You Can Now Walk—and Sketch—Where Leonardo da Vinci Did in the 1400s
View from Brellin cafe, Milan. Sketch by Nikki Martinez. Courtesy of the artist.
In northern Italy, a 150-mile walking trail winds through the countryside, tracing Leonardo da Vinci’s journeys from the late 1400s.
Known as the Path of Leonardo, the trek starts in Milan, passes through Lake Como’s old “Wanderer’s Trail” (“Sentiero del Viandante”), continues towards Valchiavenna, and ends in the San Bernardino Pass. It connects historical footpaths with newer ones, leading through Lombardy’s breathtaking landscapes.
Path panorama overlooking Humble Hamlets, Sentiero del Viandante, along the Path of Leonardo. Photo by Angelo Colombo. Courtesy of the artist.
Pian di Spagna Swans. Sketch by Nikki Martinez. Courtesy of the artist.
“Leonardo walked this way in the late 1400s, while working for the Duke of Milan,” explained Renato Ornaghi, author of Il Sentiero di Leonardo, the newly published guidebook to the Path of Leonardo. Packed with travel tips, art guides, and stories from Leonardo’s life, the book was published in time with the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. “The path,” Ornaghi continued, “is an invitation to get to know Leonardo by traveling to places where he worked and walked.” And for artists, it’s an opportunity to sketch, and to see, as the artist did centuries ago.
To map out this path, trekkers and historians put their heads together. “We collected all the existing routes and created a map adding information related to Leonardo, to identify all the places he visited along the way,” Ornaghi noted.
View of Mt. Legnone from my terrace. Photo by Nikki Martinez. Courtesy of the artist.
“Sometimes we think of Leonardo da Vinci like a god,” he continued. “Of course, he was one of history’s greatest geniuses, but that path reminds us that at the same time, he was a simple man.”
As an artist, Leonardo’s career path was a peculiar one. He developed his own way to comprehend the world and referred to himself as a discepolo della sperientia (“disciple of experience”). Whether studying the inner organs of a human body or the contours of a landscape, he was a firm believer in examining his subject matter firsthand, from life.
When he moved from Florence to Milan, Leonardo was in his early thirties. In 1492, he traveled through Lombardy’s Valtellina region, visiting Lake Como, Chiavenna, and Valsassina. His sketches captured the moment of idea and possibility; they helped to shape the Renaissance.
The particular paths Leonardo walked along Lake Como are on the opposite end of the better-known celebrity side. They’re perfect for artists who seek solitude, and anyone who travels for creative inspiration. As you walk here, pay attention to the ombre mezzani (“intermediate shadows”) that Leonardo wrote about; watch the changes in color as you view, in his words, the “buildings or towns seen through a fog.”
Ornaghi walked the entire 150 miles while writing the guidebook, and is now inviting others to join him each Sunday through October 13, 2019, for one stage of the route. “Walking is a metaphor for life,” he explained. “Walking this path, you feel that behind the genius, there is a human. Like you and me.”
Highlights for sketchers on the path of Leonardo
Below, we share some of the most compelling stops on the Path of Leonardo. These locations tend to be less crowded than the usual Leonardo sites and more suitable for quiet and sketching. Additionally, none of these sites require online reservations.
Alto Lario Lighthouse and Mt. Legnone where Leonardo hiked. Sketch by Nikki Martinez. Courtesy of the artist.
Il Cavallo. Sketch by Nikki Martinez. Courtesy of the artist.
- The Ambrosiana Library, Milan: One of the first libraries that opened its doors to everyone who could read or write. Leonardo’s manuscript Codex Atlanticus (1478–1519) is here.
- Bronze Horse at San Siro Hippodrome, Milan: This monumental statue is based on Leonardo’s original design.
- Leonardo’s Vineyards in Casa degli Atellani, Milan: While working on The Last Supper (1495–98), Leonardo tended these vineyards, a gift from the Duke. You can try the wines produced by the same Malvasia grape he tended.
- The Navigli, Milan: It’s believed that Leonardo influenced the design of these historic canals. Today, they are lined with lively cafés and wine cellars attracting Milan’s young, hip set. Art and aperitivi while sketching passersby is perfect at Brellin Café.
Lake Como Love Stories. Sketch by Nikki Martinez. Courtesy of the artist.
- The Piona Abbey, Colico: Run by Cistercian monks and a favorite stopover for Leonardo. Locals say its bell tower is depicted in The Last Supper. From Milan Centrale station, take the train to Varenna. Then, take a ferry to Piona; from there, it’s a four-minute walk to the abbey.
- Il Sentiero di Viandante, Upper Lake Como: From Dervio, you have a beautiful view of Lake Como, and can experience the “Path of the Wanderers,” the original mule tracks used by travelers for centuries. There are connecting train stops from Milan.
- Riserva Naturale Pian di Spagna e Lago di Mezzola, Gera Lario and Sorico: This enchanting nature reserve recalls one of Leonardo’s legendary works, Leda and the Swan (16th century).
- The Waterfalls of Piuro, Valchiavenna, Sondrio: The Acquafraggia waterfalls, mentioned in Leonardo’s notebooks, are accessible from the main road. There’s a bar where you can sit and sketch.
- The Alpine Passes: Leonardo was fascinated by the mountains of the Lecco area and climbed them. The desire to know and discover drove him to try to look at the Earth from above.