Leonardo’s 'invisible' castles between the Valdelsa and the Valdera

Leonardo’s "invisible" castles between the Valdelsa and the Valdera

Leonardo's geographical maps constitute one of the most characteristic productions from the eclectic artist. Some embrace supraregional territories, like the famous map of the Windsor Castle collection RL 12278, covering a large part of central Tuscany; and in addition to the orographic details, the network of fortified towns having a particular strategic value at the time have been depicted. In observing the area around the Valdelsa, we can recognize many well-known villages, such as Certaldo and Castelfiorentino, but perhaps the most interesting aspect is the inclusion of those villages or towns that no longer exist in the forms in which Leonardo saw and depicted them during the early 16th century.

  • Today Tonda is a small village that has been transformed into a resort, but during the 16th century, Leonardo drew it as a small castle of the Val d'Egola. The picturesque village, situated a few kilometers from Montaione, was originally a castle belonging to the bishop of Volterra.

  • The small fortified village that Leonardo indicates with the name of "pietra" depicts a place that has now disappeared, the ancient castle of Pietra. At the beginning of the 12th century, when it appears for the first time in written sources, it must have belonged to the bishop of Volterra. There are few remaining ruins of the ancient castle, which must have been fortified with defensive walls and towers, visible today on the site of the "La Pietrina" Sanctuary at the locality of Palagio (Montaione). We do not know at what point the locality was definitively abandoned, but one thing certain is that, at least during Leonardo’s time, it was still inhabited, and had an appearance similar to a turreted castle.

  • Santo Stefano was depicted by Leonardo as a small turreted castle of the Val d'Egola. Actually, there was already a castle on the site in the 12th century, which belonged, for at least a century before, to the powerful noble family of the Cadolingi. At the threshold of Leonardo’s time, in effect, the castle still seems to have been inhabited, albeit in a phase of depopulation. Today nothing remains of that little village of the Val d'Egola other than the name of the place (the small hamlet of Santo Stefano, in the immediate vicinity of Montaione) and the church of San Bartolomeo, perhaps the ancient castle church mentioned at the end of the 13th century.

  • Today there are still some remains of stone walling from the castle of Barbialla within the estate of the villa built in the early 20th century. The castle was originally one of those belonging to the noble Gherardeschi family, in the northernmost area of their ancient possessions in the Val d’Egola. In the 16th century, when Leonardo drew Barbialla, still in the form of a turreted castle surrounded by walls, the small Val d'Egola town counted a population of a few hundred.

  • The village of Mommialla has been renovated now for some years, and today houses the facilities for the spa waters. In the mighty stone fortified houses of the village, we must recognize the physiognomy of the small fortified village Leonardo drew on one of his most famous maps. Actually the locality has very ancient origins: the early medieval village of Mommialla belonged to the bishop of Volterra. Of its oldest history, there remain traces in the tiny church of San Frediano, which is conserved as part of one of the local tourist complexes, a short distance from the village itself. The small church can be recognized by the cruciform loophole on the facade, a decorative element typical of the churches of the Valdelsa.

  • Catignano was originally one of the Valdelsan castles of the family of the counts of Fucecchio. Already, by the end of the 13th century, it had entered to become part of the Florentine countryside, but its position, along one of the routes of the Via Francigena, on the left of the Elsa, left it exposed to military raids. Its function as a shelter for the population of the sparse settlement during the Late Middle Ages must have ensured the maintenance of its fortified structures, if Leonardo, even in the 16th century, drew Catignano as a small castle equipped with defenses.

  • Varna today is a small cluster of houses along the ridge road on the left side of the Elsa. Its origins are very ancient: through this medieval village passed various important figures, such as the counts of Fucecchio, who stopped by here when they came to the Valdelsa, in their castles of Catignano and Gambassi. Varna was only a village, but during the Late Middle Ages, it must have taken on the typical features of a fortified country residence. It was in this form that Leonardo depicted Varna on one of his most well-known maps.

  • The small turreted village, drawn by Leonardo with the indication of Camiano for the name, must be identified as the ancient castle that must have occupied the upper slopes of the hillsides that today are the site of the Villa Pucci in the hamlet of Cambiano, in the municipality of Castelfiorentino. The castle of the Valdelsa, originally belonging to the Counts Cadolingi of Fucecchio, maintained the appearance that it took on in the Late Middle Ages, up until the age of Leonardo. Today nothing remains of the castle other than the church of San Prospero, visible, even if in its later forms, in the garden of the Villa Pucci. Originally it must have had a plan with three naves and a porch on the facade.

  • Capraia appears frequently in Leonardo's papers. Leonardo depicts it properly, in the form of a well-fortified castle, strategically situated on a spur overlooking a bend of the Arno, shortly after the gorge La Gonfolina. The ancient castle of the Counts Alberti had been one of the most contested strong points of the Valdarno, not only for its position in control of the river, but also for its placement on the border of territories divided among potentates and cities. The rock formations that Leonardo observed along the course of the Arno near Capraia are accurately described and explained in several passages of the Codex Leicester.

  • The ancient Guidi castle of Granaiolo (12th century), strategically located on the border of the Elsa, became the object of strong attention by the city of Florence. Most of the information about the form of the castle drawn by Leonardo comes from written sources: in the 15th century it was surrounded by a defensive wall, while some houses were constructed of raw earth. The rapid degradation of these structures must have contributed to the cancellation of the castle, of whose toponym the trace remains today in the title of the Villa Pucci chapel, which preserves the memory of the castle church, Santa Maria al borgo vecchio (in the old village).

  • Today Montegufoni is a villa in the Baroque style; however its origins are much more ancient. In this place there once stood a castle that was destroyed by Florence in the early 12th century. There is no more information about Montegufoni until the 14th century, when the Florentine family of the Acciaioli took over the ancient site, in order to convert it into a country residence. Leonardo depicted it in the forms attained by the Acciaioli transformations, when Montegufoni had the appearance of a fortress, building complexes typical of the Florentine countryside during the 14th-15th centuries. Only in the 17th century was the fortress of the Acciaioli transformed into a genuine villa.