See where Leonardo da Vinci still walks the streets

Peek inside the world of Renaissance re-enactors who bring Leonardo and his work to life 500 years after the artist's death.Sunday, June 9

By Claudia Kalb, Paolo Woods
Photographs By Paolo Woods
Valter Conti, strolling through one of Florence’s narrow alleyways, began posing as Leonardo da Vinci in 1990. He enjoys the silent anonymity of working as an impersonator.

The old and the new live in tandem in Florence, Italy. Electric cars zip down centuries-old cobblestone streets. Vendors type out texts while displaying their wares on the Ponte Vecchio. Tourists decked in t-shirts, shorts, and Apple Watches feast on gelato under Brunelleschi’s famous dome.

Still, there’s something startling about witnessing the Renaissance come alive before one’s eyes—as it does when Leonardo da Vinci checks his cellphone or Mona Lisa leans out from her frame to take a sip of apple juice.

At Florence’s Café Rivoire, Conti sips an espresso while resting his feet. His costume is modeled after a 19th century sculpture of Leonardo that stands outside Florence’s Uffizi Gallery.

This is standard fare for artistic impersonators Valter Conti and his daughter Elena Pinori who masquerade as Italy’s majestic painter and his most famous subject. At least three days a week, Conti spends two hours dressing to look like a statue of the artist that stands outside the Uffizi Gallery. This requires affixing shoulder-length hair and a wavy beard made out of cotton and acrylic paint; donning a white robe and beret hat; and applying thick white makeup to his face, including his eye lids and lips.

Pinori requires similar time to transform herself into “La Gioconda,” the name Italians use to refer to the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, who is believed to be the portrait’s sitter. Replicating Leonardo’s artistry requires exceptional skill and patience, says Pinori. That’s because the artist’s famed sfumato technique—a blurring of outlines—gives the painting an ethereal quality that is exceedingly hard to mimic on a sentient face. (Why Leonardo's genius endures 500 years after his death.)

Conti, 58, often works alone in Florence, but it is far more entertaining when 47-year-old Pinori—whom Conti adopted as a child when he married her mother—joins him. Together, the pair’s impersonations are convincing enough to startle admirers. One day, when Conti shifted positions he so alarmed a French tourist she stepped back, tripped, and fell to the ground. Rushing over to see if she was ok didn’t help; the woman became so fearful she could barely speak. Leonardo springing to life in 2019? Was he that talented?

Conti occasionally exits the Renaissance to check cell phone messages. Here, he takes a break in front of Florence’s famous Ponte Vecchio along the Arno River.

Although their work depends on remaining motionless, Renaissance impersonation requires significant physical endurance. Conti and Pinori must hold their poses for much of the six to eight hours they perform, despite costumes and makeup that can be stifling on hot summer days. Conti’s heavily painted lips make it difficult to speak; when he does, his makeup wears off and must be reapplied. Pinori, for her part, needs to appear unceasingly relaxed, sustaining Mona Lisa’s beguiling smile and wandering eyes without revealing any other expressions on her face. “This is very difficult,” she says.

The payoff, however, is immensely satisfying. Tourists from New York to Tokyo stop to look and take souvenir photos, which gives Conti an opportunity to hand out hundreds of leaflets he stores in a book that is part of his costume. These contain words Conti attributes to Leonardo (“Painting is a poem that can be seen and not heard, and poetry is a painting that is felt and can not be seen”) as well as Conti’s own enigmatic theories about money, which he calls his “Da Vinci Code of Economy.” (Learn how to spot a Leonardo painting.)

Conti and Pinori pose for countless souvenir photos with enamored tourists outside the Uffizi Gallery. The buckets at their feet and the basket on Pinori’s frame are for donations.

Pinori’s portrayal of Mona Lisa, meanwhile, allows her to animate an artwork that is otherwise inaccessible. The real Mona Lisa, crafted in the early 1500s, is small (barely 2.5 feet by 2 feet) and protected behind thick bulletproof glass at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Tourists jostle to get close, but a railing keeps everyone several feet away from the painting—except for National Geographic photographers Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti, who received permission to spend several hours up close while taking pictures, albeit it under guard. An alarm threatened to sound if they got too near the glass and security officials, ready to pounce, stood nearby.

Many tourists who make the trek to the Louvre barely get a glimpse of La Gioconda’s venerated smile before turning their backs to take a celebrity art selfie before someone nudges them out of the way. One Brazilian woman, who successfully got her snapshot, likened Mona Lisa to the Supreme Pontiff: “She’s like the Papa.” 

Pinori’s impersonation brings a live version of this iconic figure to the people. She pays special attention to details that are alluring to viewers: Mona Lisa’s smoky eyes and the thin strip of veil at the top of her forehead. And she and Conti also provide a welcome diversion from the checklist of inanimate tourist destinations in Florence: museums and churches. The best moments are when Pinori sees people react positively to what she and Conti are doing. Their smiles, she says, “light up with light.”

Like any job, Renaissance reenactment has its low points. On occasion, Pinori has to put up with lewd jokes from passersby. And because Conti and Pinori rely on public donations, they have no dependable income. When rain soaks the city streets, as it did for much of the month of May, tourists evaporate. On a typical day, they might earn 50 to 150 euros (about £44 to £133); on a bad day, that number drops to 30 euros (about £26) or less.

This year, however, promises to be an exceptional year for Leonardo lovers. Tourist numbers are already higher than ever; the most recent statistics show that 10 million tourists visited Florence in 2017—more than 25 times the city’s population. And with 2019 marking the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death in 1519, the place where Leonardo launched his artistic journey is an ever more tempting destination.

This bodes well for Conti and Pinori, who perform outside the Uffizi in front of a vast image advertising the gallery’s new Leonardo Room on the second floor. The scene is art at its most surreal: Impersonators acting out Leonardo and the Mona Lisa; a looming backdrop photograph featuring Leonardo’s painting, Adoration of the Magi; and sightseers traipsing by in running shoes who may—or may not—go inside to see Leonardo’s original work. 

One recent Saturday afternoon, the pair took a break and sat on stone steps in front of one of Florence’s formidable wooden doorways lit by the afternoon sun to unwind and banter about their craft. Neither one identifies as a person of the Renaissance, nor do they claim the 21st century as their own. Conti sees himself as man of the future; Pinori, a self-proclaimed hippie, says she would have liked to live in the time of “flower power.”

Still, becoming Leonardo and Mona Lisa provides a unique brand of emotional gratification. Conti studied music as a student, but found performing in a public space “too wild.” Impersonation allows him silent anonymity, he says, which he prefers. Pinori, who lives in Pisa and has also worked as a model and actress, is passionate about art and finds it rewarding to animate historical figures and imagine their stories. “It’s beautiful,” she says. “I can be many lives and many people.” (See the chalk-and-ink portrait that may be a $100 million Leonardo.)

Both Pinori and Conti intend to continue reinventing themselves. Pinori’s other characters include Venus, from Botticelli’s Primavera painting, and Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war. Conti is now working on a costume for Galileo Galilei, which he plans to introduce next year when a total solar eclipse is expected to darken parts of the southern hemisphere—a prominent time for astronomers.

In his extraordinary sketches, Leonardo often leaped to the future; Galileo, born in 1564, several decades after Leonardo’s death, turned his telescope to the skies. Conti and Pinori take us back in time instead, enlivening a medley of former lives that brighten not only their own souls, but also the spirits of those around them.

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