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Rivers and Humans: The Civilizing Project of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccoló Machiavelli

Rivers and Humans: The Civilizing Project of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccoló Machiavelli

By Nina Witoszek

Transference: Interdisciplinary Communications, ed. W. Ostreng (2008/9)

Introduction: In October 1502, an extraordinary meeting of two Renaissance geniuses took place in the fortress of Imola, in the province of Bologna. One was Leonardo da Vinci, painter, sculptor, architect, inventor, anatomist, musician, costume designer and hydraulic engineer. The other was a political star, Niccolo Machiavelli, a chancellor and secretary of the Florentine republic. Leonardo worked as a military engineer for Cesare Borgia, the conqueror of sizable part of Italy an an accomplished murderer. Machiavella in Imola to negotiate the French military campaign to re-conquer Pisa, a recalcitrant city, which blocked the Florentine merchants’ access to the sea. The meeting of Machiavelli and Leonardo was one of the most fateful – and most enigmatic – events in Europe’s intellectual history.

Neither man spoke about in his notebooks, letters or diaries. But out of the brainstorming at Imola emerged a project which was as momentous as it was daring: In order to vanquish the rebellious Pisans, Leonardo – il fondatore idralica – was to design a plan of diverting the Arno and thus deprive Pisa of its life-giving source.

Leonarado and Machiavelli seemed eminently qualified to take up the challenge. Leonardo was obsessed by the idea of civilizing rivers; Machiavelli was determined to civilize politics. Leonardo drew countless hydraulic contraptions that were to turn unsanitary Italian metropolitan areas into precursory ‘bio-cities’ with an advanced system of canalization. Machiavelli was a seasoned diplomat longing for a united Italy, where the competing families would be less preoccupied with plotting of how to outshine, outwit, and crush one another, and engage more  in creating viable defenses against he forays of the Spaniards and the French. The success of the project would ensure not just a seaport for Florence, but wealth and prosperity for all of Tuscany, and the possibility of a playing a significant role in the conquest of the New World.

Click here to read this article from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

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