Leonardo da Vinci

Flights of the Mind


Copyright © 2004Charles Nicholl
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-670-03345-6

Chapter One


Half a millennium ago the surroundings were not so very different. Standing on a hillside above the small Tuscan town of Vinci, one's eye would have travelled, as it does now, over a landscape shaped by centuries of agriculture - the reed-beds along the river, the narrow vineyards, the houses framed by shade-trees, and above them the olive-groves, with their particular kind of glitter when they catch the breeze, climbing up on terraces towards that variable, snaky tree line where the uplands of the Mont'Albano begin. The high slopes were thickly forested: wild pine and laurel, turkey oak, sweet chestnut. The hill-farmers milled chestnut flour, as some of them still do today; the chestnut-tree was called albero di pane, the bread-tree.

It was all probably a bit scruffier then. The ratio of wild to cultivated land was different; so too was the whole pattern of land ownership. But the picture was essentially the same: that patchwork composition one sees today. And in the middle of it, on a saddle of hill which seems both sheltered and strategic, stood Vinci itself, with its cluster of stone buildings around the twin towers of the castle and the church. Politically it was an outpost of the Florentine republic - it had been a possession of Florence since 1254, and for more than two centuries before that a possession of the Counts Guidi, who built the landmark castle. Florence was a long day's ride away via Empoli and Montelupo. Vinci was slow, provincial, agrarian; the countryside came right up to your windows.

Here Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci was born, on a spring evening in 1452. Exactly where - whether in the town or in the nearby countryside - remains unclear. The da Vinci, a respected local family with strong professional ties to Florence, certainly had a house in the town. In the catasto, or land-register, of 1451 it is described as 'una casa posta nel borgo di Vinci'. It was situated, in other words, in the area of town immediately outside the castle walls: Vinci's first, medieval suburb. It was probably located near the upper part of the sloping street now called Via Roma. It had a small garden about 3 staia in area. Among the family's immediate neighbours were the blacksmith, Giusto di Pietro, and the parish priest, Piero di Bartolomeo Cecci. It remains entirely possible that Leonardo was born in this house, but a strong mix of supposition and tradition insists that he was not. The supposition is that the birth of an illegitimate child, as Leonardo was, would have been accomplished more discreetly in one of the family's country properties. The tradition is that he was born in a small stone house which is still to be seen in Anchiano, a hamlet in the hills 2 miles north of the town.

It is not known how old this tradition is: the most one can say is that it was current by the mid nineteenth century. It was first mentioned in print by Emanuele Repetti in 1845. He refers to the house in Anchiano as the place where Leonardo 'is reputed to have been born'. He stresses its modesty and typicality: a casa colonica, or tenant-farmer's house, of the kind found all over Tuscany. Later in the century this identification was endorsed by the great Leonardo scholar Gustavo Uzielli, though he noted there was no 'sure confirmation' of it.

The house is a single-storey dwelling of local yellow-grey stone. The main building consists of three rooms, with a terracotta floor, a quantity of chestnut beams, and a large stone fireplace; at right angles to this is a smaller building with a bread-oven at the end of it. These two buildings correspond to the description of the house in old documents: a casa di signore for the owners to use when they wished, and a casa di lavoratori for the tenants who worked the land and paid their rent in the form of produce - oil, grain, wine, fruit, cheese, honey, timber, and so on. The L-shaped structure forms two sides of a courtyard open on the other two sides to the valley, though this area is now rather spoiled by municipal planting and paving. The exterior of the house seems in general over-restored, and one perhaps learns more from a hazy old photograph, dated around 1900, showing the place in its dilapidated, workaday state, with rough little windows punched through the fa��ade, and a group of long-skirted women standing round a heap of harvested grapes.

Since the days of Repetti and Uzielli there has been a good deal of archival research on the house, which is documented back to the early fifteenth century. The tradition that connects it with Leonardo has some historical foundation, but the final step which makes it his birthplace is a leap of faith. The house certainly belonged to the da Vinci - the family crest, a winged lion, is carved on the fa��ade - but the inconvenient fact of the matter is that it did not belong to them in 1452, when Leonardo was born. It was purchased by Leonardo's father, Ser Piero da Vinci, some thirty years later; it remained in the family until 1624, when it was sold to a Florentine convent by a descendant of Leonardo's half-brother Guglielmo. At the time of Leonardo's birth the house was owned by a notary, Set Tomme di Marco. It was then described as a frantoio, or olive-mill. (According to Uzielli, writing in the late nineteenth century, an old millstone was still to be seen lying close by the house.) There are some faint links between the notary Ser Tomme and the da Vinci: there is a general professional connection - the da Vinci were a family of notaries - and there is a tantalizingly particular connection, for on 18 October 1449 Ser Tomme had a contract drawn up conveying a part-share in the property to two others, and the man who wrote up the contract, and signed it as a witness, was Antonio da Vinci, Leonardo's grandfather. Some notes relating to the contract show that Antonio was there at Anchiano, in a certain 'farmer's house', when he was called on to draw up the contract. 'Si giocava a tavola': he was playing a game of backgammon when this interruption came.

This is piquant as to Antonio da Vinci's leisure pursuits, but his casual connection with the house cannot be counted as proof that his grandson was born there. It is certainly the kind of house the da Vinci would have had in the country. It expresses an important imagery of Leonardo's upbringing - that it was rural, close to the land, modest though by no means humble. It also answers to our desire for tangibility: to give a local habitation to the fact of his birth.

Though the place remains unproven, the date and even the hour of his birth are certain. The event was precisely recorded by this same grandfather Antonio, then about eighty years old, on the back page of an old notebook that had once belonged to his grandfather. On it he had already noted the births and baptisms of his own four children. There was just room at the bottom of the page to record this new arrival, this new generation - '1452. There was born to me a grandson, the son of Set Piero my son, on the 15th day of April, a Saturday, at the 3rd hour of the night. He bears the name Lionardo.' The clock was then reckoned from sunset (or more precisely from the ringing of the Ave Maria bell after vespers). The third hour of the night was about 10.30 p.m.

The baby was baptized, Antonio continues, by the parish priest, Piero di Bartolomeo: the family's next-door neighbour in town. This probably means the baptism took place in Vinci, in the parish church of Santa Croce. The rough stone baptismal font has been there continuously since Leonardo's time. The convention was to baptize the child the day after birth, in this case on Sunday 16 April, which in 1452 was the first Sunday after Easter, the domenica in albis. The baptism would have been entered in the Vinci baptismal register, but the earliest such register that survives dates from the 1550s. No less than ten godparents were present at the baptism: a very generous number. (Compare the six who stood for Leonardo's father, Piero, and the average of two or four at christenings in Vinci in the sixteenth century.) Among Leonardo's godparents were two of the da Vinci's immediate neighbours in town: Papino di Nanni Banti, and Maria, daughter of Nanni di Venzo. Also present were Arrigo di Giovanni Tedesco, the German-born steward of the powerful Ridolfi family, which owned lands around Vinci, and a certain Monna Lisa di Domenico di Brettone, who reminds us that the name attached to Leonardo's most famous painting was a common one. ('Monna' or 'Mona' means simply 'Mistress' or 'Mrs'; it is a contraction of Madonna, 'My Lady', but is less aristocratic than that English equivalent.) If Leonardo's actual birth was somewhat sequestered - as the proponents of Anchiano suggest - the baptism seems to have been a full-blown affair, probably rounded off with a festa of some sort, with plenty of fine 'vermilion' wine from the da Vinci vineyards. Despite his illegitimacy, Leonardo was welcomed into the world and into the family. Nothing in Antonio's wording, or in the ceremony it records, suggests otherwise.

This precious record of Leonardo's birth and baptism was unearthed in the Florentine archives in the 1930s by a German scholar, Dr Emil M��ller. (The fact that M��ller's letter announcing the discovery has a postscript reading 'Viva il F��hrer! Viva il Duce!' may not endear him to us, but does not alter the value of his discovery.) Leonardo is elusive, and his elusiveness seems often to extend into the historical record: documents prove ambiguous; facts turn into riddles. One is grateful for this matter-of-fact account, written in the firm, clear hand of his octogenarian grandfather, and for its placing of Leonardo's birth in the perennially tangible landscape of springtime in Vinci. The fig-trees are in bud, the terraces smell of wild marigold, and in sheltered spots the first olive-blossom is out: tiny yellow flowers foretelling the harvest to come.


The da Vinci were a well-established family: not noble, not especially rich, not given much to magnificence, but a family of good stock and standing. They lived that enviable signorial double-life of the Quattrocento - citt�� e villa: business in the city, farming in the country. They cultivated Florentine contacts and favourable marriages as assiduously as they managed their vineyards and orchards. They channelled profits into property. One does not want to romanticize their lifestyle, which doubtless had its discomforts and difficulties, but it seems to have suited them, and those of them whose life spans we know lived to a good age.

They were a family of notaries, a profession which had risen in importance with the mercantile boom of the previous century. It was the notary who drew up the contracts, attested the deals, lodged and protested the bills of exchange. They were the makers and keepers of record, and their work shaded into other roles - the attorney, the accountant, the investment-broker - which oiled the wheels of commerce. In Florence the notaries' guild, the Arte dei Giudici e Notai, was the most esteemed of the seven major guilds, or arti maggiori. The earliest da Vinci on record, Ser Michele, was a notary; so was his son, Ser Guido. (The honorific 'Ser', loosely equivalent to the English 'Sir', was a prerogative of notaries and lawyers.) Set Guido is recorded in a notarial act dated 1339: the first firm date in the family history. It was his old 'notarial book' which Antonio da Vinci used to record the family births, including that of Leonardo, who was Guido's great-great-grandson. The most celebrated of the da Vinci notaries was Guido's son, Ser Piero (whom I shall call Ser Piero the elder, to distinguish him from Leonardo's father). He was a high-flyer in late-fourteenth-century Florence, the last years before the rise of the Medici. In 1361, a year after his notarial investiture, he was a Florentine envoy at the court of Sassoferrato; later he was notary to the Signoria, the governing body of the Florentine republic. His brother Giovanni was also a notary; he appears to have died in Spain in about 1406 - a da Vinci who travelled: atypical in that.

For these generations of fourteenth-century da Vinci, Florence was their day-to-day home, the political and commercial capital where they had to be; Vinci was the home of their forefathers and their inherited properties, and the place they escaped to from the summer city heat. Vinci was not always a good place to be. It stood close to the western border of Florentine influence, and was harried fairly frequently by Florence's enemies. In the 1320s the Lucchese strongman Castruccio Castracani ('The Castrator of Dogs') was camped below the walls for more than six years, and the town later received the unwelcome attentions of Sir John Hawkwood, the Essex-born condottiere, whose paramilitary army, the White Company, struck fear into the countryside. This was in 1364. Hawkwood - whose name was Italianized to Giovanni d'Acuto, thus becoming John Sharp - was then in the pay of Pisa, but in later years he was a staunch Florentine commander, and he is commemorated in the city's cathedral, astride a white charger, in a mural portrait by Uccello which Leonardo certainly knew. It has been argued that Hawkwood was the model for the Knight in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - the 'parfit gentil knyght' being a heavily ironic portrait of a man who was actually a ruthless mercenary. Chaucer was himself in Florence in the early 1370s on a diplomatic mission. Ser Piero the elder, moving in a political ambit in these years, may have met both these redoubtable Englishmen. 'War' - in other words, beware - these 'questmongers and notaries', wrote Chaucer in 'The Parson's Tale', reminding us that the profession was not always reputed honest.

The son of Set Piero the elder - apparently his only son - was a man of a very different stamp. This was Leonardo's grandfather Antonio, of whom we have already heard: he who was glimpsed at a game of backgammon in Anchiano; he who punctiliously noted the family's births and baptisms. Born in about 1372, he was probably apprenticed to his father, but he did not become a notary. As far as we know he chose to live exclusively in Vinci, cultivating what might be called the air of an early Renaissance country gent.

And it is in Antonio's time, in the year 1427, that Florence's first catasto was enacted, a new system of land-tax applied to all property-owners within the republic. It required them to declare the annual produce of their land, on which they were taxed at the rate of 1.5 per cent, and the members of their family, for whom they received an allowance of 200 florins each. These tax-deductible dependants were referred to simply as bocche, or mouths.


Excerpted from Leonardo da Vinciby CHARLES NICHOLL Copyright © 2004 by Charles Nicholl . Excerpted by permission.
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