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The Genius

In the hamlet of Anchiano, "in the third hour of the night" on the 15th of April 1452 Caterina gave birth to a bright child with unusual features and attractive traits: it was Leonardo.

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Ser Piero's father, the grandfather Antonio, writes down everything: how many olives have been harvested, when the wheat has been threshed, when an ox is sold or when a child like Leonardo is born on his properties. It is thanks to his "little book" that we know at what time and on what day the great genius of the Renaissance was born. Leonardo is one of the many children born in large numbers in the 15th century: the risk of death in the first months of life is high and those who survive are few (if they are poor or son of farmers) and have very little to expect from life. This is Leonardo's status. He is the son of a notary and a servant of uncertain origin. He was born in a small house, that of Anchiano, above Vinci, which is in the countryside and Ser Piero does not intend to regalize the relationship with Caterina, on the contrary, in Florence he marries Albiera, daughter of another notary. Caterina, on the other hand, was married to a farmer from Vinci and gave birth to five more children.

Leonardo is a special boy, brought by his grandparents to the manor house of Vinci. Not just because Leonardo is their nephew, they adopt him because his eyes and his angelic aspect won them over.

His grandfather Antonio teaches him to read. In the house he finds books not only about law and accounts, they are actually codes, written by hand. Leonardo immediately learns to write, even if he uses his left hand. And he draws: on sand, on clay, on pieces of wood. His uncle Francesco, Ser Piero's younger brother, is a bit of an artist and offers him the first sheets of paper, a rare and precious material in this century. You can't find any in the homes of the poor and farmers, but his grandfather is a notary and he doesn't lack paper, quill pens and inkwells. Uncle Francesco watches him draw with charcoal. So he discovers the talent of this strange beautiful child and encourages him. Francesco is younger and very different from his brother Piero. His parents say that he is a reckless man, a loafer who spends most of his time in the Vinci tavern, also owned by the family. Together, Francesco and Leonardo explore the valleys and hills around Vinci, visiting the churches and workshops of artisans, potters and blacksmiths, where Leonardo experiences the technology and gears that we will find in many of his extraordinary drawings.

But to understand when the technological imprinting that marks his discoveries occurs, you have to come to Anchiano, in the middle of the cultivated hills, among wheat fields, vineyards and well-kept olive groves.

 

Here is the landscape that Leonardo saw in the first years of his life. Just this? No. Something is missing. Leonardo's birthplace is at a higher altitude than the burg which is a few hundred meters away. A stream flows beneath it which then passes under Vinci. The sign says "Via dei mulini" (Watermills Road), even if you can't see the mills now. The ruins, if they remain, are hidden by vegetation. Here's what was missing from the panorama: the mills, with their wheels and the power of the water that made Leonardo's entire world work. Not only mills for grinding wheat or olive-presses, but also mills that moved lathes and gears, to beat iron, forge weapons, make paper or saw wood. This is where Leonardo sees them for the first time with his strange childish eyes: on his doorstep, between Anchiano and his grandparents' house.

His father Ser Piero rarely comes to Vinci. He arrives with his beautiful white horse and then leaves. There is no real father-son relationship with Leonardo. The little boy is just one of his many legitimate or illegitimate children. But the drawings that his brother Francesco shows him and the boy's lively intelligence make him make an unexpected and generous decision for him. When Leonardo turns fifteen, he takes him with him to Florence: certainly not to become an apprentice notary, a profession only for true noblemen. He makes him attend the Abaco school, where he studies music and geometry, but also grammar. Without much profit, according to his teachers, Leonardo certainly does not want to be a "man of letters", so one day Ser Piero, once collected his drawings, takes him to the legendary atelier of Andrea del Verrocchio. It is located not far from Piazza della Signoria and does everything: large paintings for churches, palaces projects, bronze statues, jewellery, decorations, scenography. Promising young men like Botticelli and Piero Vannucci, known as Perugino, work there. It's a factory where you work hard, but where you can breathe a freedom of thought and traditions that is uncommon to the rest of Italy.

When Ser Piero shows Leonardo's drawings to Verrocchio, his atelier (“bottega”) is the best art school in the world. Leonardo is accepted and like all beginners he starts with grinding stones and mixing colours. Then he will learn and do everything, until he becomes a finished artist and painter. He will become so good that he will be entrusted with finishing Verrocchio's paintings himself.

During his life Leonardo excelled in multiple fields of knowledge: he was a painter, writer, architect, engineer, scientist, musician and much more. His ability to range between art and science, imagination and observation will make an extraordinary and lasting contribution to the history of humanity.

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