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Arezzo in the landscapes of Leonardo

The relationship between Leonardo da Vinci and the territory of Arezzo has been the subject of studies and investigations for years. In some of the most celebrated masterpieces of the Renaissance genius, such as “Sant’Anna, la Vergine e il Bambino con l’agnellino”, “La Vergine delle rocce” and “La Madonna dei Fusi”, the landscapes of the Upper Valdarno with its characteristic Balze have been recognized. These landscapes are the result of geological phenomena that continue to cause constant erosion of lacustrine sediments accumulated in the Pliocene epoch by atmospheric agents and the dense network of watercourses that flow from the Pratomagno mountains towards the Arno River.

In 1992, the intuition of Carlo Starnazzi linked the most famous and the most enigmatic in the world: “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci to the city of Arezzo.
The small oil painting, kept inside the Louvre museum in Parigi, depicts Monna Lisa Gherardini, wife of the Florentine nobleman and merchant Francesco del Giocondo; the painting is still researched by scholars that cannot give definitive answers to the questions that arise when some research is done on it. Painted between 1503 and 1506 and brought to France directly by Leonardo himself when he moved to the French court of Francesco I in 1516 , the masterpiece has in its background of the depicted lady a landscape that is the most discussed topic.
Following his studies, Starnazzi recognised in the background the territory where the Arno receives the Chiana channel, identifying the arcs of a bridge: Ponte Buriano. It has to be mentioned that at the time in which Leonardo had concluded his activity of map maker for Cesare Borgia of which the “Map of Val di Chiana”, kept in the Royal Collection of the castle of Windson in the UK, is the most famous part, concluded with studies and evaluations carried out in the area between the Upper Arno valley and the Chiana valley during the summer of 1203 and the spring of 1503. The landscape of the territory of Arezzo had been recently seen by the artist.

This hypothesis was immediately accepted by Carlo Pedretti, who at that time was the director of the Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies in Los Angeles, and other prominent scholars worldwide. Others, on the other hand, deviated from the proposal and saw in Leonardo’s landscape different places in the Valdarno or sites on the Italian peninsula far from the Tuscan river, such as the Prealps, the Pontine Marshes, the Val Trebbia, and Montefeltro.
In 2023, thanks to the writer Silvano Vinceti, the idea resurfaced that the arches behind the “Mona Lisa” are not those of Ponte Buriano but of Ponte Romito, an Etruscan-Roman crossing along the Arno River, in the area of Laterina. Today, only one arch of the bridge survives, but in the early 16th century, it had four arches and was used by travelers and merchants for its strategic location, which allowed for shorter travel times from Arezzo to Florence. Vinceti also recognized the particular landscape features of the area, such as the cliffs on both sides of the bridge.
The debate may never find a unanimous and definitive answer, but the idea that Leonardo painted one of the two bridges, located just a few kilometers apart, in his most famous work creates endless suggestions for all those who visit one of the most characteristic stretches of the Arno River.

The two landscapes in the background of the Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa or La Gioconda / Louvre Museum, Paris

The Madonna of the Spindle / Private Collection, New York

Ponte Buriano over the Arno river in Arezzo

Ponte Romito over the Arno river in Laterina

“Dal Valdarno di Sopra insino ad Arezzo si creava uno secondo lago il quale occupava tutta la detta valle di sopra per ispazio di 40 miglia di lunghezza… Questa valle riceve sopra il suo fondo tutta la terra portata dall’acque di quella intorbidata, la quale ancora si vede a piedi del Prato Magno restare altissima: e infra essa terra si vede le profonde segnature de’ fiumi che quivi son passati, li quali discendono dal gran monte di Prato Magno…”
Leonardo da Vinci / Leicester Codex

The Balze in the Valdarno

Leonardo da Vinci / Val di Chiana Map, Royal Library of Windsor, London