Eighteen years Leonardo lived in Milano, and one thing’s for sure: He didn’t spend all of his time painting. So what did he do with himself?
In part, at least, he cultivated the earth.
Let’s back it up, here. Leonardo da Vinci arrived in Milano in 1482, where he quickly became a favorite of the ducal court and painted one of his most famous masterpieces. Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milano and Leonardo’s patron, was intent on maintaining power. One way of doing that in the Renaissance era was to hand out rewards for those who supported you or your family. Ludovico il Moro, as he was called, did just that by giving a house to his supporters.
These weren’t just any houses. Even by today’s standards, they were rather grand affairs, and had large plots of land attached to them. More to the point, they were in Ludovico’s favorite neighborhood: around what he considered his family church, Santa Maria delle Grazie, and near the Castello Sforzesco (kah-stel-oh s-for-zes-koh), where Ludovico and his family lived. One of the families which received a house in this manner was the Atellani family.
The Casa degli Atellani (kah-sah dey-yli ah-tel-ah-nee; House of the Atellani) is important for Leonardo because of the land out back. The Atellani had a grand garden behind their grand house. In return for the wonderful work that Leonardo had been doing for the Sforza family, including The Last Supper, Ludovico Sforza gave part of the land in the very back of the Atellani gardens to Leonardo to be used as a vineyard.
As far as anyone can tell, Leonardo loved his vineyard to pieces. His home town, Vinci, is in the middle of wine country, and his folk were wine cultivators. He spent much of his time in his vineyard, checking the vines, picking a few grapes here and there, and walking through his rows. Personal papers of his, including journals and letters, show just how much he loved his little plot of land.
However, like many good things, Leonardo’s pastoral retreat in the middle of Milano didn’t last long. In 1500, the French invaded and imprisoned Ludovico Sforza, putting all of his followers in immediate danger. Rather hastily, Leonardo entrusted his small, but to him precious, vineyard to the father of Gian Giacomo “Salaì” Caprotti, one of his students, and then skipped town for a while. Imagine his horror when he received word that the French had confiscated his wee little plot of land.
Imagine then the vengeance that a mind like Leonardo da Vinci’s could wreak when righteously indignant. Leonardo returned to Milano and wrested his little vineyard from the hands of the French, then quickly got to work setting it to rights again. Even though he was in and out of Milano for the rest of his life, he never forgot his vineyard. Every time he left, he made sure that there was someone to take care of it in his absence, and when he returned, he took over the cultivation himself.
Before he died in 1519, he made sure to include his vineyard in his will. He split the land between a loyal servant of his and Salaì, to whom he’d entrusted it when the French came through in 1500. Salaì lived on the plot of land with the vineyard until his death in 1524.
After Salaì died, there was no one to look after the vineyard. It became overgrown and a wild part of the Atellani garden, which also fell into neglect. In 1919, an Italian gentleman by the name of Ettore Conti bought the house, and enlisted the help of his architect son-in-law to restore the house and its grounds to its former glory. The house was damaged again in 1943, when the Allies bombed Milano. It was this Ettore Conti who paid for the restoration and rebuilding of both Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Atellani house, which are just across the street from each other, after the war.
This year, Milano was the proud host of the World Exposition, or the Expo, as the people around here are calling it. The event gave the city a chance to show off a bit, and in addition to building the Exposition grounds, other venues around the city took the opportunity to spruce themselves up as well. The Casa degli Atellani was no different. The owners of the house called in the Portaluppi Foundation (Portaluppi was the name of Conti’s son-in-law, who originally restored the Casa degli Atellani), who studied documents from the time in order to bring the house and its grounds back into the glory it enjoyed in its heyday. Through their research, they found the location of Leonardo’s vineyard, at the very bottom of the garden. Excavation revealed some of the original growing posts and rows, as well as some of the original vines.
Since that discovery, the vineyard has been replanted, using the same variety of grapes that Leonardo raised and the same rows he worked. In case you’re curious, Leonardo cultivated a type of grape in the Malvasia family, which makes a delicious white wine.
Visiting: I recommend visiting La Vigna di Leonardo (lah veen-yah dee lee-ohn-ahr-doh; Leonardo’s Vineyard) when you go to Santa Maria delle Grazie, as it is literally across the street. Tickets are 10 euros, and include an audio-guided tour of the Casa degli Atellani and the gardens behind it. Leonardo’s vineyard is the last thing you’ll see on the tour, and it rounds out a day of following Leonardo da Vinci’s footsteps in Milano quite nicely.