da Vinci and Machiavelli Team Up to Steal a River

da Vinci’s proposed river-routing plan (grinnell.edu)

Yes, you read the title right. 500 years before special effects were invented, two great men of history—the original Renaissance Man and the inventor of political science—teamed up to steal a freaking river.

In 1503, the Italian city of Florence—and Machiavelli himself—were both in big trouble. Internal rebellions threatened to topple the city’s republican government which Machiavelli served, and the city as a whole was at war with Pisa. Both cities were situated on the Arno river, but since Pisa was situated further upstream, it could potentially dam the river and block Florence’s access to the sea. Machiavelli approached da Vinci’s help, and the crazy old genius came up with a fittingly crazy plan.

da Vinci would use a series of canals, locks and dams to divert the course of the river. Instead of flowing to Pisa, it would flow around Pisa and into Florence. If this audacious plan worked, Florence would turn into a wealthy seaport and Pisa would be left to drought. The reputations of both men also hinged upon success: if the river was successfully diverted, Machiavelli would gain political leverage over the Florence region and da Vinci would be crazy rich.

Unfortunately for history, the plan didn’t work; as comedy website Cracked.com puts it, “the plan was too awesome for 16th century technology“. The canals were too shallow to divert much water, and when builders tried to deepen them, a storm caused some of them to breach their banks. Pisa retained its control of the Arno, Florence was defeated by Spain in 1512, and Machiavelli was sent into exile. This magnificent failure had a surprisingly good aftermath, though: while in exile, Machiavelli wrote his famous treatise The Prince, and da Vinci, while painting, included a backdrop of the Arno into none other than the Mona Lisa.


  • “HUM 140: The Prince, Hydraulics and the Science of Politics.” HUM 140: The Prince, Hydraulics and the Science of Politics. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 July 2013.
  • Arteaga, Juan, and Jacopo D. Quercia. “The 5 Most Badass Teams of Famous People To Ever Join Forces.” Cracked.com. N.p., 11 Oct. 2011. Web. 28 July 2013.
  • Cech, Thomas V. Principles of Water Resources: History, Development, Management, and Policy. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 15. Google Books. Web. 28 July 2013. 

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