The "Leonardo3" project is based around the central figure of Leonardo da Vinci. Its intention is to create virtual reconstructions of the environments, objects, instruments and laboratories in which some of the most significant ideas in the history of technology were conceived and developed. As our starting point for exploring the most important technical developments of the 15th and 16th centuries we have chosen, quite arbitrarily, to reconstruct the Sforza Castle in Milan, which we will use as a background for models of the machines Leonardo designed during his first stay in that city, when he served as engineer and artist at the court of Ludovico the Moor.
The use of the most advanced computer graphics techniques allows us to send the visitor into virtual reproductions of historic scenes and to transform all the machines and ideas found in the manuscripts of Leonardo and other Renaissance engineers into three-dimensional models. The possibilities afforded by computer simulations open up a whole new scenario for studying and raising awareness of history; in a virtual museum, the visitor is no longer merely a passive observer, becoming instead part of environments that no longer exist in real life but in which, thanks to interactive equipment and machines that work, he or she has an opportunity to come into contact with the technical problems –and their solutions –that were so distinctive of Renaissance technology. The name "Leonardo3" comes from our years of research, research intended to combine the two-dimensional world of Leonardo’s manuscripts with the third dimension of virtual and physical models. It is Leonardo3’s aim to unite research with the popularization of history and science through the use of modern equipment and “entertaining”ways of studying and analyzing history: in a word, “EDUTAINMENT", which blends the world of EDUCATION with that of ENTERTAINMENT.

The purpose of this section, which was officially launched in May 2005, is to make the public aware of the discoveries and advances made by the L3 research group; not only will it present the work involved in creating completely new interpretations of many machines of which most people have so far been unaware, but it will be the showcase for the advances we have made in relation to machines already known to the general public. In this connection, we will be working on additional manuscripts, but also on models already on display in the world’s great museums dedicated to Leonardo, because, despite the fact that they are “official”exhibits, some of these models contain serious misinterpretations of the machines in question (as in the well-known case of Leonardo’s Car).

Behind the inventions described in these pages you will find all the hidden excitement of Leonardo’s projects; by studying the smallest details you will discover what is most important. In fact, it is often the detail hidden in even the most sketchy outlines drawn by this genius that discloses the true purpose of a machine or how it actually works. It is the minute particulars of Leonardo’s drawings that conceal the secrets of his thoughts and designs. Leonardo’s manuscripts may seem clear to everyone – “only superficially”, we would say – but to understand them correctly requires going through a long and difficult process. When you are confronted with a manuscript, it is relatively common to recognize that you are looking at a cart, a cannon or a catapult, so your desire to understand the image is easily satisfied at an initial level; indeed, this facility to satisfy any onlooker so speedily is without doubt a great tribute to the artist/scientist who, in a picture “that paints a thousand words” has succeeded in putting his own ideas across most effectively.

However – and this is where L3 enters the game – what the drawing reveals at first sight is only the first hesitant step. Observing and analyzing manuscripts, analyzing the lines of the sketches and the ideas they contain is a much longer and “more exhausting” operation which, sooner or later, brings with it the joys of discovery. More often than not our work involves cross-comparison of documents in order to search for missing parts that may appear on other pages, and sometimes in other Codices. At other times, it is the search for missing details that provides a turning point and the key to understanding the whole idea. In some cases, we even have to put ourselves in Leonardo’s shoes in order to understand which, among so many of his numerous designs on a single manuscript, are those he abandoned and those we should be pursuing.
In the case of the Car, there are two designs on the same page, one of which he clearly abandoned (but which is no less interesting for that). In the case of the viola-organista, which is among the first studies presented in this section, we find a number of ways of using the instrument, all different, and we have to make a radical decision by thinking to ourselves, “… now here Leonardo realized this was a mistake, so he began working on a new idea”.

L3 Studies welcomes any comments from readers, enthusiasts, historians or anyone interested, as we are, in studying Leonardo da Vinci.Enjoy your viewing!

Edoardo Zanon
for Leonardo3


From the technical point of view, Leonardo3's idea of model-making doesn’t just mean producing digital models: because these models adhere to historically accurate criteria they first of all require preliminary studies of the reference sources (IMG 01), whether these are Leonardo’s manuscripts or the results of research and analyses made by academics and enthusiasts.
It is only when we have established a solid background that we can proceed to the actual work of making 3D models (IMG 02); and this involves several levels of knowledge and attention to detail.
Once we have achieved high-quality models (IMG 03), the next step is to recreate the materials and textures for the various objects in the scene we are preparing (IMG 04): different kinds of wood and metal, but also natural materials such as water or grass, the earth and the sky. Everything must correspond as closely as possible to the real environment in the time we are trying to digitally recreate. Once all the materials have been chosen (IMG 05), all that needs to be done to achieve realistic photo rendering is to work out the appropriate lighting system, with the corresponding interplay of shadows, reflections and refraction, even special atmospheric effects like mist, clouds, etc. (IMG 06).

IMG 01 | Preliminary studies, historical and literary research.
IMG 04 | Browser for collecting materials and textures to be used.


IMG 02 | Preliminary drafts and structural modeling.
IMG 05 | Attribuzione materiali e textures alle parti modellate. Addition of materials and textures to the model components.

IMG 03 | Advanced modeling stage and attention to detail.
IMG 06 | Final photorealistic rendering, with attention to atmospheric effects and light and shade.

Computer graphics applications are powerful teaching and communications tools which we would find it hard to do without nowadays. In the history of technology, digital design plays an important part in the study of the machines and mechanical structures to be found in the manuscripts written by engineers of the past. The ability to produce strictly accurate designs of animated three-dimensional models within a “virtual space”, i.e. the computer monitor, is an indispensable visual aid that is of assistance at the analytical stage, when the historian’s efforts are concentrated on understanding the elements that make up the machine, and also at the stage of reconstruction when, with all the parts and dimensions identified, he attempts to assemble them to check whether or not they would work in practice.

Design is the main “language” of technology and an academic who wishes to study the history of the subject must know how this language evolved from ancient times up to the present day. Just as a document with socio-political or scientific value is translated from an ancient language into a modern one, a historian who studies technology translates technological figures drawn in accordance with rules of design that are now out of date into a modern graphic “grammar”. In this way, we can understand the historical images we can no longer decode at first sight because our eyes are now so accustomed to realistic representations of perspective.

Reconstructing a machine, even if only in the form of a virtual model, poses a number of problems, such as the dimensions and kinematics scanning of its moving parts, which lead us to speculate about the choices made by the original builder and evaluate the good points and the limitations of the technology he adopted. The operation is far from simple, and we risk jumping to conclusions or misunderstandings because we project our modern technological mentality onto the past; our modern outlook prevents us from viewing the machine with the background knowledge and customs current at the time when it was built.

No matter how explicit they may be, the drawings and descriptions of the machines contained in the manuscripts of medieval and Renaissance engineers were not considered “plans” in the modern sense of the term. The idea of a “plan”, that is the depiction, calculation and classification of all the parts and technical procedures necessary for the construction of a machine, cannot be applied to the Renaissance period.

Despite the fact that quantitative graphic tools such as scale modeling and dimensioning have been in use since the second half of the 16th century, technical drawing was then judged in the same way as art; the machine was seen as an artistic object which, thanks to the rigors of geometry and the rules of perspective, could be adequately portrayed; but the question of conveying information on how the machine worked had no place in the purpose of these drawings. Even if a great number of graphic devices were prescribed to achieve a clear picture that would bring out the particular technical qualities of the machine – views in plan and in elevation, drawings that revealed internal components, sectional or exploded views, simulations of kinematic sequences, shading to identify surfaces in contact with one another, schematic drawings of the lines of force, etc. – drawings of machines, even those by Leonardo, essentially pursued two ends: one with a kind of symbolic and ideological nature intended to establish the inventor’s place in society and promote his accomplishments in his search for a noble patron, and the other with a more theoretical purpose, that is, as a visual aid to the production and development of a technological idea.

When the time came to convert the information needed to build the machine from theory into practice, these details were not taken directly from the plans, but were first of all turned into a wooden scale model, which was used to check the feasibility of various approaches that, until then, had only been ideas on paper. Although drafted meticulously, these drawings could only be reflection of the actual machine and it was the workman’s job to interpret them with the aid of his own acquired technical knowledge and his own experience, in order to arrive at a machine that worked. That is why, today, it is impossible to bridge the gulf between the drawings made by the Renaissance engineers and the actual machines they represent.

We must always remember these limitations when we examine or build a virtual model of a machine of the pre-technological age (before the first Industrial Revolution). However, even if the Renaissance engineers’ drawings of machines were intended to remain on paper, a historian who has taken their inherent limitations into account must then try to see beyond the “portraits” of the machines found in the manuscripts in order to seek an understanding of how they really were in the past. From this point of view, if the virtual models are created in accordance with strict philological criteria integrating pictorial sources (drawings and prints) with written information (annotations about materials used, dimensions, impressions of how things worked) and actual materials (from archaeological finds), we believe that the gap between the drawing and the real, working machine can be to a great extent decreased. Although we recognize that there is an element of imagination in our reconstructions, it is possible to attempt a quantitative study of these machines that perceives the virtual models as both a means and a target of research.

Another relevant use of computer graphics is found in the so-called “technological fantasies”, that is to say, impossible machines such as those that move by means of perpetual motion or Leonardo’s flying machine. Applied in this way, “virtual reality” enables us to “bring to life” or “animate” kinematics ideas and constructions that until now have existed solely in the imagination or, at best, as static wooden models. This is especially true in the case of Leonardo da Vinci who, more than any other engineer, expounded his technological fantasies in the form of the splendid plans and drawings that have come down to us, which we can use to recreate the way his ideas developed and perceive his most daring hypotheses.

This is how the use of computer graphics in studying the history of technology has two parts to play: on the one hand, it is a powerful analytical instrument to assist and guide our understanding of the machines and on the other, it is a “translation tool” that enables the historian to communicate the results of his own researches in the language of images, a modern language that is easily comprehensible even to those who lack specialist knowledge.

Thanks to computer animation and photographic rendering, it is possible to create realistic video sequences that transport us into a “virtual historic environment” in which the machines or technical processes are presented in a realistic graphic format that allows the modern user to enter into contact with the ideas, materials and technical problems that were a feature of technology in the past. In conclusion, it is our duty to remember that the use of multimedia resources in popularizing technology is legitimate only when based on the original documents, to which the virtual model must always remain faithful; and such use is justified, always with reference to original sources, by the reasons that prompt us to develop some ideas rather than others.

Andrea Bernardoni
University of Florence


via Monte Napoleone, 9
20121 Milano, Italy
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