Leonardo da Vinci, Birdwatcher

A rare da Vinci codex on birdflight goes on display at the National Air and Space Museum.

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1510. (Courtesy Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities)
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German glider innovator Otto Lilienthal was also intrigued with da Vinci’s ideas. And French-born aviation pioneer Octave Chanute made note of da Vinci’s diagrams in his 1894 work Progress in Flying Machines.

“Da Vinci was completely focused on flapping-wing, human-powered devices, which were not physiologically feasible for humans,” says Jakab. “But his ideas do reflect that someone of his scientific genius and capacity was thinking about flight in this period.”

The codex has an interesting history: It originally went to Francesco Melzi, da Vinci’s pupil and heir. In 1637, 13 manuscripts, including the codex, were donated to the Ambrosian Library in Milan. But in 1797, Napoleon ordered all of the library’s da Vinci manuscripts sent to Paris. At some point between 1841 and 1844, the codex was taken apart and several of the folios stolen. They eventually resurfaced in London, and were returned to Italy. The codex was not rebound until 1967.

“The opportunity to have on public view an original da Vinci manuscript—particularly in the United States—is exceedingly rare,” says Jakab. “It’s really something to be able to say that you’ve seen something that was created by the hand of da Vinci.”

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