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April 23, 2022

Leonardo da Vinci: The Military Engineer

By Peter Konieczny

He is considered to be the “Renaissance Man”, a genius in the fields of art and science. Leonardo da Vinci is best known for his paintings such as Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, but he also believed himself to be very skilled in the art of war. He tells us as much in a letter he wrote to the Duke of Milan.

Leonardo was about thirty years old, and looking for a job. He had grown up in and around the city of Florence, and had gained a few commissions as a painter. But he was ambitious and believed that he could make his fortune in the service of the powerful rulers of Italy. Therefore, in 1482 Leonardo travelled to the city of Milan, where he hoped to get employment from Duke Ludovico Sforza. Part of his plan to get noticed by the duke was to write him a letter – historians have viewed it as a sort of resume or cover letter. He describes his various abilities, most of which deal with how he could be useful in warfare. Here is the letter, which has been preserved in Leonardo’s notebooks:

Most Illustrious Lord, Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavor, without prejudice to any one else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments on all those things which, in part, shall be briefly noted below.

1. I have a sort of extremely light and strong bridges, adapted to be most easily carried, and with them you may pursue, and at any time flee from the enemy; and others, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy.

2. I know how, when a place is besieged, to take the water out of the trenches, and make endless variety of bridges, and covered ways and ladders, and other machines pertaining to such expeditions.

3. If, by reason of the height of the banks, or the strength of the place and its position, it is impossible, when besieging a place, to avail oneself of the plan of bombardment, I have methods for destroying every rock or other fortress, even if it were founded on a rock, etc.

4. Again, I have kinds of mortars; most convenient and easy to carry; and with these I can fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke of these cause great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion.

5. And if the fight should be at sea I have kinds of many machines most efficient for offense and defense; and vessels which will resist the attack of the largest guns and powder and fumes.

An Artillery Park (c. 1487) is a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. – Wikimedia Commons

6. I have means by secret and tortuous mines and ways, made without noise, to reach a designated spot, even if it were needed to pass under a trench or a river.

7. I will make covered chariots, safe and unattackable, which, entering among the enemy with their artillery, there is no body of men so great but they would break them. And behind these, infantry could follow quite unhurt and without any hindrance.

8. In case of need I will make big guns, mortars, and light ordnance of fine and useful forms, out of the common type.

9. Where the operation of bombardment might fail, I would contrive catapults, mangonels, trabocchi, and other machines of marvellous efficacy and not in common use. And in short, according to the variety of cases, I can contrive various and endless means of offense and defense.

A drawing of a giant crossbow by Leonardo da Vinci – Wikimedia Commons

10. In times of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and to the equal of any other in architecture and the composition of buildings public and private; and in guiding water from one place to another.

11. I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.

Again, the bronze horse may be taken in hand, which is to be to the immortal glory and eternal honor of the prince your father of happy memory, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

And if any of the above-named things seem to anyone to be impossible or not feasible, I am most ready to make the experiment in your park, or in whatever place may please your Excellency – to whom I comment myself with the utmost humility, etc.

It might surprise readers to find so little reference to his skills as an artist, but Leonardo would have been very much aware that rulers like Ludovico Sforza were in great need of men that could assist in warfare. Milan, like the other Italian city-states, was almost always in conflict with its neighbours, and also faced threats from other European rulers. Having a person that could help improve military technology would certainly be an asset.

The letter must have worked, for Leonardo was hired by Ludovico, and would spend the next seventeen years in Milan.

The translation of this letter is by George Sarton in his book Leonardo da Vinci, published in 1952. You can learn more about the famous Renaissance artist and scholar in Walter Isaacson’s book Leonardo da Vinci (Simon & Schuster, 2017)

This article was first published in Medieval Warfare magazine Issue VII:6 – you can buy that issue here. You can also get new issues of the magazine through our Patreon – click here to learn more. April 23, 2022 at 09:40PM

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