genius.

Designs for a retractable bridge, hydraulic device, weapons of war and the famous flying machine will be among the 12 pages selected from some 2,000 for Leonardo da Vinci – 500 Years of Genius at Melbourne’s The Lume.

Stored in Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana since 1637, and partially released to Australia under permission from Italy’s Ministero della cultura (Ministry of Culture), the Codex Atlanticus holds more than four decades’ work by the 16th century Florentine polymath, whose prolific sketches, designs, inventions and writings are often overshadowed by his universally recognisable masterpieces.

Not that the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper will be overlooked in the Melbourne exhibition. The paintings of Leonardo will be digitally presented in an enormous 3,000sq metre multisensory gallery, in the immersive style that museum purists deplore and the public flock to in the millions.

The Melbourne exhibition will also feature 40 machines and gadgets designed by Leonardo, created by artisans from Rome’s Museo Leonardo da Vinci, including underwater breathing apparatus, a fly wheel, a car jack and that legendary flying machine.

The Lume’s founder, Bruce Peterson, who has spent the better part of a decade negotiating with Biblioteca Ambrosiana and the Italian government, describes the Codex Atlanticus as a “gateway into the brilliance” of Leonardo’s mind.

“His designs and inventions were groundbreaking, he was without doubt the greatest genius ever, he sought to reshape the physical world,” says Peterson, who has used private capital of more than $2m to transport and insure the exhibition’s objects.

Related: Mona Lisa V ‘the monstrous’: the grotesque, shocking side of Leonardo da Vinci

Only four pages of the Codex Atlanticus will be on display at any given time in Melbourne, as the fragile 500-year-old pages cannot withstand more than 90 consecutive days of light before they must be returned to total darkness for at least a further five years.

The historian and professor of early modern studies at the Australian Catholic University, Susan Broomhall, describes the Codex Atlanticus as “the big daddy” of Leonardo manuscripts.

“People are pretty familiar with Leonardo’s art, and there are museums around the world where you can go and visit his artwork and stand fairly close to it. But it is very rare for anyone, other than a handful of academics, to get up close to his manuscripts. You can’t just walk into these libraries and archives around the world and access them.”

Broomhall says the “scatter-gun” nature of the Codex Atlanticus’s makeup gives the viewer an insight into “the diversity of things that he’s thinking about and the sheer scope and range of what he’s imagining is possible”.

Art, architecture, engineering, physics, Leonardo was an undisputed master of all these things, but lesser known was the man’s genius for marketing, Broomhill says.

“The genius is in the imagination, not in the delivery, as most of the designs are non-functional,” she says.

“But he continually had powerful people, kings and dukes, paying him for his ideas and promises. And there isn’t too many industries where when you don’t deliver, you keep getting offered more money to do more.”

Leonardo left a trail of unfinished commissions behind him and the Medicis and Sforzas kept coming back for more.

“He was selling them dreams of what could be, and what could be was pretty remarkable for its time,” says Broomhall.

“You have to dream in order to get somewhere and that is what people were captivated by then, the possibilities that he opens up.”

  • Leonardo da Vinci – 500 Years of Genius opens on 16 March at The Lume, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre