I returned to Milan for the first time in years this month and I decided to seek out the sites linked to Leonardo da Vinci. Of course I wanted to see the “Last Supper” masterpiece in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, but I also heard that for a short period of time there was a chance to discover a more private side to the Renaissance polymath.
Just across the road from the famous church, a beautiful residence originating in the 15th century has opened its doors and is letting visitors in to see a secret of Da Vinci’s. After wandering through the courtyards and rooms of the Casa degli Atellani, a house that Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, had awarded this family for their loyalty, visitors can also head into the gardens to uncover Da Vinci’s forgotten hobby: his vineyard.
At the bottom of the garden, this vineyard given to Da Vinci by Ludovico Sforza in 1498 for painting the Last Supper has been replanted and brought back to life. Italian wine experts have reproduced it down to the last detail, planting the Malvasia di Candia variety of vine that Da Vinci liked. It is fascinating to discover that the Tuscan inventor enjoyed this hobby and I couldn’t help imagine him lovingly tending his vines.
At the moment the tour of the house is popular and you need to book ahead of time, which can be done online. It starts amid statues and tumbling ivy in the courtyard of the Casa degli Atellani.
The residence is entered through this doorway, the most stunning element of the whole tour in my opinion. It looked more like a painting to me due to its beautiful symmetry.
The first room in the house, the Zodiac Hall, is decorated with astrological themes and dates back as early as 1544. It was expanded during a 20th century renovation of the building by architect Piero Portaluppi for Senator Ettore Conti, an Italian electricity industry magnate who became the new owner of the residence in 1919. Portaluppi added his inspirational motto, “Faire sans dire” or “do without saying” to the walls of the zodiac hall.
Next up is the Luini room, where 14 lunettes decorate the ceiling representing members of the Sforza family, reflecting the Atellani’s loyalty to this dynasty. These are actually copies, as the originals have been removed for preservation and are now in the museum of Castello Sforzesco.
Visitors can then see the staircase hall and Ettore Conti’s studio, lined with 17th century wood pannelling, before heading out into the gardens of the residence, redesigned by Portaluppi along rules of symmetry.Following a wander through the garden, at the bottom you reach the secret passion of Da Vinci: his recreated vineyard! Ludovico Sforza gave him this plot of land in 1498, when it stood on the perimeters of the Casa degli Atellani’s garden. When Da Vinci died, he asked for the vineyard to be divided between one of his servants and one of his pupils. It was later neglected under other owners. During Portaluppi’s upgrading of the villa in the early 20th century, it was photographed by Da Vinci expert Luca Beltrami, but later destroyed by fire and urban planning needs. Parts of it were buried under rubble by allied bombing of Milan in 1943.
In recent years the owners of the house and the Portaluppi foundation have researched the plot of land and have traced the DNA of the grape variety used by Da Vinci: Malvasia di Candia. The vineyard was therefore replanted with this grape in 2015 and is now growing again.
I had a lovely afternoon touring the Casa degli Atellani and discovering Da Vinci’s secret hobby. The site is going to be open at least until the end of the Expo world fair which runs through October, and hopefully it will also stay open beyond that.
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