‘In Vino Veritas’ – Discovering Leonardo’s Vineyard in the Heart of Milan
Just across the road from where the sacred ‘Last Supper’ painting is preciously stowed under lock and key lies a small but perfectly conceived hidden gem of Renaissance Italy that would be all too easy to miss. It’s yet another example, so common in Milan, of a rather sober frontage revealing an unexpected treasure trove within – and it’s definitely worth taking time during your itinerary to step behind closed doors and into the home and gardens where the one and only Leonardo da Vinci cultivated his very own vineyard.
The story goes that Leonardo’s patron, the Duke of Milan Ludovico il Muro, was so pleased with the way his commissioned and later to be world-famous painting was going that he decided to say it, not with flowers, but by bestowing a plot of land measuring some 60 x 175 metres to the artist. Located at the end of the Casa degli Atellani’s garden right opposite, it was the Duke’s dream at the time to build an entire neighbourhood for his loyal courtiers to live in, making Santa Maria the designated family church. As Leonardo came from a background of winegrowers, he clearly could not have received a better gift, and as you walk through the entrance into the stunning courtyard, past the ground floor rooms and into the well-tended gardens, it’s perfectly easy to imagine da Vinci strolling home from a hard day’s work, paintbrush in one hand and glass of vino collapso in the other.
Rather sadly, da Vinci’s time left to enjoy the fruits of his labours was brought to a somewhat abrupt halt just three years later when French troops successfully invaded Milan, taking Ludovico il Moro prisoner and resulting in da Vinci’s departure from the city. While cynics may claim this gives the vineyard a rather tenuous claim to fame because of the brevity of our famous man’s cultivating the grape, it is nevertheless true that he was so attached to it that he rented it to the father of his apprentice Salaì to ensure it was cared for during his lifetime and subsequently bequeathed it to his trusty servant and favourite pupil in equal parts on his deathbed.
The home itself was not without its own misadventures and has seen much transformation over the centuries; the property and vines fell into serious disrepair as they passed from generation to generation, and the buildings were subject to fires and bombing raids during the Second World War. It was only thanks to the purchase of the Casa degli Atellani by electricity magnate Ettore Conti in 1919 that the house began to undergo seriously hard-core remodelling under celebrity architect and son-in-law Piero Portaluppi, and as the industrialist powerhouse went on to supervise the restoration of the church and refectory across the road in later years, this makes Conti somewhat of an unspoken hero on the “Last Supper” front.
The first room in the house is aptly named the Zodiac Hall; awash with frescos displaying astrological themes, it also features a map showing the lay of the land as the cartographers would have seen the world in the 1500s. Next door, the celebrated Bernardino Luini of San Maurizio church fame makes another appearance and has left his indelible mark on the ceiling. The original vignettes of the Sforza family are now preserved and are on show at the Castello museum, but they have been faithfully copied here and appear to be giving their aristocratic approval of their home being unveiled to a wider audience.
The family motto was ‘Agere Non Loqui’ or ‘Fare e Non Parlare’, so the old adage that actions speak louder than words could not feel more appropriate in this gorgeous setting, and as you step into Ettore Conti’s studio cum living room with its inviting 17th century panelled walls you feel as though the man himself has just stepped out temporarily to fetch another bottle of vintage wine and will be back any minute to regale you with stories of how this high society home used to host soirées and gatherings both indoors and in the newly tended gardens. The whole place does have the feel of a real family residence, and on the day of our visit a very friendly and clearly domestic black and white cat follows us around quite casually, eavesdropping in on our tour with evident relish.
The Casa degli Atellani was opened four years ago on the occasion of the Expo 15 initiatives, so there is a sure thrill in being able to walk in Leonardo’s footsteps and take a turn in the historical gardens. As always, discovering this relatively little-visited pearl with private guide Cristina makes the world of difference: not only do we get the lowdown on the now flourishing vines, restored by wine geneticists who were able to determine the original DNA of the white grape grown during the Renaissance, but she also whets our appetite with historical tales dating back from the times of Ludovico il Moro, such as the anecdote about the sweet success of Toni, a local baker from down the road. His bread was described by all as the “pan-di-Toni“, which over time became known more familiarly as the recipe that evolved into an Italian staple, namely the good old panettone.
It may still be too early to partake in Leonardo’s Malvasia Aromatica grape variety produced on the vines at the bottom of the garden, but it is possible to have a preview taste of the ‘Tasto Atellani’ wine produced at the family’s Luzzano Castle near Piacenza. Even better and very handy before or after a visit to the vineyards or the Last Supper, you can also enjoy breakfast or lunch at the Bistrot handily located at the entrance to the Casa, with its simply glorious vista onto the dome of Santa Maria delle Grazie right in front of you. It doesn’t get much better than this!
La Vigna di Leonardo at n° 65 Corso Magenta is open every day from 9:00 – 18:00. The Bistrot is open from 7:00 to 19:30 every day of the week; lunch is served between 12:00 and 15:00. For further details and to book a private guided tour as part of your itinerary, please email [email protected].