The idea of dedicating a museum to the Genius from Vinci originated on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1919), when Count Giulio Masetti Dainelli da Bagnano donated the Castello dei Conti Guidi to the Municipality of Vinci, on condition that it be destined for celebrating Leonardo's works and the decorous arrangement of the nascent Biblioteca Leonardiana (transferred, in 1983, to its present location).
The Museo Leonardiano initially occupied only four rooms of the castle, but owing to contributions by scholars, donors, and investments by the Municipality, the museum collection has constantly increased, now becoming one of the most extensive and original collections for critical knowledge regarding Leonardo, within the context of history and of Late Medieval and Renaissance technology. The reconstruction of models and experiments drawn from his manuscripts—reread and reinterpreted on the basis of in-depth historical research and technical verifications, and developed and updated on a permanent basis—today makes it possible for the general public as well as scholars to learn about the inventions and insights of the great Genius from Vinci.
The collection of the Museo Leonardiano began to be born in the context of the rediscovery of manuscripts and albums of medieval and Renaissance technical drawings, which took place between the late 19th and early 20th century, starting off principally through the efforts of German and French scholars.
But all the codices, manuscripts, drawings, and paintings by Leonardo and his school were by this point already placed, permanently, in the most important public and private collections, Italian or foreign, so the question came down to what materials could be used in constructing the museum itinerary. The idea was to start experimenting with the reconstruction of models of Vincian machines for flight, and it immediately became clear that it would be possible, in this way, to build a scientific complex of considerable attraction, of interest not only to scholars, but to tourists as well.
The Museum’s collection dedicated to Leonardo originates from this cultural context. On the occasion of the Prima Esposizione Nazionale di Storia della Scienza (First National Exhibition of the History of Science), organized in Florence in 1929, on the initiative of the newly founded Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, models of components of flying machines taken from Leonardo's manuscripts were created by the Istituto Industriale "Leonardo da Vinci" (based on careful studies and constructional drawings by Giuseppe Schneider and Raffaele Giacomelli). Some of these models, together with others received by the Ministero dell’Aeronautica (Ministry of Aeronautics), were donated in 1938 to the Biblioteca Leonardiana of Vinci, whose collections of studies and documents had already been in the process of formation during the last three decades of the 19th century.
In the context of the Fascist regime’s cultural policy, aimed at promoting, among other things, the primacy of the Italians in the sciences, Leonardo was taken on as a symbol of Italianness itself. From the pages of his codices, two hundred models were created, of large-scale, functioning machines, instruments, and scale models, relating to his various technical and scientific activities, and these were allocated to the Milan exhibition Mostra di Leonardo da Vinci e delle Invenzioni Italiane (Exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci and Italian Inventions).
The Milanese exhibition, after its success in Italy, was presented in New York and Tokyo, but it was surprised by the war, and completely destroyed. Engineer Roberto A. Guatelli, who had collaborated effectively in reconstructing the models, also accompanying the exhibition abroad, was able, after returning from the trip, to reconstruct some of the machines that had been lost. These were exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, along with some paintings and drawings by Leonardo and his school, and bibliographic materials from the Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana. The collection aroused a great deal of interest, to the extent that many American museums opened their doors to it, even competing for its programming, until IBM expressed its desire to secure ownership of the models already built and become a supporter of further developments of the work program undertaken by Guatelli.
In 1951 a big new exhibition was held in New York. The turnout was so great that IBM had the models built again. In 1952 the exhibition began its journey through Italy, first to Rome, then to Naples, Trieste, Verona, arriving finally to Leonardo's hometown. In that year, IBM decided to donate the reconstructed models to the Municipality of Vinci. The collection thus formed, joining the previous donations made to the Biblioteca Leonardiana by the Istituto Industriale "Leonardo da Vinci" of Florence, the Scuola di Costruzioni ed Esperienze Aeronautiche (School of Aeronautical Construction and Experimentation) of Guidonia, and the Istituto Storico e di Cultura dell’Arma del Genio (Historical and Cultural Institute of the Corps of Engineers) of Rome, made it possible to inaugurate the Museo Leonardiano on 15 April 1953.
The Museum’s collection was enriched in the 1960s thanks to the models created and donated by Luigi Boldetti (industrial expert and passionate scholar of Leonardian technology), who, through studying the Vincian drawings of textile mechanics, succeeded in creating a working model of the mechanical loom. Thus began a solid relationship of collaboration between Boldetti and the Municipality of Vinci. In April 1963 the mechanical loom was donated to the Museum, together with the escapement for watches and the chain of cups pump. In the following years the collection was enriched with the pendulum fan (1964), the centrifugal pump (1965), the revolving crane (1966), the oil press (1967), the winch with three hammers for lifting weights (1968), and nine other models in the decade between 1970 and 1980.
In 1983, the Biblioteca Leonardiana finally obtained a space for its own exclusive use, so that the Castle could then be destined entirely as a museum.
In 1986, after considerable restructuring and enrichment of the collection, the museum acquired the current title of Museo Leonardiano, assuming, as symbol, Leonardo’s beating mechanical wing. The merit again must be attributed to IBM, who donated to the Museum the models used for the traveling exhibition Laboratorio su Leonardo, also taking charge of the exhibition layout and the second-floor addition of the teaching room equipped with audiovisual media.
In 1991 the municipal administration built five models of Leonardo machines for the traveling exhibition Leonardo Maschinen: the revolving-platform crane, the aerial screw, the flying machine with dummy, the crank-operated elevator (lift), and the chain element are all included in the group of models in storage. The Museo Leonardiano still makes use of these to participate in temporary exhibitions in Italy and abroad.
In 2004 the exhibition spaces were expanded thanks to the unification of Palazzina Uzielli and the Castello, creating a new museum itinerary divided into two exhibition sites not far from each other in the historic village of Vinci, giving the Museum its current layout, with the first portion set up inside the Palazzina, and the second, in the Castello dei Conti Guidi.
To date, the Leonardo Museum proposes one of the largest and most original collections of machines and models by Leonardo the inventor, technologist, architect, scientist, and, more generally, in the history of the Renaissance technology. The Museum proposes machines and models that are presented with precise references to the artist's sketches and handwritten annotations, supported also by digital animations and interactive applications.
The Palazzina Uzielli hosts the sections dedicated to anatomy, construction site machinery, textile technology, and mechanical watches. The castle, furthermore, houses the machines and models documenting Leonardo's interests in war, architecture, mechanics, and flight. Additionally, two entire sections are dedicated to optics and movement on land and water, with particular reference to river navigation. The path ends with the video room, located inside the majestic tower walls, where the models of the geometric solids derived from Leonardo’s drawings are displayed, those Leonardo created to illustrate mathematician Luca Pacioli’s treatise De Divina Proportione.
At the Museum site of Villa il Ferrale, halfway between Vinci and Anchiano, the section Leonardo and his Paintings has been available for visiting since 2018, displaying very high resolution, life-size reproductions of all the artist's paintings.