Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Cradle of Genius

Leonardo da Vinci's childhood homes:
Anchiano and Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci bequeathed us two anecdotes concerning his childhood: ostensibly memories, it has been argued that they might be parables or accounts of dreams.
The first involves a bird. Flight always fascinated Leonardo da Vinci: many pages in his notes and 500 sketches are dedicated to the study of birds' wings, including experiments real and hypothetical with potential flying machines, (the ornithopter being the most spectacular), parachutes, ascending devices and keen observations on the gliding flight of birds.

Bird-winged apparatus with partly rigid wings, 1488-90, pen and ink. Bibliothèque de l'Institut de France

His fascination would appear to have originated in his earliest childhood. These words were written in a corner of one of his notes on birds and the mechanisms of flight:

Questo scrivere si distintamente del nibbio par che sia mio destino perche' nella prima ricordatione della mia infantia e' mi parea che essendo io in culla che un nibbio venissi a me/e mi aprissi la bocha cholla sua coda e molte volte mi percotessi con tal coda dentro alle labbra.
(Atlantic Codex f.186 verso) 

"This writing so specifically about a kite would appear my destiny because in the first memory of my infancy I seem to have been in the cradle when a kite came and opened my mouth with its tail and hit my lips many times with its tail."
black kite or nibbio bruno
The second anecdote, Leonardo's recollection of his wanderings in the Montalbano hills near his childhood home, involves a cavern and curiosity:
…e tirato dalla mia bramosa voglia, vago di veder la gran copia delle varie e strane forme fatte dalla artifiziosa natura, ...pervenni all’entrata d’una gran caverna...subito salse in me due cose, paura e desiderio; paura per la minacciante e scura spilonca, desiderio per vedere se la entro fusse alcuna miracolosa cosa… 

"Drawn by my eager wish [to see nature's strange shapes...] I reached the entrance to a large cavern...Two things arose within me, fear and desire; fear of the menacing and dark cave, desire to see whether some miraculous thing lay within..."

These glimpses into the early childhood experiences of one of the most notable personages of the Renaissance are a foretaste of all that can be discovered by visiting Leonardo's birthplace. 
study of a child circa 1508
Leonardo was the first-born of a young notary of Vinci, ser Piero da Vinci and Caterina, a local farm-girl. He was born out of wedlock and his paternal grandfather, also a notary, recorded thus the birth of his first grandchild in an old 13th century ledger used for family records: 

Nacque un mio nipote, figliolo di ser Piero mio figliolo a dì 15 aprile in sabato a ore 3 di notte [attuali 22.30]. Ebbe nome Lionardo. Battizzollo prete Piero di Bartolomeo da Vinci, in presenza di Papino di Nanni, Meo di Tonino, Pier di Malvolto, Nanni di Venzo, Arigo di Giovanni Tedesco, monna Lisa di Domenico di Brettone, monna Antonia di Giuliano, monna Niccolosa del Barna, monna Maria, figlia di Nanni di Venzo, monna Pippa di Previcone.

On Saturday April 15 [1452] at three o'clock in the morning my grandson was born, son of ser Piero my son. He was called Lionardo. Piero di Bartolomeo priest of Vinci baptized him in the presence of ...[see above]. 

NB: the parents are absent, since they were not married.
the font at which Leonardo was baptized
The baptism took place in the Vinci parish church of Santa Croce. Although Leonardo's birthplace is not mentioned, it is commonly assumed to have been Anchiano, a hamlet where the family had a house and farm and where Leonardo subsequently lived with his mother.

the farmhouse at Anchiano, restored with loving care

Was this the fireplace where he warmed his tiny toes? The presence of a family crest and this style of fireplace seems somewhat anomalous in what ought to have been a farmhouse belonging to peasants, but it must post-date Leonardo.

Was this the oven where his mother baked little Leonardo's bread? Now doubling up as a post box shelter

the aia or threshing floor

view south-east from the farmhouse

detail, Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, 1510, oil on wood, Louvre, Paris
Leonardo's father was soon to marry and in 1453 a husband was found for Caterina, one Piero del Vaccha da Vinci, known as the attaccabriga/accattabriga or 'troublemaker', who may have been a mercenary as well as a farmer.
study of the head of a soldier for Battle of Anghiari, 1503-4, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
Piero da Vinci married Albiera di Giovanni Amadori the year of his son's birth. There was no issue from their marriage and, according to the official Vinci Register of 1457, Leonardo was welcomed into the Vinci home at about age five, despite being an illegitimate son.
Virgin and Child with Saints Anne and John the Baptist, 1499-1500/1506-8 charcoal and chalk on paper mounted on canvas, National Gallery London
Leonardo's stepmother died seven years later after the family had shifted to Florence; ser Piero was to marry another three times and father a total of 13 children.Thus from the age of 16 Leonardo had a large family of half-brothers and sisters, the last being born when he turned 46.

newly-discovered possible self-portrait of Leonardo, previously overlaid by closely-spaced writing, in the codex on the flight of birds; he would appear to be in his 40s
According to Vasari, ser Piero showed his friend Andrea del Verrocchio some of Leonardo's drawings which convinced the artist to take on the boy as an apprentice in his studio. It is more likely that he started around the age of 14, thereby leaving home for good.
Andrea del Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ, 1472-1475, Uffizi Florence. The angel on the left, much of the background landscape and perhaps the figure of Christ are ascribed to Leonardo
The hypothesis is that Leonardo stayed in the country with his grandparents where his erratic education took place, guided by his grandfather, his young uncle Francesco who was a farmer, and the priest who baptized him.

Leonardo's notes in his singular 'mirror-writing' script from Madrid Codex 1492-97, Madrid National Library
According to Vasari the boy was restless and rarely completed the things he started; this also appears a characteristic of the adult Leonardo. Attempts were made to direct him towards training in the law and accountancy but Leonardo would continuously question his teacher and 'confuse him'. He did learn some Latin, geometry and mathematics however, and was trained in the use of the abacus.
Geometrical study on transformation from rectilinear to curved surfaces and vice versa from Atlantic Codex, folio 423 verso, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan
Leonardo's grandfather died at 96 in 1486 when his grandson was 34. He included 'Lionardo' in his will. It is reasonable to suppose that the man was fond and proud of his brilliant grandson. By the next year Leonardo's father, who had become an important notary and his uncle Francesco who had become a member of the prestigious Silk Guild, had moved permanently to a house in via dei Gondi in Florence, just behind the Palazzo della Signoria.
Interestingly, it may have been Leonardo's family's connections with the silk industry as well as ser Piero's profession as notary which put Leonardo in touch with Lisa Gherardini's husband, Francesco del Giocondo, a silk manufacturer. Leonardo (see below) was also to work on the mechanization of processes useful to the silk industry such as the preparation of gold leaf for gold thread. It is now generally accepted that Lisa Gherardini was 'La Gioconda', the fabled Monna Lisa.*
In present-day Vinci's historic centre, peace, stone, tiles and almost no commercial clutter await the visitor.
view from Vinci
near the museum: the tourist industry leaves only a faint imprint here, at least in winter
The entire centre is pedestrians-only and is well restored and maintained. 
delightful surprise, in the centre of Vinci, seen from outside the walls: orange trees!
A large, elaborate stone and mosaic installation occupies the main square and although its significance is obscure, it does not, in my opinion, clash with its surroundings, although I can imagine that many disagree. 
pietra serena stone installation, which rises and falls in the main square, something of a hazard to pedestrians, but interesting enough; the church behind is Santa Croce where Leonardo was baptized
Several other sculptures commemorate the polymath, such as a wooden rendering of his Vitruvian Man by Mario Ceroli. In the modern town's square stands a version of the giant horse sculpture planned for Leonardo's patron Ludovico il Moro in homage to his father Francesco Sforza (never completed). This new version, The Horse, was created in 1997 by the sculptor Nina Akamu, and is now displayed in several copies in various parts of the world. The Vinci replica is a smaller version in bronze. 
Vitruvian man, wooden sculpture in Piazza dei Guidi, Vinci

The first museum, in the Palazzina Uzielli, is concerned with Leonardo's (as well as his predecessors' and contemporaries') studies and inventions for the building and textile industries.
reconstruction of slewing crane design which allows for a rotation of the load
reconstruction of automatic gold-beating machine for silk industry

display of gold-leaf, gold thread and silk embroidered with gold and the tools of the trade

There are reconstructions of some of his inventions and clear explanations of the background and their uses in several languages. Digital presentations are available to explore further and there are some well-produced animations throughout this small museum. A shop at the entrance displays a good selection of books and journals both academic and not, regarding Leonardo's scientific, engineering and technical inventions and studies.
Castello dei Guidi where the larger Leonardo museum is housed
The second, larger museum is in the castle which is really a massive medieval tower, more like a castle keep, in the centre of Vinci. The building has been beautifully restored and maintained and the collection inside is the fruit of careful research and painstaking, loving craft. It is imbued with passion for Leonardo, his ideas and his creations.

Not a cross-section of a dalek: it is a reconstruction of Leonardo's armoured tank
the hall dedicated to Leonardo's work on flight with his magnificent life-sized ornithopter suspended above
The halls are divided thematically: first Leonardo's military plans and ideas; his work on flight; his contributions to architecture and engineering; his studies of water and river navigation and his experiments on optics. Over 60 models based on his plans have been constructed.
beautiful contraption for exploring the phenomenon of ascending flight
a working model in 1:2 scale of the crane designed by Brunelleschi for the construction of the cupola of the Duomo of Florence
Leonardo's carro automotore or automotive wagon

detail from Annunciation, by da Vinci and Verrocchio, 1472-1475, Uffizi, Florence;seen from in front there are several notable distortions (eg; the end of the wall, the position of the lectern in relation to Mary, her contorted right arm)
The room on optics is particularly fascinating for  its reconstruction of Leonardo's optical experiments, including a presentation of the apparent defects of perspective in his and Verrocchio's Annunciation. These defects can be explained as Leonardo's study of 'anamorphosis', a technique derived from linear perspective that from a perpendicular angle presents a distorted image; the image loses its distortion from an oblique vantage point.
Seen from a 45 degree angle, the distortions disappear
The castle's terrace, open during the finer season,  can be also be visited for a splendid 360 degree view of Vinci's surroundings.

the view from Vinci's castle looking west towards the snow-topped Apuan Alps
The rest of Leonardo's story is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that his first signed drawing, dated August 5th 1473, is Study of a Tuscan Landscape, a bird's eye view of the Arno Valley, a view from Montalbano of the hills and valleys near his home.
Study of a Tuscan Landscape, Valley of the Arno, 1473, Uffizi Florence, pen and ink

portrait of Leonardo da Vinci after 1510, when he was in his sixties by his pupil, companion and principal heir, Francesco Melzi

Some of the harsh truth about getting to Vinci:

Vinci is roughly one hour and twenty minutes northwest of Le Ripe, tucked in the triangle formed by the Firenze-Pisa freeway and the Firenze-Pisa motorway. The route through Chianti is superb, affording excellent views, past cypress colonnades, farmhouses and villas perched on hills, the ordered bands of vineyards, smoky green olives; an occasional almond tree already in pale pink bloom, even some bright mimosas.
But the descent into the Arno valley is like a descent into a cultural and natural wasteland. Block upon block of desolate factories, ugly warehouses and wholesale stores, tawdry signs,  anonymous cement homes. Italy is schizophrenic: where did the beauty go to? Of course beauty depends on industry and hard work, but certainly aesthetics and good taste were not the criteria when such industrial/commercial areas were created. Leonardo would have been shocked, particularly since a large part of his working life was dedicated to the advancement of manufacture and industry as much as to aesthetics.
Fortunately the pilgrim leaves behind this soulless setting after passing through the outskirts of Vinci which is worryingly close to all that (we know how ugliness encroaches) and climbing about 100 metres to the historic centre of the tiny town. 
One can park to the east of the old town, outside the city walls overlooking a deep valley which rises on the far side towards the hills of Montalbano. Steps lead up to the two buildings which house the museums dedicated to Vinci's famous son. 

The museums and the farmhouse at Anchiano are all worth a visit: an 8 euro ticket covers everything.

The Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci (closed at present because of problems with water leakage) sounds an interesting destination, a lively art-meets-science display thanks to the participation of artists and researchers.
See here for news about its reopening

There is also an excellent library, the Biblioteca Leonardiana, a research centre for documents and publications of and about Leonardo which houses a complete archive of reproductions of his writings and drawings.  

The distance from Vinci to Anchiano is about 2 kilometers. There is a pleasant trail path leading up through the olive groves to the hamlet which departs from just outside Vinci.

the road to Anchiano

view from Anchiano

*An interesting little book on the subject has been written by Giuseppe Pallanti: Monna Lisa mulier ingenua, Ed Polistampa, 2004  

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating details on the great man's early life and his environment.A thorough background for thoughtful visitors.


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