Leonardo da Vinci Designs the Ideal City: See 3D Models of His Radical Design

Le Cor­busier, Frank Lloyd WrightRay Brad­bury: they and oth­er 20th-cen­tu­ry nota­bles all gave seri­ous thought to the ide­al city, what it would include and what it would exclude. To that extent we could describe them, in 21st-cen­tu­ry par­lance, as urban­ists. But the roots of the dis­ci­pline — or area of research, or pro­fes­sion, or obses­sion — we call urban­ism run all the way back to the 15th cen­tu­ry. At that time, ear­ly in the Euro­pean Renais­sance, thinkers were recon­sid­er­ing a host of con­di­tions tak­en for grant­ed in the medieval peri­od, from man’s place in the uni­verse (and indeed the uni­verse itself) to the dis­pos­al of his garbage. Few of these fig­ures thought as far ahead, or across as many fields as Leonar­do da Vin­ci.

In addi­tion to his accom­plish­ments in art, sci­ence, engi­neer­ing, and archi­tec­ture, the quin­tes­sen­tial “Renais­sance man” also tried his hand at urban­ism. More specif­i­cal­ly, he includ­ed in his note­books designs for what he saw as an ide­al city. “Leonar­do was 30 when he moved to Milan in around 1482,” writes Engi­neer­ing and Tech­nol­o­gy’s Hilary Clarke.

“The city he found was a crowd­ed medieval war­ren of build­ings, with no san­i­ta­tion. Soon after the young painter had arrived, it was hit by an out­break of the bubon­ic plague that killed 50,000 peo­ple — more than a third of the city’s pop­u­la­tion at the time.” This could well have prompt­ed him to draw up his plan, which dates between 1487 and 1490, for a clean­er and more effi­cient urban envi­ron­ment.

While it would­n’t have been par­tic­u­lar­ly hard to envi­sion a less dirty and dis­or­dered set­ting than the late medieval Euro­pean city, Leonar­do, true to form, per­formed a thor­ough­go­ing act of reimag­i­na­tion. “Draw­ing on the knowl­edge he had gained from study­ing Milan’s canals, Leonar­do want­ed to use water to con­nect the city like a cir­cu­la­to­ry sys­tem,” writes Clarke, who adds that Leonar­do was also study­ing human anato­my at the time. “His ide­al town-plan­ning prin­ci­ple was to have a mul­ti-tiered city, which also includ­ed an under­ground water­way to flush away efflu­ent.” The top tier would have all the hous­es, squares and oth­er pub­lic build­ings; “the bot­tom tier was for the poor, goods and traf­fic — hors­es and carts — and ran on the same lev­el as the canals and basins, so wag­ons could be eas­i­ly offloaded.”

Though its ambi­tion would have seemed fan­tas­ti­cal in the 15th cen­tu­ry, Leonar­do’s city plan every­where mar­shals his con­sid­er­able engi­neer­ing knowl­edge to address prac­ti­cal prob­lems. He had a real loca­tion in mind — along the Tici­no Riv­er, which runs through mod­ern-day Italy and Switzer­land — and planned details right down to the spi­ral stair­cas­es in every build­ing. He insist­ed on spi­rals, Clarke notes, “because they lacked cor­ners, mak­ing it hard­er for men to uri­nate,” but they also add an ele­gance to his vision of the ver­ti­cal city, a notion that strikes us as obvi­ous today but was unknown then. Of course, Leonar­do was a man ahead of his time, and the 3D-ren­dered and phys­i­cal mod­els of his ide­al city in these videos from the Ide­al Spaces Work­ing Group and Italy’s Museo Nazionale del­la Scien­za e del­la Tec­nolo­gia Leonar­do da Vin­ci make one won­der if his plan would­n’t look both allur­ing and impos­si­bly rad­i­cal to urban­ists even today.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Leonar­do da Vin­ci Drew an Accu­rate Satel­lite Map of an Ital­ian City (1502)

The Medieval City Plan Gen­er­a­tor: A Fun Way to Cre­ate Your Own Imag­i­nary Medieval Cities

Frank Lloyd Wright Designs an Urban Utopia: See His Hand-Drawn Sketch­es of Broad­acre City (1932)

Denmark’s Utopi­an Gar­den City Built Entire­ly in Cir­cles: See Astound­ing Aer­i­al Views of Brønd­by Have­by

The Utopi­an, Social­ist Designs of Sovi­et Cities

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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