In 1503 the Florentine republic was going through a world of trouble, threatened by both foreign and domestic enemies. Internally, pro-Medici supporters worked to undermine the republican government that Machiavelli served. Outside of its walls, Florence faced the growing threat of Cesare Borgia- who was slowly taking over Italy and had the support of the French king, Louis XII.
To top it all off, Florence was at war with the city of Pisa. Both cities sought to control the Arno river, and Pisa could easily cut Florence off from the sea- which would completely destroy their trade routes and merchant class. For a republican government, the political instability that would accompany such an economic disaster could spell its doom.
So in that very year, Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli began to work on a project that they believed would end the threat from Pisa forever. They proposed to divert the Arno river away from Pisa, leaving the city literally high and dry and making Florence a seaport.
In addition to being a great engineering feat, the canal project had economic and military purposes. Da Vinci envisioned irrigating the Arno valley and selling water to farmers to make money for the government. If they succeeded, da Vinci and Machiavelli would have transformed Florence into a major world power, of the time.
Backed into a corner, the Florentine republic approved funds for the project. Leonardo spent the spring and summer drawing a series of “bird’s eye” maps of the Arno river and the surrounding landscape. In August 1504, the project began. It was a huge undertaking that posed critical problems for earth removal and directing water flow. Time was of the essence, both for financial and military reasons. The engineer in charge of the project was forced to make cost-cutting measures. Leonardo devised a digging machine to expedite matters and save on labour, but apparently it was never built.
The result was failure. The diversionary ditches were too shallow and the river did not follow the new course. Efforts to deepen the ditches began, but a storm destroyed the earthworks and the flood washed away most of their work. What nature left, the Pisans demolished.
Roger D. Masters, an American Professor and Author, wrote an entire book detailing the intricacies of the project. He has this to say on the outcome of the conspiracy;
“The Arno diversion could be called a magnificent failure. Niccolo and Leonardo tried to control the flow of history and the flow of the river by combining science, technology, and political power. The ambition to use this means to conquer nature, common place today, had never been attempted in quite this way on such a scale.“
The Florentine republic struggled on for a few more years. In 1512, the Spanish army defeated Florence, and Guiliano de Medici seized power: a devastating circumstance for Machiavelli. In his exile, he turned his attention to writing his novel The Prince- which is the foundation of Political Science today.
Some speculate that Leonardo never quite got over this project, believing that it wasn’t just a politically motivated conspiracy to him- but a lifelong dream. In fact there’s speculations that da Vinci used that very same river he wanted to create in one of his most infamous works; The Mona Lisa.
It’s a fascinating yet obscure tale about two of the greatest men in Italian and world history trying to battle it out with nature. But as I’ve written before, you cannot fight nature- and it is important to realise that we do not live on the World, the World lets us live on it.