It’s the end of the morning in Bar Maso in the Tuscan town of Vinci and as the refrigerator-sized coffee machine gurgles and hisses, the 73-year-old eyes the clouds above the cedars in the square thoughtfully. “I think if we’d been around at the same time we might have worked together,” he says. “But that’s what happens when you live in the same town as a genius. You can’t help but think about what might have been.”
Aliffi has been dwelling on Leonardo da Vinci for much of his life, all of which has been spent in Vinci, where the Renaissance master was born. Now long retired from his life as a labourer in the olive groves and vineyards that speckle the undulating hills around the town, Aliffi, like many of the 15,000 citizens who live here, never tires of talking about the town’s most famous son. It’s Vinci’s claim to fame. There’s a Da Vinci museum here and his casa natale, which draw visitors year-round – though not enough for the town’s more ambitious businesspeople, it turns out.
“Florence is only an hour away, but here, if I’m honest, if anything we don’t celebrate Leonardo enough,” says Loredana Dolce, the Maso’s owner and another of Vinci’s lifelong residents. (For locals, I soon discover, it’s always Leonardo, never Da Vinci). “Some of us had a meeting with the town council just last week,” she tells me over a counter worn smooth from decades of use. “Tour buses come here to see Leonardo’s house then leave again. We want visitors to stay longer. Every street should have artwork, sculpture, something to encourage people to spend more time in the town. You can’t understand Leonardo without knowing where he came from.”
Whether funds are forthcoming for this vision of Vinci’s future isn’t yet clear. But what’s obvious to any first-time visitor is that, after the heaving crowds of Florence, Vinci’s cobbled alleyways, deserted squares, rosemary bushes and quiet corner cafes are a blessed relief. This year marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. He died, after suffering several strokes, in the care of Francis I, King of France in the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise. Aged 67, he was, according to early biographer and painter Giorgio Vasari, unable to stand up without being “supported by the arms of his servants and his friends”. Florence is marking the anniversary with a range of exhibitions, the standout being at the Strozzi Palace where his only known surviving sculpture, the 80cm-high terracotta Virgin with the Laughing Child is on display until 14 July, the high point of an exhibition exploring the relationship with his first mentor, Andrea del Verrocchio.
But who was this boy from Vinci? And what role did this small, conservative town, barely 50km from Florence, play in helping to create one of the most original and daring minds humanity has ever seen?
He was left-handed, he was illegitimate, he was vegetarian. Almost everything we know about him tells us that this was a very, very unusual individual,” says Elisabetta Cappugi, a native of Florence who has spent the last three decades exploring the world of Leonardo and leading tours around the region. “Look at the hills. Do you see the mist? Leonardo called it sfumato. It’s about a lack of focus and getting beyond the normal range of the eye.”
Da Vinci was an adventurous child who would roam the hills surrounding Vinci. His birthplace, in a hamlet on the outskirts of the town called Anchiano, consisting of just one house, is now a spartan shrine to the illegitimate son of a notary and a woman who history records only as an orphan called Caterina di Meo Lippi. While his father was a gentleman, the stigma attached to children born out of wedlock meant young Leonardo was probably never destined to join his father in one of the more respected Florentine professions. He didn’t get his name, either.
Today, the roughly hewn stone house is almost bare on the inside, a subtle nod perhaps to the enigmatic lack of detail about his early life. Outside are hillsides peppered with blackberry bushes, cypress trees and olive groves. The earliest known drawing by Leonardo was created on one of these slopes. Landscape Drawing for Santa Maria della Neve dates from when he was around 14 years old. It clearly shows the rocks, slopes and vegetation of Vinci, drawn with precocious fluency in pen and ink.
But the drawing of pastoral scenes was never going to satisfy Leonardo for long. It was while walking on these slopes that he may have begun to formulate the first questions in a life of scientific as well as artistic brilliance. Cappugi lists the interests he would subsequently explore as we drive slowly out of Vinci on winding mountain roads. “Why is the sky blue? How does the heart work? What are the differences in air pressure above and beneath a bird’s wing? How could this be used to help man build a flying machine? This was a very, very curious boy who felt he could do anything.”
On a morning of clear blue skies and with the wind fluctuating between coquettish breeze and orchestral rush, Cappugi and I travel 10km north-east of Florence to a woodland landscape rich in cypress and oak trees and the odd skittish deer. Using the roughest of rutted stone tracks to guide us, we ascend 300m to a deserted lookout point on the edge of Monte Ceceri. In Leonardo’s time there were working quarries here, with men carving out huge lumps of the pale serrano stone which would make up the columns, pulpits and domes of Florence, the city where Leonardo began before heading to Milan where legendary status as an artist, sculptor and polymath quickly ensued.
Returning to Florence in the early 16th century, a now middle-aged Leonardo became preoccupied with one of his many theories, namely, how a man could fly. One day in 1506, legend has it that, armed with his 18-page notebook illustrating his theory of flight (now known as Codex on the Flight of Birds), Leonardo and his pupil Tommaso Masini clambered up this vertiginous hillside to experiment with his flying machine.
Looking out over the sheer cliff edge today, the mere idea of strapping a wood and cloth pair of wings to myself and attempting to use a set of pedals to achieve flight seems every bit as suicidal now as it must have done all those centuries ago. However, Masini apparently went over the edge unperturbed, managing to fly for 1,000m before a very abrupt landing in which he broke a leg and a few ribs. Given the altitude, it would seem that Masini escaped incredibly lightly.
“This is where you can really feel Leonardo as a man,” says Cappugi. A memorial lookout platform at the top of Ceceri is utterly deserted for the two hours we spend there. With only the most rudimentary of signposts, this is a spot where, when the wind rises and the clouds swirl, you get a sense of the natural elements that caused this gargantuan mind to start whirling with ideas.
Back in Vinci later that day, I return to the town square where locals walk dogs, smoke cigarettes and bask in the pale afternoon sun. One elderly woman, who tells me her name is Juliana, stops to talk. Like, everyone else, it’s not hard to get her to talk about Da Vinci.
“Even when I went to live in Australia for three years, all anyone wanted to talk about was Leonardo,” she tells me, before slowly ambling down a narrow, cobbled alley. “I don’t want to escape him. It doesn’t matter where you travel to, the truth is the same: we live in a world that was built around Leonardo.”
Rob Crossan was a guest of Tuscany Now & More; I Giullari, its villa in central Florence, sleeps up to 18 guests and is available for around $4,500 per week. Tuscany Now & More offers a range of properties across the region and can provide private chefs, excursions and other bespoke services, including specialist Da Vinci guide Elisabetta Cappugi, on request.