and the Science of Politics
I compare [fortune] to one of those ruinous rivers that,
when they become enraged, flood the plains, tear down
trees and buildings, taking up earth from one spot and
placing it upon another; everyone flees from them, everyone
yields to their onslaught, unable to oppose them in
any way. But although they are of such a nature, it
does not follow that when the weather is calm we cannot
take precautions with embankments and dikes, so that
when they rise up again either the waters will be channeled
off or their impetus will not be either so unchecked
or so damaging.*
of Niccolò Machiavelli
by Santi di Tito (1536-1603)
of Leonardo da Vinci
Attributed to followers of Leonardo
addition to figuring in the political theory of The Prince,
rivers had a part to play in real life politics for Machiavelli.
In the early years of the sixteenth century, Machiavelli joined
together with Leonardo da Vinci in a massive effort to divert
the Arno river as part of the war effort against the nearby
city of Pisa.
1503 the Florentine republic was in dire straits, threatened
from within and without. Within, pro-Medici supporters worked
to undermine the republican government that Machiavelli served.
Outside of its walls, Florence faced the growing threat of
Cesare Borgia, who had the support of the French king, Louis
XII. To its west, Florence was at war with the city of Pisa.
Both cities sought to control the Arno river, and Pisa could
easily cut Florence off from the sea. For a republican government,
the political instability that would accompany such an economic
disaster could spell its doom.
da Vinci was as much engineer, scientist and inventor as he was
artist. Many of his drawings are devoted to investigations in
optics, topography, and dynamics, and much of his career was spent
designing military weapons, architecture and vehicles and working
on civil and hydraulic engineering projects.
Possible canal routes for diverting the Arno River
1503 Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli began work on a project
that they believed would end the threat from Pisa forever. They
proposed to divert the Arno river away from Pisa, leaving the
city literally high and dry and making Florence a seaport.
beleaguered Florentine republic approved funds for the project.
Leonardo spent the spring and summer drawing a series of stunning
"bird's eye" maps of the Arno river and the surrounding landscape.
In August 1504, the project began. It was a huge undertaking that
posed critical problems for earth removal and directing water
flow. Time was of the essence, both for financial and military
reasons. The engineer in charge of the project was forced to make
cost-cutting measures. Leonardo devised a digging machine to expedite
matters and save on labor, but apparently it was never built.
by Leonardo de Vinci
October 1502 Leonardo spent several weeks in Imola with Cesare Borgia,
who commissioned him to map the city and study the fortress with
possible modifications in mind.
result was failure. The diversionary ditches were too shallow
and the river did not follow the new course. Efforts to deepen
the ditches began, but a storm destroyed the earthworks. What
nature left, the Pisans demolished.
to Roger Masters, who has written a history of the project, "the
Arno diversion could be called a magnificent failure. Niccolò
and Leonardo tried to control the flow of history and the flow
of the river by combining science, technology, and political power.
The ambition to use this means to conquer nature, common place
today, had never been attempted in quite this way on such a scale."**
Florentine republic struggled on for a few more years. In 1512,
the Spanish army defeated Florence, and Guiliano de Medici siezed
power: a most unfortunate turn of events for Machiavelli. In his
exile, he turned his attention from the science of engineering
to the science of politics with the writing of The Prince.
Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. by Peter Bondanella and Mark
Musa, 1989, p.82.
Roger D. Masters, Fortune is a River: Leonardo da Vinci and
Niccolò Machiavelli's Magnificent Dream to Change the Course
of Florentine History (1999), 133. Masters' account of the
project can be found on pages 81-133. In 1434, another artist,
Brunelleschi, had proposed that Florence divert a river and thereby
flood the city of Lucca. This, too, had failed.