Leonardo at the Library

Share this:

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington plays host to an unusual and rare exhibition of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. Imagining the Future. Leonardo da Vinci: In the Mind of an Italian Genius showcases 12 of the master’s drawings from The Codex Atlanticus, the world’s largest collection of his drawings. Each one illustrates his research into scientific principles or ideas for engineering innovations such as hydraulic pumps, perpetual motion machines, and even mechanical flight.

The exhibition was organized in partnership with the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan and financed by Confindustria, the largest association of manufacturers and service companies in Italy which recently opened new headquarters in Washington DC. Support is also provided under the patronage of the Embassy of Italy in Washington DC and the Italian Cultural Institute of Washington DC.  

Hydraulic pump and fountain within a building. Pen and ink wash, c. 1500.
Digging machine. Black chalk, pen and ink wash on dark prepared paper, c. 1500.
Studies of a mechanical wing and river bed sketches. Red pencil, c. 1490.

In a statement on the exhibition site, Confindustria President Carlo Bonomi explains the association’s goal in presenting Leonardo’s visionary works “as a way of contributing to the spread of entrepreneurial spirit as an impetus for economic, social and civil growth in all countries” and that “Leonardo’s philosophy, based on observation and experimentation, permeates the DNA of Italian entrepreneurship.” 

The exhibition is a departure for the library, which usually focuses on local artists and histories. In a story in Washingtonian Magazine, Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan explains a colleague informed him that the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, home to the Codex, was “interested in bringing Leonardo’s technical drawings to DC, and that MLK Jr. had been mentioned as a strong contender for an exhibit space.” The library decided to take on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to present these works to audiences who might not see them otherwise. 

Part of the appeal of the exhibition is the opportunity for residents and visitors to discover new and expanded spaces, programs, and facilities now available to the public after a substantial three-year renovation. This significant architectural building was designed by modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and re-opened in 2020.

Aside from the Codex, The Biblioteca Ambrosiana is an extensive library that is home to a priceless collection of manuscripts, printed books, and paintings. Founded in 1607 by Cardinal Federico Borromeo, it was one of the first European libraries to welcome anyone who could read and write. His goal was to open up learning to as many people as possible. Choosing to display these Renaissance creative innovations in the city’s main public library expands on this tradition. 

After visiting the exhibit, children can enjoy Leonardo’s Lab, where they can learn more about his life and experiment with his ideas through hands-on activities like building a simple flying machine, trying backward writing, and building their own wooden structures.

Imagining the Future is free and open to the public but visitors must sign up at the library for a time slot and will be notified when they can enter the gallery. 


Imagining the Future. Leonard da Vinci: In the Mind of an Italian Genius
June 21 – Aug. 20, 2023

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library
901 G St NW, Washington DC 


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *