Leonardo da Vinci: Engineer and Architect

Leonardo da Vinci is famous for his art, anatomical studies and dreams of flight, yet he was also an accomplished engineer and architect.

Feb 20, 2023By Dennis Lynch, BSc Civil Engineering
leonardo da vinci engineer architect canal sketch
Image composition of da Vinci with a sketch of a building and canal works, via the Codex Atlanticus


Leonardo da Vinci is often hailed as a genius, most notably for his art, as seen here with his Mona Lisa. He was the quintessential Renaissance Man, being a master of various areas of study, yet common culture continues to focus on his paintings as his primary “masterpieces.” Sometimes, though, da Vinci’s genius in flight is trumpeted as greatly as his works of art. But even this focus does not acknowledge the versatility of da Vinci’s genius.


While engineer and architect are not the first descriptions one thinks of when conjuring up an image of one of the most famous historical figures of all time, da Vinci was as accomplished in these areas as he was in other fields. He drew plans for bridges to connect Asia to Europe, he created plans to protect and improve cities, he drew up further plans and specifications for architecture, and he even devised military devices, including a proto-machine gun.


The Engineer & Architect Through the Lens of Many Maps

davinci notebook imola plan
A Plan of Imola, Ital by Leondary da Vinci, via Web Gallery of Art


Civil engineering, military engineering, architecture, and urban planning are all very closely related fields. Civil engineering is more concerned with the function of infrastructure. Military engineering is more concerned with defending or attacking infrastructure or people. Then there is architecture, which is more concerned with the aesthetic of a single building as opposed to function. Lastly, urban planning is chiefly concerned with the function of a city as a large and small ecosystem, usually in terms of developing the city further. There is one through-line between each of these unique fields – they require the practitioner to spend their time staring at maps.


These used to be colloquially known as “blueprints,” and engineers and architects today often call them simply plans. A closer inspection of these plans can allow for a deeper appreciation of the differences and subtleties between the fields, which may otherwise be lost to the average person. In doing so, it can provide insight into the mind of da Vinci and his process of drawing different infrastructures in his notebooks.


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To illustrate this, da Vinci’s Plan of Imola, Italy above, is useful for exploring each subject. As a civil engineer, it is important to take note of grading and riverways as well as existing and proposed structures on this city-wide level. A civil engineer does not necessarily care for the aesthetics, simply the function of the structures. A military engineer would think quite similarly to a civil engineer, but they would wonder how to use the grading, riverways, and structures for defense and war. This can be seen by the canals and stopgaps that appear to be used to divert water for a moat and the apparent farmlands that surround the city of Imola.


da vinci bridge sketch
A very crude bridge sketch, this may be a simple bridge idea for military or emergency evacuation considering the shallowness of the depth of the bridge and the crude quickness it appears to be able to be put together, via the Codex Atlanticus


The plan of Imola itself is a typical exercise in urban planning, similar to today, where it is often related to the idea of how to improve the city the planners inherited. An urban planner would want to know where to expand the city or identify areas where they would prefer certain types of buildings or uses, like a shopping district in a central location. It often does not require very advanced engineering calculations or number crunching.


Architecture is the most artistic of all of these fields while still requiring a deal of mathematical knowledge. This plan does not showcase architecture as well as some of da Vinci’s other notes do, as plans and maps created by architects are usually for a single building and define the layout of the floors and profiles of the building in question. Perhaps the most important structure to note architecturally in the Plan of Imola is the apparent guard tower in the lower left of the plan, which shows what looks to be a stairway and courtyard.


The crude bridge sketch above, while a great example of typical civil and possibly military engineering, is not very good for showing and exploring architecture and urban planning since it depicts neither a building nor a city. However, it is still a fascinating sketch as it provides a sense of scale with the man on the far end of the bridge. The crudeness of the bridge is shown well with various smaller trees tied together by some kind of string, which may have meant this design was a rushed project. It may have been for a very quick bridge for sections of a war party that would have trouble crossing the gap, such as horses and wagons.


The Engineer’s Grand Structures

da vinci engineer bosporus bridge
A page out of da Vinci’s Paris Manuscripts, which shows a design for a Bosporus Bridge on the bottom right page (1497), via Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Da Vinci never stopped dreaming big, and evidence can be found all over his notebooks. The above photograph of one of da Vinci’s notebooks, part of the Paris Manuscripts, depicts a design for a bridge that would cross the Bosporus Strait. If constructed, the structure would have been 280 meters, or just over 900 feet and would have been one of the longest in the world before the Industrial Revolution. The structure was designed and proposed to Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II to connect Istanbul to Galata.


This may be slightly surprising since Leonardo was an Italian. He was from Florence and spent many years working in Milan – cities that were located in the heart of the Christian world at the time, with the Holy Roman Empire to the north and the Papacy to the south. Meanwhile, the Ottomans were an empire where Islam had been the dominant faith in Anatolia and the surrounding areas for hundreds of years. To certain Europeans, they were considered “the Scourge of God.” Thus, at first glance, why would a man from the Christian center of Europe be willing to collaborate with the “Scourge of God”?


It is important to note that this view was not shared by everyone and only takes into account the religious perspective. The Italian city-states traded directly with the Ottomans and maintained a robust economic relationship with the empire. One account even notes that da Vinci heard about the need for a design directly from a Turkish merchant while in Venice in 1499.


Da Vinci as a Military Engineer

da vinci engineer machine gun
A “machine” gun, via leonardodavinci.net


In a letter to the Duke of Milan in 1482, da Vinci opens his cover letter with the line,


“Having, most illustrious lord, seen and considered the experiments of all those who pose as masters in the art of inventing instruments of war, and finding that their inventions differ in no way from those in common use, I am emboldened, without prejudice to anyone, to solicit an appointment of acquainting your Excellency with certain of my secrets.”


This can be seen as a clear appeal to authority on the subject of creating military engineering works for the Duke. Leonardo had plenty of evidence in his notebooks regarding amazing military engineering works, showing that he already had spent plenty of time designing weapons of war. However, that is not to say he would be unable to produce less flashy military engineering works, such as simply cutting off water in a siege, which he states further down in his letter.


While da Vinci did create a schematic for a tank, which he even mentions in the letter to the Duke, perhaps the craziest idea in his entire series of notebooks is the image above. The “machine gun” appears to be made of a giant gear, similar to a water wheel, with crossbows inside the wheel. It is hard to tell at first; however, it appears that there are people on the machine and one person inside the inner wheel. Perhaps they are meant to spin the wheel and reload the crossbows in order to keep up what would have been an unimaginable firing rate for the day. The earliest machine gun that could be comparable to this device would be the Gatling Gun, which was not invented until 1861 during the American Civil War, 400 years later!


Da Vinci as an Architect

da vinci architecture
A sketch of math and details related to a building, via the Codex Atlanticus


Naturally, da Vinci’s genius and abilities did not end at just engineering. As an architect, da Vinci had plenty of notes in his notebooks about centralized plans of buildings, and in the case of the image above, math and notes about roofing. It is unclear what exactly the math is calculating, as Leonardo left out units on the calculation. However, upon inspecting the page and seeing that the notes and details are mostly about roofing tiles and shingles, perhaps da Vinci was attempting to add up the required amount of shingles for the house in the background.


This is quite a curious page out of da Vinci’s notebook because it does not appear wildly revolutionary at first, but the typical mundanity of it is what is interesting. Da Vinci was a brilliant man, but he also shows his math work right on the page. The beauty of this is that it shows that da Vinci was not a wizard but had to calculate and show his work like everyone else.


An interesting thing to note is that da Vinci appears to explore different types of roofing and even the pattern and anchoring of the patterns. In the very far bottom right of the page, one can see a simple plank-covered roof. While this can work, especially thanks to modern techniques and materials, the first issue would be any gaps when it rains. Da Vinci may have just been drawing this out as an exercise in comparing it to his proposed roofing elsewhere on the page.

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By Dennis LynchBSc Civil EngineeringDennis is a civil engineer turned writer with a passion for history. From the Romans to the Aztecs, to the Mamluks to the Qing, He finds all facets of history fascinating. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Rutgers University in New Jersey.