Leonardo da Vinci, the true Renaissance man, emerged as a shining beacon of creativity, intellect, and artistic genius in the vibrant city of Florence. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Florence thrived as a cultural centre, nurturing extraordinary talents that would forever shape the course of history. In this remarkable setting, Leonardo da Vinci took his first steps towards becoming an iconic figure in the realms of art, science, and invention.
Born in Vinci, a small Tuscan town, in 1452, da Vinci moved to Florence as a young man, where he began his artistic apprenticeship under the tutelage of Andrea del Verrocchio, a renowned Florentine painter and sculptor. In the fertile ground of Florence, da Vinci’s boundless curiosity and insatiable thirst for knowledge found fertile ground, fueling his passion for the arts and sciences alike.
The beauty of walking in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci in Florence is that they take you to some of the most iconic sites in Florence as well as to some of the city’s hidden gems. So if you have more than 2 days in Florence and would like to venture off the beaten path, uncovering da Vinci’s Florence is a fascinating opportunity to do that.
The journey into the world of Leonardo da Vinci in Florence starts in the Uffizi Gallery. This is where the only three of da Vinci’s paintings in Florence can be found. One completed painting – The Annunciation (1478), one unfinished – Adoration of the Magi, where he included a self-portrait (1481), and his angel on Verrocchio’s painting of the Baptism of Christ (1475).
Created around 1472-1475, the Annunciation is one of Leonardo’s earliest paintings. It depicts the biblical scene of the Archangel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary, announcing to her that she will conceive and give birth to the son of God, Jesus Christ.
Although the “Annunciation” is an early work, it already displays some of the characteristics that would define da Vinci’s later artistic style. These include his mastery of light and shadow, his use of sfumato (a technique of blending colours and tones to create a soft, hazy effect), his exploration of human anatomy and facial expressions, and his meticulous attention to detail.
The unfinished Adoration of the Magi is fascinating for the sheer amount of detail that makes up Leonardo’s paintings. There are a dozen different stories weaved together into a single scene. It is almost like seeing what was in his mind as he worked on the painting. All the moving parts that would’ve come together had he finished the painting.
The supposed self-portrait is an intriguing detail since no images of young Leonardo exist, and Vasari described him as a very handsome and charismatic man.
The final painting in the room, Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ, is significant because it features the work of a young da Vinci, his apprentice at the time.
Leonardo da Vinci’s contribution to the painting is believed to be the figure of the angel. It is said that da Vinci’s talent was so remarkable even as a young artist, that Verrocchio felt intimidated by his skill and decided to quit painting altogether.
The angel, attributed to da Vinci, is a beautiful and ethereal figure with graceful, flowing drapery and a serene expression. The delicate features and the elegant pose of the angel are characteristic of da Vinci’s artistic style.
Beyond these three paintings, the only traces of Leonardo da Vinci in Florence are the places that are associated with his life and work in the city.
In Leonardo’s time, this medieval fortress was called Palazzo della Signoria – the civic heart of Florence. In 1503, he was commissioned to paint a grandiose mural of the Battle of Anghiari in what is now the Hall of the 500, but at the time was the Great Hall of Signoria. At the same time, his rival Michelangelo was designated the opposite wall for a mural of another battle.
In preparation, Leonardo da Vinci drew his large cartoon in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. He built an ingenious scaffold in the Hall of Five Hundred that could be raised or folded in the manner of an accordion.
This painting was to be his largest and most substantial work. However, always the experimenter, Leonardo used a new type of paint that began to drip before the painting dried up. Leonardo tried to salvage the painting, but it was too late. Frustrated he abandoned it, as he often did with his artworks.
The unfinished fresco remained on the wall of Palazzo Vecchio, and in the intervening centuries, several artists made copies of it (one of them is displayed in the Apartments of the Elements upstairs).
Legend has it that when Vasari was commissioned to remodel the hall, he built a false wall over Leonardo’s fresco to preserve it instead of painting over his work. Vasari left a cryptic clue on one of the battle flags on his fresco, a barely noticeable inscription 12 meters above ground that reads “Cerca Trova” or Seek and ye Shall Find. Considering that only 15, possibly 16 paintings by Leonardo da Vinci are believed to exist, the possibility of discovering the Battle of Anghiari is fascinating.
There have been several attempts to examine the wall beyond Vasari’s fresco, which provided promising but inconclusive results and in 2012, efforts to investigate further were discontinued.
Piazza della Signoria
Today a copy of Michelangelo’s David guards the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio. Originally intended to be placed on the roof of the cathedral’s dome, the 6-ton statue proved to be impractical to maneuver to such great height.
In 1504, while Michelangelo was working on a commission in Rome, Leonardo and Botticelli participated in a committee formed to relocate David from Opera del Duomo, where it was carved to the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio instead.
The first of Medici palaces in Florence, Palazzo Medici-Ricardi, was home to the most magnificent of all the Medici – Lorenzo the Magnificent. Under Lorenzo’s patronage, Florence became a centre of artistic innovation and creativity. He supported renowned artists such as Michelangelo, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Verrocchio.
While Leonardo wasn’t directly connected to the Medici family, he interacted with and received support from Lorenzo during his time in Florence.
Recognizing Leonardo’s exceptional talent, Lorenzo invited him to join his court as an artist and engineer. Leonardo spent a significant portion of his career in Florence under the patronage of Lorenzo and his family. He worked on various artistic and scientific projects, including painting, sculpture, architecture, and engineering.
It is quite likely that Leonardo visited his patron at Palazzo Medici-Ricardi, which at the time was simply Palazzo Medici.
Piazza San Marco
The San Marco square was part of the old Medici Quarter, which also included Palazzo Medici-Ricardi and Basilica di San Lorenzo and San Marco monastery. In Lorenzo Medici’s time, there was a sprawling garden on the square that he allocated to the artists under his patronage.
An anonymous chronicler from the 16th century left a record that Leonardo “stayed, as a young man, with the Magnificent Lorenzo de’ Medici, and giving him provision, he had him work for himself in the garden on the square of San Marco in Florence“.
While Leonardo’s name is conspicuously absent from the marble wall at the entrance to the Opera del Duomo museum, which celebrates all the artists who worked on the cathedral complex, there are several connections between Leonardo and the Duomo and the Baptistery.
During Leonardo’s time in Verrocchio’s workshop, he had the opportunity to study the machines invented by Brunelleschi to raise Duomo’s dome to its incredible height. After the dome was completed, Verrocchio was commissioned to create and install a 2-tonn gilded globe on top of the dome, for which he used Brunelleschi’s machines.
There is little doubt that Leonardo’s curiosity would draw him to such a high-profile artistic project of his master. In fact, Leonardo filled two pages in one of his notebooks, Codex Atlanticus, with the sketches of the crane Verrocchio used to hoist the globe onto the dome.
Leonardo’s connection to the Baptistery is even more direct than to Duomo. One of Leonardo’s most ambitious proposals was to raise the Baptistery to its original level. In ancient times, the Baptistery stood on a base with a marble staircase, but over the centuries, the base sunk below the street level. Leonardo devised a complex plan to raise the building using a series of winches. However, even Leonardo’s genius and charisma were not enough to convince the Florentine government that such an undertaking would be possible.
Years later, Leonardo befriended another of Verrocchio’s pupils, the sculptor Giovan Francesco Rustici. Rustici was commissioned to create bronze statues depicting The Preaching of the Baptist for the Baptistery. The statues were to be placed above one of the Baptistery’s doors.
According to Vasari, Leonardo and Rustici lived together at the time at the palace of the Martelli family, and Rustici worked on the statues with Leonardo’s help. It is not known how much Leonardo was involved, but here is what Vasari has to say on the subject:
“Giovan Francesco, while he was fashioning that work in clay, would have no one about him but Leonardo da Vinci, who, during the making of the moulds, the securing them with irons, and, in short until the statues were cast, never left his side; wherefore some believe, but without knowing more than this, that Leonardo worked at them with his own hand, or at least assisted Giovan Francesco with his advice and good judgment”.
Rastici’s statues can be found in the Opera del Duomo museum.
The house of the Martelli family (Casa Martelli), where da Vinci and Rustici stayed while they worked on the sculptures for the Baptistery, is located on Via Ferdinando Zannetti, 8. It is now part of the Bargello Museum, and you can visit it on Tuesdays and Saturdays. It is one of the loveliest hidden gems in Florence, largely overlooked by tourists.
While staying at Martelli’s house, Leonardo began one of his notebooks, known as The Codex of Arundel. His opening entry read:
“Begun in Florence in the Piero di Baccio Martelli house on 22 March 1508. And this will be a collection without order drawn from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping to later put them in order to their places, according to the subjects with which they will treat; and I believe that before I am at the end of this, I will have to repeat the same thing several times”
Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella is one of the most beautiful churches in Florence. When Leonardo was commissioned by the Signoria to paint the large mural for Palazzo Vecchio in 1503, he stayed with the Dominican monks at Santa Maria Novella and worked in the church to draw the full-scale cartoon for his Battle of Alighieri.
As with all his artistic pursuits, Leonardo spent a long time working on the drawing, and he drew inspiration from the works of Brunelleschi, Ghirlandaio, and Giotto that surrounded him in the church.
Verrocchio Workshop – Bottega del Verrochhio
Verrocchio’s workshop is, of course, long gone. But since the address of the building where the workshop was located is known, you can go for a walk along the exact street that Leonardo would’ve walked daily during his apprenticeship.
Verrocchio family owned a house at the cross of via dell’Agnolo with “Via Pentolini sive Malborghetto” (now via de’ Macci). Don’t expect to see much on that street corner today. But you can enjoy walking in Leonardo’s footsteps here.
In Leonardo’s time, the building we know as the Bargello Museum was called Palazzo del Podesta, and it was the largest civic building in Florence. When Leonardo and his far Ser Piero moved to Florence in 1469, Ser Piero worked as a notary at the Palazzo del Podesta.
Ten years later, members of the Pazzi family plotted to overthrow the Medici family by killing Lorenzo and Giuliano Medici. The conspirators succeeded in killing Giuliano but only wounded Lorenzo, who exacted swift revenge on the members of the Pazzi conspiracy. One of the conspirators, Bernardo di Bandidi Baroncelli, fled to Constantinople, but the Turks captured him and handed him over to Lorenzo. On December 29, 1479, Baroncelli was hanged in the Palazzo del Podesta and afterwards ‘exhibited’ in Piazza della Signoria.
Leonardo sketched a drawing of the Hanged Man, dispassionately noting his clothes: tulle cap, black satin doublet…
Inside the Bargello Museum, you can find Rustici’s small terracotta composition of da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari. Since Rustici and Leonardo were quite close, sharing lodgings at Palazzo Martelli and potentially working together on the statues for the Baptistery, it is not surprising that the younger sculptor was inspired by Leonardo’s work and replicated it in his own art.
Basilica della Santissima Annunziata
On his return to Florence in 1500, Leonardo accepted the commission for the altarpiece for the high altar of the Santissima Annunziata. Originally, the friars commissioned Filippino Lippi for the job, but when Lippi heard that the great master da Vinci was interested in the commission, he graciously walked away.
The friars provided Leonardo with lodgings at the convent for the duration of his work. And while Leonardo spent a long time staying with the monks, he never started the commission. Instead, he is believed to have painted his famous The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, which may have been commissioned by the King of France and is currently housed in the Louvre.
The rooms where Leonardo and his apprentices may have stayed have been located in the headquarters of the Military Geographical Institute next door. During the renovations in 2005, when workers demolished a wall, they came across a secret stairwell and several small rooms, now believed to be Leonardo’s lodgings.
Santa Maria Nuova Hospital
Santa Maria Nuova Hospital is the oldest hospital still active in Florence. It is also the place where Leonardo performed his anatomical studies. As if being the world’s most talented artist and inventor way ahead of his time, Leonardo also made great advances in the field of anatomy. In fact, he was the first to describe a condition we know as arteriosclerosis.
Ironically, the reason we know about this is that Leonardo was accused of secretly stealing corpses from the hospital morgue to use them as anatomical models for his drawings. In response to the accusations, Leonardo wrote in a letter (currently at the Royal Library of Windsor):
“And this old man, a few hours before his death, told me he had gone one hundred years and that he did not feel any weakness in his person other than weakness. And so, sitting on a bed in the hospital of Santa Maria Nova in Florence, without any other movement or sign of any accident, he passed from this life. And I made an examination of it to see the cause of such a sweet death: which I found failing due to lack of blood and artery, which feeds the core and the other lower limbs, which I found many arid, exhausted and dry. This anatomy I described very diligently and with great ease, being deprived of fat and humour, which greatly impedes the knowledge of the parts. The other anatomy was of a two-year-old child, in which I found everything contrary to that of the old man.”
Leonardo da Vinci Museum
While known mostly as an artist, the creator of the world’s most famous portrait, the Mona Lisa, Leonardo considered himself more of an inventor than an artist. He designed countless machines and mechanisms, including a prototype helicopter, a tank, a scuba diving device and various gadgets for flying machines, to name a few.
Most of these inventions were so far ahead of their time that there were no practical means to build them. Centuries would pass before Leonardo’s inventions were transformed into physical artifacts. There are several museums in Italy that exhibit models assembled from Leonardo’s drawings, and one of them is in Florence.
Leonardo da Vinci Interactive Museum, near the Duomo, is a fascinating world that offers a glimpse into the mind of a genius. The models of dozens of machines are displayed across several rooms, and many are interactive, so you can get a sense of how they work.
As you cross the Arno River over the Santa Trinita bridge, you’ll come across Palazzo Feroni-Ferragamo (Feroni-Ferragamo Palace) – in front of which Leonardo had a public quarrel with his rival Michelangelo.
As the story goes, a group of intellectuals were gathered on the public benches at the Palazzo Feroni, discussing a passage from Dante when Leonardo walked by with his friend Giovanni di Gavina. The men called out to Leonardo, asking him to explain the meaning of the passage. At the same moment, Michelangelo walked by, and Leonardo gestured towards him, announcing that “Michelangelo will explain it to you.”
Given the rivalry between the artists, Michelangelo took Leonardo’s remark as a sign of mockery and retorted: “No, you explain – you who have undertaken the design of a horse to be cast in bronze but were unable to cast it and were forced to give up in shame”, referring to Leonardo’s ambitious project for the Duke of Milan that was never finished, like many Leonardo’s undertakings.
Walking away, Michelangelo added, “And to think you were believed by those castrated Milanese roosters!” Leonardo was left blushing and humiliated.
To get a sense of the artistic landscape that Leonardo found in Florence, visit the nearby Brancacci chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine. It is one of Italy’s most beautiful chapels, and the stunning frescoes by Masaccio and Masolino in the Brancacci Chapel are considered some of the greatest masterpieces of Renaissance art.
According to Giorgio Vasari, the Florentine artist and art historian, all the most celebrated painters and sculptors in Florence, including Leonardo da Vinci, came to study Masaccio’s monumental life-like figures and his use of light and shadow to create a 3-dimensional effect.
Basilica di Santo Spirito
Just a couple of blocks away, there is Brunileschi’s last masterpiece – Basilica di Santo Spirito. The church facade is so simple you could walk right past it. But the interior of the basilica is a masterpiece of artistic geometric symmetry. Leonardo mentioned Basilica di Danto Spirito in one of his notebooks, Codex Atlanticus, around 1505.
Start your Leonardo da Vinci Florence walk on the south bank of the Arno River and enter the city through one of its ancient gates – Porta Romana. In Leonardo’s time, Florence was encircled by a city wall punctuated by ten massive gates, many of which still stand.
In 1515 Leonardo traced the schematic and idealized plan of Florence, including the representation of the city walls and the gates.
Porta Romana also featured in Dan Brown’s Inferno – Robert Langdon and Siena Brooks entered Florence through this ancient gate.
And this is where our journey of discovering the traces of Leonardo da Vinci in Florence comes to an end. You could walk this itinerary in a day or pick a few places to add to your Florence explorations.
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