War Machines

“I can supply an infinite number of different engines of attack and defense.” – Leonardo da Vinci

For many, rectifying Leonardo’s respect for and adoration of the natural world with his research into proficient war machines seems counter-intuitive. However, in order to best understand the motivations for Leonardo’s more sinister research, the social and political context of his world must be considered.

Spring Catapult, date unknown

Spring Catapult, date unknown

Social and Political Context

In Italy, during the 15th and 16th centuries, wealthy families, emerging from turmoil and the powerful pull of popular councils, fought to maintain control over diverse cities and regions. They maintained control not only by demonstrating their wealth and influence through the commission of great works of art, such as celebratory monuments and portraits, but also through investments in weaponry development.

Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries also faced foreign menaces in the forms of Spain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. From 1494 until 1556, five internal powers (The Kingdom of Naples, the Venetian Republic, the Republic of Florence, the Duchy of Milan and the Papal States) along with Spain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and other minor contenders fought over land and inheritance claims. Advanced weapons (especially artillery innovations) and transportation devices could provide a greatly needed advantage during these prolonged conflicts.

Innovations of the 15th and 16th centuries do not represent a revolution of military affairs, but the brilliant application of technical systems to the battle field. Bright, creative minds, like that of Leonardo, brought powerful machines to life with the capability to inflict heavy field casualties to opponents equipped with less integrated, advanced weaponry. In order to maintain field advantages, military leaders needed the best, most ingenious weaponry available. While many scholars define the Renaissance as a time of painting, music, sculpting, philosophy, great literature, and heightened levels of intellectual curiosity, it is also a time of war and war begotten innovation.

Leonardo: the Inventor

Leonardo’s intellectual curiosity led him to question how different objects functioned -how a bird’s wing created flight, how water moved great weights, how a knee bends, etc. This inquisitive mindset, defined by lengthy experimentation, observation, and recording processes, helped him provide the design services required by many ruling families. War machines must be precise, predictable, and reproducible. The function of every component must be understood by the designer in order for efficiency to be maintained. While many of Leonardo’s war machines appear excessive and needlessly bulky to the modern examiner, they provided answers to reoccurring military problems. Many of the bellow sketches were created for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan and Leonardo’s primary patron during his stay in Milan. While it is unlikely that any of these designs were created, they provide a look of Leonardo’s complex imagination.

1. 33 Barrel Organ

Sketch for a thirty three organ gun, 1481 c.

Sketch for a thirty three barrel organ , 1481 c.

Leonardo designed the thirty three barrel canon to provide for two needs: 1) to cut through lines of infantry and 2) to allow simultaneous firing and reloading. While canons existed during Leonardo’s time they remained finicky and frequently misfired and took far too long to load. The thirty three small caliber guns featured in Leonardo’s machines were divided into three rows of eleven. To compensate for the inaccuracy of guns in this era, Leonardo’s machine fired eleven balls each cycle. Those in charge of the machine could refill the first row, while the next two rows remained in use.

2. Armored Vehicle

Armored Vehicle, 1487 c.

Armored Vehicle, 1487 c.

Leonardo designed this machine to provide for three needs 1) 360 degree firing capability, 2) protection of soldiers, and 3) field intimidation. While the vehicle did not move quickly because it was powered by the eight men inside it, the overlapping flaps of medal reinforced with leather provided cover similar to a modern tank. Thirty two light weight canons radially laced the outside of the tanks circular lower base, allowing for 360 degree firing capability.

Model Armored Vehicle, from the Galleria Michelangelo in Florence, Italy

3. The Scythed Chariot

Scythed Chariot, date unknown
       Scythed Chariot, date unknown

Leonardo attempted to modify the scythed chariot, a device employed previously by the Persians, in order to make it more deadly and decrease the amount of casualties to the home force. The scythed Chariot provided for two needs: 1) cutting down infantry and 2) intimidating the opposition visually. For centuries, knights and other armed retainers rode into battle mounted on impressive war horses. However, once infantry soldiers began using pikes and similar fastened, sharpened sticks to intercept mounted soldiers, armed retainers could no longer ride into battle physically elevated above lower ranking soldiers. The scythed chariot could cut through lines of pike-bearing infantry using the scythe attached to its front.

The machine worked by attaching the scythed chariot to the front two war horses. The mounted soldiers would then charge the chariot through the lines of opposing infantry, in the process making way for other mounted soldiers.

Notes: image from http://f60s.com/cache/t/510218.aspx

4. The Giant Crossbow

Giant Crossbow, 1489
Giant Crossbow, 1489

The giant crossbow provided for two needs: 1) to intimidate the enemy and 2) to launch stones or flaming material into enemy lines. Although catapults and trebuchets allowed armies to launch damaging material into enemy lines, encampments and cities for centuries, they did not provide the same degree of intimidation the giant crossbow might create.

Leonardo designed the machine to be twenty seven yards long with six wheels (three on each side) for mobility. The weapon would fire when a soldier released a pin holding the machine taught. The sketch of this particular device demonstrates the way Leonardo’s sketches brought complicated devices to life.


Leonardo da Vinci Inventions, http://www.da-vinci-inventions.com/giant-crossbow.aspx