Leonardo the hydraulic engineer: ‘Master of Water’

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.149r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Water, the most dynamic of the elements, was a lifelong fascination for Leonardo. It revealed to him the principles of organisation and functioning of the natural world. Leonardo’s studies of water form a major focus in two of his notebooks, the Codexes Leicester and Arundel.

Leonardo’s studies of water in his notebooks formed part of his urge to understand in scientific terms the nature of what he was observing. He studied how spiralling waves carved out river beds, and classified how different shaped barriers controlled the direction of a current.

He measured and timed the flow of water, and explored how its percussive force shaped the courses of rivers. Leonardo then applied what he learnt to his work as a ‘Master of Water’ in Florence.

A map of the Arno west of Florence (1504/1504) by Leonardo da VinciRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Leonardo was a hydraulic engineer, a ‘Master of Water’ between 1500-1506. During these years he repeatedly sketched the River Arno.

The River Arno that flows through the centre of the city of Florence.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.149r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

In this drawing, Leonardo accurately records the distances and changes in the river’s flow. His energetic use of red chalk evokes the power and dynamics of moving water.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.148v-147r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Alongside the red chalk drawings he made of the Arno’s flow, Leonardo wrote detailed notes on the movement of water, rotating this sheet several times while drawing and writing.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.278r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Here Leonardo focused on the impact of the Arno on the riverbanks and manmade structures.

The Arno valley with the route of a proposed canal (c.1503-4) by Leonardo da VinciRoyal Collection Trust, UK

One of Leonardo’s unfulfilled projects was a canal running between the cities of Florence and Pisa that would irrigate the fields of the surrounding area, and provide power for manufacturing mills.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, ff.273v-276r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

The diagram on the left is a detailed drawing of the flow of the Arno through the centre of Florence, includes measurements.

The long vertical lines indicate the banks of the river, while a series of horizontal lines represent four bridges.

Codex Leicester, f.15v (1506–1510) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Codex Leicester

Treatise on Water

In 1506 Leonardo began compiling notes towards a planned treatise on water. Here in the Codex Leicester he draws up a contents list headed ‘Divisions of the Book’ starting with a chapter on ‘Water in Itself’ and then focusing on specific topics such the sea, rivers, and canals.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.029v (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

The drawings accompanying this rather neat text in the Codex Arundel, are also part of the planned treatise on water.

They depict a collapsed wall in a flood, intersecting ripples in a narrow channel, and the spiral patterns created in the rocks of riverbeds by water erosion.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, ff.168v-161r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

‘On the sinuous course of rivers and erosion’

This complete sheet shows another of Leonardo’s attempts at composing a treatise on water. The text discusses how rivers continually transform their courses through erosion.

Codex Leicester, f.13v (1506–1510) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Codex Leicester

Leonardo tried to analyse as accurately as possible many aspects of water in movement. In this sheet from the Codex Leicester he invented devices to measure the varying patterns and speeds of water flow.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.149r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

This is an example from the Codex Leicester: Leonardo proposes suspending ‘by a thread attached to a float a small weight [to] explain the varieties of the motions below the surface…’

Animated waterfall from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex ArundelThe British Library

Leonardo believed that the ‘true science’ of moving water could be revealed through experimentation. This exquisite drawing, animated above, records a practical experiment in which he used a glass-sided tank to study the movement and patterns of water gushing down a sequence of steps. Spiralling lines and volutes are used to demonstrate that when the water hits the steps it rebounds and forms vortices (Arundel MS 263, ff. 167v-162r).

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.024v (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

‘A new and effective breathing apparatus’

Here, Leonardo the inventor has drawn an underwater breathing apparatus. The part at the top holds two tubes for breathing in and out, and floats on the surface so seawater cannot infiltrate the tubes.

Leonardo says the device will enable a sailor to repair a hole in the side of a ship while at sea but he also foresaw its possible military use. In the early 16th century, a number of naval powers were competing for supremacy in the waters around the Italian peninsula.

Codex Leicester, f.22v (1506–1510) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Codex Leicester

In the Codex Leicester Leonardo writes that he will not describe the device ‘on account of the evil nature of men who would practice assassinations at the bottom of the seas by breaking the ships … and sinking them …’

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The Codex Leicester is the property of Bill Gates.

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