Leonardo was born in Vinci on April 15, 1452. An illegitimate child, he was however recognised by his father Ser Piero and welcomed into his home, where his grandfather Antonio was the head of the family. His mother, Caterina, later married a baker known as Achattabriga and moved to her husband's home at Campo Zeppi di San Pantaleo.
During his childhood spent at Vinci, Leonardo could apply himself to observing nature directly and acquiring some knowledge of art. Even after the age of 20, Leonardo frequently returned to his hometown, as proven by some important documents. Noteworthy among them is the drawing of the "Landscape of Valdinievole and Padule di Fucecchio seen from Montalbano" on which is noted in his handwriting («day of Saint Mary of the Snow / August 5, 1473») which, along with the very precise description of the landscape, seems proof of a drawing from nature and thus the presence of the artist at Vinci on that date.
Another document, dated May 3, 1478, records instead the lifetime leasing of the mill in the Commune of Vinci to his uncle Francesco d’Antonio and his father Ser Piero. Considering that this deed drawn up in Vinci explicitly mentions Leonardo as the beneficiary of the lease, it seems probable that he was present when the contract was drawn up.
In the years around 1500, in a note in the "Memorandum Ligny" Leonardo writes to leave «a blanket at Vinci» on his voyage to Rome and Naples. We cannot say if this was only a wish that never came true, also considering that numerous doubts exist as to whether he actually took this trip or not, or whether the note constitutes proof of another stay in Vinci.
A number of confirmations, such as the precise reference to the Doccia Mill, the projects for deviating the Arno and for the lake of San Lorenzo, and the quarrel with his brothers over his uncle's heredity bear witness to further visits to his hometown between 1503 and 1508.
In the early years of the 16th century, Leonardo represented, in stenographic sketches on map RLW 12685, the places he deemed most significant in his hometown: the castle of Vinci, with its tower, its keep, the church and almond-shaped walls, his father's house in the town (the latter barely indicated) and the Pieve of "Sant’Ansano" (or San Giovanni Battista in Greti). Among the localities in the immediate vicinity, he indicated the stronghold of Vitolini as well as the village and fortifications of Collegonzi near which, around the Spicchio "cut" on the Arno, he used to search for "nichi", fossilised seashells.
At the boundaries of the Commune of Vinci, along the ridge of Montalbano, are indicated the localities of Sant’Alluccio (the Hospital with its tower, in the Commune of Tizzana in Leonardo's day, now of Quarrata) and San Giusto (the abbey with bell tower, on the slopes of Pietramarina, in the territory of Carmignano).
There is no documentary proof that any of Leonard's works remained at Vinci after his death. Some of them have occasionally returned for temporary exhibitions, such as those held by the Museo Leonardiano and the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci; the latter has recently acquired several works by Leonardo's followers, and displays the "Vincian knots".
Baptistery of the Church of Santa Croce
The church of Santa Croce, mentioned in documents dating from at least the year 1132, was originally a simple structure of Romanesque architecture to which was added a portico with Tuscan columns. In honour of Leonardo, at the IV centennial of his birth (1852), it was decided to build the bell tower we see today. In the 1920s, restoration of the entire building in neo-Renaissance style was begun, to the project of Giuseppe Gullino. In 1952 the Oratory of the Compagnia del Corpus Domini was transformed into a baptistery according to the refined project of Giulio Arata, who re-interpreted the old in a sort of rationalist and metaphysical purism.
As proven by an important memorandum written by his grandfather, found in 1931 and published only in 1939, Leonardo was baptized at the font of this church, and not in the baptistery of the Pieve di San Giovanni Battista at Sant’Ansano in Greti, customarily used by the local population in the 15th century. Commemorating this event in today's Baptistery of the Church of Santa Croce is a stone tablet bearing the words of Leonardo's grandfather Ser Antonio da Vinci. In this crucially important document are listed the names of the priest («priest Piero di Bartolomeo da Vinci ») and of no less than 5 godfathers and 5 godmothers, all of whom lived in Vinci, in the vicinity of Leonardo's father's home.
Among the paintings in the church, old tradition attributed to Leonardo a large canvas called the Nativity of the Virgin, which instead has been found to date from 1562 and to be the work of the Mannerist painter Francesco Brina or his circle.
In the Oratory of the Santissima Annunziata as well, located just outside the ancient village of Vinci, tradition attributed to Leonardo the large altarpiece of the Annunciation, which is instead by Fra Paolino da Pistoia, a follower of Fra Bartolomeo.
Biblioteca Leonardiana [Leonardian Library]
One of the most internationally renowned centres for the study of Leonardo and his work is the Biblioteca Leonardiana of Vinci, a venerable institution founded in 1928. Along with encounters held on a regular basis, such as the Vincian Readings, the Library organizes symposiums on subjects linked to Leonardo. Since 1939 the library had occupied premises in the Castle of the Guidi Counts, and only since 1983 has it been moved to Via La Pira. Dedicated to collecting studies on the work of Leonardo da Vinci, the library possesses over 7,000 monograms written in various languages.
Campo Zeppi at San Pantaleo
In the same year that Leonardo was welcomed into the home of his father Ser Piero, the latter married a girl from Florence named Albiera Amadori. His mother Caterina, instead, married a certain «Antonio di Piero di Andrea di Giovanni Buti del Vaccha», known as Achattabriga, «fornaciaio» [worker in the kilns] and farmer. After the wedding Caterina moved with her husband to Campo Zeppi, a locality still existing today, a little over two kilometers from the Da Vinci home. The parish to which it belonged was that of San Pantaleone at San Pantaleo, a little long-forgotten church less than two kilometers from the town of Vinci, near the Vincio torrent.
To Caterina and Achattabriga were born five children, the first of whom, Piera, was born after barely a year of marriage. On his father's side instead, Leonardo had sixteen half-brothers born of three different marriages.
The origins of Caterina are still uncertain. According to legend, she was a peasant girl or tavern servant, while it has been very recently suggested that she may have been an Oriental slave. In favour of this hypothesis is the fact that Leonardo's fingerprints show a conformation typical of populations of Semitic origin. The results of this study, conducted in collaboration with Prof. Capasso, Director of the Institute and Museum of Biomedical Sciences in Chieti, were anticipated in the catalogue of the exhibition Leonardo. Myth and truth from 2006, and have been presented in detail to the scholars in a publication titled La madre di Leonardo era una schiava? Ipotesi di studio di Renzo Cianchi, [Was Leonardo's mother a slave? Hypothesis for study by Renzo Cianchi] published in early 2008.
From Leonardo's manuscripts, it seems that in 1493 Caterina joined her son in Milan, remaining with him until her death.
The Da Vinci house and other property owned by Leonardo's family
The home of the Da Vinci family was located, according to archival documents, opposite the Loggia del Comune (today's Piazzetta Guazzesi), at the head of the "lastrico" (paved road) coinciding with today's Via Roma. It was undoubtedly here that Leonardo spent the greater part of his early years. Already in 1433 his grandfather Antonio had described it as: «A house in which I live situated in the village of Vinci with a little vegetable garden.»
In the Land Office Registry we find two descriptions of this building. The first, dating from 1451 and thus only a few years before the birth of Leonardo, records, «A house in which I live, situated in the village of Vinci, with a vegetable garden for the use of said house […].» A few years later, in 1457, the situation appears not to have changed, as can be deduced from the description that speaks of «A house in which I live, located in the quarter of Sancta Croce, Commune of Vinci, territory of Florence, in the village of said castle, with a vegetable garden adjoined to the house, yielding 3 staiora or thereabouts […].»
In 1457 Leonardo's grandfather Antonio, in listing the "mouths" of his family, mentioned his grandson in these terms, «Lionardo, son of the said Ser Piero, not legitimate, born of him and of Caterina, who is now the woman of Achattabriga di Piero del Vaccha da Vinci, since five years.»
In the Land Office report of 1469, Ser Piero and Francesco, Leonardo's uncle, declare the purchase, in 1468, of another house in the village, near the one that had been inhabited by the Da Vinci family since 1433.
In the Land Office report of 1498, while Leonardo was in Milan, his father Ser Piero, a notary in Florence, described the house he shared with his brother: «A house with flooring and roof and with a little garden, which I keep for my use and habitation, because in Vinci I have no other house in which to live, located in the Sancta Croce quarter, Commune of Vinci, territory of Florence [...]».
In later years, as shown by the coat of arms on the façade, the house became the property of the Corsi family, from whom the renowned filmmaker Franco Corsi, known as Zeffirelli, descends.
Based on the documents in the Florence State Archives, between 1451 and 1457 Leonardo's paternal family also owned at Costareccia (in the Popolo di Santa Maria al Pruno, in the parish of Orbignano di Lamporecchio but in the Commune of Vinci) a house for agricultural use, with a plot of farmland worked by a peasant called Rinaldo.
Based on the archival documents, it has also been possible to trace how the number of properties owned by Ser Piero, Leonardo's father, increased with the passage of time. To the property mentioned up to now was added, in fact, farms and a kiln situated in the Communes of Vinci ("Popoli" of Santa Croce, Santa Lucia a Paterno, Santa Maria a Faltognano, San Lorenzo in Arniano, San Bartolomeo a Streda, San Pantaleo and also at Orbignano), Cerreto Guidi (in the San Zio locality) and Carmignano (at Toia di Bacchereto). Some of these houses were inhabited later by Leonardo's brothers and their descendants. Moreover Giovanni, Leonardo's brother, owned a tavern and butcher's shop in proximity to the Ciofi cleft and the millstream of the Communal Mill, at the end of today's Via Montalbano. His uncle Francesco left Leonardo heir to his property, including the farms of Colombaia and Broto and the lands at Croce di Orbignano.
The house at Anchiano
About 3 kilometers from Vinci, set in a charming landscape, is a house indicated, but with no historical proof, as the birthplace of Leonardo. Two successive restoration initiatives dating from the second half of the 20th century have returned the house to its original aspect, that of a fifteenth-century rural home on whose wall is a coat of arms long deemed to be that of the Da Vinci family. Inside the house is an exhibition of the educational type on Leonardo and his relations with the territory of Vinci.
Leonardo represents and indicates Collegonzi on map RLW 12685, while in the Codex Leicester he recalls how, in its surroundings, due to the effect of the Arno flowing through it, he had found numerous fossilized seashells, which he called "nichi": «[…] further on the mud in which the "nichi" lived was deposited, which, rising higher by degrees, depending on whether the turbid floodwaters of the Arno flowed into that sea and from time to time raised the seabed, which by degrees produces said "nichi", as shown by the cut of Colle Gonzoli, broken off by the river Arno, which consumes its foot: in which cut can be clearly seen the aforesaid degrees of "nichi" in a bluish mud, and various other marine things are found there. »
Numerous "nichi" were found at the place that in the 20th century was to become the Spicchio clay quarry, utilized up to a few decades ago as a brick factory. In spite of the existence of a project for inserting this area in an outdoor nature museum, the quarry has recently become the site of a building project.
Collegonzi was an ancient stronghold with a Romanesque church and its own Statues. At a later age its territory was to be occupied by vast Medicean estates. Today Collegonzi is found in the Commune of Vinci, in the vicinity of Spicchio, the ancient "Pagnanamina", a place of transit on the right bank of the Arno, connected to Empoli (Emporium) on the opposite bank by boats and ferries.
The "Garden of Leonardo and of Utopia" is an outdoor section of the Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci (and future theme park of the "Art-nature-science centre for Leonardo's Tuscany").
In 1997 the garden was inaugurated experimentally on the Via Collinare, in the countryside not far from the historic centre of Vinci. Realisation of the project, dedicated to botany and to the marvelous inventions of Leonardo, began with the "Vinci Labyrinth", with 1500 purple willow trees, in the past called "vincus, vinci", which have given their name to Leonardo's hometown and his family and which are used here to reconstruct one of his projects over a surface area of 3,000 m 2 . The "Path of trees and flowers" was created instead to the project of Bruno Munari. Through over 80 carefully arranged plants, it reproduces the Leonardesque spiral, beginning with the laurel tree of President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and continuing up to the pomegranate of President Napolitano. As conclusion, the "Infinite knot" extends for a length of over 600 meters, with rows formed of 1,200 roses planted to form a Leonardian interwoven pattern.
The equestrian monument
Since 2001, a bronze equestrian monument has stood in Piazza della Libertà, the work of the Japanese sculptress Nina Akamu, inspired by Leonardo's drawings of horses. It forms part of an international project for honouring the genius of Leonardo by reconstructing the colossal Sforza horse. This monument is one of the symbolic versions produced by "Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse, Inc." (Allentown, Pennsylvania - USA), which has also donated a similar work to Milan, now found at the San Siro racetrack. Other monuments financed by this project are found in the "Frederik Maijer" Gardens (Grand Rapids, Michigan) and the Baum School of Art (Allentown, Pennsylvania).
The Doccia Mill and the Communal Mill
On folio 776v of the Codex Atlanticus, datable to around 1503, Leonardo recalls the «mill of Doccia at Vinci» in relation to some observations on techniques for grinding the colours used in painting. This mill is situated to the north of the castle, just outside the almond-shaped walls, where the Strada Verde (green road) leading to the House at Anchiano starts.
In Leonardo's day, the Castellano stream flowed down from Doccia, running along the walls up to the Communal Mill, located just opposite the entrance to the Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci. Here there formed the millcourse that was channeled underground around 1825 to create Piazzale della Fiera, from which Via Montalbano starts today.
A contract from 1478, now in the Florence State Archive, shows that the Communal Mill was rented, with the obligation to rebuild it, to Leonardo's father and uncle. Leonardo was granted the right to inherit the benefits even though, as the document specifies, he was a "spurious" son and another heir had already been born to Ser Piero («Etiam post dictum lineam ad vitam Leonardi spurii filii dicti ser Petri, ibidem presentis »).
The remains of this mill, the millcourse in particular, are still visible.
Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci [Leonardo Da Vinci Ideal Museum]
Founded in 1993 through the collaboration of scholars and artist, the Museum was inaugurated under the aegis of the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies of the University of California at Los Angeles. Conceived as a transposition, both concrete and virtual, of the "Imaginary Museum", it was officially recognised as a Museum of Public Interest in 1999.
It is the first museum to attempt to trace the complex personality of Leonardo in each of its manifold aspects and fields of interest. His activity as artist, scientist, inventor and designer is illustrated with continuous reference to his biography and the places frequented by him. This voyage through the mind and the oeuvre of Leonardo has been made possible by an exhibition that includes all of the reproductions of his pictorial masterpieces, facsimiles of his manuscripts and even a sampling of Leonardo's fingerprints. Unique of its kind is the "Leonardism Archive", the largest existing collection of examples and documentation of the use and abuse of Leonardo's image, from art to the mass media.
The collection also contains originals, including some paintings by members of Leonardo's circle, among the Madonna delle Minime, the Magdalene, the Young Christ at the Age of Twelve, and rare instruments in use in Tuscany in Leonardo's day, such as the "Ritrecine of Leonardo" [horizontal waterwheel]. Bearing witness to Leonardo's fame among his contemporaries are some rare engravings, among them two "Knots" dating from 1505-1507 engraved by Dürer to a design of Leonardo. The display is completed by over 60 models skillfully reconstructed on the basis of his projects, some of them really functioning, such as clocks, fountains, the "painter's house", the theatre of the "Mountain that opens" and other wonders of "Leonardism", including memorabilia and two autograph works by Duchamp.
Recently rearranged, the museum occupies the underground Gallery and the Ancient Wine Cellar of the Castle of the Guidi Counts, whose entrance is at Via Montalbano 2.
Now in the implementation stage is the project "Garden of Leonardo and of Utopia", planned as an outdoor section of the Museum situated in Via Collinare, a few hundred meters from the historic centre of Vinci.
Museo Leonardiano [Leonardian Museum]
On the occasion of the IV centennial of the death of Leonardo (1919) the idea arose of consecrating to the Vincian genius a museum that would illustrate his work in his native town. Chosen as site of the exhibition was the Castle of the Guidi Counts, donated to the Commune by Count Giulio Masetti da Bagnano. Before the museum opened its doors, however, time passed, because it was inaugurated, after radical restoration that lasted from 1939 to 1942, only in 1952, on the occasion of the V centennial of Leonardo's birth. At this time the exhibition consisted of a number of machines inspired by Leonardo's drawings. In the 1980s the Leonardian Library, housed until then in the Castle, was moved to its present seat, while the museum, in an initiative that was avant-garde for the time, added to the display models made by IBM Italia and presented in a traveling exhibition called "Workshop on Leonardo" before being definitively placed in Vinci. The exhibition proper occupies two different locations: the above-mentioned Castle of the Guidi Counts, whose Sala del Podestà contains a fine Della Robbia Madonna, and Palazzina Uzielli, overlooking Piazza Guidi, where an installation by the artist Mimmo Paladino is found.
It is just from here that the visit commences. In the halls of the Palazzina are displayed textile and construction site machines, whose operation is also illustrated by virtual reconstructions. The exhibition itinerary, designed to exemplify the scientific, theoretical and empirical knowledge of the Renaissance, is well suited to integration with the temporary shows of similar subject held on a regular basis and with the educational workshops conducted here. The halls of the Castle of the Guidi Counts display, instead, models pertinent to the numerous fields of investigation in which Leonardo's tireless spirit of observation was exercised. It is here that visitors can see reconstructions of the futuristic machines designed for flight and for moving water or earth that have so greatly contributed to Leonardo's fame: the "helicopter", the flying machine, the self-propelled cart (or "automobile") and many others. Equally interesting are reproductions of the scientific instruments described by Leonardo in his manuscripts, among them the equalizer, the reflector and the rackwork pinion.
Piazza Guidi rearranged by Mimmo Paladino
The present-day Piazza Guidi, once the vegetable garden and yard of the farm belonging to the Bonifazio Hospital adjacent to the ancient cemetery, contains a sculpture by the artist Mimmo Paladino (no. 1948) placed here in 2006 with the aim of improving the furnishing of Vinci's urban space. This well-known member of the Transavanguardia, who was also responsible for rearranging this corner of the town's historic centre, has created a work whose visual and symbolic focal point is the Leonardesque "star-shaped polyhedron", a subtle metaphor for the relationship between the signs of man and the forms of geometry.
San Lorenzo in Arniano
A little over 1 km from Vinci is San Lorenzo in Arniano, a locality at the centre of a densely populated area whose inhabitants, called the "People of San Lorenzo in Arniano", gathered in a Romanesque church documented since the 12th century, traces of which have been found in the ruins of a country house.
Among Leonardo's papers are three folios (RLW 12675, 12676, Codex Atlanticus, f. 952r) illustrating the project for an artificial lake to be created on land that was partially owned by his father Ser Piero. These papers reveal the rigourous method adopted by Leonardo, based on the detailed, systematic, on-site acquisition of data relevant to the environment and the territory.
The project provided for the construction of a sluice or dam to control the flow of the water. The basin thus created would be equipped to irrigate the fields and used also as reservoir for waterpower. The ancient statutes of the Commune of Vinci mention a "mill" and a spring in the locality of Arniano. The waters of three streams converged in the river of S. Lorenzo and the Lecceto (a name now lost). Upstream of the present-day Ponte di Ripalta, along with the Bonchio river coming from Botraccio di Vinci, the streams flowed into the torrent mentioned by Leonardo as "Streda river" on map RLW 12277.
Sant'Ansano in Greti
Leonardo represents and indicates on map RLW 12685 the locality of "Santosano", the site of the Pieve that held suffraganship over the church of Vinci. This Pieve is sketchily drawn by Leonardo as an isolated building with a bell tower. It is in fact a Romanesque church with three naves, whose apse has collapsed, presumably due to instability of the terrain. The Pieve dates from the 10th century, as shown by documents; the sculptural decorations on the capitals and those of a relief carved in pietra serena are archaic. Originally it may have been named for St. Quiricus, then for St. John the Baptist and lastly for St. Ansano.
In the Pieve is a fourteenth-century panel painting representing St. Ansano and Angels attributed to Puccio di Simone; a sixteenth-century baptismal font traditionally attributed to Baccio da Montelupo and a seventeenth-century masterpiece by Rutilio Manetti.
Sculpture by Mario Ceroli in Piazza Masi
In the area around the Castle, in today's Piazza Guido Masi, there has stood since 1988 a statue in wood by Mario Ceroli (no. 1938). An outstanding, original figure on the Italian art scene since the Pop Art movement, Ceroli interprets and visualizes the image of Leonardo's Homo Vitruvianus, in which "proportion, the soul and rule of beauty, is fixed in nature's masterpiece, the human body, perfectly inscribed in the double geometric figure of the square and the circle".
Leonardo draws the castle of Vitolini with four towers. One still exists today, another (the Mazzinghi) was demolished in 1932, while only traces remain of the other two. Among the castle's gates, one was called "of the sun", another "a bacigno". The church, of Romanesque origin, is named for St. Peter.
Leonardo's sketch is – as always on these papers – stenographic. The amygdaloidal shape of the village is not in fact rendered with the detailed precision found in the cartography of 1583.
Vitolini, an outlying part of Vinci, was in ancient times a commune of notable strategic interest, thanks to its position along the roads that climbed up and over Montalbano, along the line of sighting and defense running along the mountainside.
Texts by Alessandro Vezzosi, in collaboration with Agnese Sabato
English translation by Catherine Frost
Last update 04/gen/2008