Homemade pasta, beautiful churches, delicious gelato, glamorous haute couture and a cultural history like nowhere else.
There’s already a legion of reasons to visit Italy, but 2019 brings another as the country its celebrates one of its original artistic exports: Leonardo da Vinci.
May 2 marks 500 years since the death of the original Renaissance man, known for his incredible contributions to art and science.
Born in – the clue’s in the name – the Tuscan town of Vinci, he spent most of his life in Florence, Milan and Rome.
Five centuries later, some of his most famous artworks can be found dotted around these three urban hubs. So what better way to celebrate da Vinci’s legacy than to literally follow in his footsteps in Northern Italy?
Read on for CNN Travel’s da Vinci itinerary.
After his early years in the provinces, da Vinci headed to his nearest city, Florence, where he worked for a decade with the Compagnia di San Luca – a brotherhood of Florentine artists.
Few paintings survive from this period, although a later stint in the Tuscan capital saw him paint his famous “Mona Lisa,” believed to be a portrait of the wife of a Florentine official.
Florence was once the center of medieval European trade and remnants from that era can be found throughout the city. Its historic architecture is well preserved, so visitors can see many some of the same buildings da Vinci may have wandered past.
The city’s most famous art museum is the Uffizi Gallery, located in the center and home to many Renaissance greats, including two of da Vinci’s masterworks.
They’re hanging in the same room, a chamber dedicated to da Vinci, his influences and his artistic heirs. This special gallery opened in 2018, reframing da Vinci’s works in climate-controlled cases to prevent humidity damage.
“The Annunciation,” believed to have been painted in about 1472, depicts the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel in a beautiful garden. Apparently, da Vinci studied birds’ anatomy to perfect the shadow of the angel on the meadow.
Also in this room is the restored “Adoration of the Magi,” an unfinished, striking piece that was meant to be an altar panel for Florence’s Church of San Donato a Scopeto.
“The recently cleaned and restored ‘Adoration of the Magi’ is magnificent and it has to be seen in person,” says Matthew Landrus, an art historian at the UK’s University of Oxford who specializes in da Vinci.
“It’s not something that makes sense in pictures, photographs, because of the layers of work on it.
“One can see in the amount of work, the amount of craftsmanship on that ‘Adoration,’ how much Leonardo really committed to that project, even though he didn’t finish it.”
Landrus advises getting in line early at the Uffizi to see the room. Ever-popular, it’s likely to draw more crowds during this anniversary year.
Also hanging in the room is the “Baptism of Christ,” a work by Andrea del Verrocchio. Da Vinci contributed to this work by his Florentine teacher.
Adjacent to the da Vinci room are rooms devoted to more Italian masters, Caravaggio, Michelango and Raphael.
Dining options nearby inlude Vini e Vecchi Sapori, a family-run tiny joint known for its cozy atmosphere and hearty Tuscan food.
Accommodation includes Pitti Palace al Ponte Vecchio, a four-star hotel just meters from the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s famous ancient bridge. Its Queen Suite has an incredible 360-degree view of the city.
Following his sojourn in Florence, da Vinci headed to Milan – where he memorably created two versions of “The Virgin of the Rocks,” one of which now hangs in London’s National Gallery.
This was a fruitful time for da Vinci, he filled his notebooks with extensive research into the sciences and engineering – including flying machines.
Offering a glimpse into the mind of an artistic genius in full flight, some of these notebooks – dubbed “The Codex Atlanticus” (c.1478-1519) – can be seen in Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana.
One of the sketches depicts da Vinci’s design for an early parachute.
Landrus says the notebooks are worth the trip.
“You get to see the really small handwriting, the way in which he was relentless in approaching certain ideas and just continued coming back to geometrical ideas and studies of Euclid and trying to square the circle.”
Also hanging in the Ambrosiana is da Vinci’s “Portait of a Musician,” an oil painting on wood that depicts an unnamed musician holding a score and wearing a red hat.
The number one da Vinci attraction in Milan is “The Last Supper.” This breathtaking Biblical interpretation by da Vinci is one of the world’s most well-known works of the art, widely parodied in pop culture.
It can be found within the UNESCO-nominated Santa Maria delle Grazie. This 1497 church was partially destroyed in World War II bombing, but fortunately “The Last Supper” survived.
Tickets are – unsurprisingly – sold out through August, but keep an eye out on the website for more information.
“You go in rather quickly, so take note as soon as you can when you get in there, you only have a few minutes to look at ‘The Last Supper,’” advises Landrus.
Visitors can also track down some of the Milanese buildings that have a link to da Vinci – there’s the Museo Leonardo da Vinci, which recreates some of his scientific and technological inventions.
Just outside of Milan is Sforza Castle, where da Vinci had an apartment. It’s home to the “Sala delle Asse” – the room of trees – a da Vinci-painted fresco of mulberry trees, which is currently being renovated in preparation for the 500 year celebrations.
“Milan is my favorite city for looking at Leonardo,” says Landrus. “It was his home for 18 years.”
Food options here include Cavoli a Merenda, a glamorous restaurant with white-washed walls and airy windows located in an 18th century former apartment building.
Culture-rich Milan’s a fashion capital, but it’s also known for its operatic history.
Château Monfort is a five-star, fairy-tale-and-opera-themed hotel in the middle of Milan. Each opulent suite is named after a different opera or fairytale.
Da Vinci also worked for several years in Rome, taking up residence in the Vatican.
It was the last place he lived in Italy before moving to Amboise, central France, where he died in 1519.
The artist’s work in Rome includes the unfinished “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness.”
The panel came into the hands of Pope Pius IX – head of the Catholic Church from 1846-1878 – who hung it in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, the Vatican’s art gallery where it can be visited today.
There’s also a museum dedicated to da Vinci in Rome. It doesn’t contain any of his original artworks, but it offers plenty of detail about his life. There are machines designed from his sketches and interactive versions of his works.
Landrus points out da Vinci was a very busy man whose talent spread across mediums.
“His interdisciplinarity but also his multitasking is something that will strike people as they look around at these various objects” says Landrus.
“And also getting a sense of the context,” he adds. “When you understand the context you understand more of the significance of what Leonardo was working with, that he was highly sought after in an environment that was already rich with with really good, talented people.”
Ten minutes away from the Vatican is a Rome institution, Arlu. Opened in 1959, this restaurant known for its incredible homemade desserts. Pasta is shaped with traditional wood tools and the ingredients are flavorsome and piquant.
Residenza Paolo VI is a boutique hotel in an old Augustinian monastery close to Vatican City. Each room has an artistic twist, inspired by Michelangelo and Bernini.
Leonardo around the world
Of course, a true da Vinci odyssey goes beyond his homeland.
The “Mona Lisa” hangs in the Louvre, alonside “Virgin of the Rocks,” “Portrait of Isabella d’Este” and “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne.” The Louvre is apparently bracing for large numbers of da Vinci tourists this year and will be hosting an exhibition in the fall.
Also in Paris, there’s a Codex called Paris Manuscript B, located in the Bibliotheque de l’Institut de France of Paris – including a sketch of a Flying Machine.
In the United States, “Ginevra de’ Benci” – generally assumed to be a da Vinci treasure – is on display in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
144 of da Vinci’s drawings belong to Britain’s Royal Collection and will be on display in Buckingham Palace in May and later on in the year, Scotland’s Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.
There are also some da Vinci’s works you can’t see – the “Vitruvian Man,” for example, one of his most famous drawings – is part of Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia collection, but it isn’t usually on display due to worries about light exposure.
You should seize the chance this year though – it’s on display from April 16 - July 14, 2019.
“Salvator Mundi,” a work recently attributed to da Vinci, became the most expensive painting ever publicly auctioned when it sold for $450 million in 2017. No one quite knows if it’s a da Vinci, but either way, you won’t be seeing it any time soon – it’s in a private collection.
Landrus argues that its worth tracking down artworks even when scholars can’t agree whether or not they’re da Vinci originals. Likewise the work of da Vinci’s artistic influences and those inspired by him.
Where to find da Vinci’s work around the world:
“Madonna and Child with a Carnation” – Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany
“Ginevra de’ Benci” – National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA
“Madonna and Child” (The Benois Madonna) – The State Hermitage Museum u, St Petersburg, Russia
“Virgin of the Rocks” – The Louvre, Paris, France
“Mona Lisa” – The Louvre, Paris, France
“St. John the Baptist” – The Louvre, Paris, France
“The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” – The Louvre, Paris, France
“Cecilia Gallerani” (“The Lady with the Ermine”) – National Museum, Krakow, Poland
“Virgin of the Rocks” (National Gallery, London) – National Gallery, London, UK
“Portrait of a Lady” (“La Belle Ferronnière”) – The Louvre, Abu Dhabi
“Madonna of the Yarnwinder” – Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland