Leonardo da Vinci transformed mapping from art to science

Applying math and measurement, Leonardo created a beautiful and practical map of Imola accurate enough to navigate the Italian city today.

The “Imola Plan” is preserved today in the Leonardiano Museum in Vinci, Italy, the artist’s hometown. In addition to its precision, Leonardo’s revolutionary map also reveals the instincts of the artist. In contrast to the compass lines and street grid, the Santerno River at the bottom is rendered as a sinuous, free-flowing form.
DEA/SCALA, FLORENCE

At the beginning of the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci returned to Florence after almost two decades in the employ of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. Nearing 50, Leonardo was already famed for his scientific genius and artistic achievements, including the design of an innovative catapult around 1485 and the fresco The Last Supper (1495-98). Combining practicality and observation, Leonardo applied the principle of sapere vedere (knowing how to see, in Latin) into as many areas of human inquiry as it led him.

Cesare Borgia, the ambitious son of Pope Alexander VI, became Leonardo’s patron in 1502. One of the first tasks given to Leonardo was to create a map of the city of Imola, near Bologna. Borgia had seized the city in 1499. Moated and heavily fortified, it was a key conquest for the charismatic young commander. Controlling the city would require understanding its geography and landmarks, and Borgia wanted the map from the brilliant mind of Leonardo in order to do that. (Here's why Leonardo's work in science, engineering, and the arts still suprise us today.)

In the 16th century city maps tended to be symbolic and often symbolic, piously inflating the size of religious buildings. Leonardo’s “Imola Plan” radically broke with this tradition, aiming to reflect the reality on the ground, and to provide a map that was of more practical use.

Read This Next

These ants can shrink and regrow their brains

How to stop discarded face masks from polluting the planet

‘Tiger King’ stars’ face scrutiny in court

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet