Leonardo’s Canal Gates

April 23, 2014 / Places
Milan, Lombardia

We’re excited to bring you a note-a-week on Milan given that this beautiful city is the setting of our recently published gastronomic murder mystery, The Revenge of the Milanese Butcher! The notes coming your way over the next few weeks are all related to the book in one way or another. We hope you enjoy them!

Milan was once filled with canals. Much like tollways nowadays used for travel and trade, the navigli (canals) were used to ship rice to the outer territories and marble from the lake quarries into the city centre; they were of the utmost importance to Milan as early as the 12th century. Canals were its lifeline, and linked the city to everywhere else. 150 kilometers of canals, 8300 boats and 350,000 tonnes of merchandise transported a year made landlocked Milan the 13th largest and busiest port in Italy as recently as the 19th century.


Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan from 1479 to 1508, was wise enough to invite Leonardo da Vinci to be the State’s war, arms, and engineering consultant for 20 years. An interesting aside, da Vinci’s letter of introduction promised that he could create original and unbeatable war machines for both land and sea, and only later in his letter does he mention that he is also an artist.

While Milan’s canal system existed as early as the 12th century, da Vinci took it upon himself to improve its locks, which at the time were of the older ‘portcullis’ or ‘blade’ type that required two men and enormous amounts of effort to operate (lifting them vertically, thus working against powerful horizontal water pressure).

Ever the inventor, da Vinci came up with the miter gate, which simply and brilliantly works with instead of against the natural pressure of the water, so that only one person is needed to easily swing the doors open or closed. Da Vinci’s invention (two doors that meet at a 45 deg angle, pointing upstream, with a smaller gated culvert for flow) is still in use today; all the massive locks on the Panama and Suez canals, for example, are miter locks.


The image below is of the lock on the Naviglio Pavese, parallel to Via Ascanio Sforza opposite the corner from Via Conchetta. The lock, and its da Vinci gates, is visible on the left in each photo, just above the water line.

Remember… navigli and more in the gastronomic murder mystery The Revenge of the Milanese Butcher, our first published book, available on Amazon.

Leonardo Da Vinci lock in Milan


by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

12 Responses to “Leonardo’s Canal Gates”

  1. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    brillante, so many things we owe to da Vinci and now to you for enlightening us,Thank you

  2. Joan Schmelzle

    Enjoyed the column and love Milan. Someday I will read the mystery. Right now I have just started a delightful book (for an Italy lover and former English teacher anyway) called “The Shakespeare Guide to Italy Retracing the Bards Unknown Travels.” The writer over many trips sets out to prove that whoever wrote the plays had traveled in Italy. I am convinced after only one and a half chapters.
    How does this tie in? The second chapter, Two Gentlemen of Verona Part 1, explains how they traveled by river and canal and the writer had to know how to do this. How does this tie in to your note? They arrive in Milan and the illustration in the chapter is either very like or the very same one as you have used at the top of this note. As always I so enjoy Italian Notebook! Thanks

  3. Anstell Ricossa

    Another vision of Leonardo’s brilliance….Wish his “miter lock” had been part of the information received on our Panama Canal visit !….. Mille grazie .

  4. Jack Litewka

    I liked the factual information in the article. I do *not* like that I have been made a captive audience for repeated ads for a book. (I would not mind a link to a 1-page press release that allows me to decide whether I’m interested in the book. I do mind being spammed with repeated, self-serving ads.

  5. Mairin O'Mahony

    Joan Schmelzle, Happy Shakespeare’s Birthday! Who is the author of the book on the Bard’s travels? I’d love to read it. Thank you.

    • Joan Schmelzle

      Hi Mairin,
      The author of the Shakespeare book is Richard Paul Roe. I bought it either on Amazon or Barnes and Noble website. Publishing date is 2011.

      • Mairin O'Mahony

        Thank you, Joan! I’ll order it from my favorite bookstore (The Green Arcade in San Francisco…a truly fab place.

  6. Murray Matheson

    Please note: The Suez Canal is a sea level canal and has no locks at all!


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