It’s a soft summer dawn along the Loire. Mysterious swathes of mist are rolling silently along the mighty river and the sun is slowly breaking through into a cloudless pale blue sky.
At daybreak, the southern approach to the town of Amboise is a veritable assault on the senses. The view is dominated by one of the great sites of Renaissance Europe. The honey coloured stone walls, lofty battlements and slate turrets of the royal château are basking quietly in the early light, watching out from on high over the immense Loire landscape, as they have done for nigh on six centuries.
This year 2019 is a special anniversary for the town. It is marking 500 years since the death of Leonardo Da Vinci, who spent the final three years of his life here. He was invited to France and welcomed into the court by King François I, who gave him a home in the pretty manor house of Clos Lucé, within sight of the royal palace. During his time in Amboise, Da Vinci experienced peace, hospitality and financial freedom.
Liberated from the pressure of his previous life in Italy and embraced by the undying admiration of the king himself, he flexed his breathtaking genius in a variety of directions, the evidence of which remain in place to this day. In his ground-breaking endeavours as an artist, fresco painter, mechanical and hydraulic engineer, town planner, architect, horticulturalist and garden designer, François I encouraged him to “… dream, think and work” in complete freedom.
A major commemorative exhibition, mounted in partnership with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (the French National Library), lifts the lid on the disputed end of the great artist’s life.
For centuries, François-Guillaume Ménageot’s majestic 18th century painting La Mort de Leonardo Da Vinci (The Death of Leonardo da Vinci) originated and perpetuated the powerfully symbolic presence of the king at the deathbed, holding the dying artist in his arms and bestowing upon him something approaching divine status. Many versions of the central image were subsequently captured in paintings, drawings and engravings, some of which are included here.
The message of the painting was to underline the remarkably close friendship between artist and monarch and to endorse the central role of culture in the life of the country. The truth, however, was that François was away from Amboise when Da Vinci died and was informed of his death by a courtier. This exhibition, entitled, The Construction of a Myth, sheds intriguing light on the way in which history was rewritten thanks to the impact of a single visual image.
A striking post script to the exhibition brings the experience smack into the 21st century. After a leisurely stroll through the sunny terraces, vineyards, lakes, panoramic viewing points, topography and mystical oriental garden, the exit route winds through the vaulted stone corridors beneath the Minimes cavalry tower.
Here one is confronted by five vast canvases, specially commissioned from the Italian artist Andrea Mattoni (aka RAVO). He was tasked with selecting five details from Ménageot’s painting and reproducing them as sprayed-on grafitti. They make for an intensely moving gesture, an homage by a modern day master of his art to his illustrious compatriot, the legendary Renaissance giant.
A short walk along a steep cobbled street leaves behind the formal public life of Da Vinci and quietly enters his private world. The pretty pink brick fortified chateau of Le Clos Lucé was bought in 1490 by Charles VIII as a summer residence for the kings of France. Inside he built a tiny oratory for his wife, the former Duchesse Anne de Bretagne, who frequently came here to mourn the loss of her young children. Its walls and ceilings are decorated with frescos, including one depicting the Annunciation, which was painted by some of Leonardo’s pupils.
Da Vinci spent three years here, working on projects for François I and welcoming distinguished visitors – cardinals, ambassadors and fellow artists. Clos Lucé was connected to the royal palace by an underground passage, which allowed him to meet his friend the king, frequently and in private.
This is clearly the place where Da Vinci felt he could truly be himself and, indeed, an eerie sense of his ever-present spirit pervades the great hall, the bedchamber where he died, the dining room and kitchen.
In the basement, dazzling surprises await in the shape of meticulously reconstructed scale models of his ground-breaking machines and inventions, mind blowing proof of his engineering genius. Alongside them are design notes and calculations, written in his strange mirror-image handwriting, carefully crafted to combat the fact that he was left-handed.
No visit to Le Close Lucé is complete without a time of quiet meditation among the glorious greenery of the gardens, designed to provide an avenue into the botanical and horticultural perfection of the landscapes framing some of his most famous paintings.
Time spent in the magnificent château of Amboise and the homely delights of Le Clos Lucé permit privileged glimpses into the environment that fired the last, hugely prolific years of Da Vinci, the archetypal Renassaisance man.
He was once heard to say, “As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.” Serene and creatively fulfilled, his life drew to a close on 2 May 1519. He is buried unobtrusively in a small Gothic chapel at the heart of the royal château, where his tomb is visited by thousands of people, who flock in their thousands to the quiet elegance and natural beauty of the Val de Loire, the place he unequivocally came to call ‘home’.