Leonardo on the Loire
PUBLISHED: 16:16 20 January 2012
Philippe Barbour visits the French town of Amboise- the last place Leonardo da Vinci lived
»The tremendous Leonardo da Vinci exhibition continuing at London’s National Gallery has focused attention here on the Italian genius par excellence.
Not everyone realises that he ended his days not in some Tuscan hill village, but close to one of France’s greatest rivers.
Da Vinci lived the last few years of his life in the royal Loire-side town of Amboise, a magnificent place to visit, and in good part devoted to his memory.
He was called to France in 1516 by a colossus of a French king. The young François I was proving more than a match for England’s Henry VIII, but would be outdone by Charles of Spain, soon to win Europe’s biggest prize, of Holy Roman Emperor.
François had grown up with huge appetites and ambitions.
As a boy, he received the best of educations at the Château d’Amboise, alongside his brilliant, bookish sister, Marguerite d’Angoulême.
Although not the son of a king, François was destined to inherit the French throne if Louis XII failed to produce a male heir.
Louis arranged the future neatly by having his daughter Claude marry François and their reign began in 1515.
The couple celebrated in grand style at Amboise, before the new king headed off to conquer Milan, a territory he could lay claim to via his wife.
François had inherited a lust for Italy from the two previous French kings, Louis XII and Charles VIII – these three royals would help import Renaissance tastes and ideas by force into France.
That said, François fell adoringly for da Vinci when they met in Italy. Da Vinci was a polymath with a finger in many a pie. We know him as a supreme scientist and artist, but he was also a whiz at designing buildings and weapons. Plus he could organise a stunning party.
This would be one of his roles when he came over the Alps, persuaded to become “first painter, engineer and architect to the king”.
François’s extravagant gifts to da Vinci included a fine royal residence in Amboise, the Manoir du Cloux.
Almost a chateau in looks, since da Vinci’s days it’s been rebaptised the Château du Clos Lucé, so named after a Virgin of Light painted in the little chapel by a pupil of da Vinci.
Da Vinci arrived at Amboise with the Mona Lisa in his baggage and helpers at his side, including his beloved companion – and many say, lover – the young Francesco Melzi. In his mid-60’s, da Vinci was ailing, but he remained prolific.
He drew up plans for a staggering new royal city east of Amboise, at Romorantin, although they were never executed. It’s believed too that he conceived the splendid double-helix staircase for another royal castle François I was ordering along the Loire, France’s most extravagant hunting lodge, Chambord.
The Clos Lucé has undergone many transformations since da Vinci’s day, but a few rooms have been recreated to appear roughly as they might have done in his day.
When I first visited the place many moons ago, the bizarre main Leonardoda Vinci attraction was a series of models, made by IBM, of his engineering projects, including prototypes of tanks and helicopters. In recent times, the de Bris family, who owns the property, has expanded the vision of da Vinci.
A new exhibition focuses on his links with France, revealing how he first came into the French royal orbit in 1507, when Charles II d’Amboise was already serving as governor of Milan.
Outbuildings present interesting biographical films.
In the gardens, diaphanous images of da Vinci’s famous paintings and drawings hang curiously from the trees, while on the ground, large-scale models allow visitors to turn their hand, literally, to some of his inventions.
Few French sights receive more Italian visitors than the Clos Lucé or the imposing Château Royal d’Amboise, visible from Leonardo’s home. But much more central, dominating the Loire River, standing aloof above the rest of the town on its plateau. Legend has it that da Vinci died in King François I’s arms.
The story, though avidly illustrated by French Romantic artists, is dubious, but what is sure is that da Vinci was buried in a chapel in the royal castle.
The chapel, along with many wings of what was once one of the largest palace complexes in France, has been destroyed.
However, a stone marking Leonardo’s passing lies in the remaining jewel-box Chapelle St-Hubert.
While François I and da Vinci’s closeness at Amboise is touching, it was all too brief, and the castle soon became a magnet for trouble, as supporters of the idea-shattering new movement of Protestantism challenged conservative Catholic powers.
Amboise would become associated with some of the darkest days of the French Wars of Religion that ensued. On one gruesome occasion in 1560, the bodies of conspirators were left hanging from a castle terrace.
After generations of young royals being raised at Amboise Castle, as conflict intensified, the French kings abandoned the Loire.
Following the Revolution and periods in exile, after the Second World War the descendants of the Orléans branch of French royals regained their estates, including the Château d’Amboise.
On the self-guided tour of the interiors, it’s their family story that emerges most strongly. The would-be French king today, known as the Comte de Paris, still owns Amboise Castle, but his presence is extremely discreet.
Returning to the themes of da Vinci and Italy, in the castle gardens you’ll find a bust of Amboise’s adopted genius, plus plantings of cypresses and box giving an Italianate touch. Also seek out a small but moving garden, conceived by an Islamic French designer, paying homage to north African captives held here after the French conquered Algeria in the 1830s.
On a cheering note, many festivities are held at the castle now, including a traditional summer son-et-lumière historical show, featuring the courtly days of François I, where you will see da Vinci brought back to life. Italian culture is also brought to the fore with the summer programme of music and entertainment, Avanti la Musica.
The rest of Amboise is well worth exploring. Fine old houses, many turned into restaurants and boutiques, cluster below the castle.
Look out for the Caveau des Vignerons d’Amboise, tucked under the ramparts, where local winemakers present their vintages.
From here, pass through the imposing clock gateway to follow Rue Nationale, the main shopping drag, with specialities tempting you along the way.
Walk out over the Loire and onto Ile d’Or to get the best cliché of castle and town, or to go canoeing.
If you wander along the bank here, you encounter a large statue of a reclining, muscular, naked figure staring across to Amboise. Some used to say this hunk represented da Vinci rather than a river god. It’s doubtful da Vinci had much time for nude sunbathing beside the Loire during his final years here.
Even if it’s hard for Amboise to do full justice to the profundity of the great man’s learning, the da Vinci trail through town is an appealing one and may whet your appetite to discover more about the genius whose influence has continued to spread ever further afield since he died beside the Loire.
n Learn more about the region in Philippe Barbour’s Cadogan guide to the Loire. Philippe was awarded runner-up prize in ABTOF’s Best Newspaper Article on France 2011, for a piece he wrote for the Ham&High. He is preparing a photographic exhibition, Romantic France, at Lauderdale House, Highgate Hill, from February 14-26.