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Searching for Leonardo

By Amy Lifson | HUMANITIES, March/April 1997 | Volume 18, Number 2

Five hundred years later, Leonardo da Vinci's legacy is examined in a new play at the Museum of Science in Boston. Developed by the museum, it accompanies the Swedish traveling exhibition, "Leonardo da Vinci: Scientist, Inventor, Artist," in its only American stop.

Squeezed into twenty minutes, the play "The Masque of Leonardo" hopes to show the contradictions of a man whose myths almost overwhelm his achievements. "There are so many stories about Leonardo's life," says project director Catherine Hughes, "it doesn't really matter if all of them are true." One such story has Leonardo buying all the birds at a market and then setting them free. Another, told by Leonardo in his journals, describes his conversation with an old man and then his subsequent dissection of the man's dead body.

Hughes says all the stories add up to what we consider was the genius of Leonardo da Vinci. "One of the hardest parts in examining his life, is separating the myth from the man."

The play attempts to do this through the eyes of an actor who encounters a magical mask maker who provides the actor with mask upon mask, each depicting a different aspect of Leonardo. The first mask the actor tries on is of an old, melancholy Leonardo. Unsatisfied with this description, the actor demands an alternative, none of which meet his requirements. Finally, the mask maker offers a one that is supposed to be "through the eyes of Leonardo." Most of the play is told with this mask, as it tries to reconstruct the complicated life of the man who came to personify the Renaissance.

The play is not set in any time or place. It approaches questions to that have occupied people's imaginations for centuries. Was the fact that Leonardo left dozens of works unfinished later in life a sign of defeatism or melancholy? Why did he continue to make wild excuses to his patron about the Mona Lisa so he could keep it in his own possession? How was a man who lived opulently on the fringe of European courts able to stomach the sewer-like catacombs where he had to perform illegal human dissections? What made him obsessed with apocalyptic visions of a deluge near the end of his life?

Although the questions are deep, the action is not necessarily dull. "There are elements of total silliness," says Hughes. She says the Science Theater tries to appeal to all ages. "We know that it will be a different experience for a ten-year- old than it will be for a fifty-year-old. We try to change the style within the play to keep it interesting for everyone. In past productions we've been able to approach something that was very mature in content, like the story of the Titanic, and have kids love it."

Beginning March 3 and running through September 1, 400,000 visitors are expected to see the exhibition at the Science Museum. "The Masque of Leonardo" will be performed eight times a day during the run. With the play complementing the objects and information in the exhibition, Hughes hopes visitors will understand the complexity of the man and the contradictions of the myths to realize there is no definitive Leonardo da Vinci.

About the Author

Amy Lifson is a writer-editor in the Office of Publications.