Looking for Leonardo

In Florence Patricia Cleveland-Peck seeks traces of Leonardo da Vinci, the 500th anniversary of whose death occurs in May 2019

The Annunciation, circa 1472–1475, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Oil and tempera on panel (c)Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

I was fortunate enough to be in Florence shortly after the opening of the new Leonardo da Vinci Room at the Uffizi gallery in July. This room, on the second floor, contains three magnificent painting preserved in special climate-controlled cases which protects them not only from humidity but also from the heat generated by the throng of visitors who progress through the gallery. What I particularly liked was the fact that the anti-glare glass covering them permitted one to get very close to the paintings and see details.

On the left is The Baptism of Christ painted in 1475/78 for the church of San Salvi on the outskirts of Florence. This is the painting in which the young apprentice Leonardo collaborated with his master Verrocchio by contributing the angel in profile, which he painted in oils. It is said that when Verrocchio saw that the execution of this this angel was so far superior to his own work, he put down his paintbrush and never painted again.

On the opposite wall is the wonderful Annunciation from the church of Monte Oliveto. Once again this is a collaboration with Verrocchio, the 20-year old Leonardo painting the exquisite background and the angel whose stylised wings he produced after studying the anatomy of birds.

In the centre is the recently restored Adoration of the Magi which was unfinished when Leonardo left Florence for Milan in 1482. It is in fact because it is unfinished that we can get a clearer idea of some of the artist’s creative processes.

Also on show in the Uffizi at the moment is the Leonardo da Vinci Codex Leicester, on temporary loan (until 20th January 2019,) from Bill Gates who paid $ 30,802,500 for it. The Codex is a 72-page series of notes and drawings made between 1504 and 1508 which covers such topics as astronomy, rocks, fossils, celestial light, the properties of water and much more. It is in Leonardo’s hand, the writing being in his characteristic right-to-left mirror script.

The Codex gives us a glimpse of the breath of Leonardo’s interests. In fact as well as painting these included sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, geology, anatomy, botany, music, cartography, palaeontology…

For an inter-active insight into Leonardo’s genius, a visit to the Museo Leonardo da Vinci in Via de’Servi is a must. There one can see models of some of his remarkable inventions, constructed at a later date from his drawings and plans. There are flying machines, a hydraulic saw, a printing machine and a massive 17’ x10’ tank which weighs two tonnes and much more. This is a hands-on museum where the exhibits can be touched as well as seen.

That Leonardo was one of the most talented individuals ever to have lived is not to be doubted although he was very human too, he often put off doing things and sometimes didn’t finish them but his mind and imagination are unique. As if this were not enough, according to Vasari, the art historian and contemporary biographer, he was “an artist of outstanding physical beauty who displayed grace in everything…”

What Leonardo actually looked like no one really knows. There is of course the handsome statue by Luigi Pamploni in the Piazzale degli Ufizi but that was not made until 1839. Even the red chalk sketch often published as being Leonardo’s self portrait is said by some to be of his father. Speculation also extends as to whether when younger, he was depicted or used as a model in several contemporary paintings (with even a suggestions that The Mona Lisa is a self-portrait…) but although Verrocchio may have used his apprentices as models and although his students did paint self-portraits and although Vasari speaks of a portrait of Leonardo, there is nothing authenticated, just a number of imaginative guesses. I should like to believe that the Archangel Michael in Botticini’s Tobias and the Three Angels is Leonardo, just as I should like to believe that the fluffy little dog in this and several other paintings, belonged to Verrocchio and ran around the bottega or workshop getting under the feet of Leonardo and his fellow apprentices.

If however, we want to discover traces of Leonardo we have plenty of options. He was named da Vinci because he was born in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, some 30 kms from Florence. He was the illegitimate son of a gentleman notary and a peasant woman. There is a museum in his home town, Vinci, The Museo Leonadiano which contains information and a collection of machines and mechanisms of Leonardo’s designs and one can also visit his birthplace, a restored farmhouse in Anchiano just outside Vinci. Here at least one can see and experience the same landscape over which the boy Leonardo must have roamed.

After a basic education he was apprenticed at 14 to Andrea del Verroccio, the leading Florentine painter and teacher who nurtured many famous Renaissance artists. I happened to be staying not far rom the site of Verrocchio’s bottega which in fact was almost a small factory devoted to the production of works of art in which the master and his apprentices produced not only paintings but an eclectic mix of items including suits of armour, gold and silver ware, tombstones and much more. This bottega was in the parish of Sant’Ambrogio on Via Ghibellina close to the present-day site of Teatro Verdi. Of course there is nothing of Leonardo to see there now but I enjoyed walking along the streets and lanes which he must have frequented.

In fact it is not difficult to inhabit the past in Florence. One has only to slip down one of the little side lanes away from the hordes of tourists with their selfie sticks and enter a deserted piazza or a neighbourhood church to imagine oneself back in the quattrocento.

Patricia travelled courtesy of Kirker Holidays (www.kirkerholidays.com)

3 nights at 4-star Hotel Balestri costs £678 per person. This includes return flights; return private car transfers, accommodation including breakfast, a guaranteed entrance ticket to the Uffizi Gallery (Accademia or Bargello tickets available if preferred), the services of the Kirker Concierge and Kirker’s Guide Notes to restaurants, museum and sightseeing.