An Irishman’s Diary: Alison Hackett and Leonardo da Vinci

Renaissance man meets Renaissance woman

It takes a certain amount of courage for a movement called “21st Century Renaissance” to mount an exhibition of art and ideas in Dublin at a time when Leonardo da Vinci – or at least some of his work – is in town.

But such is the position that Alison Hackett, founder of the aforementioned group, finds herself in this week. Not only is she forced to share a small city with da Vinci, he has even turned up in the same postal district.

At one end of Dublin 2, on Clare Street, the National Gallery of Ireland has just unveiled a show featuring 10 of the Italian master's finest drawings, exhibiting his genius not just in art but in a bewildering range of sciences as well.

At the other end, in Dame Lane, Hackett has opened The Visual Time Traveller: 500 Years of History, Art and Science in 100 unique designs, for which da Vinci is one of many inspirations.


It might be considered either an unfortunate clash, or inspired timing. In fact, it’s neither. The Dame Lane event, at the Fumbally Exchange, is just the latest manifestation of Hackett’s 2013 book on the same theme. And she had no idea when planning Thursday’s opening night that the exhibition of the original Renaissance man would be unveiled in the same week.


As it is, the two things prove pleasantly complementary. If da Vinci himself were here for his National Gallery retrospective, he might have nipped across to the other show, if only to see how the 500 years of enlightenment he helped unleash on the world has turned out.

Hackett’s book and exhibition dates from her former career as spokeswoman for the Institute of Physics in Ireland, where, among other things, she learned to appreciate the power of poster images in communicating complex ideas.

In 2012, she set herself the task of detailing 500 years of human progress in this way. This involved first breaking up the period into manageable units – five years at a time – and then compiling a list of the more interesting developments (12 maximum) during each. After that, she set a team of designers loose on the facts, challenging them to incorporate the lists into illustrations that dramatised one or more of the featured milestones.

In a few cases, the facts themselves became the design, as for the period 1500-1505, in which the various lines of text (including one about da Vinci's Mona Lisa in 1505) radiate in the shape of a comet's tail, referencing another epochal event of the period.

But sometimes, one of the textual details alone proved irresistible. You probably know of Martin Luther as a founder of Protestantism, who nailed 95 theses to a church door. Less well publicised, however, is that he also once smuggled his future wife and 11 other apprentice nuns out of a convent in herring barrels.

Barrels of nuns

When a graphic artist has the chance to depict 12 fish barrels, each containing a nun, the other events of the 1520s (including discovery of the analgesic properties of diethyl ether) can be safely relegated to a conventional list, on the margins.

Da Vinci himself, as the National Gallery’s exhibition notes, believed that an image could transmit knowledge “more accurately and concisely than any words”.

The paradox is that he also took the trouble to extensively annotate many of his drawings. But then, as his contemporary Albrecht Dürer demonstrated, pictures are not always reliable either.

One of the more entertaining designs in Hackett’s exhibition is based on Dürer’s 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros, an animal he had never seen. He worked from descriptions and someone else’s sketch. Despite which, Dürer’s imagined version of the species – he gave it a plated hide, for example, like an armadillo – remained influential for centuries afterwards

The fictionalised rhino plates are useful to Hackett's purpose in providing spaces for the various text bites, although they also illustrate the pitfalls of writing. One of the plates mentions the 1516 publication of Thomas More's Utopia, complete with a typo. Too late, Hackett noticed an extra "o" in the author's surname, and realised she had made a rhino's posterior of his famous book, in more ways than one.

The Visual Time Traveller exhibition and pop-up shop is at the Fumbally Exchange, 5 Dame Lane, until May 15th, with daily talks from the curator at 1.15pm. Leonardo da Vinci: Ten Drawings from the Royal Collection continues at the National Gallery of Ireland until July 17th.