Leonardo is probably the most universal genius of all time. Variously described as a painter, sculptor, writer, architect, town planner, scientist, cartographer, engineer, philosopher, aeronaut, inventor, anatomist, botanist, musician and geologist – his achievements in any single field would have left his mark in history. For his time through the Renaissance, Leonardo was widely travelled, taking various roles for a number of military, regal and religious leaders of the day. Leonardo is my invited guest to the well-known but pointless query about who I’d most like to share a dinner with.
This series of articles explores Leonardo’s travels starting with his birthplace in the small Tuscan hillside village of Vinci (hence his surname). Born illegitimate to a father who married four times, Leonardo’s ordinary and unprivileged early life is fairly undocumented. Today the small town of Vinci dines out on their famous son, nearly every element of the town carries his name.
Built around the so-called Ship Castle due to its elongated shape, the long narrow town is surrounded by rolling hills, covered in the trademark Tuscan vineyards and olive groves. Tasty wines and olive oils compete for space with Leonardo memorabilia and knick-knacks in the numerous small shops. Vinci feels lost in time – Leonardo may well still feel at home in the narrow streets and stone houses of the tiny town.
Independent of Leonardo, the castle tells a fine story of a Vinci military leader who was arrested for treason and sentenced to death by being thrown from the castle. In the spirit of the day, prisoners who survived their death were pardoned as it was seen as God’s way to rescue wrongly charged folks. Imbued with a glass of the local wine, the man survived his death by miraculously gliding – the town also recording record harvests that year. To this day, this event is celebrated in the town.
The Leonardo Museum boasts quite a number of models taken from his detailed but cryptic notes revealing the breadth and depth of thinking of this extraordinary individual. A car, double-hulled ship and a skin-diving suit (with breathing tube) shares space with innovative war machinery, bridges, gliders, a crane and a weaving machine. Each model is captioned with the relevant page from his notes showing the detailed sketch from which the modern models are constructed. For further detail, the neighbouring library (Biblioteca Leonardiana) contains copies of all his written works, though no originals.
The font likely to have been used to baptise Leonardo remains in the Church of Santa Croce, while a fine horse statue graces the centre of Piazza della Liberta at the other end of the village.
However, the best way to enjoy Vinci is to escape the visitor bustle and undertake a pleasant hour-long stroll to his underwhelming but humble honey brick birth house in Anchiano via a fine hiking trail. Under shaded trees and near farmyards to the sounds of twittering birds and alongside a peaceful stream, maybe Leonardo’s later ideas and inventions were formulated and stimulated along this very path. The views back on Vinci alone make the walk worthwhile.
At fourteen, Leonardo moved to Florence…