When Leonardo was 26 he sent a letter of application for a job to the Duke of Milan. “I can be very useful to you,” he says and goes on to list the varied and surprising fields he feels himself qualified in.
He may have been the world’s greatest painter but in this letter he puts painting low on the list. It wasn’t simply the result of his tailoring the application to fit the patron’s needs. Leonardo loved warfare and obviously had spent hours and hours not only dreaming up war machines but making models too.
Here is a summary of the contents of the letter, partly paraphrased:
Most illustrious Lord:
I have studied the products of men who call themselves great inventors of war machines and I have seen that they are no different from the ones used everywhere. So now I would like to present my own secrets to your Excellency.
1) I have some extremely light and strong bridges which can be easily transported. With them you may pursue and at any time flee from the enemy; and others too, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, which are easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy.
2) I know how, when a place is besieged, to take the water out of the trenches, and make endless variety of bridges, and covered ways and ladders, and other machines pertaining to such expeditions.
3) If bombardment of a fortress is impossible because of its position or because its banks are too high, I am able to destroy it, even if it is built on a rock.
4) I have mortars which are most convenient and easy to carry; and with these one can fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke from them cause great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion.
5) For the fight at sea I have many kinds of machines most efficient for offence and defence; and vessels which will resist the attack of the largest guns and powder and fumes [armored ships?].
6) I have ways of using secret and tortuous mines and other means to reach a designated place without noise, even if it were necessary to pass under a trench or a river.
7) [The first tanks, that Churchill was so proud of financing in World War I] I can make covered chariots, safe and unattackable which, when they enter among the enemy with their artillery, can destroy them, no matter how large the force. And behind these, infantry could follow quite unhurt and without any hindrance.
8) In case of need I will make big guns, mortars; and lighter and more useful forms, out of the common type.
9) If bombardment should fail, I would contrive catapults and other machines of marvellous efficacy and not in common use. And in short, according to the variety of cases, I can contrive various and endless means of offence and defence…….
Design for a cannon-size crossbow by Leonardo (public domain photo)
Only at the end of the enumeration does he begin to mention architecture, painting, and sculpture:
10) In time of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and equal any other man in architecture and the composition of buildings, both public and private; and in guiding water from one place to another.
11) I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze or clay, and also in painting whatever may be done, and as well as any other, no matter who he is.
12) I will make a great bronze horse which is to be to the immortal glory and eternal honor of the prince your father of happy memory, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.
Studies for the casting of the colossal Sforza horse (public domain photo)
If any one of the above-named things seem to any one to be impossible or not feasible, I am most ready to make the experiment in your park, or in whatever place may please your Excellency; to whom I commend myself with the utmost humility.
Leonardo da Vinci