In 1482, Leonardo da Vinci moved to Milan, where he would work for the ruling Sforza family doing engineering, sculpting, and architectural projects, and most famously, painting his mural masterpiece, The Last Supper. What’s less known, though, is that the Renaissance genius also tended to personal grapevines in Milan. This vineyard was in existence for nearly four centuries and is located just across the street from the chapel in which Leonardo created The Last Supper.
After a tumultuous history that involved war, fire, and poor urban planning, Leonardo’s vineyard was eventually destroyed. While it did receive some curious attention in the last 100 years (see some black & white photography here), it was largely forgotten during the twentieth century. Earlier this year – nearly a century after its obliteration, and after years of research – a portion of the vineyard had its rebirth, thanks to a team of oenologists and scientists specializing in genetics and the study of soil.
Excavating organic matter at the site of the former vineyard, the team was able to determine the exact varietal of grape that Leonardo grew, as well as his vineyard’s original layout. Once it was decided to reestablish the vineyard, University of Milan staff gave the new grapevines a head-start by growing and grafting them in a greenhouse. They then introduced the vines into the soil of the historic plot of land in early 2015.
Ever since we met, Shawn and I have been fascinated by Leonardo’s genius. Shortly after we were engaged in 2010, we journeyed to the Loire Valley in the central part of France. Of all the châteaux we visited there, Leonardo’s Amboise retirement home, The Château du Clos Lucé, was one of our favorites. We spent several happy hours strolling Clos Lucé’s gardens, and tinkering with life-sized machines – such as a tank, helicopter and paddle wheel – which were all brought to life using Leonardo’s innovative sketches from centuries ago. As Sigmund Freud said of the Renaissance genius, Leonardo was “like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.”
Leonardo epitomizes the ‘Renaissance man’ title, because he dabbled in so many different disciplines, including anatomy, physics, mathematics, weaponry, the arts, and architecture. The child of a legal notary and peasant mother, da Vinci received no extensive formal education, but his father instead set him up with an accomplished Florentine mentor who was renowned for his painting and sculpting abilities. Having grown up in Tuscany, a region long renowned for its wine, it is said that Leonardo perhaps descends from a family of winemakers.
Having read the intriguing tale of how Leonardo’s vineyard was reborn shortly before we visited Milan, we decided it was essential to devote part of an afternoon visiting the Museo Vigna di Leonardo. It consists of the fledgling vines, and the Casa degli Atellani (Atellani House), a private Renaissance-era home and elegant gardens.
About 13 years after Leonardo moved to Milan, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, commissioned Leonardo to paint The Last Supper in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The project took Leonardo several years to complete, and it is said that Sforza had hoped to eventually make the elaborate church the Sforza family’s mausoleum. In 1499, Ludovico Sforza gave Leonardo the vineyard, on a plot of land just across the street from Santa Maria delle Grazie. Later that same year, French troops invaded the Duchy of Milan. They imprisoned the Duke, Leonardo’s patron, causing Leonardo to leave Milan.
After Leonardo’s departure from Milan, the vineyards were leased by the father of Leonardo’s former apprentice, Gian Giacomo Caprotti, nicknamed Salai. Shortly thereafter, they were confiscated by the French. In 1507, the vineyard was returned to Leonardo, thanks to the intervention of Charles II of Amboise, the French king’s lieutenant in Italy.
While Leonardo did return to Milan for several additional years, he spent the last three years of his life at Clos Lucé, dying there in 1519. In his will, he left equal shares of the Milan vineyards to his apprentice, Salai, and to one of his most loyal servants, Giovanbattista Villani. About five years later, Salai ended up being killed during a duel, supposedly in or near the vineyard.
In the centuries that followed, the vineyard changed hands multiple times, being donated, sold, and virtually abandoned, along with the Casa degli Atellani, the dignified home adjacent to the vineyard. In the 1920s, fire and poor city planning further took their toll, causing the vineyard to disappear.
During World War II, the Casa degli Atellani, its gardens and the vineyards suffered more damage during Allied bombing campaigns. Resulting building rubble buried what was left of the vineyard site.
In 2014, after several years of research and speculation, the fragments of the vineyard’s roots were located, allowing scientists to analyze them in a laboratory setting and determine the exact variety: Malvasia di Candia Aromatica.
As Shawn and I looked at the baby vines behind the Casa degli Atellani, we tried to imagine the Renaissance master tending to his vineyard in that very spot centuries ago.
What remains to be seen is if any wine will eventually be produced from the Malvasia vines now thriving in this historic setting.
What Leonardo-related masterpieces or artifacts are some of your favorites? Have you been to any artist’s homes that you would recommend? Claude Monet’s garden & home in Giverny, France is one of my favorites, as is the Meštrović Gallery in Split, Croatia. Please share your thoughts below.
The Museo Vigna di Leonardo hosted us for this visit.