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Leonardo devotees flock to artist’s hometown of Vinci

A four-building museum in his hometown of Vinci pays homage to the multitalented Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo's wings are visible in the window of Castello dei Conti Guidi, the 12th-century fortress that now forms part of the Museo Leonardiano.

VICKI HALLETT/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By VICKY HALLETT | Special to The Washington Post | Published: May 24, 2019

There are no more maps available. But it’s not a problem, says the woman at the front desk of our hotel. She takes out a piece of paper and rapidly sketches the almond-shaped town — just a couple of curved streets around the castle walls, with an “X” at the church and a dot at the museum ticket office.

“I’m a descendant of Leonardo,” she jokes as she hands it over.

That’s probably not the first time someone has used that line in Vinci, Italy, a hamlet perched among the Montalbano Hills known for producing Chianti, artichoke-scented olive oil and a certain genius who was born here in 1452. Although he moved to nearby Florence as a teenager, Leonardo da Vinci spent his formative years in this slice of countryside, and he remains very much a presence.

The room that my husband, daughter and I booked for the night is in the Hotel Monna Lisa, which displays posters of Leonardo’s masterpieces along the staircase. Don’t confuse it with the nearby Pizzeria la Monnalisa, where slices of margherita are served beneath a copy of “The Last Supper.” Just across the street from there, in the middle of Piazza della Liberta, stands “The Horse” — an homage to his never-completed project to create the world’s largest bronze equestrian statue. Oh, and that black cat we noticed sneaking into a cafe? A local told us his name is Leonardo, too.

Vinci has long been a place of pilgrimage for Leonardo devotees — tourists have been showing up since at least the mid-1800s, and its Biblioteca Leonardiana is an international research center for scholars. The town is getting extra attention this year, which marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death.

Museums everywhere are mounting major exhibitions, most notably the Louvre, which is trying to bring together as many of Leonardo’s existing paintings as possible this fall in Paris. (The museum boasts so many of his works because he died in Amboise, France, where he’d been hanging out with King Francis I.) London is also getting in on the Leonardo action: Between May and October, the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace, which is a public art gallery, will showcase more than 200 of his drawings.

And because Leonardo’s artistic career was born in Florence, where he trained among other Renaissance legends and established himself as man of talents (and eccentricities), the Tuscan capital offers visitors several Leonardo-themed shows.

But the place to experience true Leonardo mania is Vinci, which is hosting a nonstop slate of exhibits, films, lectures, concerts, walking tours and more.

My family’s visit in early March, for example, coincided with an amateur bike race called the Giro Vitruviano (yep, that’s a Vitruvian Man reference). Rather than join the spandex-clad competitors riding into town, we found a lazier form of transportation. From Florence, you can take a 30-minute regional train ride to Empoli, then hop on the No. 49 bus, which heads right into the heart of Vinci.

About halfway along the 25-minute route, dotted with signs trumpeting that this territory is “alle origini del genio” (at the origins of genius), I have one extra stop planned: Cantine Leonardo, a wine cooperative named for you know who.

Hulking steel tanks sit beside an inviting enoteca, where tables and shelves display local products, including saffron linguine, artisanal biscotti and, of course, vino — much of it from two product lines: “Leonardo” and the more refined “Da Vinci.”

The area’s most famous native son provides some obvious inspiration. “He was a winemaker who knew the power of our grape, our sangiovese, to produce wine,” explains Francesco Baffini, the shop sommelier, as he guides my husband and me through a quick tasting.

Then he leads us through a gate, behind the tanks, and into a farm. Off to the right are vineyards that stretch through the hills as far as we can see. And they continue beyond that, says Francesco, who notes that in the next valley over, they grow vermentino, a white varietal that’s normally found by the sea.

After one last lingering look, we grab the next bus, which deposits us at a stop by the Vinci tourist info office. From there, it’s about a five-minute walk to just about anywhere in town, including the Hotel Monna Lisa, where we get our handmade map and head on over to the Museo Leonardiano.

Vinci’s top attraction was dreamed up 100 years ago, back when the world was observing the 400th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. Over the course of the next few decades, his drawings were used to build reconstructions of many of his machines, and these formed the basis for the museum, which was inaugurated in 1953 — exactly one year after the 500th anniversary of his birth on April 15, 1452.

The collection has expanded to fill four buildings. The best place to start is the ticket office, in Palazzina Uzielli, right off Piazza dei Guidi. Modern artist Mimmo Paladino has transformed the square into a playful, uneven landscape, made of sloped slabs of concrete that are engraved with numbers and decorated with shiny silver mosaic images of faces, hands, boxes, cones and arrows. Our daughter is smitten, but my husband and I manage to drag her into the museum, which helpfully sells a game-filled booklet ($2.50) for families. (You can also borrow a copy of the English “mini-guide” that offers translations of the Italian descriptions throughout the museum.)

The exhibit starts with an explanation of how young Leonardo got hooked on engineering. His arrival in Florence was not long after Filippo Brunelleschi had completed his extraordinary dome on the city’s cathedral, a marvel of architecture that required the invention of completely new building equipment. Leonardo was soon apprenticed to artist Andrea del Verrocchio, who created the lantern that went on top of the dome. Watching impossibly heavy loads being lifted into the sky led Leonardo to want to experiment with machines of his own.

Upstairs is all about anatomy, which Leonardo studied both through observation and dissection. A selection of his detailed drawings of body parts has been brought to life through sculptures seemingly made of muscle and bone. I worry it’s a bit creepy, but our unfazed kid quickly bonds with a poster of the Vitruvian Man, with his ideal proportions and extra limbs.

And with that, we’re ready to storm the castle. The exhibition continues down the street, up a flight of stairs and inside the Castello dei Conti Guidi, a fortress built in the 12th century that’s now the headquarters of the Museo Leonardiano. We’re immediately bombarded by several war machines, including a tank that fires cannons in every direction, a ladder for scaling city walls and an easy-to-assemble bridge, designed to flee from an enemy. Then we walk beneath a gigantic pair of wings to learn about Leonardo’s obsession with flight (and water and motion and various other ideas).

On the next floor up, we examine several of Leonardo’s most curious inventions. There’s a diver’s breathing apparatus — think freaky scuba suit — that wouldn’t be usable in deep water. There’s a self-propelled cart that people once thought of as Leonardo’s automobile — until researchers realized it was a stage prop for a play. There’s also a wooden bicycle based on a drawing discovered among Leonardo’s notebooks. But everyone now agrees it was a hoax, and that the real inventor was a German guy in the 1800s.

Another flight of stairs takes visitors to the tower’s summit, where there’s a panoramic terrace. Unfortunately, we’re met by this sign: “Open from 1 April to 31 October.”

The view is not the only thing we miss during our visit. Just beside the castle is Piazza Guido Masi, which is normally dominated by a statue of the Vitruvian Man. But he’s not there! (At the tourist info office, a woman explains he’s getting cleaned up to prep for upcoming Vinci excitement.) Even without him, it’s a lovely place to sit and admire the view of the countryside — or, in the opposite direction, the bell tower atop Chiesa di Santa Croce.

A red brick facade and stained-glass windows also beckon us to this church, which dates back nearly 1,000 years. The building we see today was substantially renovated just before the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s birth, which makes sense. Its most prized possession is the stone font where he was baptized. It’s next to a tablet quoting his grandfather’s announcement of his arrival at the third hour (about 10:30 p.m.) of night. Modern metal sculptures circle the font depicting biblical scenes, including, of course, the Last Supper.

It’s a reminder that we should eat and get to bed, so we’re ready for more Leonardo in the morning.

 

We start the next day by popping into “Leonardo with Hollar’s Eyes,” the first show at the new Fondazione Rossana e Carlo Pedretti exhibition center. The 17th-century engravings by Wenceslaus Hollar — displayed in grand, gorgeous rooms — masterfully reproduce Leonardo’s drawings of heads, some with youthful, delicate features and others with grotesque, toothless faces. Things get sillier in the activity wing, where we pose for a digital camera that takes purposely distorted photos and practice Leonardo’s famous mirror writing technique. (The left-handed genius probably jotted down his notes backward because he didn’t want to smear the ink.)

 

There’s one other attraction in Vinci: Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci. After a decadelong closure, it reopened May 2 with a new exhibit, “Leonardo Lives,” highlighting archival research and his continued influence on the art world. But its doors are shuttered as we walk past, heading north of the castle. To explore the last two parts of Museo Leonardiano, we need to take the road out of town.

The left side is for cars, while up the hill to the right is the Strada Verde, or green path, which quickly turns from asphalt to gravel. Within minutes, we’re wandering through an olive tree forest carpeted in wildflowers, alone except for the occasional mountain biker. The path divides at several points, and although we had been told to follow the “14” signs, one wrong turn takes us on a scenic 20-minute detour. We’re also briefly waylaid by the discovery of a swing set. So what probably should be a half-hour hike stretches throughout the morning.

 

Eventually, however, we reconnect with the road and arrive in the tiny suburb of Anchiano — at the same time as a tour group. We’re all crowded here on a stone patio because it’s in front of the house where Leonardo was born, the illegitimate son of Ser Piero, a notary, and a woman named Caterina.

Inside, a video starring a hologram of Leonardo repeats the story of his life on loop, alternating between English and Italian. It’s an elderly version of him, with a bald head, a flowing beard and a billowy outfit, and he seems a bit morose, especially when recounting his final years. It makes me wish he could watch the video playing in the next room, with footage of the 500th-birthday celebrations back in 1952.

All that’s left of Museo Leonardiano is the nearby farmhouse Villa il Ferrale, which houses an exhibit on Leonardo’s painting. Nothing is original, just high-definition life-size copies, each paired with a write-up on what made him such a master of technique. There’s the natural-looking hand stroking the pet in the Lady with an Ermine, the sfumato on display in the Mona Lisa, the understanding of perspective that led him to alter “Annunciation” based on its placement in a church.

Even a 4-year-old understands that this guy is good. As we stroll back into town, we ask our daughter what she thinks about everything we’ve seen. She declares, “I’m going to be more creative than Leonardo.” It could happen. After all, they both spent part of their childhoods in Vinci.

At the Villa il Ferrale, the author's daughter tests out the theory that the Mona Lisa's eyes follow you wherever you go.
VICKI HALLETT/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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