How Leonardo da Vinci made a “satellite” map in 1502

This map from 2019 was compiled using satellite
and aerial imagery. Leonardo da Vinci made this one around 1502
— while stuck on the ground. How? When infamous Italian politician Cesare Borgia
brought Leonardo da Vinci — the guy who drew this portrait — to the city of Imola,
it was as a military engineer. He’d already established a good military
reputation — and painted several famous works. When Leonardo was installed at Borgia’s
newly acquired fort, one of his duties was to help Borgia learn the territory. At the time, a map like this one was the standard
— a birdseye or hillside view. Mythical creatures often popped up — not
great for military operations. The perspective also only showed some buildings,
blocking the view of other ones. These maps could be beautiful. But they lacked proper shape and scale
And highlighted landmarks’ beauty at the expense of clarity. Leonardo needed to show Imola as an “ichnographic”
map — an idea that Vitruvius — a Roman engineer and the guy
who inspired this — had described. In practice, it’s a map where everything
looks like you’re directly above whatever you show. It gives you a clearer picture. Look at the fort. In Google Maps, the shadow effects change
a bit, but the fort’s perspective fundamentally stays the same. That’s similar to a real view from far above, where distance reduces the effects of shifting perspective. But Leonardo didn’t have a satellite to
get up that far. His plan of Imola was a feat of symbolic imagination. And he had to make it accurate. Based on sketches, previous work, and the
design of his Imola map, we can guess at how Leonardo made it. He probably used a type of disk that could
measure degrees and had a little pointer to mark the angles of streets in relation to
a stable point, usually North. He probably used a compass to record the orientation
of the town’s surrounding walls. He did this at every turn, which helped him
accurately translate the walls onto paper. Note the circular shape here, overlaid on
the map. To establish scale, Leonardo also needed to
measure the distance between all of these angles. He probably paced this out by foot, or maybe
using an odometer, with wheels that turned gears that measured distance by dropping a
ball into a bucket at set intervals. With the angles and distance together, he
could create a plan — hundreds of years before anyone could check if he got it right. This stunning map from 1551, by another Leonardo,
shows the potential Leonardo da Vinci’s method had. All these early ichnographic maps have asterisks
– this one was spotted with its own inaccuracies and artistic flourishes, a reflection of the
scope of the project. In turn, Leonardo’s Imola had quibbles too
— he probably used parts of previous surveys and other artistic techniques. It also appears that he measured the town’s
walls precisely, but took more liberties with the angles in the town’s interior. But even with artistic license, this remains
a map of more than a fort and town. It’s a transition from a geography of myth
and perception to one about information, drawn plainly. It’s a map of Imola, but in the early 1500s,
it was a map of the future, too. Hey, if you’re curious about this video
or any of the videos in Almanac or Overrated, I’m going to be doing a live Q&A in the
Videolab where we answer a ton of questions about that and the Vox process. The nerdier your questions the better — I
hope to be asked about my favorite Adobe Premiere shortcut and also Leonardo’s odometer. So, if you have those questions drop them
in the comment below and head over to and you can ask me directly on the stream. This is a stream thing I’m doing with my
hand. Pretty cool.

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