Following the path of a genius

Photo of Suzanne Morphet

SUZANNE MORPHET sees the work and life of Leonardo da Vinci in one of Italy's most beautiful cities

A pile of books sits atop the bedside table in Florence.

At the top of the stack — wouldn’t you know it? — is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the 2003 thriller that helped launch our current obsession with Leonardo.

On this hot June day, it’s tempting to sit and re-read it while sipping an iced cappuccino on the bank of the Arno River.

But I want to learn about the real Leonardo, the Renaissance genius who was not just an artist, but also a sculptor, engineer, scientist, inventor, cartographer and musician.

(And no, he didn’t encode symbols in his paintings.)

This being the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, there are exhibitions, performances, guided tours and conferences across Tuscany throughout the year celebrating his life and legacy.

I’ll take in some of these, but hiring a local guide and walking the same cobblestone streets where Leonardo walked in the city where he spent much of his life will prove more fun.

I’ll learn that even though he was a genius, Leonardo experienced failures, left projects incomplete and engaged in petty collegial rivalry. He was an animal-lover who bought caged birds so he could set them free. He cared enough about his appearance to dye his hair blond. (He even described the ingredients in one of his notebooks.)

Early one morning, I meet Francesca Sabatini in Piazza della Signoria, the city’s main square, where civilian and political life have unfolded since Roman times.

It was here in 1476 that someone dropped a note in a box accusing Leonardo of engaging in sodomy, a crime punishable by death at the time.

“There was a wooden box where people could write anonymous letters,” explains Francesca, as we cross the large square towards Palazzo Vecchio, the medieval fortress that has been the seat of government in Florence since 1299 and today also houses a museum.

“He was absolved, then the same thing happened once more.” Even though it was illegal, homosexuality in Florence was so common at the time that “Florenzer” was slang in Germany for gay.

Inside Palazza Veccho is where Leonardo attempted what’s now considered his greatest unfinished masterpiece. In 1503, he was commissioned to fresco a wall of the fortress’ Great Council Chamber with a depiction of the Battle of Anghiari.

Leonardo began to paint the wall but he was experimenting with a new technique and the paint wouldn’t dry. Instead, it began to run, and he abandoned the project for another commission.

Wandering down the Via dei Gondi, we come next to the Gondi Palace, close to where Leonardo shared a house with his father and began to paint his most famous work, the Mona Lisa. The woman in the painting was Lisa Gherardini, wife of a Florentine merchant. And the reason for her enigmatic smile?

“We know that she was not very happy,” says Francesca, offering up an explanation I haven’t heard before. “Leonardo hired jugglers and entertainers to make her smile.”

Turning the corner, we come to the Bargello, a prison in Leonardo’s time, and today a museum dedicated to Renaissance art.

Leonardo likely spent a night here after he was charged with sodomy, and he was certainly here after the hanging of the murderer Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli.

Leonardo sketched Baroncelli’s limp body dangling from a window of the prison.

“It was easy for Leonardo to see the hanging man because he could just walk out of his house and be right here,” says Francesca, holding up a copy of the macabre sketch.

A little further along is Piazza Santa Trinita, where Leonardo and his rival, the much younger Michelangelo, had a spat in public. Leonardo had recently been in Milan, explains Francesca, where he had been commissioned to cast a large horse in bronze.

However, a war meant there was a shortage of bronze.

“Leonardo came back to Florence and everyone was talking about how brilliant Michelangelo was,” she says.

“In the Piazza Santa Trinita, a group of people asked Leonardo about an interpretation of a passage of Dante but Leonardo answered, ‘ask Michelangelo!’

“Michelangelo got angry — because it seemed that Leonardo was making fun of him — and said, ‘You can do this at least, you who couldn’t even make a horse in Milan!’.” Back at Piazza della Signoria, where my tour began, Francesca points out Michelangelo’s statue of David (or rather, the copy of the original statue), his tautly muscled torso once the symbol of Florence’s freedom from its enemies.

She has another story to share about Leonardo — again one that’s not so flattering.

“There was a group of artists who had to decide where to put the statue of David, and Leonardo said to put it under the Loggia, next to the wall, because he wanted it to be hidden,” she said.

Instead, the statue was given a prominent position in front of Palazzo Vecchio, where the copy still stands today. The original was moved inside the Accademia Gallery in 1853. Leonardo’s jealousy seems beneath him, so after saying goodbye to Francesca, I head to the Duomo, the city’s main cathedral.

Atop the Duomo sits a copper ball created in the workshop of master artist Andrea del Verrocchio during the time when Leonardo apprenticed with him.

I imagine Leonardo standing where I’m standing now, explaining to passers-by how they got that ball up there anyway, and maybe showing them his elaborate drawings of the machines they used.

Yes, Leonardo was human and experienced a range of emotions, just like the rest of us, but what he left behind supersedes any human frailties.

Fact File


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