VINCI, Italy — In his biography of Leonardo da Vinci, written 30 years after the artist’s death in 1519, Giorgio Vasari said Leonardo had “such a power of intellect that whatever he turned his mind to, he made himself master of with ease.”
In this 500th anniversary year of the artist’s death, the Musée du Louvre in Paris has undeniably stolen the limelight with its blockbuster exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci.” Yet that intellectual dexterity — manifest in Leonardo’s paintings and drawings as well as his scientific studies and his engineering and architectural models — has spawned celebratory exhibitions in several Italian cities where Leonardo’s legacy remains a source of pride.
That pride was somewhat bruised when the Louvre — which has the world’s biggest collection of Leonardo paintings — took center stage in the celebrations. But after some jousting between Italy and France, the presidents of the two countries met and made up at a ceremony in Amboise, France, where Leonardo died.
Nowhere is that pride more heartfelt than in Vinci, a small Tuscan town 17 miles west of Florence, where Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, the son of Ser Piero da Vinci, a prosperous notary, and a local peasant girl named Caterina.
Leonardo’s ghost lingers throughout the walled town (Mona Lisa cookies, anyone?), where contemporary artists have reinterpreted his vision. A 3D sculptural replica of Leonardo’s drawing of Vitruvian Man dominates the main piazza in the historic center. In another, there is a bronze horse inspired by a never-completed model he created for the Sforza dynasty in Milan, while other artists have reconfigured local spaces inspired by his designs.
Leonardo’s actual birthplace is not definitively known. But as Walter Isaacson wrote in his 2017 biography of the artist, “legend and the local tourist industry” have homed in on a stone cottage in the hamlet of Anchiano, 2 miles from Vinci, that is now a small museum.
For the past several months, the 13th-century Palazzo Guidi, one site of Vinci’s Leonardo museum, has hosted an exhibition about Leonardo’s origins and relationship to his native town.
A section of the exhibition explored the artist’s first dated drawing, a landscape from Aug. 5, 1473, that pays witness to his fascination with nature. The original (a copy is displayed), which belongs to the Uffizi Galleries, has been lent to the Louvre show along with Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man — a work whose fame almost matches the Mona Lisa’s — on loan from the Accademia Galleries in Venice, Italy.
The museum focused on Leonardo’s interests in science, architecture and engineering and includes several models — including war and flying machines — created in 1952 for an exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of his birth. Other sections focused on optics, anatomy, mechanical clocks, the study of water and geometry.
Sometime in the 1460s, Leonardo left Vinci for Florence, where his father lived. Because he was illegitimate, he could not become a notary, the family business, so he was first sent to learn math at what was known as abacus school. (Vasari wrote that Leonardo very quickly outwitted his teacher.) In his early teens he became an apprentice in the workshop of artist and engineer Andrea del Verrocchio.
There, in the mid-1470s, Leonardo painted the figure of an angel on the far left of Verrocchio’s “Baptism of Christ.” Leonardo’s panel of “The Annunciation” for the Church of Monte Oliveto also dates to that time. Both hang in the Uffizi, next to the “Adoration of the Magi,” which Leonardo abandoned when he moved to Milan in 1482. The Uffizi declined to lend these works to the Louvre because of their fragility.
Leonardo’s first stay in Milan lasted 17 years, when the city-state was ruled by Ludovico Sforza, a prince who enlisted Leonardo for various tasks in his court, including the production of elaborate pageants. A draft of an introductory letter Leonardo wrote to Ludovico is on exhibit in Milan’s Ambrosiana gallery in which he presents himself as an expert military engineer able to design weapons that “will cause great terror to the enemy.”
He mentions his other skills, sculpture and painting, almost as an aside. He also promised to cast a bronze horse “to the immortal glory and eternal honor” of the house of Sforza. Five hundred years later, a modern version of the horse was installed at Milan’s racetrack, though some citizens would like it to be moved to a more well-trodden site.
For Ludovico, Leonardo created the “Last Supper” in the refectory, or dining hall, of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. For Ludovico, also, he painted the so-called Sala delle Asse (Room of Planks) in the castle that served as the residence of Milan’s ruling families (and is today a museum). These are the only known frescoes by Leonardo to survive.
The Sala has been under restoration and closed to the public since 2013. But it opened for the celebrations with a multimedia show that takes spectators through Leonardo’s early years in Milan.
Leonardo once described the city’s Church of San Sepolcro as the “true center of Milan.” Today, the church is annexed to the Ambrosiana, the library and art gallery founded in 1607 by Cardinal Federico Borromeo, that’s a must-see in Milan. The Ambrosiana possesses the painting of a “Musician,” now in the Louvre show, as well as 29 drawings, and — most notably, perhaps — the 1,119 folios that make up the Codex Atlanticus, the largest of the collections of Leonardo’s musings that were assembled after his death. Visitors to the Ambrosiana will always find a number of pages on exhibit. A more modern addition to Leonardo’s Milanese legacy dates to 1953, when the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci opened to showcase a collection of models of Leonardo’s inventions, created for the 500th anniversary of his birth.
For 70 years, the museum has enchanted generations of Italian schoolchildren (and adults), and last month it presented a revamped installation of its Leonardo galleries, meant to better contextualize the artist.
“We want to explore Leonardo within his historical era,” said Claudio Giorgione, curator of the new galleries. “We want to tell the story of his greatness in a more correct light,” he said, stripped of its mythical attributes.
Leonardo left Milan in 1499 but would return in 1506, living there off and on for seven years as he traveled to other cities including Parma, Florence, Mantua, Venice, Pavia and others before heading to Rome in 1513, shortly after Giovanni de’ Medici was elected to become Pope Leo X.
In Rome, Leonardo was given lodging in the Villa Belvedere, the papal summer residence. The Vatican owns the only Leonardo painting in Rome, a St. Jerome that was lent to the Louvre show.
But his Roman stay is being celebrated at the National Academy dei Lincei with various exhibitions. One, at the Palazzo Corsini, examines the books that Leonardo would have owned — he had some 200 volumes in his library — even though he was considered a “man without letters” because he did not have a classical education.
Across the road, at the Farnesina — site of Raphael’s famed fresco of the nymph Galatea — an exhibit explores Leonardo’s influence and legacy in Rome, while yet another — called “The Impossible Exhibition” — consists of full-size digital reproductions of all of Leonardo’s attributed paintings (as well as an imagined reconstruction of his workshop at the Belvedere).
But, arguably, the most interesting exhibit has been “Leonardo in Translation,” which focuses on the propagation of Leonardo’s research in the 19th century, including reproductions of his codices, the collections of writings and sketches.
This show also showcases the work of Luigi Calamatta (1801-1869), an Italian artist known for reproducing famous masterpieces as engravings. He moved to Paris in 1822, and thanks to his friendship with the painter Ingres, he was given permission to make an engraving of the Mona Lisa, Leonardo’s most ogled painting, which has become a hostage to its own fame at the Louvre.
It was a painstaking enterprise that he worked on from 1826 to 1854. The engraving was shown for the first time at the 1855 Universal Exhibition of Paris.
On a recent rainy afternoon, the room with various versions of his etched Mona Lisa — titled “Lisa Gioconda,” its Italian name — was empty; and a viewer was able to ponder that famed smile — no less enigmatic in an etching — taking all the time in the world.