Inside the quest to restore Leonardo da Vinci's secret vineyard

The Renaissance man grew wine grapes at his estate in Milan


Closed to the public for five centuries, Casa degli Atellani-- in the heart of the Milan, Italy-- has recently reopened to curious tourists. The estate houses plenty of treasures for fans of Italian history, art and culture. But it’s also home to an intriguing secret dating back to the Renaissance-era—a newly restored vineyard owned by Leonardo da Vinci.

When da Vinci left Florence for Milan in the late 15th century, he arrived with a cover letter that described him as a weapons maker and laid out in exquisite detail the various arms he could produce.

At the bottom of his résumé, he added a couple of lines: In times of peace, he wrote, he could paint and serve as an architect. The man who went on to paint the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper didn’t even bother to mention another skill: grape grower.   

A little-known detail about Leonardo’s life and passions is that he owned a small vineyard that the duke of Milan gave to him for painting The Last Supper, says historian and author Jacopo Ghilardotti.

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Today, half a millennium later, that vineyard has been restored to reproduce essentially the same grape the genius cultivated.  

It took Leonardo a few years to complete the The Last Supper fresco in the dining hall of the Dominican monastery adjacent to Santa Maria delle Grazie church.
On many days he would accomplish no more than a few brushstrokes. With the vineyard just a stone's throw from the church, it is thought that he would stroll among the vines during breaks from creating his masterpiece.

"The relationship between Leonardo and nature was exercised in that place in that vineyard,” says Luca Maroni, the professional wine taster who drove the restoration of the vineyard. “There is still the soul of Leonardo there."

The vineyard would have a tortured history. The French confiscated it when they invaded Milan. Leonardo fled, and when the French begged him to come back, he reportedly did so on the condition that he got his grapes back.

The only property in his will was the vineyard, which he split between his disciple, model and rumored lover, "Salai," and his valet, Giovanbattista Villani.

What happened in the next few centuries is largely unknown. But a century ago, when the stately homes on the property were joined into one grand villa, Casa degli Atellani , interest developed in identifying the vineyard’s location. Ultimately, it was located. There was a bocce court above it.

In 1943, the Allies bombed Santa Maria delle Grazie. The Last Supper, which had been carefully wrapped up, was undamaged, but fires burned the lawn where the vineyard lay. In 2008, Maroni, along with a team of archeologists from the University of Milan, conducted a dig and found fossils of the original vines.  DNA testing matched them closely with the white wine grape Malvasia di Candia Aromatica.

But it would be several years before da Vinci’s secret garden would open to the public. As Milan was getting ready to host the 2015 Expo,the real work got underway to identify Leonardo’s grapes and replant his vineyard. The owners of the Atellani house, the Castellini family, enthusiastically agreed. That year, they also opened the doors of the property to the public for the first time.

The vines were replanted in the garden of the stately home, which was renovated to preserve the architectural styles of the times. 

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So far, there are no grapes growing on the vines but Maroni insists there will be wine produced in 2017. The wine expert estimates there will be a limited production of just 500 bottles of passito-- a sweet wine usually imbibed at the end of a meal. If successful, it will be the first wine made in the center of Milan since WWII and the vintners plan to use the same winemaking process da Vinci described in a letter to his wine master in 1508.

Atellani may not be producing wine yet but curiosity is drawing in tourists who want to look around the premises and get a true taste of 15th century life. 

“People come from all over the world, cause they really love Leonardo and everything related to Leonardo," says Ghilardotti.

Fans of the Renaissance artisan have given the attraction glowing reviews online.   

It is not known for sure where Leonardo actually lived during his decades in Milan, but now, at least, we know where his grapevines thrived.

Amy Kellogg currently serves as a Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent based in Milan, Italy. She joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999 as a Moscow-based correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: @amykelloggfox