When you hear the word “Tuscany”, the first things that probably come to mind are Florence, Pisa and Chianti. But few of you might have heard of the Valdarno, an idyllic area between Florence and Arezzo that has inspired artists for centuries, even the likes of the great Renaissance Master Leonardo da Vinci.
My wife and I stayed at a charming boutique hotel, the Relais Villa Belpoggio in the Valdarno community of Loro Ciuffenna , perched on the slopes of the southern ridge of the Pratomagno.
Our first morning I had a delightful chat with the Villa’s manager Maria Ventrone, and I told her that I was eager to know more about the Valdarno. Maria, a lively woman that is visibly enthusiastic about the surroundings, gave me extensive insights about this attractive province.
The Village of Loro Ciuffenna dates back to pre-Roman times, when it was an Etruscan settlement. Its appellation derives from the stream that runs through the town, the Ciuffenna, a name of obvious – to the scholar – Etruscan origins. Most of the town’s heart is mediaeval in architecture, and one can still see the remains of a water-powered mill built prior to AD 1200. Relais Villa Belpoggio in Loro Ciuffenna is an ideal starting point to reach the famous cities of Tuscany or just roam through panoramic hillside roads.
What stroke me as a very fascinating story was that of the Balze of the Valdarno. Millions of years ago, in the Pliocene and Pleistocene periods, the Valdarno – or the Valley of the Arno River – was a large bowl formed by the movement of marine foundations subsequent to the development of the African and European continents. As in the case of Bryce Canyon in Utah, erosion has molded rare and interesting formations. Now, at the feet of the Chianti Mountains and the Pratomagno, bizarre, edgy pinnacles, the so called Balze or Calanchi, are still attracting numerous scholars and mystifying the unprepared onlooker.
“One of the most illustrious individuals who felt a tremendous attraction towards the Balze was Leonardo da Vinci,” Maria explained to me. “Between 1502 and 1503 Leonardo was a military consultant for Duke Cesare Borgia – the notorious son of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. He was commissioned by the Duke to map out the territory that Borgia had conquered for the papal state. Leonardo surveyed military fortifications, waterways and road networks, and thus became well acquainted with the topography of this area”.
Scholars have debated for centuries if the backgrounds of some of Leonardo’s painting were just a figment of his imagination or if they were real landscapes. Professor Carlo Starnazzi, a paleontologist at the University of Florence, and many others here in the Valdarno are convinced that some of those dreamy landscapes are in fact inspired by this region.
Take the most famous of the great Master’s paintings, the Mona Lisa, which was painted between 1503 and 1507, that is after Leonardo’s activity in the Arezzo region. The landscape in the background is illustrated by an odd cliffy land that resembles the Calanchi very much. Moreover, on the center-right end of the painting, more or less at the height of Mona Lisa’s shoulder, one can distinguish an arched bridge.
For many experts, this bridge is none other than the Buriano bridge Ponte Buriano, built in approximately 1277 and a marvel of engineering of its time. The Buriano bridge, still open to traffic to this day, consists of seven distinctive arches and lies 6 km from the city of Arezzo: it is very reasonable to argue that Leonardo took careful notice of it while studying the area and placed it so gracefully in his masterpiece.
The Calanchi have also almost certainly inspired the background of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. This holy scene, portrayed by the Master in two analogous paintings, one hosted at the Louvre in Paris (1483-1486 ) and one at the National Museum in London (1495-1508), is set in a hazy and hilly countryside. These cliffs are also very much like the spiky Balze of the Valdarno.
If all this wasn’t enough to convince you, observe da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder (circa 1502), hosted in a private collection in New York. Not only you will notice jagged rocks similar to the Balze in the background, but, this time on the left side of the painting, there lies the Buriano bridge again.
If a genius like Leonardo was so intrigued by the Valdarno to quote it in his works, shouldn’t we all better go to see it for ourselves? For some time, Italian authorities have been considering to make the Balze a protected area and promote tourism in this area. So far little has been done, and this fascinating Tuscan Monument Valley remains unknown to many. But maybe it’s better like this: those who do visit the Valdarno will still witness an unspoiled and delightful site that may still retain some of the magic of Lenardo’s time.