Leonardo da Vinci is one the best known, perhaps THE BEST KNOWN genius from history. The Italian polymath was born in 1452 near Florence and died at the age of 67 in 1519, in Amboise, France.
Throughout his life, da Vinci was a prolific and eclectic creator. He was well renowned for being a painter, sculptor, draughtsman, scientist, theorist, engineer, and architect. His intellect was the epitome of the Renaissance and its ideals, and his works have had a long-lasting impact on European culture.
Da Vinci was actually born out of wedlock. Very little is known about his childhood – while his mother was lower class, his father was a well-to-do gentleman, a lot of his early years are a mystery, but it is known that he received only a basic education.
It was during this time that his artistic talents were noticed which caught the attention of his family. Later they moved to Florence, which was at the time a center of Humanist ideals. Here, aged 14, da Vinci became an apprentice for the sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio.
After spending several years in Florence, da Vinci worked in Milan from 1482 until 1499. Here he was commissioned to paint various works of art, some of which have since become truly iconic.
During his so-called Milanese period, da Vinci completed numerous sketches, studies, and unfinished works, as well as paintings and sculptures for various clients. He established himself as one of the most important artists of his era, taking on apprentices of his own.
Nowadays, you can see the heritage of Leonardo da Vinci in many places around Milan, where his works and designs continue to inspire.
1) Castello Sforzesco
This medieval fort was built in the 15th century for Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan, and part of the noble Sforza family. The duke enlisted a collection of artists to decorate his castle including, of course, Leonardo da Vinci.
Da Vinci was tasked with decorating the interiors of several rooms in the castle, painting frescoes on the walls. The most famous of these is the Sala delle Asse (in English “Room of the Tower” or “Room of the Wooden Boards”).
This consists of ornamentations in the form of entwining plants with fruits and monochromes of roots and rocks. The work in this particular room dates from 1498.
2) Trivulziana Library
Also situated in the Castello Sforzesco is the Trivulziana Library. This historic archive houses all the acts of law passed by the city of Milan since 1385, but it’s more than just civil records that you can find here. There’s also a bit of Leonardo da Vinci history to be seen, too.
Specifically, that would be the Codice Trivulziano. This manuscript, written by da Vinci himself, originally consisted of 62 pages filled with studies on religious and military architecture, as well as lists of important words from literary sources – thought to be an attempt by da Vinci to improve on his own modest education.
Today, only 55 pages of the book remain, and it isn’t often open to the public to view.
3) Vigna di Leonardo
Literally translating to “Leonardo’s Vine,” this part of da Vinci’s legacy in Milan isn’t so much a work of art as a sanctuary for the artist. The estate was given to Leonardo da Vinci in 1499 as a gift from the Sforza family as a thank-you present for creating The Last Supper.
This small vineyard had enough room for sixteen rows of vines and is where da Vinci would have enjoyed relaxing after finishing work. The vineyard was much appreciated by the artist as he came from a family of winemakers.
Not only was the vineyard a pleasant place to unwind, but it also meant that da Vinci could claim citizenship in Milan, as his ownership of this plot of land gained him citizenship. Once da Vinci died, the land was divided between two servants and much later was damaged during air raids of World War II.
Since then, it has been lovingly restored and is open to the public. The vines here produce the same grape that Leonardo himself would have sipped on – malvasia di candia aromatica, a white grape.
3) Pinacoteca Ambrosiana
For one of the best places to see the works of Leonardo da Vinci in Milan, you should definitely make a beeline for the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Situated in the Ambrosian Library, the gallery was founded in 1618 by Cardinal Federico Borromeo who donated his collection of paintings and other artworks to the library. It was intended to offer up a free place to learn about culture and art.
As a result, many important artworks can be found in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana – including those of Leonardo da Vinci, of course. There’s the unfinished Portrait of a Musician (1490) which was formerly controversial due to confusion over who had actually painted it. Likewise, the 1500 painting, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, is another unfinished painting that may (or may not) be by da Vinci.
In the Ambrosian Library you’ll find the Codex Atlanticus. This notebook is a bound set of drawings and writings, doodles, and designs by the artist himself. Consisting of 12 volumes, this amazing cache of knowledge and creativity dates between 1478 and 1519, and covers a variety of topics – mathematics, weaponry, flight, botany, and musical instruments.
The codex was gathered by Pompeo Leoni, a 16th-century sculptor, who took apart some of da Vinci’s notebooks and put them together again to form the largest single collection of Leonardo’s drawings and writings. A rotating selection of drawings from the notebook are on display in the library.
4) Museo della Scienza e della Tecnica
Officially, this museum – the largest science and technology museum in the whole of Italy – features Leonardo da Vinci’s name in its title. That alone shows you the impact that the Renaissance genius has had on culture.
Located inside the 16th-century monastery of San Vittore al Corpo, the museum opened to the public in 1953. While there are many sections of the museum that don’t mention da Vinci, there is one particular part of the museum that is wholly dedicated to him.
This part of the museum showcases his anatomical drawings and mechanical ideas, and even features some life-sized models made from his designs of flying machines and “Leonardo’s tank” – an early design for a tank to be used in warfare.
Fans of da Vinci’s engineering escapades, rather than his artwork by itself, will find this museum – and particularly the part dedicated to da Vinci – particularly fascinating.
The canal area of Milan is a vibrant place to experience the real energy of the city, but aside from its incredible nightlife, this area of the city is a distinct part of its history. Surprisingly, it’s also a place to see some overlooked work of Leonardo da Vinci in Milan.
That would be the canals themselves. The canal system started to be developed from the 12th century onwards, with the idea of creating easier accessibility from the Ticino and Adda rivers, and transporting building materials and merchandise along the waterways.
Many of these canals were, at least partly, designed by da Vinci himself. His sketches on improving the canal system can be found in his Codex Atlanticus.
One of the more visible remains of his work with waterways is the Conca di Viarenna. Built in 1538, this lock helped solve the issue of the difference in height between two canals. Another lock is Conca dell’Incoronata.
So even if you come to the Navigli area at night, you’ll be able to appreciate some of da Vinci’s work in civic engineering. But if you want to know more, head to the Navigli Museum in Brera – some of the hidden secrets of these waterways will be revealed.
6) Leonardo’s Horse
Also known as “Il Cavallo dello Sforza,” this is one artwork by Leonardo da Vinci that took particularly long to make. Originally commissioned in 1482 by then Duke of Milan Ludovico Il Moro, this horse statue was designed to be the largest of its kind in the world and would stand as a monument to Francesco Sforza – the duke’s father.
Da Vinci set to work, studying horses and their anatomy, and completing extensive research through sketches and observations. From his sketches, by 1493 da Vinci had cast a full-scale clay model of the statue (minus the intended rider atop it) which gained much attention.
Unfortunately, the bronze which had been collected for use in forging the statue was instead used to forge cannons to defend the city from Charles VIII. The clay model was also lost, after being used by French soldiers for target practice, and after bad weather.
The statue was never forged, but because da Vinci had left behind so many intricate drawings, the horse was finally realized in all its final bronze form glory – albeit 500 years later. It was finally unveiled in 1999 at Ippodromo San Siro Milano.
7) Piazza della Scala
One of central Milan’s best-known piazzas, Piazza della Scala, plays host to not necessarily a work by Leonardo da Vinci but instead a statue of Leonardo da Vinci.
Standing at the center of the square is a monument to Leonardo who is surrounded by four of his apprentices – Marco Oggiono, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Andrea Salaino, and Cesare da Sesto.
Da Vinci cuts a solemn figure in this 1872 marble, but perhaps – wearing his engineer’s cap and with a big beard – the elderly da Vinci is deep in thought. With trees and a quiet atmosphere, it’s a nice place to take a breather.
8) Church of San Maurizio
Nicknamed the “Sistine Chapel of Milan,” the beautiful 8th-century Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore is an amazing place to visit to discover yet more of Milan’s connections to da Vinci.
While the exterior of the church may be rather somber, it is the interior of this church – built reusing parts of ancient Roman architecture by the Lombards – that is most impressive.
The 16th-century frescoes here, which depicted portraits of various saints, were created by artists from the school of Leonardo da Vinci. So while he may not have had an active hand in painting them, it’s thought that some of his former students and apprentices – Boltraffio, for example – were behind these gorgeously colored and intriguing works of art.
And once you’re done admiring the church itself, the Archaeology Museum next door (formerly a convent) – featuring a variety of ancient artifacts from Ancient Greek to Etruscan – is well worth a look.
In 1482, when Leonardo da Vinci first arrived in Milan, its landmark cathedral was still in the middle of being built after centuries of construction. One of the main engineering problems the architects faced was working out how to lift the vaulted roof atop its four pillars.
Da Vinci was brought in to help solve the problem and created wooden models to show how the lantern tower could be created. The architects didn’t like his solution to this particular problem, but da Vinci continued his relationship with the cathedral for over 20 years, working sporadically as needed.
Seeing Milan’s incredibly intricate cathedral – the third-largest cathedral in the world – should already be on your to-do list when you’re in the city. If you’re on the hunt for all things da Vinci in Milan, it’s an added bonus.
10) Santa Maria delle Grazie
Last but not least is Leonardo da Vinci’s second-most famous work: The Last Supper. If you were thinking Mona Lisa, you’ll have to go to Paris for that.
Painted between 1493 and 1497, it and the building in which it is located is so famous that it has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
This iconic painting is set in the refectory of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where it has remained ever since Francesco Sforza commissioned the redesign of the church and its attached convent buildings.
The painting needs no introduction – it depicts Jesus announcing to his 12 apostles, during a final supper, that one of them would betray him. Sadly, over the years, much of the original painting has been lost to the elements, and what you see today is largely reconstruction. However, it is no less impressive.