Castello dei Conti Guidi

The current appearance of the Vincian fortress, with the imposing tower keep of the Counts Guidi, allows us to appreciate the most ancient phase of its history. The fortress complex, with the buildings that were added to the Guidi tower from the Middle Ages onward, now houses the Museo Leonardiano, dedicated to the Genius of Vinci who was born here. Leonardo spent the years of childhood and early youth in Vinci, and the surroundings of the castle were his first sources of observation and knowledge. When Leonardo drew, at the beginning of the 16th century, the famous bird's eye view of the Windsor Castle collection (RL 12685), he represented the castle of Vinci, on the southern side of Montalbano, showing morphological details demonstrating that he knew the place well. Leonardo’s Vinci is represented as having an upper part surrounded by walls, where there are two building complexes, identifiable as the fortress and the castle church. At the foot of the castle we can see the buildings of the village. This is the oldest representation of the castle of Vinci, which shows, even in Leonardo’s time, the form it had assumed during the Late Middle Ages.

The first attestation of the castle dates back to 1114, when it was mentioned among the castles that were the subject of an exchange made by Count Guido V to the abbot of the monastery of San Salvatore di Fucecchio. Between late October and early November of that year, the count Guido was with his wife Imilia in the castle of Colle di Pietra, near Cerreto, in the act of completing the document in which the castle of Vincio was mentioned for the first time, with its curtis and all its appurtenances. At that time, therefore, Vinci was already a fortified settlement belonging to the important noble family. On the basis of written documents, the Counts Guidi continued to guarantee the protection of the castles of Greti, including the castellum et curtem de Vincio cum omni sua pertinentia. The imperial diploma of 1164 confirmed the Guidi possession in partibus Greti: listed are the castles of Colle de Petra, Cerretum, Musillianum, Collegunçuli, Orbignano, Vinçi, and Larçanum. An important documentary source describes the castle of Vinci in the mid-13th century, making reference to the various structures of which it was composed. These documents are the deeds with which the Counts Guidi ceded to Florence a large part of their possessions and the rights they still held in partibus Greti, and which included the major castles of Valdarno. On this occasion the different branches of the noble family sold—each its own shares—the different parts of the castle of Vinci, namely, castrum et cassero et palatium et turris et domus de Vincio, sicut circumdatum est muris et ripis et foveis. Sold also in the same sale was the castle church of Santa Croce and the casamentos that stood at the foot of the keep, that is to say, the lots intended for the construction of new homes. The image of the castle of Vinci in the mid-13th century, therefore, was that of a village surrounded by walls, the castrum, characterized by two distinct poles, or the cassero (keep), a high fortified part with tower and lordly palace, and a second pole, consisting of the castle church. Inside the castle walls also stood the dwellings of the resident population, and spaces still free for allocation for new buildings. The extraordinary degree of conservation of the medieval structures of Vinci makes it possible for us to recognize today what the constituent parts were of the castrum and of the keep of the Counts Guidi.
The recent analyses of the structures of the Vinci fortress complex allow some useful propositions for the reconstruction of the castle’s oldest phase and of the subsequent phases. At the moment, we can recognize the lowest part of the tower as the most ancient constructional phase of the entire complex. The base of the tower, in fact, displays a type of masonry completely different from the others, composed of sandstone blocks with the corner areas highlighted by rusticated ashlars, a particular feature that is found also in other Guidi fortifications from the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Subsequently, the mighty tower of the Counts Guidi was surrounded by an almost square-shaped enclosure, built in rough sandstone blocks, and crowned with Guelph merlons. The original merlons can now be recognized as having been incorporated into the modern building abutting against the northeast side of the fortress, while those currently visible on the west side are the result of the reconstruction of the castle's entrance in neo-medieval forms, realized during the restoration of the last century. This fortified enclosure is certainly to be identified with the cassero (keep) described in the sale, which during the 12th century had proceeded to surround the already existing Guidi tower on the upper part of the castrum. Subsequently, although still before the middle of the 13th century, there also existed a residential building for the exclusive use of the counts, within the reduced defensive portion of the cassero. This is the building that is currently abutting against the tower, and which was further elevated several times. This building, in fact, is the one that, from the mid-13th century onward, served as residence for the administrative or jurisdictional officer sent by Florence.
The first attestation for the palace of the castle of Vinci having a function as residence for the podesta dates to 1383. In the text of the statutes of that year, we read that they had been written up in castro Vinci et in pallatio sive cassero habitationis potestatis dicti loci. The pallatio (palace), or cassero, could only be the palatium already existing in the mid-13th century, in the elegant fortified part of the Guidi castle of Vinci. The Florentine fortress of Vinci was therefore composed of the old castle structures from the most ancient period, updated in accordance with the new government. For example, the vaults of the ground floor of the palatium (today, the Museo Leonardiano) belong to the reconfiguration of the Florentine period, while on the first floor, where we can admire the reconstruction of a crane designed by Brunelleschi, stood the hall of the podesta. At that time the area of ​​Greti became the theater of war operations that saw Florence opposed against Lucca. The castle of Vinci represented, in that difficult territory that had recently become Florentine, one of the points of reference for the defense of the populations living in the countryside then being crisscrossed by armies. Thus Vinci, as well, like many castles in the Valdarno area that had entered the orbit of Florence, became the object of a detailed survey in terms of efficiency of defenses. The report by the castle officers, written in 1366, describes a situation that was quite frequent for walled villages at the time, namely, the problem of houses that were built close to the insides of the walls: with the opening of their doors and windows, the defensive operability was inevitably compromised. The requirements in this regard refer mainly to the closing of the doors and windows, up to the height of 5-6 meters, and the construction of corridors on the roofs of houses—or on protruding apparatus—that would make it possible to travel completely around the walls, without obstacles. The image of the 14th-century castle of Vinci saturated with houses abutting against the walls can be recognized today along the road running along the eastern side of the village, Via Giuseppe Rossi, while on Via del Castello, we can recognize portions of the curtain wall on the west side, with a stretch of porticoed walkway.
The acquisition by Florence of all the Counts Guidi assets, on both banks of the Arno, determined the development of the three villages of Empoli, Cerreto, and Vinci, complementary to each other: Empoli was becoming the most important market in the Florentine Valdarno, but at the same time it represented the natural commercial outlet for the products of the fertile hills of Cerreto and Vinci. During the 15th century the ancient noble castle had developed an extramural village gravitating around the market square, on which stood the municipal loggia and the public well. Through the piazza continued the road from the Arno to the Montalbano passes. The village was the heart of the commercial activities of Vinci: according to the tax declarations of 1427, there operated the trades related to the passage of men and goods, such as the two blacksmith shops and those for the sale of various household goods and foodstuffs. At that date, the family of Antonio di Ser Piero da Vinci, Leonardo's grandfather, already lived in a house in the village near the porticciola (small gate), the point of entry for those coming from the Arno Valley. In 1478, Leonardo’s family managed the municipal mill, situated on the opposite side of the piazza, where the road started toward Montalbano. Next to the mill stood a building that was rented beginning around 1530 by the youngest of Leonardo's half-brothers, Giovanni di Ser Piero da Vinci. Giovanni da Vinci's tavern-butcher shop was located in a strategic position on the corner with Androne Ciofi, marking the route toward San Pantaleo and Cerreto, and near the road to the Montalbano passes. Water, being fundamental for the activity of the butcher shop, could be taken from the channels that served the nearby municipal mill, which was, as well, managed by Leonardo’s family. The tavern, and all the other above-mentioned details regarding the village and the castle of Vinci during Leonardo’s time, can be recognized in the highly detailed late 16th-century map by the Capitani di Parte Guelfa. We can also observe the great abundance of properties owned by Florentines: for example, there are many buildings, farms, and mills owned by the Ridolfi. Among these we can also note Il Ferrale, in Anchiano, and several mills, including the Mill of La Doccia, which was located at the foot of the castle, and which Leonardo drew on one of the folios in his Codex Atlanticus (f. 765 r). The Vinci castle depicted by Leonardo in the famous view RL 12685 shows in detail the conformation of the site, divided into two parts: the upper part, of the castle, with the fortress complex and, probably, the church of Santa Croce, and the underlying part, of the village. It is one of the most accurate representations of a location that Leonardo has reproduced in his papers.
Today Vinci offers different opportunities for fruition and knowledge of Leonardo's life and work. The heart of the castle, the fortress, houses one of the two museum sites of the Museo Leonardiano. The museum itinerary includes sections dedicated to civil engineering, war machines, flight, mechanisms, instruments, optical studies, and devices for movement in water and for river navigation, as well as an exhibition of the models of the solids Leonardo designed for Luca Pacioli’s De Divina Proportione. On the panoramic terrace behind the castle, we can admire Mario Ceroli’s wooden sculpture, a reinterpretation of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man in a contemporary key. The historical pathways internal to the castle, reconfigured by Mimmo Paladino in his evocative urban scenography for the new Piazza Guidi, culminate at the Starred Dodecahedron inspired by the drawing of the solid Leonardo made for Luca Pacioli’s De Divina Proportione. Facing onto the piazza is the entrance to Palazzina Uzielli, the other seat of the Museo Leonardiano. In the castle church dedicated to La Santa Croce, now in neo-Renaissance form, the ancient baptismal font is preserved, in a new and suggestive setting within an octagonal chamber. It is here, in the da Vinci family’s parish, that Leonardo is believed to have been baptized. The castle also houses the Biblioteca Leonardiana, the institution that has become the most important center for the conservation and fruition of Leonardo's work. Its collections and the immense archive of high-resolution, digital images of Leonardo's papers make it a point of reference for Leonardo scholars from all over the world. At the entrance to the village, along the road that once led to the porticciola (little gate) of the castle village, where the da Vinci houses were located, a bronze sculpture has been placed, reproducing, on a smaller scale, the horse designed by Leonardo for the equestrian monument in honor of Francesco Sforza, the work of Japanese artist Nina Akamu.
Texts by
Silvia Leporatti / English translation by John Venerella