On a road trip through the small towns and graceful hills around Florence, M. G. Lord explores the roots of celebrity culture in Renaissance house museums
Simon Watson

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.

Born two generations after Dante, Boccaccio was a fan of the Divine Comedy. On display in his stone house are photocopies of his letters to Dante, as well as many editions of his own Decameron. In Certaldo's isolated streets, I got a sense of what it meant to exile oneself from the big city, as the characters in the Decameron did when they fled plague-ravaged Florence. Boccaccio's house, however, was rebuilt after its destruction in World War II and seemed too new to evoke the 14th century.

Our next stop was Siena, once home to Saint Catherine. In contrast to the secular superstars in this story, Catherine, born in 1347, is an actual saint, who received visions and the stigmata. In its museum incarnation, her house—a stone building that once sheltered her, her parents, and her 24 siblings—looks more like a collection of chapels than a private dwelling (frescoes in one chamber celebrate the supernatural aspects of her life, such as the time that the young Catherine climbed stairs without touching them). Yet aspects of Catherine's legacy are pointedly political. Although she was illiterate, she was able to correspond through a secretary with emperors and popes, including Gregory XI, whom she visited in Avignon as part of a successful campaign to return the papacy to Rome.

As we left Siena for Arezzo, we were caught in an afternoon thunderstorm. We motored cautiously through sheets of rain at first, but lost our nerve when the lightning started and pulled off the road to eat a simple lunch: bread, cheese, and panforte, Siena's sticky traditional confection. We ate in the front seat, watching droplets pound our windshield, grateful—as we had not been on the streets of Pisa—for the car's spaciousness.

Later, with our car safely garaged in Arezzo, we walked to Vasari's house, which turned out to be the antithesis of Saint Catherine's (Vasari didn't live in Arezzo himself; he installed his wife there while he chased glory in Florence as the court artist of Cosimo de' Medici). With the exception of a closet-like chapel, the second-floor dwelling is entirely dedicated to earthly celebrity. The most dramatic room contains a mural about fame on the walls and ceiling. In it, Vasari paints himself on the same symbolic level as his mentor, Michelangelo.

We left Arezzo for Florence. A few weeks earlier, Christine had secured opening-night tickets to Verdi's Otello at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the city's famous spring festival. So we zoomed up the A1 autostrada, a terrifying superhighway, to ensure that we would make the 8 p.m. curtain. In Florence we ditched our car at the rental agency, changed into evening clothes, and had an early dinner, arriving in time to observe a glittering crowd venerating conductor Zubin Mehta, evidence that the Florentine obsession with celebrity did not end with the Renaissance.

Not all our plans, however, went so smoothly. The next morning, I sought out Dante Alighieri's house, but it was closed for restoration, as was the dwelling in the hills outside Florence where Galileo was kept under house arrest. I sneaked a peek over the wall at the loggia where the astronomer used to walk, feeling an illicit thrill, like a star map-clutching stalker.

Happily, though, Casa Buonarroti, Michelangelo's townhouse, was open. There we met art historian Elaine Ruffolo, who told us that the notoriously miserly artist did not live there, but merely "collected real estate." His nephew would later adorn many of its walls with murals of scenes from his uncle's life.

Although I enjoyed seeing the austere cell in the museum of San Marco where Savonarola, the notorious anti-pleasure priest, hung his rosary, my favorite Florence house museum was Casa Guidi (even though it is associated with the 19th century rather than the 15th). Poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning set up house in this second-floor apartment near the Pitti Palace. Spacious but not grand, the apartment retains a few objects from the Brownings' occupancy, including, tellingly, a mirror. The drawing room's battery acid-green walls are a testimony to the couple's fashionable eccentricity.

The Browning shrine seemed a fitting finale for our tour (and a destination for a future one). Not all of its rooms are on view; some of them are occupied by paying guests. Currently run by the Landmark Trust of Great Britain, the Brownings' apartment can be rented for overnight stays, making it the last word, if not the last circle, in vicarious celebrity.

Day 1 12.5 miles. Pisa to Lucca; visit Puccini's house.
Day 2 86 miles. Lucca to Siena by way of Vinci and Certaldo. Stop at the museums dedicated to Leonardo and Boccaccio.
Day 3 40 miles. The Siena-to-Arezzo leg includes the museums of Vasari, Saint Catherine, and Petrarch.
Day 4 49 miles. Arezzo to Florence; see Casa Guidi and Michelangelo's house.


Royal Victoria Hotel Charles Dickens stayed here; look for his scrawl inthe hotel's 19th-century ledgers. DOUBLES FROM $130. 12 LUNGARNO PACINOTTI, PISA; 39-050/940-111; www.royalvictoria.it
Hotel Villa La Principessa DOUBLES FROM $213. 1616 VIA NUOVA PER PISA, LUCCA; 39-0583/370-037; www.hotelprincipessa.com
Osteria del Vicario A 13th-century monastery converted to an elegant hotel. DOUBLES FROM $95. 3 VIA RIVELLINO, CERTALDO; 39-0571/668-228; www.osteriadelvicario.it
Casa Guidi Reserve a room through the Landmark Trust of Great Britain. 8 PIAZZA SAN FELICE, FLORENCE; www.landmarktrust.co.uk

Museo Casa Natale di Giacomo Puccini 9 CORTE SAN LORENZO, LUCCA; 39-0583/584-028
Casa Natale di Leonardo LOCALITÀ ANCHIANO, VINCI; 39-0571/56519
Museo Leonardiano di Vinci CASTELLO DEI CONTI GUIDI, 2 VIA DELLA TORRE, VINCI; 39-0571/56055
Museo Casa del Boccaccio VIA BOCCACCIO, CERTALDO; 39-0571/664-208
Santuario Casa Santa Caterina VICOLO DEL TIRATOIO, SIENA; 39-0577/280-801
Museo di Casa Vasari 55 VIA XX SETTEMBRE, AREZZO; 39-0575/409-040
Casa Buonarroti 70 VIA GHIBELLINA, FLORENCE; 39-055/241-752; www.casabuonarroti.it
Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza 1 PIAZZA DEI GIUDICI, FLORENCE; 39-055/293-493;; www.imss.fi.it
Museo di San Marco 3 PIAZZA SAN MARCO, FLORENCE; 39-055/238-8608

Osteria del Vicario

Hotel Villa La Principessa

This property was once owned by Castruccio Castracani (the Luccan general said to have been the model for Machiavelli's ideal prince). After walking the wooded grounds and dining on marinated salmon, thyme-and-lemon-scented chicken, and minestrone seasoned with heavenly local olive oil, guests feel ideal themselves. The hotel is just a five-minute drive from lively Lucca, though the hunting prints on the walls, striped fabrics, and tartan carpets may make you feel as if you're in an English country house. Book one of the refurbished second-floor suites that boast antique furnishings and vintage parquet floors (room No. 126 has a coffered wood ceiling).

Royal Victoria Hotel

Casa Guidi

In the mid-19th century, romantic British artists and writers flocked to Florence, and poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were among them. In 1847, the couple rented a flat in Piazza San Felice in the Oltrarno, not far from Palazzo Pitti. Now one of Britain's Landmark Trust properties, the apartment — which sleeps six in three bedrooms — has been restored to a close proximity of the way it looked when the Brownings lived there (based on paintings from the time), including some of their original furniture and art.