Leonardo: the genius in Milan
  • Europe /
  • Italy /
  • Milan

A unique tour for a special person. Explore Milan through the eyes of Leonardo da Vinci.

Water dams
Ancient map of Milan with the whole network of water channels (http://www.navigli24.it)
Ancient map of Milan with its appearance in 1574 CE
Conca dell'Incoronata - water lock (Ugo Diamante, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Heritage place of interest.
A section in Corso Italia, of the inner circle of the navigli in the 19th century CE

Ancient map of Milan with the whole network of water channels (http://www.navigli24.it)

During Renaissance, Milan had a much different look. We can imagine a smaller yet fascinating town, characterised by many water passages that run to the city’s centre. In addition, the entire citadel was surrounded by imposing defensive walls, giving it a powerful connotation.

The first evidence of Leonardo’s hand in Milan leads us to the so-called “Conca dell’Incoronata”, an ancient navigation lock. 

The name takes its origin from the nearby “Church of Santa Maria Incoronata”, which is only a few steps away from here. 

The first studies on the subject were carried out as early as 1482 CE by Leonardo Da Vinci during his first stay in Milan, although the construction remained uncompleted until 1496 CE. Evidence of his work is some design sketches in the Codex Atlanticus that we will further explore later.

At this point, the waters of the “Martesana” canal and those of the Milanese “Navigli” merged, forming a channel intersection. The former is a water canal that connects the Adda River to Milan, and during Leonardo’s times, it allowed river access to the city channels, the Navigli. 

The history of the Martesana began in 1443 CE. Under the rule of the first ancient noble Milanese family, the “Visconti”, the medieval town started to develop into a renaissance centre. This period witnessed new developments and changes, including the construction of a new canal to collect water from the nearby Adda River, located east of the city, and help irrigate Milan’s crops. However, with the ensuing power transfer, Milan came under the rule of another powerful Milanese family, the notorious “Sforza”. As a result, the city underwent even more urban growth, and the Martesana was widened and made navigable in 1471 CE.

This water route, running towards the city centre, was traversed by merchants and barges, allowing people and goods to reach Milan, and promoting commercial trade. 

However, due to the different natural gradients of the Navigli and Martesana waterways, this passage was difficult for boats, often necessitating lifting manoeuvres. 

The one who solved this problem was Leonardo. Using a new system, he devised a strategy to facilitate boat access from one channel to the other, breaking down the difference in water height. The solution was a central water pool limited by two locks, which allowed boats to continue their course without further complications. 

This system is still used worldwide, and although concrete evidence is lacking, many attribute its invention to Leonardo.

This passage played a central role for the ancient town, as it was the first gateway for barges and other merchant vessels directed in the citadel. Guarded by guards and officials of the Duchy of Milan, those who reached this point had to pay a duty called “gabella”, giving it the nickname “Ponte Delle Gabelle” (Gabelle Bridge). 

After paying this tax, travellers could proceed toward the city and navigate the moats of the medieval walls. Curiously, these were used until the early twentieth century as waterways and represented a unique feature of Milanese urban planning for a long time. 

Later on, with the silting up of the entire circle between 1929 and 1930 CE, the Conca dell’Incoronata was left isolated and, without water, lost its function. However, the water channel from the Renaissance period and the system of locks that were formed by the original gates are still visible today, providing a nice contrast to the busy adjacent street.

It is fascinating to see such construction, as it is a beautiful example of Leonardo’s work in Milan, where he probably personally conducted inspections and site controls.

Let us now follow part of Via San Marco, which concurred with one of the routes boats took to reach the city centre, namely Naviglio San Marco.


1. Water dams

2. The statue

3. Leonardo’s museum

4. The symbol of Milan

5. Experiments

6. The castle

7. Santa Maria Delle Grazie

8. The masterpiece

9. Leonardo’s vineyard

10. The art gallery

11. A creativity that will last forever