Leonardo 1939
The constructing of a myth

January 19 – June 20, 2018

The documentary exhibition “Leonardo 1939. The constructing of a myth” was curated and designed by the Museum. It retraces, through documents, volumes, photographs, drawings and historical objects from the collections, archive and library of the Museum, the genesis and context of the 1939 exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci and Italian Inventions” that was at the root of the foundation of the Museum itself in 1953.

The 1952-53 Leonardo celebrations organized in Italy and abroad were based on the idea of Leonardo as a genius and forerunner of times. In this context the Museum opened with an exhibition dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci with a history that interlaced more than once with the creation of myth of Leonardo.


The exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci and Italian Inventions” organized in Milan in 1939 represented the most important, but also a widely discussed cultural event ever conceived around the figure of the artist from Vinci. At the Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan many of his paintings, drawings and codices were exhibited together with works of his pupils. In addition, many models of machines based on his drawings were built with extreme care.

In a climate of full autarchy, the image of Leonardo emerging from the exhibition was that of the inventor and founder of an Italic tradition which, from the Renaissance to Guglielmo Marconi, was destined to stand out and claim a unique scientific and technological primacy. Such an interpretation had a lasting influence even after the fall of fascism, consecrating the image of Leonardo da Vinci as a universal genius, forerunner of the most disparate scientific discoveries: a myth survives to this day.

The project for the study and research of the New Leonardo Galleries on the occasion of the 2019 celebrations, accounts for the most up-to-date historiographical interpretations of the scientific-technological work of Leonardo da Vinci. Leaving behind the myth constructed in the past century means acknowledging Da Vinci’s historical importance and retracing his genesis and development through documents, volumes, photos and historical objects from the collections, archives and library of the Museum.

The exhibition was announced in 1936 during a visit by Mussolini at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan and after a number of uncertainties, delays and inconveniences, it opened from May 9 to October 22, 1939 at the Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan. It was organized by the Comune di Milano, under the podestà Gian Giacomo Gallarati Scotti and the Presidency of Pietro Badoglio, who at the time was head of the Italian National Council for Research. The nationalistic key and the political interference under which the event was organized proved to be a determining factor: in full fascist era and very close to the war, Da Vinci became a symbol to celebrate the autarchy and the primacy of the Italic genius, showcasing the pride and success of a country that wanted to declare its independency from the technological contribution of foreign powers.

Da Vinci’s contributions to engineering, anatomy, mathematics, and architecture were part of an ambitious exhibition narrative aiming at celebrating his role in the history of Italian technical-scientific culture. For this reason, alongside the Leonardo exhibition, an Exibition of Inventions was organized, where the great scientists of the past were celebrated next to the presentation of the main novelties of Italian techniques, from weapons to metallurgy, from building to telecommunications.

“The purpose of the exhibition is to celebrate the universal and unequalled genius of Leonardo da Vinci, risen almost as a symbol of the whole Latin and Christian civilization, and to show the spiritual ties joining this great accomplisher and creator to the achievements of Italy under Mussolini and the empire. The coupling of the celebration of Da Vinci with the exhibition of Italian inventions demonstrates the continuity of the creative genius, of the lineage, and the great opportunities that open up in the climate of the fascist will.” (from the program of the exhibition).

Leonardo celebrations in 1952 and the birth of the Museum

In 1949 a National Committee was created and charged with the organization of the celebrations for the 500 year of the birth of Leonardo da Vinci. The Celebrations involved the main places connected to the life and work of the artist: in Vinci facts dealing with his infancy were commemorated; in Florence his artistic work; in Venice the historical context of the Renaissance; in Milan his technical-scientific work.

The committee, presided by Achille Marazza, M.P., also included engineer Guido Ucelli, an important representative of the industrial upper middle class of Lombardy who had promoted, since the 1930s, the need for a large museum devoted to industry and work.

At the time, the search for a place for the new Leonardo exhibition encountered Ucelli’s project, which was to place the exhibition at the centre of a new Museum of Science.

On February 15, 1953 in the Olivetan convent of St. Vittore, restored after the war, the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnica Leonardo da Vinci and the “Exhibition of science and technique of Leonardo” were opened to the public.
In the figure of the artist and scientist, who “demonstrated the universality of the human spirit and incarnated the continuous research on the laws of nature”, the Museum found its own symbolic identity.