When we spoke with Nasher Museum of Art director Sarah Schroth for the museum’s 10th anniversary, she noted that, while she loves contemporary art, it doesn’t speak to everyone. That’s one reason she wanted to mount El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III, which paid off: It remains the Nasher’s most highly attended exhibit to date.

Though I, too, love contemporary and experimental art­, I took her point. The cutting-edge stuff critics rave over is not for all, or even most, tastes and knowledge bases. And neither being popular nor being old necessarily makes a work of art unimportant. On the contrary, the opposite is often true. The North Carolina Museum of Art is clearly bearing populist appeal in mind with a pair of new exhibits, ticketed together, which shed new light on two over-familiar names who meet each other, in different eras, at the nexus of art and science.

The Worlds of M.C. Escher: Nature, Science, and Imagination is the largest career survey of the 20th-century Dutch printmaker ever produced in the U.S. By delving into and expanding around Escher’s famous optical illusions, it challenges shallow notions of him as a mere pop-culture trickster. Meanwhile, Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester and the Creative Mind reminds us, through a rare chance to explore one of his handwritten notebooks, that the original Renaissance man’s contributions to Western civilization go much deeper than “Mona Lisa.” Brian Howe

By turns a scientist, inventor and artist, Leonardo da Vinci has been called the greatest mind in history. His Codex Leicester (named for the Earl of Leicester, who bought it in 1717), a handwritten notebook of 36 two-sided pages now on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art, allows entry into that mind, revealing its foundation in observation and deduction and its motivations in general curiosity and practical needs.

Compiled between 1506 and 1513, while da Vinci was living in Milan, the notebook was a staging area for a large treatise on the behavior of water that da Vinci wasn’t able to undertake before his death in 1519. All of his lifelong questions and interests about the physical world are herethe workings of oceans and rivers, the planet’s internal functionality and relationship to other astronomical bodies, the origins of fossils, the best ways to build canals, measure water pressure or redirect water’s flow.

It’s a reading-heavy exhibit, of course, but its organization and display provide many access methods. Each page, covered in da Vinci’s neat, dense blocks of backward Italian with illustrative sketches and drawings in the margins, is shown in a kiosk with some brief explanatory text. Every page has two foliosthe verso (left side) and recto (right side)which are not consecutive, since they were part of a bound book in their day. So page 15 contains folios 15v and 22r, each of which address different topics.

Think you know M.C. Escher? Reconsider the dorm-poster mainstay’s optical illusions at the North Carolina Museum of Art

The folio numbers are particularly useful for two excellent, interactive “Codescopes” that provide translations of da Vinci’s text, thematic and structural navigation methods through it and much supplemental information. It’s worth the effort to discover something on a folio and head to a Codescope to drill down into the content through its touch screen.

Da Vinci’s prose ranges from logical explanation to poetic metaphor. In folio 24r, he sketches a river’s current to show how the insertion of variously shaped obstacles would alter that current, as a possible means toward protecting riverbanks against erosion. Other pages catalog and describe all manner of river erosionfolio 5v goes as far as a geometric analysis of that process.

But his poetic moments are just as instructive, if not more so, in their fusing of art and science into inspired inquiry. On folio 34r, da Vinci’s efforts to understand the planet’s subterranean workings produce a conception of the earth as a body. The soil is flesh; strata of rock are bones and cartilage; rivers are veins and water, blood; the ocean is the heart; volcanic heat is the soul. Passages like this bring together the inventor of the helicopter with the painter of the “Mona Lisa.”

Although da Vinci never explicitly writes about politics or religion, you can feel the pressure of unscientific beliefs and conditions upon pages of the codex. His refutation of the Biblical flood theory about mountaintop fossils (folios 8v and 9v) is one example. But in many other passages, you can almost hear da Vinci arguing against a lazy popular belief or unconsidered religious-based explanation for something in the world.

Raleigh is lucky to be the only East Coast venue for this exhibit, which has otherwise visited only Phoenix, Arizona and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Bill Gates, who now owns the Codex Leicester and is lending it out for this limited tour, chose NCMA because it’s a strong museum surrounded by reputable university and scientific communities.

Regardless of this prestige, the real joy of the exhibit is in getting to lean close to these pages, like their author did. It’s a thrill to scrutinize da Vinci’s sketches and diagrams, some of which simply illustrate an idea like a science textbook, while others are miniature works of art unto themselves.