The Lost Napkins of Leonardo Da Vinci

Is the future hiding somewhere in a 500-year-old notebook?

Mark Rosheim bounds into the Minnesota Center for Book Arts' Star Tribune Gallery like he owns the place. He does—in the sense that every bookshelf and vitrine in the expansive space harbors his stuff. The world-class robotics whiz and curator of "The Technology of Leonardo Da Vinci" possesses the most spectacular collection of facsimile Da Vinci manuscripts in the Midwest. Beautifully bound and printed, these collections of Leonardo's writings and drawings are so huge that the room can only hold a few dozen.

The silver flight case that Rosheim carries is appreciably more compact. "I brought this along so you could play with one," he says as we take a couple of seats near the window. Lean and lanky, a shock of reddish-brown hair setting off his olive-drab fatigue jacket and black jeans, Rosheim pulls from the case what appears to be a sculpture made of gray metal and sets it on the table between us. I recognize the gizmo from Rosheim's company website; it's the Omni-Wrist III, one of the robot joints and limbs that's won Ross-Heim Designs, Inc. contracts with NASA, the DoD, and WET Design. The last isn't a government agency, by the way; it's the company that built the fountain at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

"There are only three unique parts in it," he says, as I push the deceptively simple-looking mechanism around in a circle, "which makes it a lot more economical to manufacture than other robot wrists. It's also a hell of a lot easier to repair."

A pair of nearby bookcases holds another specimen of the wrist, along with its ancestors and cousins, situated chronologically among the notebooks Rosheim has maintained since his early teens. "I grew up studying Leonardo," the inventor says of his childhood in Tama, Iowa. "I was a very unhappy and frustrated conventional student"—a bit of understatement; Rosheim dropped out of high school when he was a freshman or sophomore (he can't remember which) —"so I spent my time with him. I loved his drawing style. I spent a year learning it, the shading in the background to bring out the object and all that."

Pointing toward the upper left-hand shelf, he continues: "Here's a notebook from 1973, and another from 1976." Even Rosheim's earliest drawings show considerable sophistication—and more than a little prescience. The tentacled spheroids in one wrist study look like cousins of The Matrix's "sentinels."

His three-dimensional work from the time is a bit more primitive. "When I started making models, I didn't have any money, so I used croquet balls, cue balls, whatever I could find."

Rosheim moved here in 1978—the year he applied for his first patent; he holds 22 of them now—to take a job at Honeywell. Soon after, he started attending classes at the U of M. His models began to grow sharper, his vision more original.

Some three decades later, he keeps pounding away. More than 186,000 people viewed his manuscripts and inventions last summer at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, in an exhibition titled, "Leonardo Da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius." Among this geeky mob was a man not publicly recognized for his curiosity.

"There were two main components to the exhibition: 'Leonardo's Workshop' and 'Modern-day Leonardos,'" Rosheim explains. "Apparently, [George W. Bush] asked to see the work of an American modern-day Leonardo, and they took him over to my area. I'm flattered that anybody is interested in looking at my work. I'm glad that he liked it, I guess."

Like John Updike, Edith Head, and Michael Caine after him, Leonardo Da Vinci proved that quantity and quality are not mutually exclusive. The 16th-century polymath practiced architecture and mechanical engineering at least as well as he painted and sculpted, along with exploring aerodynamics, psychology, and a host of other disciplines that didn't even have names. Not only was he often ahead of his time; some of his work might be ahead of ours. Luckily for posterity, he documented everything he did, saw, or thought, at least for a while. But of the roughly 21,000 notebook pages he filled, only around 7,000 survive.

"The originals are all at the Florence Museum," says Rosheim as we negotiate the maze of cases. "Facsimile editions started appearing in the late 19th century. Here's an interesting one," he says, "the Codex on the Flight of Birds. Came out in 1898, I think."

The man who helped initiate Rosheim into the mysteries of fine Vinciana was Carlo Pedretti, a Leonardo scholar and collector extraordinaire, and a professor emeritus at UCLA. The book before us is bound in 3/4 leather with marbled boards, and Pedretti and Rosheim both realized that its purchase was a coup. "See those little pencil notations," Rosheim says, pointing toward the margin of a particular page. "I got this [book] from a dealer in New York. The seller had told me there were pencil markings, but when I get it, I realize right off that they're scholarly notations. I look in the front of the book, and there's a dedication from the publisher to Baron Henri de Geymuller, a huge Leonardo scholar in his time. These are Geymuller's notations. I was immediately offered double what I paid for it, by Carlo."

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