Leonardo at the Royal Chateau d'Amboise

A royal endeavour

Façade du château royal d'Amboise, côté LoireChâteau Royal d'Amboise

2019 marks 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci, so it's a fitting time to recount the special connection he had with the Loire Valley, in particular with Amboise where he was laid to rest in the quiet of the chapel at the royal chateau.

But is the real story known of how this venerable Italian master, a star of his era, came to rest eternally high up on the ramparts of one of France's national treasures in the pretty historic town on the banks of the Loire.

Vue des jardins du château royal d'Amboise, au soleil couchant.Château Royal d'Amboise

Dreaming Italy

During their successive campaigns in Italy, Charles VIII, Louis XII, and Francis I were all struck by the unique way of life they discovered there and the light-filled architecture that opened out to magnificent gardens.

Following the moment of discovery, each sovereign sought to fulfil just one wish, which was to bring something of this Renaissance spirit back to their own kingdom.

Le château royal d'Amboise et la LoireChâteau Royal d'Amboise

The French court: Rich, Powerful, and in Search of Prestige.

Although the French court was certainly the richest and most powerful in Europe, it was lacking in refinement and culture. So, the kings of France were constantly in search of prestige and they looked to surround themselves with the most celebrated artists and scientists of the time.

People flocked to the court, not just from Italy but also from the Flemish Region of Belgium. Their aim was to be a part of the kingdom's cultural influence. It was a time of great transformations and grand architectural projects.

Plan d'Androuet du CerceauChâteau Royal d'Amboise

Amboise was the seat of royal power and a symbol of the magnificence of the French Court.

The Château Royal d’Amboise would be among the first of the royal buildings to undergo a complete transformation. It was King Charles VIII who began the large scale work that would transform this medieval stronghold into a sumptuous palace in the Renaissance style.

His goal was to make the chateau a showcase of the power, wealth, and sophistication of the Kingdom of France. Representatives from the great European courts were regularly invited there to attend spectacular parties.

Medal Louis XII, King of France (r. 1498–15155), and Anne of Brittany (1476–1514) Medal Louis XII, King of France (r. 1498–15155), and Anne of Brittany (1476–1514) (ca. 1499)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Initial Invitations

In light of their quest for prestige, the French kings took an interest in da Vinci's personality and aura. King Louis XII was among the first to want to be associated with the renowned Florentine master.

So, invitations were sent requesting his presence at the French Court. Initially, the king received no response. The reason for this was that da Vinci was in a very comfortable situation, having been commissioned to carry out some prestigious projects, and so he didn't want to leave Italy.

LIFE Photo Collection

Moving to Amboise

Slowly, da Vinci's situation began to change. Finding little favor with Pope Leo X and having to compete with the emerging talents of Raphael and Michelangelo, who were very much favored by the Pope, da Vinci no longer had the recognition or financial security he desired in Italy. So, the invitation from the young Francis I, victor of the battle of Marignan, seemed like a very good opportunity. He decided to travel to France for what he knew would be his final journey, thus closing the chapter that was his life in Italy.

The Château du Clos Lucé (XIIth century - XXIst century) by UnknownCastle of Clos Lucé

Da Vinci arrived in Amboise in the autumn of 1516. He was 64-years old. He moved into the Manoir du Cloux (now Le Clos Lucé), a property belonging to the royal crown situated just a few hundred yards from the chateau, made available to him by the king. Most notably, the residence was previously occupied by Louise de Savoie, the mother of Francis I. Da Vinci was offered extremely favorable conditions in his assignment as "Principal painter, engineer, and architect of the king." Free from material concerns, da Vinci was able to concentrate on his work.

Portrait du roi François par Le TitienChâteau Royal d'Amboise

Da Vinci and Francis I, the Meeting of the Artist and the King

It is rare that individuals are so tightly bound together by history but the meeting of Francis I, patron of the arts, and da Vinci, one of the great minds of the era, seemed to be written in the stars.

The partnership worked so well that history tends to depict their relationship as a strong and unwavering friendship. The reality seems to have been more complex, as while the two men might have mutually admired each other, their relationship was always underpinned by a very pragmatic meeting of interests.

Portrait du roi François Ier dans ses jeunes annéesChâteau Royal d'Amboise

Portrait of Francis I:

this rare portrait shows Francis I as young and smooth-skinned. It dates back to the time of da Vinci's stay at Amboise. If da Vinci was 64 years old when he arrived at the French Court, Francis would have been 21. The monarch had lost his father at a young age, had recently acceded to the French throne thanks to very favorable circumstances, and was lauded for his military success in Italy.

The young sovereign sought an increase in prestige for his court, and he particularly wanted to surround himself with reputable and influential artists. He wanted to appear as a patron king and a supporter of the arts, and this was the motivation behind his invitation to da Vinci.

Hitchcock Directing (1959) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Da Vinci was 64 years old when he arrived in Amboise.

He left Italy after the death of his patron, Giuliano de' Medici. Faced with competition from new young talent who had the backing of Pope Leo X, he saw the invitation from King Francis I of France as an opportunity to replenish a support that had dwindled in his homeland.

If his remuneration is to be believed, da Vinci arrived with the status of a major artist (it was at the same level as great generals, and even more than Clouet, the official painter of the court.) For this reason he represented a significant catch for the king of France. He who regards himself as a patron of the arts forever links his name to that of da Vinci.

Renaissance Court Costume by Association Animation Renaissance AmboiseChâteau Royal d'Amboise

Da Vinci, Master of Festivities

Da Vinci is known for being a genius in many different fields. However, the part he played in the organization of huge parties, including that organized by the King of France at the Chateau Royal d'Amboise in May 1518, is less well known. 

Opulent and spectacular, da Vinci's parties aimed to draw the attention of the European courts and showcase the prestige of that of France. Da Vinci would use these occasions to put his knowledge to use by looking after and supervising the special effects. He would both direct the overall dramatization and also be involved in how the smaller details linked together, such as the extras' costumes.

Fêtes du printemps 1518Château Royal d'Amboise

In Spring 1518, great festivities were organized at the Château Royal d’Amboise to celebrate the birth of the prince, and the marriage of Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici (the Pope's nephew) to Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne (the offspring of this union being Catherine de' Medici).

At these events, da Vinci would play the role of Master of Festivities, handling the supervision of decor and special effects in particular, and working alongside with the engineer Dominico da Cortona. The view seen here is part of taken from the 'HistoPad,' a tablet-based experience enhancer for visitors to the chateau.

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