Patricia Cleveland-Peck

Although millions of words have been written about Leonardo, he remains an elusive figure. I wondered as I set off whether it would be in his works or in the places in which he’d lived that I would find the clearest traces of him.

Leonardo was named da Vinci because he was born, the illegitimate son of a notary and a peasant woman, near the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, some 40 kms from Florence. In Vinci there is a museum, Museo Leonadiano ( and it is also possible to visit his birthplace, a restored farmhouse in nearby Anchiano. One of the greatest pleasures for me however was simply walking though the Tuscan landscape where the boy Leonardo had roamed, observing nature and filling his notebooks with meticulous drawings.

After a basic education he was apprenticed at 14 to Andrea del Verrocchio, the leading Florentine painter and teacher who nurtured many famous Renaissance artists. In Florence I first went to the new Leonardo da Vinci Room at the Uffizi gallery ( ) where three magnificent painting are now preserved in special climate-controlled cases. On the left is The Baptism of Christ painted in 1475-8. In this the young apprentice Leonardo collaborated with his master 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 superior to his own work, he put down his paintbrush and never painted again. On the opposite wall is the Annunciation. 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.

I happened to be staying not far from the site of Verrocchio’s bottega, close to the present-day Teatro Verdi. The bottega was in fact a small factory-workshop producing not only paintings but a mix of items including suits of armour, gold and silver ware, tombstones and much more. There is no trace of it today but I enjoyed exploring the narrow lanes which Leonardo must have used. In fact it is not difficult to inhabit the past in Florence. One has only to slip down one of the little side streets away from the hordes of tourists and enter a deserted piazza or a neighbourhood church to imagine oneself back in the quattrocento.

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 made some serious errors in the choice of painting materials, he often put off doing things and sometimes didn’t finish commissions. This was the case with Adoration of the Magi. By this time he began this he had left Verrocchio and set upon his own - but things had not gone well. It was probably to give himself a new start that in 1482 he decided to move to Milan.

Leonardo was good at promoting himself. He sent a letter applying for the job of court artist to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Florence in which he outlined his skills as engineer and military architect (70% of Sforza’s budget went on the military) only adding almost as an afterthought, that he could paint too. The first project which he undertook was to commemorate Ludovico’s father Francesco by designing what was to be the largest equestrian statue ever made. The project was interrupted by war, however and the bronze it was to be cast in was required for canons. It took until 1999 for the artist Nina Akamu to recreate it and it can be seen today at the San Siro Racecourse.

Leonardo busied himself not only with military matters but also with designing fabulous theatrical effects for the lavish entertainments of the Sforza court, the hub of which was the Castello Sforsesco ( This is a big, rather forbidding edifice which later became a barracks but today, as well as many mini-museums it contains what I found to be one of the most fascinating and mysterious of Leonardo’s works, the little Sala delle Asse. Here, the painted trunks of mulberry trees ascend to the vaulted roof decorated with Leonardo’s signature detail of knots. The mulberry, il moro in Italian, also strands for Ludovico who was known for his swarthy looks as ‘Il Moro’ which also means The Moor. The mulberry theme is being echoed outside in a newly planted little area, Leonardo’s Mulberry Garden.

Next I went in search of Leonardo at the Pinoteca Ambrosiana which, as well as having one of the most wonderful historic libraries in the world, also contains Leonardo’s original Codex Atlanticus consisting of 1119 of his meticulous annotated drawings, all in his characteristic right-to-left mirror writing. Absorbing as these are, it was through his painting The Musician that I connected most strongly with Leonardo. I knew in this beautiful young man’s gaze, I was seeing the very face that Leonardo had looked at while painting it.

Milan is a big commercial city and until this moment I had found it hard to imagine Leonardo here. While waiting for my slot to see The Last Supper however, I first visited the church of Santa Maria della Grazia and here I could well imagine Leonardo in the tranquil cloister and the old church itself. Then, standing in the dim light looking up at one of the best-known paintings in the world, both the painting and the place filled me with a sense of awe.

From here I crossed the road to the Fundazione Stelline to see the exhibition The Last Supper after Leonardo where the works of contemporary artists inspired by Leonardo were on display. It was fascinating to see the different interpretations from Anish Kapoor, Robert Longo, Masbedo, Nicola Samorì, Wang Guangyi and Yue Minjun. Amish Kapoor’s red, visceral piece which echoes ‘the way Leonardo removes the skin and looks inside’, Wang Guangyi’s almost landscape-like 16 meter polyptych and the one I found most compelling, Masbedo’s video installation devoted to the hands of Madam Pinin Brambilla who worked for 22 years on the restoration of Leonardo’s masterpiece.

In 1498 Duke Ludovico rewarded Leonardo with a piece of land to make a vineyard here in Corso Magenta This has been reconstructed in the lovely garden of the Casa degli Atellani almost next door to the Stellini. The area was bombed during the WW2, but genetic research found traces of the old vine species, Malvasia di Candia Aromatica, a white grape popular in Renaissance Lombardy, and they have now been replanted.

I had spotted The World of Leonardo (

A permanent exhibition in Pizza della Scala but had almost dismissed it as looking too touristy. How glad I am that I didn’t, for inside I found the flying machine, the submarine, the dragonfly and dozens more of the inventions from Leonardo’s codices, all skilfully constructed and in some cases digitally brought to life so that visitors could interact with them. Cecilia Gallerani, for example, could at a touch, be made to stroke the ermine and even to yawn! It may not have been an art historian’s mecca but everyone including children was actively delighting in this exhibition.

Later as I sat outside beneath the big statue of Leonardo and his pupils, I looked up at Leonardo and thought how the digital world would have fascinated him - and especially how pleased he would be to see, more than 500 years after he left it, people from all over the world, looking at the fruits of his imagination and hailing him as the most clever man ever to have lived.

These are just some of the events available; there are many others to come later in the year.

In Florence

In Milan

Patricia travelled courtesy of Kirker Holidays (

3 nights at 4-star Hotel Balestri Florence 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.

3 nights at 5-star Hotel Baglione Hotel Carlton in Milan costs £1048 per person low season and £1098 per person high season. This includes return flights, return transfers, accommodation including breakfast, entrance to the Brera Gallery, the services of the Kirker Concierge and Kirker's Guide Notes to restaurants, museum and sightseeing.