The lands of Leonardo’s nichi

The lands of Leonardo’s nichi (fossil shells)

The Greti hills, where Leonardo passed the first years of his life, were, for him, the first geological observatory. We can find traces of the different geological levels that aroused Leonardo’s scientific curiosity as we walk through the vineyards and fields around Cerreto, Vinci, Collegonzi, and Capraia. It was here that Leonardo observed and collected the fossils of marine origin he called nichi (cavities, hollows), meaning shells, in his writings. Collections of Leonardian nichi and reconstructions of the geological stratigraphy for the Middle Valdarno, whose origins Leonardo theorized, can be visited in the geological sections of some local museums.

  • In the heart of Vinci a unique museum was founded in the 1990s, the first to be dedicated to this figure in all of his complexity. The Museo Ideale has earned official recognition as an institution of great public benefit by the regional government of Tuscany. To mark the fifth centenary of the death of Leonardo, the museum has been completely refurbished; its permanent exhibitions have been renovated and a special exhibition of works of particular importance and value is on display.

  • At Campo Zeppi, where today there is a group of farmhouses, lived Caterina, Leonardo's mother, together with the family of the man she married, originally from San Pantaleo, known at the time as l’Attaccabriga (the quarrel seeker). These places, very ancient in origin, seem crystallized in the landscape of those times: the church of San Pantaleo was the parish church of Caterina, as well as of the other inhabitants of the houses of Campo Zeppi, and the vineyards are the same ones that Leonardo could see when he went to visit his mother. Among the plots of terrain of the San Pantaleo vineyards, Leonardo could have observed the particular geological formations rich in fossils of marine origin, which he referred to as "nichi” (fossil shells).

  • Collegonzi, one of the ancient castles that the Counts Guidi owned in the area of Greti, must have appeared in the time of Leonardo as an open village, a cluster of houses at that point lacking in ancient fortifications. It was in this form, in fact, that it was drawn by Leonardo in the famous bird's eye view map from the Windsor Castle collection. Leonardo knew Collegonzi well; he described the famous “cut bank,” a part of the right bank of the Arno affected by the erosive action of the flow of water, based on which Leonardo had matured his observations about the origin of the "nichi", the marine fossils present in large quantities in the Pliocene levels of the Collegonzi hills.

  • Montelupo is represented by Leonardo in the famous view of the Windsor Castle Collection RL 12685. At the confluence of the Pesa with the Arno, Leonardo depicted the hill of Montelupo with an upper part, the castle, and a lower part, also equipped with fortifications. In 1336, the village of Montelupo was surrounded by walls, and this was the form in which Leonardo represented it, in the early 16th century. In Leonardo’s map, the Via Pisana, coming out of the gate on the Pesa, can be seen quite clearly, heading, in a straight line, toward Pontorme and Empoli.

  • The Paleontological Museum of Empoli offers us the possibility of discovering the origin of the geological formations that aroused so much interest in Leonardo. Among the folios of the Codex Leicester, Leonardo makes many references to the gravels of Montelupo and Capraia, and to the bluish muds of Collegonzi, very rich in nichi (fossil shells). The museum conserves, among others things, collections of Pliocene malacofauna (mollusk life) discovered at Spicchio sull'Arno, near Collegonzi, the very same nichi observed, collected, and drawn by Leonardo.

  • The center, based in Castelmartini (PT), deals with the research, protection, and promotion of the wetlands of the Fucecchio marsh. Leonardo knew this environment well, which he seems to have depicted in his famous 1473 Paesaggio (Landscape). The still body of water at the center of the drawing appears to be navigated by two forms of watercraft with curved bows, very similar to the marsh navicelli (small ships), which until last century transported men and goods from one end of the Fucecchio Marsh to the other. The center also organizes visits to the naturalistic area of Arnovecchio, the habitat developed in the particular place where one of the deep meanders of the river, depicted by Leonardo just before its rectification, once passed.