Monday, 18 April 2016

The unremarkable Vinci

Saturday 16th April, 2016

Vinci is an unprepossessing small town at the foot of the Monte Albano. It has a small, walled medieval centre, with an unremarkable much restored Romanesque church, two gift shops, one selling Tuscan marbled paper and leather notebooks; the newer parts of the place are bland, though the cafés are nice enough; it has a large cantina on the outskirts selling DOP Montalbano Chianti, and that's about it. Nobody would take the time to come here except for the fact that as the name suggests, it is the birthplace of one of the most remarkable men who ever walked the earth.

What is nice about Vinci it has not become a Leonardo theme park to quite the extent that, for example, Assisi has disneyfied St. Francis. A large wooden model of Leonardo's Vitruvian Man graces the ramparts, and town's Castelo houses a small museum. The art installation outside of it is thought provoking and interesting, and a 'green' 3km. nature trail has been developed linking the town to the modest farmstead in the Albano Hills where the artist was born.

Artist, I suppose, is a bit of a misnomer, for although today Leonardo is most associated with the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, it was his skills as a mathematician, engineer, designer of armaments and fortifications that guaranteed the patronage of the nobility of  16th century Tuscany and Lombardy and drew him to the attention of Francois I of France. In the 'resumé' that Leonardo sent to the Duke of Milan his talent as a painter is mentioned in the final paragraph almost as an afterthought.

What is great about the Vinci museum is it recognises this, and the exhibits consist mainly of beautiful wooden models of his notebook designs built by the industrial engineering department of the University of Florence. Leonardo's febrile imagination was astonishing - paddle boats, flying machines, weapons of mass destruction, tower cranes, pedal bicycles, olive mills, tanks, a pressurised diving suit - his unique combination of Socratic curiosity, mathematical skill, draughtsmanship and prophetic imagination is awe inspiring. Taken together, he seems more a magician than a philosopher or scientist.

We took the car to his birthplace. It would have been good to do the walk, especially as it was a lovely day, but it was now late morning and lunch was competing with our Leonardo appreciation. In truth there is little to see. A villa near the birthplace has installed an 'impossible gallery' featuring computer generated images of Leonardo's most famous paintings. It's an interesting idea, and certainly looking at the background landscapes of pictures like the Virgin of the Rocks, with their mysterious rock formations and fantastical cascades, articulated by Leonardo using his famed sfumato technique, you sense in the penumbral gloom the sense of a unifying force in nature that lies at the heart of his genius. In a way I think this virtual collection misses a trick. It would have been so easy to provide the viewer with the facility to enhance the computer generated images to provide an approximation of what the pictures may have looked like when Leonardo painted them. To see the Last Supper restored to its original glory would be something indeed, and quite possible with today's imaging technology.

As for the birthplace itself, perhaps its location deep in the peaceful Tuscan countryside is its most memorable aspect. The explanation of how 19th century scholarship re-discovered Leonardo's family tree, and the actual building where he was born is really only of academic interest. Beyond the dry factual information, I began to wonder if the way Nature envelopes and defines human existence, something that you sense in both Shakespeare and Leonardo was the result of them both growing up in the countryside rather than a city; I found myself thinking of them as Prosperos, each masters of inner magical islands beyond the ken of we mere mortals.


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