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

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.

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

  1. Ladders at every inter junction tall enough for serial view ,coalescing all the bits ,he could create one aerial map… By taking the measurements of each building on all four sides … Being a genius….why can't he….

  2. Cesare Borgia was supposedly who davinci created the image of Jesus from. ALLEGEDLY. But I find truth in it. Some drawings are before his time. But I believe most photos of Jesus we have are derived from Cesare Borgia

  3. Dude that's what we study in civil engineering 😂😂… 2nd year we have surveying subject. We make maps using chaining, measuring tapes, rods and compass. No digital stuff. So yeah we do follow Leonardo da Vinci's rules 😉😉

  4. In 1500's well we have been using foot distance and rotameter in our current curriculum. Just imagine how ancient it has got.

  5. Just imagine if Leonardo DaVinci lived to even 100 years old. We would be so much more advanced for how smart he was!

  6. Ezio Auditore climbed walls and top of towers to map out cities for Da Vinci and you didn't even credit him!

  7. Leonado Da Vinci's works wasn't authentic? It was stolen from the African Moors after their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. The works of the Moors were ancient technology from Kush and Kemet in Africa.

  8. Most people forget that Leonardo Da Vinci is also a very close and trusted ally of Italy's legendary hero: Ezio Auditore da Firenze

  9. Leonardo da Vinci: advertises himself out as a 'Military Engineer'. Ends up doing great surveying, centuries ahead of his time.

    Joke's on you, Borgia Popes!

  10. That’s so amazing that Leonardo DaVinci could have accurately made a map way back before development of technological feats we use today. I can barely navigate a new town using Waze, and this dude used a compass and his feet to make a true map? I am humbled

  11. So yall dont know how he did it, so you give us probably and most likely as fact. I figured he'd take a hot air balloon up or something

  12. Try to create a miniature version of buildings and street that you see or roam through with clay or small pieces of wood and then place it in the ground to take a hawks eye view and then draw a map with wat u c ………………..!!!!!!!!

  13. I'm more amazed by Da Vinci making a satellite map all those years ago than modern scientists going to space or cloning dogs

  14. "imagine your work is so good that people can't check its accuracy for hundreds of years."

    Haha, my handwriting's got that sorted, bro! 😂😂

  15. My professor at Columbia is adamant that Leonardo’s IQ would likely have exceeded even that of Albert Einstein or Hawking.

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