Upper itinerary – the Ridge
Testi redatti da Paolo Santini
Leonardo's birthplace in Anchiano
To celebrate the fifth centenary of Leonardo’s birth in April 1952, the doors were opened to his birthplace in Anchiano, home to the memory of the Genius and his family. In fact, already much earlier, Anchiano, which had been acquired by the Da Vinci family in the early fourteen-eighties, had been recognised as a focal point in the biography of the Genius.
The house was to remain in the Da Vinci family until 1624 and finally in 1950, after changing hands several times, its last private owner, Count Rasini di Castelcampo, donated it to the municipality.
Testifying to Leonardo da Vinci’s birth in this farmhouse on April 15, 1452, is an ancient tradition perpetuated by the numerous visits of such famous people as Giuseppe Garibaldi, Telemaco Signorini, and many others.
On arriving at Anchiano we capture the essence of the genius loci, following in the footsteps of the many visitors who come on a lay pilgrimage to discover in person what is left of the world Leonardo knew in his childhood and adolescence. We go up to Anchiano to discover Leonardo’s purest essence.
Santa Lucia, Leonardo’s parish church. Heading towards Sant’Alluccio.
Due to being close to Anchiano, the Church of Santa Lucia in Paterno is traditionally considered to be Leonardo’s native parish, and for many scholars and travellers it is still a milestone in the lay pilgrimage to Vinci, following the footsteps of Leonardo the child.
The oldest, more imaginative twentieth-century studies even identify it as the place where Leonardo was baptised, while more recent studies agree that the great event was instead held in the Church of Santa Croce in Vinci.
Worth noting after leaving the village of Santa Lucia, is the Romito Spring in the Acqua Santa gorge, with waters that have been considered miraculous for centuries and where we can also come across numerous watermills.
Continuing up to the ridge, we arrive at the Sant’Alluccio Tower, erected over pre-existing medieval structures on the ridge itinerary that was very popular at that time.
The Sant’Alluccio Tower
Sitting on one of the most imposing hills of Montalbano on the ridge itinerary leading from Artimino to Serravalle Pistoiese, are the remains of a building extensively remodelled over the centuries but now in ruins, the so-called Tower of Sant’Alluccio where this saint built a hospice for travellers in medieval times.
Allucio, who came from Pescia, later proclaimed a saint in 1182, is remembered for having had pilgrim hospices erected in dangerous and inaccessible places in the territories of Lucca, Pistoia and Florence.
From this site, if we move a few metres from left to right on the plateau, we can enjoy a magnificent view of the Valdarno down to the sea on one side, and the Pistoia-Prato-Florence plain up to the Apennine chain on the other.
The Abbey and church of Saints Baronto and Desiderio at San Baronto
In the Middle Ages and following centuries, the Abbey of San Baronto on the ridge road was one of the most important stop-off points for thousands of pilgrims and travellers.
A legendary 12th-century hagiographic narrative states that a monk of Frankish origin called Baronto, on returning from Rome through this Montalbano pass in the 7th century, erected a small building with one cell, where he was joined by another five companions in eremitical life.
This later had the church with a crypt added on in about 1051.
During the 13th century, a flourishing rural community grew up around the Benedictine monastery and pilgrim hospice. Due to its strategic position of the ridge during the Second World War, the church was demolished along with the bell tower by the retreating German troops on 16 August 1944.
Rebuilt and reopened for worship in 1951, it now has a single nave with two side chapels housing two 17th-century paintings with a Madonna, while a 14th-century wooden crucifix hangs over the main altar.
The Medicean Barco Reale
The Medici and hunting.
The Barco Reale was one of the largest, most important hunting reserves created by the Medici grand dukes between the 16th and 17th centuries. In order to preserve and facilitate the breeding of game it was enclosed by a two-metre high "wall" stretching for over fifty kilometres and encompassing the entire Montalbano ridge from Artimino to San Baronto.
Lorenzo Il Magnificent had already begun to purchase land on Montalbano, however it was Ferdinand I who gave the greatest impulse to creating a hunting reserve by having the Villa of Artimino (1596-1600) – namely, the Ferdinanda - built in the privileged access place to what was later to become the Barco Reale. There was a set of official hunting rules, with severe penalties for offenders. The noble game – wild boar, hare, pheasants, geese and fallow deer – was reserved for the Grand Duke’s hunts and the felling of trees inside the Barco was also strictly regulated.
What to see. Along the walk around the wall there were once about sixty-five access points, water runoff cataracts, and a complex sewage system.
One of these magnificent cataracts near Sant’Amato has now been given new life thanks to volunteers of the Associazione Sant’Amato a Tavola. To get there on foot, just park near the Sant’Amato Church, walk a few dozen metres up past the church and take the first dirt road to the left. The trail is accessible to everyone, and the association's volunteers have also restored an ancient spring with very pure water.
Another important testimony is found on the road leading to the Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Faltognano; near a group of houses, where one of the entrance gates to the hunting reserve of the Medicean Barco Reale used to be, right at the crossroads, stands the so-called Barco Chapel, mentioned in a document from 1624.
The Madonna della Neve Oratory at Montevettolini
In a place filled with “Leonardian” suggestions, due to the name of the ancient oratory, not far from the village of Montevettolini, we come to a small rectangular building with a portico and lowered arches. This is the oratory dedicated to the Madonna della Neve.
The original nucleus of the building was erected in the 17th century to protect an ancient frescoed tabernacle.
The company of the Madonna della Neve ran the oratory and in 1710 equipped it with a new altar, later enlarged in 1769. In 1853, significant restoration works gave the oratory its current appearance.
Above the altar is a fresco belonged to the original tabernacle which portrays St. John the Baptist, St. Michael, the Madonna and Child, St. Peter and St. Stephen.
The Church of San Michele at Montevettolini
The Church of San Michele, which faces onto the ancient Montevettolini marketplace, now Piazza Bargellini, has three naves inside divided by pillars with numerous valuable works.
On the central altar is a canvas of the Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Anthony, from the first half of the 17th century attributed to Francesco Curradi; in the left aisle, there is a large wooden crucifix from the end of the 14th century and interesting works by early 17th-century Florentine painters.
A valuable wooden predella with monochrome decorations from the Madonna della Neve Oratory portrays scenes taken from the legendary miracle. Worth noting, in the 15th century there was also a female monastery dedicated to the Madonna della Neve near the church in the village.
The Montevettolini Castle and Hamlet
The Montevettolini Castle, located in a border area, was first disputed between the authorities of Pistoia and Lucca and later by the Florentines. Already in 1331, Florence had sent a Podestà there, a representative of the political and judicial power of the dominant city.
The spot was strategic for the properties owned by Florentine families in the area.
It is also relevant to note that the Medici decided to build a villa here, a genuine political and economic garrison dominating the entire Valdinievole. In fact, the villa, which is visible from all the surrounding territory, represented a permanent symbolic presence of the prince's power, even in his absence. Not much remains of the 14th-century city walls, just the Sprone Tower in the north-western section, later used as a bell tower and the sole survivor of the six original towers, and two access gates.
Of great interest, the ancient town hall dating back to the 13th century which overlooks Piazza Bargellini and has a series of sandstone and glazed terracotta coats of arms on the façade testifying to the presence of the various Florentine Podestàs that in turn dominated over the centuries.
The Medici Villa of Montevettolini
Construction of the villa started in 1597.
The layout, strongly influenced by the pre-existing foundations of a 14th-century fortress and the presence of imposing walled structures that had to be incorporated, gives it the appearance of an irregular dodecagon.
In a dominant position over the town and the entire valley, the building of the villa was ordered by Ferdinando I de 'Medici as part of the policy of timely management of the Valdinievole, especially in relation to the rational exploitation of the cultivated lands adjacent to the Fucecchio marshes and the resources coming from the same lake basin, as well as a great overall reorganisation of the Medici’s villa and farm system.
A striking iconographic source depicting the Montevettolini villa is the lunette by Giusto Utens, part of a series illustrating the 17 Medici villas originally commissioned by Ferdinando I - between 1599 and 1609 - for a living room in the villa of Artimino (today the 14 survivors are exhibited in Villa La Petraia, Florence). In 1650, Ferdinando II sold the villa and the Valdinievole estates of the farm to the Bartolomei family for 75 thousand scudi. In 1871, the villa passed into the hands of the Roman family of the Borghese Princes, still its current owners.