From Tempests and Hydraulic Machines to the Arno Diversion: the Historical Significance of da Vinci’s Study of Water
By Yu-Jin Lee
Intersect: The Stanford Journal for Science, Technology and Society, Volume 4 (2011)
Abstract: Reemergence of classical thought and the importance of water in society led da Vinci to pursue multiple projects regarding his study of water – culminating in the project to divert the Arno River. Da Vinci’s intellectual development from sketches of tempests and hydraulic machines to the Arno Project reveals his pivotal role in Renaissance society as well as in the development of the scientific method. It is important to note the impact of da Vinci’s studies of water even when many of his sketches and designs did not manifest themselves in three-dimensional form. However, these sketches are indeed actual implementations of his intellectual development. Da Vinci’s experimentation on paper reveals his intimate understanding of the natural processes.
Introduction: In his elaborate narration of the project to divert the Arno River, historian Roger D. Masters speculates about the collaboration between Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli. However, Masters’s emphasis on the relationship between these two intellectuals is insignificant compared to what the Arno Project reveals about both the historical significance of water and da Vinci’s development through his study of water. The reemergence of classical thought and the importance of water in society led da Vinci to pursue multiple water-related projects. Da Vinci’s intellectual development from his study of water, manifested in sketches of tempests and hydraulic machines as well as the Arno Project, reveals his pivotal role in Renaissance society as well as in the development of the scientific method.
The historical significance of water was based on the revival of the classics, its essential domestic uses, and militaristic stratagems during da Vinci’s lifetime.
The classical revival permeated the early Renaissance and initiated artistic manifestations of Greek and Roman river gods. During this period of ancient recovery, even the great architectural giants, Donatello and Brunelleschi emphatically explored and sought out the antique from the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. In addition to this search for the classics, those living in the Apennine Peninsula continued to commemorate their great ancient past, establishing a strong, concrete source of knowledge for da Vinci. The recovery of many works from classical authors, such as Seneca, Horace, Aristotle, and Ovid shaped the dawn of the Renaissance. The discoveries of Roman statues of river gods manifested in the Tiber, Arno, and Nile sustained interest in the ancients . Historian Claudia Lazzaro provides a detailed account of these river gods, including evidence that wealthy families exhibited their own series of ancient sculptures in their private gardens. The appearance of these ancient sculptures engendered increased importance of the role of the river gods, especially among the wealthy rulers, and became evident in ceremonies and festivals starting in 1513. These river gods majestically presented in the courtyards of palaces demonstrated the ultimate historical prominence of water. This prominence of water among da Vinci’s patrons may have prompted da Vinci to explore different manifestations of water. The influence of the classical revival will be discussed further throughout da Vinci’s different portrayals of water.