Contact Us

Machines of War and Peace

Fifteenth-century innovations in the technology of firearms and fortifications changed the art of war. Guns were capable of firing with greater precision, and palaces were defended with thick, pointed embankments that shielded them from the onslaught of the enemy. Leonardo himself designed an impressive array of fortified bastions, one of which can still be seen on the coast of Piombino. Yet it was in the arena of fantastical war machines that Leonardo excelled—his designs for a giant crossbow, a covert submarine, and a mechanical chariot with a rotating perimeter of firing cannons exemplify his expertise as a war technologist.

Leonardo lived in a time of great political uncertainty and violence. He was regularly employed by the Sforza in Milan and by Cesare Borgia in Romagna and the Marches to produce machines and weapons of war (including maps, hydraulic studies, and weaponry). The Venetians briefly hoped he might assist the fortification of their northeastern border, and Leonardo famously sent a proposal to the Ottoman sultan for a bridge spanning the Bosphorus. In the margin of one such drawing, Leonardo recorded his unease with creating such destructive weapons and feared what might happen should his designs reach the wrong hands.

Leonardo sought out several ancient treatises on war and the art of military engineering, including Vegetius’s De re militari and Frontinus’s De aquaeductu. Contemporary treatises on military operations, such as those by Roberto Valturio and Antonio Cornazzano, were particularly useful for Leonardo’s study of updated machinery. Leonardo also applied his knowledge of mechanics to court ephemera and entertaining wonders of invention—including automata, flying mechanical birds, roaring lions, and robotic knights.

[Alexandria R. Tsagaris]

Roberto Valturio, 1405–1475

De re militari: Umanesimo e arte della guerra tra Medioevo e Rinascimento (facsimile)

Rimini: Guaraldi, 2006

Green Library U101 .V25 2006 V.1/V.2

Acquired with support from the Andrew B. Hammond Memorial Book Fund

De re militari, the most famous military treatise of the fifteenth century, was published in 1472 in Verona. The author, Roberto Valturio, was an Italian engineer from Rimini and an advisor to those inquiring about military ingenuity. In the preface, Valturio dedicated the book to Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, a renowned Italian military commander and the lord of Rimini, Fano, and Cesena, who had led a campaign against the Ottoman Empire seven years prior to the book’s publication. The historical significance of this book lies with its illustrations of technical and scientific engineering, which were unprecedented at the time. The elaborate drawings done by Matteo de’ Pasti received well-deserved admiration and seem to have inspired some of Leonardo’s own designs and writings on military technology.

Leonardo studied this Latin military treatise prior to the publication of Paolo Ramusio’s Italian translation in 1483. Although he did not yet read Latin, consulting Valturio’s book helped him expand his vocabulary for military technology and warfare. He made long word lists from Valturio, which would have helped to prepare him for his eventual work as a military engineer under Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan. In his letter to the duke (ca. 1482), Leonardo boasted of being able to engineer, among other things, portable bridges, siege technology capable of destroying any fortress, extraordinary cannons, and covered vehicles. Some of these descriptions match drawings and text in Valturio’s De re militari, demonstrating its influence on Leonardo and his self-training in the art of war. [248 words]

[Bobby Eon McLean]

Antonio Cornazzano, 1430–ca. 1483

Cornazano dell’arte militare novamente impresso

Venice: Benedetto di Bindoni, 1521

Rare Book Collection PQ4621 .C5 D45 1521 T

“Military art, which had long been dead, has been brought back to life,” wrote the learned Guarino da Verona in 1446. Antonio Cornazzano’s book is among the many Renaissance treatises de re militari; such books varied considerably in language, both Latin and vernacular, and presentation, and found an eclectic readership amid men of action, that is, condottieri, men of arms, statesmen, and humanist scholars. Cornazzano, a courtier poet in Milan and later in Ferrara, wrote in many genres; this duodecimo edition is a terza rima adaptation of a prose work, Integrità de la militare arte, probably composed in 1477 and first printed in Venice in 1493, a decade after the author’s death. This 1521 printing, the most widely found in libraries, follows that of Bernardo Giunta, a Florentine editor who “Tuscanized” Cornazzano’s “unpalatable, barbarous words.”

Structured in nine chapters, the poem follows antique conventions to expound on what makes a good soldier; military recruitment and training; choosing arms, horses, and equipment; the concept of just war; the role of piety in wartime and of astrology in timing battle action. In language at times surprisingly colloquial but always vividly narrative, Cornazzano mediates between addressing the condottiero and the humanist. Unlike other authors of similar treatises, such as Roberto Valturio, whom Leonardo also read, he displays a fascination with chivalry and an impatience with the nobility. Equally distinctive is his praise of modern military strategies, technological innovations such as the bombarda, or cannonball (one of Leonardo’s many interests), here theorized as a defensive weapon, and devices for transmitting secret messages.

[Nelson Shuchmacher Endebo]

Cleonides, fl. ca. 250 CE; Giorgio Valla, 1447–1500; Angelo Poliziano, 1454–1494; Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, ca. 80/70–15 BCE; and Sextus Julius Frontinus, ca. 30–103 CE

Cleonidæ harmonicum introductorium interprete Georgio Valla Placentino. L. Vitruuii Pollionis De architectura libri decem. Sexti Iulii Frontini De aquaeductibus liber unus. Angeli Policiani opusculum, quod Panepistemon inscribitur. Angeli Policiani in priora analytica praelectio cui titulus est Lamia

Venice: Simon Bevilaqua, 1497

Rare Book Collection KA1497 .C54 F BB

This folio volume includes, among other texts, Frontinus’s major treatise on the aqueducts of Rome, the earliest surviving official source on the matter. In certain technical aspects, such as the relation between pipe diameter and capacity, Frontinus left much room for improvement. Leonardo’s Notebooks record his lifelong study of the principles of hydraulics and canalization; the Archimedes screw, a device to make water flow uphill, intrigued him, and he knew Frontinus’s work. Shortly before arriving in Milan in 1482, he began to design “water gadgets” that reflected his interest in the growing importance of waterpower for textile manufacturing, the main source of Florence’s wealth. Leonardo would later work as a hydraulic engineer around the princely estate of La Sforzesca, remarkable for its ingenious network of waterways.

Another author included in this volume is the philologist and mathematician Giorgio Valla, translator of ancient Greek sources, such as Cleonides’s Introduction to Harmonics, and author of De expetendis et fugiendis rebus opus, first printed in 1501. Leonardo probably owned some edition of Valla’s Latin encyclopedia of the sciences, which dealt extensively with mathematics and medicine. This book on display includes Valla’s own translations of Greek authors, such as Archimedes, Hero of Alexandria, and the astronomer Cleomedes; evidence suggests that Leonardo read the latter in Valla’s version. Scholars point out Valla’s pronounced influence on Leonardo’s understanding of proportion and geometrical transformation. This work remained a key sourcebook throughout the Renaissance. Valla died in Venice in 1500 while lecturing on the immortality of the soul, probably just before Leonardo arrived in the city after fleeing the French invasion of Milan.

[Nelson Shuchmacher Endebo]

Flavius Vegetius Renatus, ca. 383–450

De l’arte militare ne la commune lingua nova tradotto

Venice: Gregorio di Gregorii, 1525

Rare Book Collection KB1525 .V4

De l’arte militare was written by Flavius Vegetius Renatus in the fifth century, and this Italian translation was published in Venice in 1525. As the might of the late Roman Empire began to waver, Vegetius wrote this work in order to revive military strength and provide a better understanding of what made the early empire under Augustus Caesar so powerful.

Vegetius’s treatise is organized into four books. Book One presents the process of recruiting soldiers and describes the training required to transform a recruit into a respectable officer in the military. Techniques such as hand-to-hand combat, javelin throwing, swimming, and running represent the wide skill set needed to join the Roman military. Book Two describes how to form a perfect legion of soldiers in which each officer works in unison with the other members. Each member’s duties are emphasized in order to prevent the creation of a weak unit of soldiers. Book Three outlines battle tactics and strategies. This includes knowing the perfect time to attack the enemy while also understanding when to retreat. Book Four depicts the proper way to construct protective structures to prevent the enemy from invading.

Reading Vegetius helped Leonardo make good on his claims to provide engineering capabilities in time of war. In the late 1480s, when Milan was at war, Leonardo designed instruments such as tanks, crossbows, machine guns, and a flying machine, intending to create “new machines for a new world.”

[Duke Charles Kinamon]