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The International Writers Magazine: Italy

Veni, Vidi...VINCI
Zara Nelson
After seven years in Tuscany as a tour guide and travel researcher, I've explored the region pretty extensively - both on and off the beaten track, through the back door, travelling light, having great adventures and real life experiences... and every other travel company slogan you can think of. But Tuscany always has a surprise up its sleeve, and Vinci is one of the most pleasant surprises you could hope to have.


On the slopes of Montalbano, a 25km long mountain range in northern Tuscany, sits Vinci with its 14000 inhabitants. Although the Montalbano range reaches a maximum height of 650m above sea level, Vinci nestles on the warm and gentle lower slopes at just under 100m, surrounded by vines, olive groves and lush chestnut forests.

Vinci really has everything that the world adores about Tuscany – glorious landscapes kissed by sweet golden sunshine, superb wines, delicious food and olive oil, history, culture, art, hiking, biking...and all of this at prices that provide a far better quality-price ratio than I have found in other more heavily trodden parts of the region. It offers an assortment of accommodation to suit all budgets, from simple campsites to luxurious villas and everything imaginable inbetween. It's in a great position for easy access to the other destinations in the region - Florence is only 30km away and Pisa 50km, both of which have international airports. Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano and the Versilia coast (amongst many others) are all within easy day-trip reach. For all these reasons, Vinci is an ideal base for exploring Tuscany – a valid alternative to the bigger cities. In Vinci the locals have time to talk to you, and you won't have problems parking!

The oldest part of Vinci, viewed from the air, is literally ship-shaped. The town castle, built in the 12th century by the Conti Guidi, had an oval form which is still evident, and the castle tower and nearby bell tower of the Santa Croce church resemble the two masts of the 'ship'.  In the Santa Croce church is the baptismal font where Leonardo da Vinci is believed to have been baptised.

Just around the corner in Piazza dei Guidi is the recently-renovated Museo Leonardiano which contains one of the most extensive collections of models of Leonardo's machines, built to his designs – machines for the construction and textile industries, for military, aviation and scientific purposes. There are documents, manuscripts, and video animations showing how the machines would work. The museum also offers hands-on laboratories and creative workshops for children (and curious adults) from 6 years and up.

This is one of the most densely olive-groved parts of Tuscany – a statistic I found surprising until I visited the area and was amazed by the sea of silver-grey olive trees stretching in every direction as far as the eye could see. So of course there's some pretty good olive oil being produced around here – in fact the Montalbano IGP extra-virgin oil boasts particularly fine flavour and low acidity. The production of superb wines here has been documented since the 9th century

Montalbano On the vines today you'll see Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes – and in the bottle you'll find them as the excellent Chianti Montalbano DOCG, ideal accompaniment to the local salamis and cheeses, wild boar and other game meats. If you can resist drinking it all, you could dedicate a bottle to preparing 'peposo', a typical dish of this area - beef  braised for anything up to 5 hours in Chianti wine and whole black pepper corns.

You can find an authentic recipe on my blog:
There's also plenty around Vinci to keep the active tourist busy – the town is surrounded by an extensive network of hiking and biking trails, over 46km of pathways through vines, olive groves and chestnut forests, hilltop villages and archaeological sites. Those who are still digesting the peposo may prefer the gentle 2km half-hour walk on the 'Strada Verde' (Green Road), an ancient footpath with stunning panoramic views, that leads from the centre of Vinci to the house at Anchiano where Leonardo da Vinci was born. Looking out over the sweeping valley below, you will feel you have stepped into one of his paintings – the landscape has remained practically unchanged since his day – complete with 'sfumato' effect ('sfumato' in painting is the fine shading that produces soft transitions between colours and tones, without lines or borders - a technique practised and developed by Leonardo). This is the land and nature that he loved, that aroused his curiosity, fascinated him, and inspired so many of his studies and paintings, and it's easy to see why.

Born here on 15 April 1452, Leonardo's full birth name was “Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci” - which may sound aristocratic but really means no more than “Leonardo, son of Mr. Piero from Vinci”. In fact he was the illegitimate son of Piero, a local notary, and a woman named Caterina. From such humble origins was born perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived - little Leonardo was destined to become a painter, sculptor, engineer, scientist, anatomist, geologist, botanist, mathematician, architect, musician, inventor, cartographer, and writer. His known achievements are astonishing enough, but the web of mystery and intrigue that surrounds his life and work has reached legendary proportions. Some of these 'mysteries' have been explained away through research and modern scientific techniques, some were never more than flights of fancy or fiction, but there are those that remain, enigmatic and intriguing.

Little is known about Leonardo's childhood, other than that he spent his first five years in the hamlet of Anchiano, in the home of his mother, and then moved to his father's house in nearby Vinci. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to the artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence, where it would seem his extraordinary talents quickly blossomed and the first Leonardo legend was soon born – that when he collaborated with Verrocchio on his Baptism of Christ (1475), his contribution was so far superior to his master's that Verrocchio put down his brush and never painted again.

Leonardo loved nature and, most unusual for the period he lived in, was a vegetarian. He was fascinated by the phenomenon of flight, and designed wings, a hang glider, a helicopter, and other types of flying machines. Legend has it that he tested one on his friend Tommaso Masini, launching him from a hill near Fiesole outside Florence. It didn't go too well - Masini broke a leg, but a happier ending was reserved for the caged birds that Leonardo would buy at the street markets in Florence, and then release into the air. More recently, in 2000 a British skydiver named Adrian Nicholas was the first man to successfully jump using a parachute made to Leonardo's design, using only tools and materials that would have been available in the 15th century.

Leonardo's famous mirror-writing probably had nothing to do with reasons of secrecy, as has been suggested. He wrote with his left hand, so it was simply easier for him to work from right to left. Italian anthropologists have photographed 200 partial fingerprints taken from his papers and drawings – and, as would be expected, many of the prints were of half his left thumb, made as left-handed Leonardo leafed through his papers. In 2006 they reconstructed a whole fingerprint, which is the only biological trace we have of him – he died in 1519 in Amboise, France, and his physical remains were dispersed and lost in the 16th century during religious wars. An analysis of that print revealed patterns that are dominant in Middle-Eastern populations. The idea that Leonardo's origins were not wholly European is not a new one - records discovered in Vinci provide concrete evidence that Leonardo's father Piero owned a  Middle-Eastern female slave, possibly from Constantinople, named Caterina. In 1452, Piero married Caterina off to one of his workers - she had just given birth to a boy called Leonardo.
When he was living in Milan in 1493, Leonardo listed a woman named Caterina among his dependents in his taxation documents, and when she died in 1495, the list of funeral expenses suggests that this was indeed Caterina his mother.

Leonardo is probably best known as a painter – the Mona Lisa is the most famous portrait ever, and the Last Supper is the most reproduced religious painting of all time – although in truth only about 17 of his paintings have survived intact to the present day. This is partly due to his frequent and often disastrous experiments with alternative painting techniques and materials, and his notorious tendency to abandon works in progress as his insatiable desire for knowledge diverted his attention to something new. His curiosity was seemingly boundless, and his powers of observation and attention to detail in recording the results were the forerunners to modern scientific research methodology.

St John Leonardo's sexuality, and its role in his art, has long been a cause for speculation, debate and analysis. In 1476 he and three other young men were charged with sodomy - at that time theoretically a very serious offence, with castration as the penalty, although false denunciations were quite common and punishment was very rarely handed out. They were all acquitted two months later due to lack of evidence. Some art historians and biographers believe that the trauma of the trial drove Leonardo to celibacy for the rest of his days, while others maintain that he discreetly continued to have homosexual relationships throughout his life. In either case, for two years after the trial there is no record of his work, or even of his whereabouts.

Although there are no records of close relationships with women beyond his friendship with Isabella d'Este, he did have long-lasting documented relationships with two young men – his apprentices Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno (nicknamed Salai or “little devil”) and Francesco Melzi. It is quite probable that Salai, who is described as “a graceful and beautiful youth with fine curly hair” was the model for many of Leonardo's paintings, which could explain why so many of his subjects, both male and female, share strikingly similar facial characteristics. Salai, who lived in Leonardo's household for thirty years, was certainly the subject of several of Leonardo's lesser-known erotic drawings.

The Leonardian enigma that has been catapulted into the media spotlight in recent years is of course the John the Baptist figure in The Last Supper, claimed by some theorists to actually be Mary Magdalene. This figure may look feminine to us – but would it have looked that way at the time the painting was created? Probably not. John, the youngest of the disciples, was often shown as a beardless young man with very soft features and long flowing hair. European art is full of examples of 'feminine' John the Baptist figures that predate Leonardo by centuries, and in Leonardo's preparatory sketches for the painting, the figure is clearly labeled as John.

As recently as last year, claims were made that Leonardo forged the Turin Shroud using pioneering photographic techniques and a sculpture of his own head. Leonardo's forgery was apparently commissioned to replace an earlier 14th century version of the shroud that was exposed as a poor fake. The theory says that this earlier shroud disappeared at around the time of Leonardo's birth and when it reappeared some fifty years later, it was hailed as a genuine relic, because it was really his convincing replica. If anyone could have done it at that time, Leonardo would be a likely candidate, but it's a fairly implausible theory.

Other enigmas in Leonardo's work include the so-called 'John gesture' – a specific pose with the right index finger raised pointing to the sky, that Leonardo included in a significant number of his paintings, most notably his John the Baptist, from which the gesture has taken its name.
The identity of the Mona Lisa has been the subject of  debate for centuries, with theories (and sometimes “proof”) being presented that it is a self portrait, or Leonardo's mother, or his favourite apprentice Salai in drag...In truth it is a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of wealthy merchant Francesco del Giocondo who commissioned the portrait from Leonardo. The painting is called “La Gioconda” in Italian, suggesting the woman's married name. However, Leonardo actually kept the portrait, carried it with him everywhere in the last years of his life, and bequeathed it to Salai when he died - a fact which fuels the theory that the mysterious Mona Lisa may also be a tribute to the “little devil” Salai, Leonardo's long-time friend, pupil, and perhaps lover.

In December 2010 researchers claimed to have found tiny letters and numbers painted in Mona Lisa's pupils, and they are now chasing the solution to yet another supposed Leonardian riddle. Personally I hope they don't find it – some 'codes', if they exist, should not be cracked. Whatever the truth may be about her identity, Mona Lisa's lips are sealed for ever in that mysterious smile – she can't let her eyes give the game away instead.

© Zara Nelson April 4th 2011

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