The Franklin Institute - Leonardo da Vinci's Workshop – Review

The Franklin Institute is currently presenting its latest blockbuster temporary exhibit – Leonardo da Vinci's Workshop – from February 5 through May 29, 2011. The Franklin Institute is located at 222 N. 20th Street, Philadelphia, PA – effectively 20th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

You can call 215.448.1200 for General Information.

Leonardo da Vinci's Workshop has been extended for one additional week; it was originally supposed to close on May 22. (You may still see advertisements and brochures with May 22 as the closing date, but due to its popularity, the Franklin Institute has opted to extend the exhibit through May 29, with Memorial Day being the final day on which you can visit. However, we would not recommend that you wait until the last minute.)

We enthusiastically recommend that you visit the exhibit, as it is well worth your time. The opportunity to glimpse – even for a few hours – the inner workings of one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, is a precious opportunity which you cannot pass up. If you live anywhere within striking distance of Philadelphia, don't miss this chance for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Leonardo da Vinci - His Life and Times

Before we turn to what you can expect, upon arrival at the Franklin Institute, let's discuss Leonardo da Vinci's life and times…

Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, a small hamlet in Tuscany, not far from Florence. Today, we think of Italy as a single, united country, which it has been since the 19th century. However, during Leonardo's time, the Italian peninsula was not only far from being united politically, it was ravaged by constant warfare between the major city-states that comprised it: Florence, Milan, Naples, Venice and the Papal States. It was also subject to foreign attack from two major powers: France, and the Ottoman Empire (the Turks, who were attempting to spread Islam deeper into Europe).

This political chaos is central to understanding Leonardo's life and works during his 67 years – an extremely long life, by the standards of the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

Because of the political instability, Leonardo moved several times, in search of patrons who could finance his works and studies. Also, due to the constant warfare, Leonardo had to devote a considerable amount of his time and creativity to innovative military weapons and technology, in order to serve the needs and interests of his patrons: namely, the rulers of the Italian city-states, where he spent all but the final three years of his life. However, in an intriguing historical paradox, these rulers were often lavish patrons of the arts. These Italian city-states, wealthy due to their lucrative location as the crossroads of Europe, and surrounded by the trade routes in the Mediterranean Sea, competed with each other, not only on the battlefield, but for cultural supremacy as well. These patrons fueled the intellectual explosion known as the Italian Renaissance, the era which bridged the Middle Ages to the modern world.

The Italian Renaissance was made possible by the recovery of the cultural heritage of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the innovation of the printing press, which permitted ideas and learning to proliferate far more quickly. The Italian Renaissance saw the creation of masterpieces of art and architecture, groundbreaking scientific discoveries, and provided great hope for the advancement of Western culture. The term "Renaissance man" was used to describe a person who had skills, talents and interests in a multiplicity of wide-ranging subjects.

Leonardo da Vinci's Workshop - The Exhibit

Leonardo da Vinci was the original Renaissance man. The first thing you see at the exhibit is a short film recounting Leonardo's life. And once you're done watching the movie, you step – both literally and figuratively – into Leonardo da Vinci's Workshop, and the ambience of the Italian Renaissance.

You are greeted by a beautiful replica of a scene of Leonardo's everyday life - a rendition of what his study would have looked like. There is a tapestry on his wall, elegantly bound books, and most notably, a life-size skeleton whose presence indicates Leonardo's pioneering work in anatomy. Against the other wall, you see a replica of the Mona Lisa, his most famous painting (and arguably the most famous painting in the world), along with the palette of many colors used to compose it.

Now that you have been acquainted with Leonardo's life and a magnificent re-creation of the rooms in which he studied, you then enter the main exhibition area. It is comprised of many models – some of which are life-sized – of the myriad number of inventions, of which he conceived throughout his life. Here are some of the highlights of the exhibition:

Our favorite was the Robot Knight. This creation of Leonardo was a gigantic knight, armed with two halberds, complete with suitable armor and the ability to move its arms operated with gears, pulleys and a drum. It is speculated that perhaps the purpose of the Robot Knight was to deceive an enemy, by making Leonardo's patron appear to have a larger garrison defending a castle, than he actually did. Theoretically, the Robot Knight or Knights could have been in a tower, visible to the enemy, but only from a distance. If the enemy saw that the Robot Knights were moving, it would give the impression of active soldiers guarding the tower, perhaps deterring an attack. The software kiosks for the Robot Knight were perhaps the most interesting, especially for children. The kiosk permits the user to assemble and move the various parts of the Robot Knight, providing unique insights into how Leonardo's creation would work.

Another remarkable invention was the Mechanical Lion, which was a tribute to King Francis I of France. The young King was a great patron of the arts, and admired Leonardo so much that he agreed to be Leonardo's final patron. In March, 1516, Francis invited Leonardo to join the court, with the prestigious title of Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the King. Leonardo accepted this offer, which provided him with a comfortable and luxurious retirement at Francis' court, where he brought his two assistants and thousands of pages and notebooks. Cloux, France, is where Leonardo spent the final three years of his life, until his death on May 2, 1519.

Accordingly, Leonardo decided to honor Francis I, by creating the Mechanical Lion. Likely intended a theatrical device, the life-size lion could walk independently, come to a stop, and drop lilies from its chest. The choice of lilies was due to the fact that the fleur-de-lys was the ancient symbol of the Kings of France. At Leonardo da Vinci's Workshop, you can see the life-size lion, complete with a body full of artificial lilies.

In addition, we also liked the Multi-Cannon Gunship. This was represented by two different models: one small-scale model under glass, and one larger model for easy study. Although never realized in Leonardo's lifetime, this gunship would have the ability to rotate its 16 cannons, giving it an enormous advantage over any naval adversary. This would have been a very significant factor for Italian city-states located on the peninsula, which depended on seaborne trade for their prosperity.

Leonardo's Interest in Flight

Leonardo's fascination with birds and their ability to fly, was the foundation for all subsequent achievements in human flight. Leonardo da Vinci's Workshop has life-size models of the Aerial Screw, the Mechanical Bat, and the Great Kite. All three demonstrate how far ahead of his time, he was in the field of aeronautics. They even raise the possibility that Leonardo may very well have experimented with manned flight.

Leonardo's Paintings

Of course, Leonardo is best known for his work as an artist. This is ironic, given that among his panoply of interests, he actually was most interested in inventions and only a few of his paintings survive. But his two most famous works are vividly presented to you at Leonardo da Vinci's Workshop – the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. 3-D interactive software kiosks permit you to see both paintings, in incredible levels of detail and provide even further illustration of Leonardo's astounding talent as an artist. One intriguing aspect we learn from The Last Supper, is the identification of Judas within the group of 12 apostles, as Leonardo depicts him holding a bag of coins and having just knocked over a salt cellar – indicating his alarm at Jesus' prediction that one of the 12 would betray Him. Without the cutting-edge technology from Leonardo3 – the media company dedicated to the preservation and presentation of the works of Leonardo da Vinci, we would never be able to see such detail. Their digital restoration of Leonardo's paintings is a stunning example of 21st-century technology.

Leonardo's Codices

All these inventions are taken from Leonardo's manuscript and codices – he was incredibly prolific, creating an estimated 14,000 pages of notes, of which only 7,000 are accounted for. After Melzi, his devoted assistant, who had carefully tried to preserve as much of his master's work as possible, his heirs lost interest in it, leaving thousands of pages of the genius’s work scattered throughout Europe, in the hands of both public and private collectors.

And you won't just see the inventions in Leonardo da Vinci's Workshop. For the first time, the public will actually be able to flip through Leonardo's notes, due to software that permits astonishing virtual re-creations of the notebooks at kiosks throughout the exhibit. You can see Manuscript B, which covers a wide range of subjects; his codices on flight, from which the aforementioned flight models were derived; and the Codex Atlanticus, which originally was comprised of 1,119 pages. Leonardo3 has culled the Codex Atlanticus to a 100 page book, carefully selecting the pages that would be most interesting to visitors, as a virtual book.

Other models on display include the Harpsichord – Viola, a hybrid musical instrument that could be played while the musician walked; a Self – Propelling Cart, a theatrical device that would move independently while the machinery could be hidden from the audience.

Finally, it seems only fitting that in Philadelphia, which has been enjoying a cultural renaissance, that the exhibit should also include a feature of the Ideal City - an idea of Leonardo's, for the improvement of Milan, which unfortunately was never realized during his lifetime. Leonardo had conceived of a planned city with waterways flowing throughout the city to facilitate commerce and trade, as well as to promote hygiene, with the upper class and nobility living in elevated homes, and the artisans and lower classes next to the waterways.

If You Go to Leonardo da Vinci's Workshop – Admission, Pricing and Hours

Daytime Tickets

Tickets are time and dated. For example, if you have a 10:30 AM ticket, you cannot enter Leonardo da Vinci's Workshop until 10:30 or later. Note that you could arrive much later than the time. To illustrate, you could have a 10:30 AM ticket, and not enter till 1 PM.

Daytime tickets last from 9:30 AM to 5 PM. However, be cognizant that you cannot purchase a ticket with an entry time later than 3:30 PM.

Adult – $24.50

Seniors 62 and up - $23.50

Children ages 4 to 11 - $17.50

Evening Tickets

Evening tickets are a good choice, if you only want to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Workshop and not the rest of the Franklin Institute. However, they only have evening hours on Friday and Saturday from 5 PM to 8:30 PM, the last entries are at 7 PM.

Adult – $10

Senior, 62, plus – $10

Children ages 4 to 11 – $6


We recommend parking within the Franklin Institute, to save time and money. You can park there during your visit and have your ticket validated at the Main Ticket Counter, in order to benefit from the reduced rate. The parking fee will be $12 after you validate your ticket within the Franklin Institute, you'll pay for the parking on your way out. There is also metered parking in and around the Franklin Institute, but it can be hard to come by, and that also involves a hassle of having go out and constantly refilling the parking meter.

The Franklin Institute is also very easily accessible via SEPTA and SEPTA Regional Rail. If you're taking the train, just take any inbound train to Suburban Station, which is at the intersection of 16th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard. From there, it is just a short walk up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the Franklin Institute. In addition, Phlash service resumes on May 1. So for the final month, you can also take the Phlash purple trolley, which has a stop at the Franklin Institute.

Enjoy Leonardo da Vinci’s Workshop!

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