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Arts and Culture:
Leonardo da Vinci's Notebooks
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Exploring Genius Online

Leonardo da Vinci fits almost everyone's stereotype of a genius. He was a talented artist, an innovative scientist and an untiring investigator into the ways of man and the world. Da Vinci is having a good 2003. A blockbuster exhibit of his drawings recently moved from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Louvre in Paris. The book HOW TO THINK LIKE LEONARDO DA VINCI: SEVEN STEPS TO GENIUS EVERY DAY, is a popular seller at the big online bookstores. And now, playwright Mary Zimmerman is reviving her play THE NOTEBOOKS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI Off-Broadway in New York. The play is drawn entirely from text and images of the notebooks and offers a unique glimpse into the mind of a great thinker. Below, learn more about the da Vinci notebooks and other great places to explore creativity and great minds online.

Page of da Vinci notebook

Da Vinci scholars believe that there were at least 50 notebooks left in the hands of da Vinci's pupil Francesco Melzi at the master's death. Today, just 28 of them survive in museums and with collectors around the world, including the British Museum, The Louvre and Bill Gates. The Louvre is in the process of digitizing its 12 notebooks so that visitors and scholars can have the experience (nearly) of leafing through the delicate pages. The E-text archive Project Gutenberg already allows the curious to read the complete 1888 translation online.

The notebooks are a fascinating mixture of philosophy, scientific enquiry and art. Many of the theories and inventions portrayed in the pages have been since proved or built by later generations. Da Vinci's influence on art has been equally significant. The Museum of Science in Boston has an excellent online feature demonstrating da Vinci's experiments in perspective.

Painting by Van Gogh

It is a comic commonplace to show a puzzled art patron standing before a painting wondering "what were they thinking?" Luckily, there are many places online designed to enable one to enter into the artistic process of the old masters, and that of new creators. The Smithsonian's online exhibit Visual Thinking: Sketchbooks from the Archives of American Art offers full-color pages of thought and design from a number of American artists. Those interested in the motivations expressed in the contemporary arts scene can visit sites like Egg, The Arts Show or view student work at art schools worldwide.

Unappreciated in his own time, few artists can bring in the art-lovers like Van Gogh. In a study of recent blockbuster exhibits worldwide, Van Gogh held two of the top ten spots. The curious can now read Van Gogh's unabridged letters online, or take a virtual journey to the South of France to Van Gogh and Gaugin's Studio.

Papers of Thomas Edison, design for an electric pen

Nothing seems more mysterious to many than scientific discovery and invention — Thomas Edison's "one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Rutgers University and the National Park Service are offering a window into that particular genius' mode of operation by placing 180,000 document images from his papers online. Tellingly, an 1875 "to do" list contained 19 very ambitious projects. (Click on the image at left to learn more.)

A recent PBS series, BIG IDEAS documented the genesis of influential ideas like Game Theory, the lifecycle of a star, string theory and the intricacies of pure math. Other sites enable you to follow scientists down blind alleys, through collaborations and to the solution by presenting online diaries, casebooks and experiments.

Winston Churchill

There is nothing more satisfying than rewriting history as if you had been the protagonist. The Internet offers not only the familiar public presentation of major historical events, but the backstory, through online publication of the private documents that illustrate the thinking behind policies and practices. The papers of many American Presidents of the distant past are accessible online and newly declassified documents can be found at George Washington University's National Security Archive.

WPA reading poster

Before there were E-journals and E-books there were writers with published works, unpublished works and writer's block. You can use the Internet to explore the creative process behind your favorite works. You can see what Charles Lewis Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) thought Alice looked like, and also try your wits on his logic problems. Just recently, Walt Whitman notebooks stolen from the Library of Congress in 1942, were returned and now are available for posterity and aspiring poets online. Online hypertext (with linked annotations) are also easy ways to catch up on the classics. There's no need to flip to the end for an explanation in the footnotes.

Field Worker, WPA

Blogs may be the source historians of the future will turn to study daily life of the 21st century. However, should your interest lie in another era there are plenty of great ways to time-travel online. The Smithsonian's American Folklife Project collects and preserves stories and music from around the nation. The Library of Congress and the BBC have extensive collections of recordings and ephemera from the lives of "ordinary" citizens. You can also use their wealth of resources to begin documenting your own family's part in making history.

Additional Resources: WebExhibits; BBC History: Multimedia Zone; The British Library on the Web; Library of Congress Online Exhibitions

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