There are several localities that stake a claim to Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance man and unconventional polymath, and although he found his mastery in the Milanese court and spent his final days in the Loire Valley, his homeland of Tuscany left an indelible imprint on his life and work. Da Vinci died 500 years ago on May 2nd and yet his artistic legacy lives on, no more so than in Tuscany – the region where he spent his childhood and early adult years.
Leonardo was born the illegitimate son of a Florentine notary and a peasant woman in the Tuscan hills of Anchiano, overlooking the little hilltop town of Vinci. His farmhouse still stands today as a basic museum that chronicles his life, but outside the house, it is the vistas that tell us more about the man who was as much a scientist as he was an engineer and an artist.
Looking around, it is easy to spot the scenery that forms the backgrounds of paintings such as The Annunciation and Virgin of the Rocks (as seen in the Louvre); I watch how the light hits and colours the trees; and I’m mesmorised by how each blue hill takes on its own hue based on its distance from the foreground. “That which you want to make five times more distant, make it five times bluer,” da Vinci once wrote.
With the sleepy beauty of its rolling hills, stately columns of cypress and chestnut trees, and dramatic rock quarries, the surrounding area of Montalbano is conspicuously remote. “It’s bellissima, but you see why Leonardo went to Florence,” my guide Elisabetta says wryly.
In nearby Florence, traces of Leonardo’s mastery can be seen on almost every corner—literally. Known as “Il Florentino” (the Florentine) during his lifetime, da Vinci had a hand in engineering the placement of the golden orb atop of the Duomo while he was a young apprentice at Verrocchio’s workshop, and you can still marvel at the imagination behind his larger-than-life fresco, The Battle of Anghiari in the Palazzo Vecchio. There is also a temporary exhibition featuring pages from his notebooks running through June 2019 at the Palazzo Vecchio.
Fan or not of the Il Florentino, no trip to Florence should go without a stop at the Uffizi gallery. Room 15 houses several of Leonardo’s major works including one of his earliest paintings of The Annunciation where we see da Vinci experimenting with the concept of anamorphosis: look at the painting from straight on, and Mary’s arm looks crooked, her body out of proportion (is that a third knee?), but stand to the right of it—as the original viewers would have first approached it based on its intended position in a church—and suddenly Mary makes sense.
In the unfinished The Adoration of the Magi, we see the beginnings of what will be become one of da Vinci’s trademark: sfumato, meaning smoke, was pioneered by da Vinci, inspired by his studies of optics. In the finished areas, there are no harsh lines or borders between the subjects and the backgrounds; it is misty, smoky. This is why he favored oils in lieu of tempera: oil was easier to blend and in some of his works (like the Ginevra de’ Benci), you can even still find traces of his fingerprints left in the oil paint. Another note on The Adoration of the Magi: look at the lower right-hand corner. That boy with the golden crown of curls? It’s a self-portrait.
Later in life, da Vinci tested his flying machines on the slopes of Monte Ceceri (named for the swans that flocked there), near Fiesole, Tuscany, where you can still trek today. (Follow the red-and-white marked hiking trail.) “The large bird will take its first flight from the back of the great Swan,” Da Vinci wrote, “…bringing eternal glory to the nest where it was born.” The same could be said of da Vinci: his Tuscan roots may have informed his work but it is da Vinci who has helped make Tuscany iconic.
Plan a trip
Tuscany Now & More (www.tuscanynowandmore.com, 020 7684 8884) features a range of properties across Tuscany and Italy as a whole and can provide private chefs, excursions, and other services upon request including the Leonardo da Vinci tour. I Giullari on the outskirts of Florence makes an ideal Tuscan base (from £3,062 for a week, sleeping up to 18).