Synopses & Reviews
Few people know that Leonardo da Vinci and Niccol Machiavelli crossed paths when Leonardo worked -- ostensibly as an engineer, possibly as a spy -- in Cesare Borgia's court and Machiavelli was Florence's ambassador there. Soon thereafter, they formed a friendship and an alliance. Astonishingly, during the rich first decade of the sixteenth century, the pair joined together under the inspiration of one of Leonardo's most fantastic dreams: to build a system of canals that would make the Arno River navigable from Florence to the sea. Under Machiavelli's supervision, the Florentine government tried -- and ultimately failed -- to realize a portion of this plan in 1504.
The first canal in the scheme had a military purpose, to cut off the water supply of Pisa, Florence's enemy -- but that was only the beginning. Leonardo dreamed of irrigating the Arno valley and controlling its water in order to fill Florence's coffers with tax revenues. He and Machiavelli foresaw the day that Amerigo Vespucci and other explorers would be able to sail from the city center to the sea, to travel over new lands and enrich Florentine merchants. Had the taming of the Arno succeeded, Florence might have become the center of a great world power. Unfortunately, in one of history's most tantalizing might-have-beens, the plans for the Pisa diversion were altered by the engineer in charge, not enough workmen were hired, and the ditches were not dug deeply enough. Not long after a sudden flood destroyed some of the work, the project was abandoned.
It was one of a series of failures for Leonardo, who ultimately would depart Florence for Milan, Rome, and France, newly convinced that political power was essential for an engineer and artist to thrive. For Machiavelli it was another military failure in a roller-coaster political career. If the project had materialized, the Republic might never have been overthrown, and Machiavelli might not have fallen from power and been imprisoned.
Roger Masters's account of the friendship between two of history's greatest geniuses starts with this tale of a magnificent lost dream and spirals outward to the art, politics, intrigue, and sexual scandals of Florence. Leonardo's preoccupation with the Arno project explains many of the tantalizing mysteries of his work. It is the reason for the startling bird's-eye view of the valley in the background of the Mona Lisa; it is part and parcel of both his obsession, in the Notebooks, with understanding the dynamics of water, and his work on canals and swamp drainage in Milan, Rome, and France. As for Machiavelli, were it not for his time spent in prison, he might never have been compelled to write The Prince. "Fortune Is a River" is at once a study of genius and a rich and delightful introduction to the wonders of the Renaissance.