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Museums push to decode Leonardo da Vinci

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Leonardo certainly qualifies as remarkable. Perhaps the most brilliant man in history, he managed to be a writer, scientist, inventor, painter, sculptor, musician, archi- tect, and more.

But which Leonardo should museums depict: the secretive master of deception portrayed in Dan Brown's ultrabestselling novel or the less sensational real-life version?

The museums have chosen the latter, although they're clearly influenced by the thriller. Both the "Experience" exhibit and the "Da Vinci: The Genius" exhibit, now visiting Portland, were created after the book became a sensation. In a nod to the novel, the "Genius" exhibit promises to expose the "secrets" of the "Mona Lisa" by allowing museum patrons to look at giant photographic reproductions of the painting.

"This is all 'Da Vinci Code' hyperbole and fantasy," says Michael Gaudio, an art history professor at the University of Minnesota. "I suppose that's a way to bring in people to exhibitions. But by blowing up the 'Mona Lisa' a bunch of times, you aren't going to discover anything that people haven't already seen by looking at the painting itself."

Even so, there are still plenty of reasons to be fascinated by Leonardo, Mr. Gaudio says. Part of his appeal lies in "the idea of somebody who bridges different areas of inquiry that we tend to separate. Here's somebody who's both an artist and a scientist. For us, those are categories of knowledge, ways of thinking and knowing, that exist for the most part in separate realms. For him, that distinction didn't mean anything. It wasn't even conceivable for him."

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