Vinci's Son - The Genius of Leonardo

Italy has a way of sneaking up on you. One emerges from a Roman cafe and is confronted by the Forum; an interminable traffic jam affords views of the Vatican (and another interpretation of why Rome may be called the Eternal City); the unmarked valley behind an autostrada petrol station (quaintly, and accurately, labelled &quotself serving") is the headwaters of the legendary Tiber. One minute you may be racing down a freeway, the next you're driving into a piazza that seems to have changed little since Julius Caesar left home.

Every country shares some part of Italy. But looking in Italy's big cities for a distillation of ancient greatness is likely to lead to disappointment. I'm convinced that a love affair with Italy (past and present) begins only by diverging from the standard tourist trail. There are even some museums overlooked by the average tourist.

In Florence last year, I picked up a brochure listing the &quotscientific museums of Tuscany". From it, I learned there was a Leonardo Museum in Vinci. It took much longer to find Vinci on a map but I finally found it in the Tuscan hills to the south of the Florence-Pisa autostrada. Ominously, the route was marked &quotscenic" which, in my experience, means a cliff-side goat track shared by an assortment of cattle, tractors and potential Andrettis.

It was also a journey to the heart of Tuscany. The road detoured around the giant fig trees that marked village squares, farmers waved a welcome from their fields and the sun beat down on grey olive groves and red tiled roofs. Our destination proved to be a pleasant surprise: a quiet, rustic, Tuscan village where every car passing seems like a major event.

Vinci is famous only because Leonardo was born here in 1452. Leonardo was humanity's greatest genius: after making innumerable engineering breakthroughs he still had time to paint the Mona Lisa, the world's most famous art work.

None of Leonardo's original works is here. The village that produced the leading figure of the Renaissance can't afford any of his drawings or paintings: these are scattered across the rest of Europe, in Paris, Milan, Madrid and London. However, Italian-language scholars rank the Vinci library as the world's greatest repository of works about Leonardo.

For the rest of us, the bright and airy museum provides endless fascination. It displays his drawings and has over 50 wooden models created from them. Despite signs saying &quotdon't touch the models", the museum is filled with the illicit clatter of gears and the whirr of pulleys.

&quotNon sapevo che avesse inventato questo." is now one of the few phrases I know in Italian. It means &quotI didn't know he invented that!" I learnt it while exploring Il Museo Leonardiniano di Vinci at Via della Torre, Vinci, Florence, Italy, Tel. 0571/56055.

One walks through these halls with a sense of awe that one man could be so clever. Underwater breathing apparatus, the tank, the paddlewheel, spotlight, parachute and helicopter are all here. The brilliance of a mind that could create aviation instruments 400 years before man first flew is laid out here for all to see.

With perfect Italian dramatic flair, one of the last rooms contains Leonardo's model of a modern bicycle. I didn't know he invented that!

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd