Automaton prototype by Leonardo da Vinci

Automaton prototype by Leonardo da Vinci

I recently visited the Museum of Leonardo‎ and the Museo Galileo in Florence, two small hidden gems of the Tuscan city.

The main premise is that both are science museums: the former is dedicated to working replicas of the different machines designed and built by Leonardo, while the latter displays collections of several scientific instruments used throughout the XVII to the XIX century.

Both showcase the renewed interest towards science that was typical of the Renaissance, which was dedicated to the research and discovery of the laws of nature; the incredible impact of visual arts produced during that period should not make us forget just how fluid the separation was between the philosopher, the artist, the scientist and the magician/alchemist.

It is therefore not surprising that Leonardo’s noble employers did not only expect from him paintings and elaborate theatrical scenography, but also farming or war machines. As mentioned, the Museum of Leonardo does not display original works, but working copies of the machines and experiments from Leonardo’s notebooks. The exposition allows direct interaction with the functional mechanisms of these machines, allowing us to experience the breadth of Leonardo’s research as an engineer.

In the Museo Galileo instead we follow, through the changes in time to scientific instruments, the evolution from the Geocentric to the Heliocentric system. At the same time, we feel the arrival of the Enlightenment in the popularity with the political and cultural elites of the time, of instruments and machines designed for research as much as the spectacularization of science.

Armillary spheres, maps and travel logs are accompanied by increasingly more complex instruments, like thermometers and spyglasses. In particular, the collection of the museum shows the evolution of the design of optical instruments, like the prototypes for telescopes and microscopes.

This museum also has interactive displays, dedicated to the demonstration or experimental exemplification of some of the mathematical and physical principles at the heart of the discoveries allowing the evolution of the displayed instruments. While not a fully-fledged Science Museum on its own, this part of the museum shows willingness in trying to explain science to the younger generations.
Culture in the Renaissance required a balance between arts and sciences: perhaps we still have something we can learn from the ancient masters.