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The Day Leonardo da Vinci Came to DC

We went to a reception at the MLK Jr. Library to see a rare exhibit of the artist's drawings get unveiled.

Photograph by Malcolm Ferguson.

After a complex overseas transportation process, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library unveiled its new exhibit “Imagining the Future—Leonardo da Vinci: In the Mind of an Italian Genius” last week.

The day began early, with a press conference featuring Carlo Bonomi, president of the Italian business federation Confindustria, the primary event’s sponsor. Bonomi spoke about the long history of cultural and economic exchanges between the US and Italy. Also present were Italian Ambassador to the US Mariangela Zappia, the DC Public Library’s executive director, Richard Reyes-Gavilan, Dolce & Gabbana managing director Fedele Usai, and Smithsonian American Art Museum director Stephanie Stebich, among many other VIPs from DC and Italy. 

The experience of the exhibit is fairly brief. The pages of Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus are positioned in the middle of softly lighted and climate-controlled frames, allowing viewers to get an intimate look at both his incredibly intricate design plans and his accompanying scribbles. After the exhibit, viewers and their children can head to Leonardo’s Lab to learn more about Leonardo as an individual and to create their own inventions.

The driving financial force behind the partnership between two libraries, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan and MLK Jr., is Confindustria, which just opened an office in Washington. In October of 2022, Reyes-Gavilan received a call from a colleague who informed him that they’d been “connected with these Italians” who were interested in bringing Leonardo’s technical drawings to DC, and that MLK Jr. had been mentioned as a strong contender for an exhibit space.

Reyes-Gavilan said he was initially hesitant, as his system tends to tell the stories of artists who’ve been historically overlooked. “But frankly, it didn’t take a long time for me to get really excited about the possibility of introducing Leonardo to an audience that may never see him in a museum setting,” Reyes-Gavilan said. “And they may never, regardless of whether they go to museums or not, see something like this ever again.” 

The transportation process from the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan to MLK in DC was incredibly complex, and Reyes-Gavilan describes the small drawings arriving in oversized orange cases, covered in styrofoam and plywood. “You could drop them off a building and these things wouldn’t be moving at all.” Once the drawings arrived they were kept in a vault until last Saturday, when all 12 pages were carefully installed.

At the reception that followed the unveiling, Monsignor Alberto Rocca, the director of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, noted that this exchange was one of many ways to prevent culture from growing “sterile,” as he put it. “When I first visited this library I was really impressed by the idea of having a place which is really public, in the sense that people can come here at any level of culture with their children,” he said. “The second thing is that this exhibition has been promoted by Confindustria, which is the entrepreneurial arena. I really believe that without money, you cannot make any culture. I think it’s very naive when we want to make culture and we don’t think of funding.” 

Rocca also seemed to be more concerned with the space as a center of knowledge and access, more so than a symbol of Italian pride. “When we talk about da Vinci, it doesn’t matter whether I’m Italian or you’re American. We are human beings, and he was a genius human being, and we share it. I think this idea of culture is inclusive…so I don’t feel any challenge. I feel like sharing culture.” 

The Codex Atlanticus will be on display at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library until August 20, 2023. Learn more here.

Malcolm Ferguson
Editorial Fellow