The possibility of human mechanical flight held particular fascination for Leonardo da Vinci. He produced more than 35,000 words and 500 sketches dealing with flying machines, the nature of air, and bird flight. He produced one notebook, or codex, almost entirely on flight in 1505-1506, known as the Codex on the Flight of Birds. In this codex, Leonardo outlined a number of observations and beginning concepts that would find a place in the development of a successful airplane in the early twentieth century. This extraordinary document, exhibited outside of Italy only a few times, is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age gallery from September 13-October 22, 2013. The story of the journey of the Codex on the Flight of Birds from the hand of Leonardo to the National Air and Space Museum exhibit is as fascinating as the document itself.
The death of Leonardo da Vinci in 1519 was the beginning of an odyssey that would bring the Codex on the Flight of Birds to the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Italy, more than four centuries later. Along the way it would be in the possession of at least ten individuals and pass through as many as nine locations, including the remote Siberian border.
Leonardo bequeathed all his manuscripts to his pupil and trusted friend, Francesco Melzi. Melzi transferred the manuscripts he inherited from Leonardo to his house at Vaprio d’Adda, outside Milan, where he gave them good care until his death in 1570. Melzi’s heirs were not as conscientious or scrupulous as he, and after a few short years allowed the collection of da Vinci treasures to be split up. Given away, stolen, and sold, as complete codices or singles pages, Leonardo’s manuscripts passed from person to person and place to place for decades.
In 1637, the Codex on the Flight of Birds surfaced at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. The journey to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana can be traced in the memoires of Giovanni Ambrogio Mazenta. He recalled that he had seen thirteen notebooks by Leonardo about 17 years after Francesco Melzi died in the possession of Lelio Gavardi, a tutor to the Melzi family, who Mazenta claimed had stolen them. Mazenta convinced Gavardi to return the notebooks to the Melzi family. Impressed by Mazenta’s honesty, Orazio Melzi, son of Francesco, made a gift of the thirteen notebooks to Mazenta. In fact, he offered to let him have anything else he wanted from the remaining materials bequeathed to his father by Leonardo. Once word spread of Orazio Melzi’s seeming lack of interest in the Leonardo treasure trove, collectors and dealers descended, leading to the dispersal of the surviving evidence of the wide-ranging work of the genius from Vinci.
Among those who ended up with several of the Leonardo codices was Pompeo Leoni, who came into possession of them after the death of Mazenta’s brother. He disassembled them to organize the pages by subject and collated them into what became the Codex Atlanticus. In 1610, Polidoro Calchi, Leoni’s son-in-law, sold the manuscripts to Galeazzo Arconati, who later donated the material to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in 1637. Arconati’s gift records the first specific mention of the Codex on the Flight of Birds since it passed from Leonardo to Melzi in 1519. From this point forward, movements of the Codex on the Flight of Birds specifically are known.
In November of 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte had all the Leonardo da Vinci manuscripts in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana transferred to Paris as payment of war tributes. These manuscripts included the Codex Atlanticus, of which at that time the Codex on the Flight of Birds was a part. In 1815, the Codex Atlanticus was returned to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana through intervention by the Vatican. A part of it, however, known as Manuscript B, which included the Codex on the Flight of Birds, remained in France.
Between 1841 and 1844, a mathematician and book lover named Guglielmo Libri spent time in Paris studying the manuscripts still there. He removed a number of pages, including the entire Codex on the Flight of Birds, with the intention of selling them. Libri took apart the Codex on the Flight of Birds. Five pages (1, 2, 10, 17, and 18) were sold in London between 1859 and 1864, ending up in the hands of a painter and art collector, Charles Fairfax Murray. The other thirteen pages were sold to Giacomo Manzoni, and upon his death in 1889, passed to his heirs. In 1892, a Russian named Theodore Sabachnikoff, who was an avid student of the Italian Renaissance, bought the 13 pages of the Codex on the Flight of Birds the Manzoni family inherited. When Charles Fairfax Murray learned of this, he sold to Sabachnikoff one of the five pages he owned, page 18, not realizing the other four were from the same notebook. Sabachnikoff’s goal was to publish the Codex on the Flight of Birds, and having done so then generously gifted it to Queen Margherita of Italy, who deposited it in the Biblioteca Reale in Turin in December 1893. Ten years later, page 17 made its way to Turin. The last three pages (1, 2, and 10) were sold to a collector from Geneva, Enrico Fatio, who a few years later gave them to King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, who reunited them with the others. Finally, after four centuries of extraordinary twists and turns, Leonardo da Vinci’s complete Codex on the Flight of Birds came to rest in the Biblioteca Reale in Turin.
The Codex exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to appreciate the genius of da Vinci in the same space as the Wright Flyer, which made the airplane a reality four centuries after the Leonardo produced the Codex on the Flight of Birds.
Peter L. Jakab is chief curator at the National Air and Space Museum.
Kenneth H. Wallis
A leading pioneer in the sport gyroplane community, Ken Wallis passed away on September 1, 2013. He is best remembered as Sean Connery’s stand-in during the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice. Wallis appeared as Agent 007 while flying the “Little Nellie” gyroplane of his own design. Though Wallis had an extensive and dramatic career as a military aviator, he first came to prominence during the 1960s with public demonstrations and record flights in a series of gyroplanes he designed and built for his own use. He broke 16 world records in gyroplane class aircraft—the last one set at the age of 89.
Wallis learned to fly in the late 1930s despite a serious vision defect. At the outbreak of World War II, he deceived the medical examiner into allowing him into flight status. He served in the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command through World War II. As an exchange pilot with the U.S. Air Force in the mid-1950s, he flew B-36s for the Strategic Air Command.
Throughout his military flying career, Wallis demonstrated his skills in mechanical tinkering by making improvements to bomb loading and target towing equipment. In the late 1950s, he applied this skill to a Bensen B-7 Gyroglider kit he imported from the United States. By 1960 he had refined Bensen’s Gyrocopter into his own Wallis WA-116, which featured improvements in stability and control. Although his gyroplanes were technical improvements on the popular Bensen kits, and even underwent military testing, they were not a commercial success. Rather it was Wallis’s showmanship and skill as a demonstration pilot that endeared him to the sport aviation community and encouraged many to take up the hobby of building and flying kit gyroplanes. When not setting records and performing at air shows, Wallis flew stunts in several film and television productions and adapted his gyroplanes as camera platforms for film and photography work.
Roger Connor is a museum specialist in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.
So, you waited in line outside the Museum till sweat trickled down your back. You managed to find the touchable Moon rock amid the swirls of day-glow youth group tee-shirts and fellow photo-snappers gawking about in the international flash mob that is the Milestones of Flight gallery. You gazed up at the Spirit of St. Louis and upon Apollo 11’s Columbia. You found the Wright Flyer, lost the kids in How Things Fly, and dutifully trekked through a century-plus of flight history.
Now, amid the second-floor jostle, you have just watched the charming glockenspiel-like contraption over the entrance to Time and Navigation do its thing. As you turn to leave, you suddenly stop, frozen in wonder, beholding an oasis so calm and cool and quiet that your airplane-addled, spaced-out brain can hardly believe it isn’t a mirage.
It’s not. On your floor plan it’s labeled Flight and the Arts. And much to their loss and to your relief, most visitors overlook it.
The National Air and Space Museum has always had an entire gallery devoted to art. Over the years, Flight and the Arts has hosted around 30 diverse exhibitions. The tri-part installation now on view neatly encompasses the three main kinds of shows that appear here. Some, like High Art, feature the Museum’s own extensive collection of aviation and space art. Others, like Suited for Space, are traveling shows produced by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Still others, like Searching for Goldilocks, are Museum-produced exhibitions featuring works by single or multiple artists on aviation- or space-related themes.
When the Museum first flung open its doors in 1976, Flight and the Arts was a two-level exhibition space (offices now occupy the upper level) displaying works mostly from the Museum’s own extensive collection.
That initial show was replaced in 1979 with Our Beautiful Earth, which featured photographic views of our world, from some of the earliest photos taken from balloons in the 1800s to the distant view of the Earth and Moon taken by Voyager I on its way to Jupiter. Views of our home planet would again be featured in Earth Views in 1986, which displayed the top entries in a nationwide art contest sponsored by the Museum in conjunction with the opening of the permanent gallery Looking at Earth.
One of my favorite Flight and the Arts exhibitions was another Earth-views show. Aerial Inspirations in 1994 featured the silk batiks of South Carolina artist, photographer, and pilot Mary Edna Fraser. Her beautiful dyed fabric works depicted scenes inspired by aerial photographs and satellite imagery. It was one of the most vibrantly colorful and unusual art shows ever mounted in the gallery.
Flight and the Arts has hosted many exhibitions of aviation art, from Assignment: Aviation (photo-realist paintings from the Stuart M. Speiser collection) in 1981 to this past year’s commemoration of the centennial of Marine Corps aviation, Fly Marines! Several shows have focused on some of the world’s most accomplished aviation artists: At Home in the Sky: The Aviation Art of Frank Wootton in 1983, Into the Sunlit Splendor: The Aviation Art of Williams S. Phillips in 1987, and Horizons: Paintings and Drawings by Robert Taylor in 1988.
Space artists have received their due as well. The Art of Robert McCall in 1984 celebrated the famous artist whose huge work The Space Mural: A Cosmic View in the Museum’s South Lobby remains a popular backdrop for visitors’ photos. Alan Bean: Painting Apollo in 2009 featured the impressionistic works of the Apollo 12 astronaut and fourth man to walk on the Moon. The remarkable range of space art shows has included Fire and Ice: A History of Comets and Art in 1985; Art of the Cosmic Age, a joint exhibition of works by U.S. and U.S.S.R. artists in 1991; Spectacular Saturn in 2009, comprising stunning images from the Cassini-Huygens mission to the ringed planet; and several exhibitions highlighting works from NASA’s art program.
Flight and the Arts has not always been a quiet refuge in an otherwise bustling museum. Star Trek in 1992, the Museum’s first popular culture extravaganza, proved so popular that timed tickets had to be issued. The same was true for Star Wars: The Magic of Myth in 1997. The two exhibitions featured artifacts and images from the iconic science fiction TV show and groundbreaking George Lucas film trilogy.
You can’t look back on Flight and the Arts without mentioning one of its most memorable attractions. When the gallery opened in 1976, it displayed a loaned work by English artist Rowland Emett, a whimsical sculpture called The Exploratory Moon-Probe Lunacycle M.A.U.D. In 1980 the Museum acquired its very own Emett sculpture, S.S. Pussiewillow II. This indescribable kinetic work soon became a favorite of adults and children alike and remained on display for over 10 years. In 1989 more of Emett’s quirky contrivances joined the Pussiewillow when Too Late for the Past, Too Early for the Future: Drawings and Things by Rowland Emett opened. After that exhibition closed in 1990, Pussiewillow II was finally taken off display. Visitors with long memories still ask about it.
To spark your own memories of these and other shows, I’ve compiled this list, which, to the best of my knowledge, includes the names of every major exhibition (and a few smaller exhibits) that have appeared in Flight and the Arts since 1976. You can also find more images of some the gallery’s past exhibitions here.
So anyhow, thanks for reading this. I have to go. I’m working on editing the text for our next Flight and the Arts exhibition—Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars. It opens in January.
David Romanowski is the writer-editor in the Exhibits Department of the National Air and Space Museum.
This post was originally published on Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa!, a blog created to accompany the eponymous exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.
At the National Air and Space Museum in recent years, we have pursued collaborations with other Smithsonian museums to expand the topics of our exhibitions and programs. On August 15 we opened a new art exhibition titled Views of Africa. A collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, it includes satellite views of African locations and a new work of contemporary art. It is being displayed in conjunction with the Earth Matters exhibition at the National Museum of African Art, which explores human connections to the land and how that is they are reflected in art.
South African artist Jeremy Wafer was commissioned to produce a work of sculptural art specifically for this display at the National Air and Space Museum. Wafer has long been inspired by views from maps and images from aircraft and satellites in his work. For this display, he planned a work titled Core, which would include dozens of cylindrical pieces representing soil core samples. In this way, the exhibition would include views of the land from below the surface, paired with views from above as seen by orbiting satellites.
Wafer produced the pieces this summer at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. The “cores” were made of concrete and colored to give them the appearance of having soil layers. Wafer’s artistic partner Colleen, who also happens to be his wife, was there to help set up the “cores” at the National Air and Space Museum. Karen Milbourne of the African Art Museum also came by.
The installation of the pieces went very well. Wafer arrived at the gallery and made the decision to place the “cores” in a north-south orientation to interact with shadows and sunlight coming through the tall windows.
We announced the installation as a “Meet the Artist” opportunity for the public. Many visitors asked questions of Wafer while he worked. Wafer was happy to speak with people during breaks. Many visitors understood what the pieces represented. During the installation, at least 20 visitors asked, “Are those soil cores?”
Wafer had planned 54 “cores” to represent the number of independent African nations. He made a few extras in case of damage. This turned out to be a good decision, as one of the “cores” broke into two pieces. We kept that one nearby to show visitors what the “cores” looked like on the inside.
Everyone is welcome to see Views of Africa at the National Air and Space Museum. The exhibition will be on display until February 16, 2014 at the west end of the Museum’s first floor.
Andrew Johnston is a geographer in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum.
C. Gordon Fullerton
Widely known as a test pilot extraordinaire, C. Gordon Fullerton fulfilled three distinguished careers centered on aeronautics and spaceflight. He spent 30 years in the U.S. Air Force (1958–1988), retiring with the rank of colonel after serving as a bomber pilot, fighter pilot, and test pilot. During 20 of those years, he was an astronaut in the Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle programs (1966–1986). Then, for more than 20 years, he was a flight research pilot and chief pilot at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (1986–2007).
He was a master of the exacting and dangerous field of experimental flight research. Few people have accumulated as much time in experimental flight as Fullerton: more than 380 hours in space and 16,000 hours in 135 different aircraft. Having earned two engineering degrees from the California Institute of Technology, Fullerton applied his knowledge and love of flying to improve flight safety and airworthiness.
Fullerton was one of four pilots to fly the Space Shuttle prototype Enterprise for the 1977 approach and landing test series. He went on to pilot Columbia’s third mission in 1982, the only shuttle mission to land at White Sands, New Mexico, and to command the Spacelab 2 mission on Challenger in 1985, expertly reaching orbit after an engine failure during ascent.
Fullerton’s many honors include induction into the Astronaut Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame, awards of several Department of Defense and NASA service medals, and being elected a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. In 2009 this museum honored him with the National Air and Space Museum Trophy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Valerie Neal is a curator in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum.