In Los Angeles, where I live, you can't drive down Sunset Boulevard without seeing signs for star maps—guides to the putative residences of, to name a few, Jennifer and Brad, Madonna, and Arnold—but this fascination with fame didn't start in Hollywood. During the Middle Ages, the houses, personal effects, and even body parts of saints were venerated; in the Renaissance, objects associated with secular luminaries—artists, writers, scientists—were similarly revered. Renaissance creative types were fixated on celebrity. "He who, without Fame, burns his life to waste/leaves no more vestige of himself on the earth than/ wind-blown smoke, or foam upon the water," Dante wrote in his Inferno (this cautionary verse impressed Leonardo da Vinci so much that he copied it into his sketchbook). And painter Giorgio Vasari was so interested in why some artists made it big—and others didn't—that he put aside his own blazing career to write Lives of the Artists, a pop-psychological tell-all that has sold well since 1550.
It struck me that our current celebrity culture is quite similar to that of the Renaissance, especially in its cult of the individual. I decided to see where the likes of Dante, Michelangelo, Galileo, and Leonardo had eaten, slept, and exercised their legendary talents. In terms of Italian Renaissance intellectual life, all roads lead to Florence; however, I planned to save that city for last, after investigating Pisa, Lucca, Siena, and Arezzo, where these artists and scholars had also spent some time. (integral)
I set off from Pisa with Christine, a Los Angeles attorney who was living in Florence, where she was teaching international art law. We picked up our rental car at the airport in Pisa, a hassle-free hub with an adjoining train stop, and headed to the Royal Victoria Hotel, one of whose attractions, in a city of puzzling parking regulations, is its adjacent garage. Our goal was to get a sense of Galileo Galilei, Pisa's most famous son. We began at sunset at the Leaning Tower, which was so iconic as to seem almost unreal, and from whose top tier Galileo had dropped objects of various weights to demonstrate gravity. In the morning we walked to the orange-ocher townhouse where some scholars believe he was born (it's now a private residence). Galileo is an exemplar of the Renaissance secular saint, although given that the Inquisition had branded him a heretic for supporting a heliocentric solar system, he was far from a religious hero. In Florence's Institute and Museum of the History of Science, his scientific instruments and even a body part—an embalmed middle finger—are fetishized as relics.
Unfortunately, except for the timely NO ALLA GUERRA (NO TO WAR) message spray-painted on a nearby wall, little of the astronomer's house has stayed with me. I was too traumatized by the drive out of Pisa. While trying to turn from one extremely narrow one-way street onto another, I wedged our car (an immense Mercedes-Benz wagon, the sole automatic transmission on the rental lot) between a greengrocer's and a florist's shop. A crowd gathered, shouting conflicting instructions in Italian on how to extricate the car. After inching back and forth, we were blessedly freed, and I vowed never again to stray onto streets scaled for a Vespa.
We headed east and climbed the hills outside Pisa, pausing to look back at a dramatic vista: the city as model-railroad layout, its flatness pierced by a tiny, tilted tower. Our next stop was Lucca, the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini, composer of La Bohème and Madama Butterfly. I was not unhappy to learn that private cars aren't allowed beyond the 40-foot ramparts that surround the city; we left ours in a lot outside.
Born in 1858, Puccini was not a Renaissance figure, but his home is the model of what a house museum should be, containing artifacts to which anyone, not just scholars, can relate. The composer lived as a child with his parents and sisters on the second floor of a multi-family dwelling near the center of town. The apartment retains the feel of a private residence. Puccini's earliest scores are on view in what was once his parents' bedroom; other exhibits include his Steinway piano, his fur-lined evening coat, and his white silk scarf.
One display moved me deeply. Puccini died of throat cancer in 1924 after an operation that left him unable to speak. In a vitrine near his Steinway are his final words: a half-dozen shaky scribbles on several sheets of paper. A docent explained that, after requesting water, Puccini apologized to his wife for his infidelities. Perhaps because Turandot was playing in the background, or perhaps because death—as any operagoer knows—confers solemnity, I found myself weeping.
I was brooding as we left the composer's house museum for the Hotel Villa La Principessa, a property once owned by Castruccio Castracani (the Luccan general said to have been the model for Machiavelli's ideal prince). Thankfully, after walking the wooded grounds and dining on marinated salmon, thyme-and-lemon-scented chicken, and minestrone seasoned with heavenly local olive oil, my mood lifted. I felt like an ideal princess myself.
The following morning we set off for Vinci, motoring east from Lucca to Pistoia, then heading south 17 miles to Anchiano, where Leonardo was actually born in 1452—not in Vinci, less than two miles south. Winding down a skinny stretch of road, we discovered ancient olive trees, columnar cypresses, and mountain vineyards. Grape arbors pressed against one side of the road; drying laundry hugged the other.
Leonardo's birthplace was well off the beaten path, with not a tour bus in sight. The house itself is an unimpressive, low-slung stone structure. What really attracted us was its view, the distant Tuscan landscape that often fills the background in Renaissance portraits. Down the hill in Vinci, there is a museum of models based on inventions from Leonardo's notebooks: a wooden bicycle, an underwater breathing apparatus.
We continued south to Certaldo, a tiny walled city on a hill, where Giovanni Boccaccio was born and spent the final decade of his life. To reach it, we parked our car in the new part of town, marked by industrial buildings from the mid-20th century, and boarded a creaky funicular (an older version of the high-tech trams that whisk skiers up mountains). We loved the funicular's lazy paceand the long views of the Tuscan plain.