Outside the royal town of Amboise on the Loire stands the Château de Clos Lucé. This was the final home of Leonardo da Vinci – possibly the most famous inventor of the Renaissance, and one of the greatest artists in human history. The Mona Lisa anyone?
I thought a youth spent studying history had given me some fair insight as to the life of this man, so it came as some surprise to me to find he’d spent his twilight years not in Italy, but here, in a beautiful spot in mid-France. Of course, the château’s most famous resident wasn’t its only one – the place was first used by Charles VIII of France as a summer ‘getaway’ from 1490 – but Francis I issued an invitation to Da Vinci in 1516 he could not refuse
Here you will be free to dream, to think and to work
For three years one of history’s greatest thinkers continued his work until his death. It is an immense privilege for travelswithadiplomat to have stood by the very bed this man died in.
The journey to Clos Lucé is a pretty one, we track the Loire from Tours eastwards for about thirty minutes until we enter the region that houses the famous Château Chernonceaux (another blog to follow on that one) and its lesser known, but more historically significant and better fun for the family, house of Leonardo. We pull into what is yet another picturesque village and park in a €1 gravel lot at the bottom of the hill. An old wall rears up across the narrow road – which turns out to be the rear wall of the château’s gardens. A quick 200m hike up a hill (no pavements) and we turn left into the villa. Visually it is stunning. Manicured, cared for, old, serene. There is a palpable sense of excitement from everyone. After all, our gite hostess has told us it is her favourite château in the region and the kids will love it. She’s is absolutely right.
We venture into the extensive gardens. It has been set up as a activity garden; full of modern follies. Each section has something directly linked to (if not a copy of) Leonardo’s inventions. Spinning wooden tops, suspension bridges, water wheels, Archimedean screws, paddle boats…there’s a lever for happy kids to pull, a rope to tug on. In one section there is a small museum where a Chinese delegation is posing in front of a to-scale reproduction of “The Last Supper” – clearly being feted for investing in Clos Lucé. This is the place where parents get to see copies of Leonardo’s more famous works….take a look:
The gardens also have cleverly hung huge pictures of Leonardo’s works and life from the many trees.
We stroll slowly; the kids are playing with everything, learning about Leonardo though they know it not. In the furthest reaches is a reproduction Bavarian tavern. Delicious smells of heavy stew make our mouths water; we take a break, munch on sausage sandwiches or croque monsieurs before heading into the château.
Just before we get to the entrance we pause in a garden dedicated to demonstrating Leonardo’s love and understanding of botany. A pond has a double layer bridge across it; it is full of lilies, of reeds, of plants that travelswithadiplomat has no idea about. There is a natural raggedness about it in contrast to the rest of this place.
Inside the place is kept as though it were when Leonardo lived there. History abounds, but the floor flagstones are perfectly in place, the central staircase has been replaced, brickwork has been re-pointed. The cellar is an homage to Leonardo’s inventions – brilliantly so as we endure an epic Loire thunderstorm for twenty minutes. All the rooms are highlights – perhaps not the eighteenth century drawing rooms given what comes before and after – but the best is the very room in which Leonardo died. Immortalized in a 1818 painting by French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, there is a hallowed sense of hush when you look at picture then at the very same bed where, as legend has it, he died in the arms of the King of France. It is the painting that makes it so poignant, makes me realise how many others have stood at the foot of this scene and paid silent respects to one of humanity’s greatest sons.
It to this manor of Cloux (now Clos Lucé) that Leonardo arrived. He steps into its environs to find comfortable rooms with high-vaulted ceilings, a studio, a library, a sitting room, and several bedrooms. Landscaped gardens, a vineyard, meadows, streams, ponds…all present for his use. In the cellar today you can see (but not venture into) the “secret” tunnel that connected the manor to the royal castle through which Francis I could visit his Peintre du Roi. It was a perfect place for Leonardo to organize his famous ‘Notebooks’ for publication.
So…Château Clos Lucé…as you can tell it had a profound effect on travelswithadiplomat. For all that it ticks every tourist box. Great for kids, lots to do, beauty to see, quiet gardens to stroll in. All under the warmth of a summer Loire sun. It’s easy to see why Leonardo came here in his last years. Here’s some more views of it:
This is not a place for the National Trust brigade to sigh over perfect blooms; it’s a place to learn. Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci would be pleased.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?