Amboise in the Loire is dominated by a grand chateau. The turrets of Amboise castle reach high into the sky and its windows give impressive views over the ancient town.
A few minutes’ walk away is a much smaller chateau, far less grand. It was the home of an artist who changed the world with his art and his designs – the great renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci.
Chateau du Clos Lucé
The 15th century Chateau du Clos Lucé where Leonardo lived, has been wonderfully restored. It looks just as it did when he arrived, aged 63, in 1516 at the invitation of King Francis I of France.
At that time, Leonardo found himself down on his luck, without commissions and struggling to keep going in Italy. He was considered old, past it, with the much younger Michaelangelo taking centre stage in Italy. Francis I offered him his dream job “First Painter, Engineer and Architect to the King” plus a home for life and a huge pension.
Leonardo had always been a bit of a nomad, he had no home to call his own and moved from town to city – wherever the work was. He wasn’t rich and jumped at the offer from the French King. He made his way from Italy to France, crossing the alps, on a donkey. Among the belongings he carried with him were his precious manuscripts and an almost finished painting of a woman he called La Giaconda or Mona Lisa. It was to become one of the most famous paintings of all time.
Francis I had never met Leonardo but was aware of his works. His mother Louise de Savoie had seen a tapestry of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” and raved about it. Francis was so keen to have the artist join him, he offered Leonardo the chance to practice his skills as he wished. It was an innovative prospect at the time when a painter was a painter and an engineer was an engineer. Leonardo was an accomplished musician, wrote poetry, and was in fact a sort of Medieval rapper. He was an architect, botanist and engineer – a man of many skills.
Leonardo’s genius extended to several areas and the opportunity to do as he wished was just what he wanted. The King and the artist developed a special relationship, in fact it’s said that Francis called Leonardo “my father”.
What to see at Chateau du Clos Luce
Leonardo moved into the Chateau du Clos Lucé and here he stayed until his death on 2 May 1519. The miniature castle has a homely feel to it and a definite feeling of the past. The rooms have been restored with the help of specialist historians and it’s easy to imagine Leonardo in his long gown moving through the castle.
On the 4-poster bed in what was Leonardo’s bedroom, where he died of old age, Minette the castle cat is fast asleep most days. She is oblivious to the cameras that click, capturing her utter dismissiveness at the visitors who, walking through, are lost in contemplation that here, 500 years ago, Leonardo snored through the night dreaming his dreams and planning his projects. Leonardo liked cats and it’s probably quite fitting that the pampered puss has taken up residence in his former home.
This bijou chateau (at least by the standards of Amboise) is light and airy – perfect for an artist. The rooms are not enormous but big enough for a large canvas and to spread out the components for an engineering project.
In the former studio, there are paintings in progress and a desk which looks as though the great man is still at work but popped out for a break. It’s quite astounding to know that he worked on the Mona Lisa in this room.
His cabinet of curiosities was filled with oddities and somewhat macabre. But, you don’t get to draw the insides of bodies of humans and animals by looking at the outside so it’s not a surprise to discover such bits and pieces.
His note books record the minutiae of his day and his thoughts. Some notes are poignant, everyday things like what he had for dinner. He wrote about his feelings on life advising that older people shouldn’t drink more than one glass of wine a day and should become vegetarian for better health. The last entry in his diary reads “I have to go now my soup will get cold”…
Historians can tell the type of paper he used was French after he arrived and from this they’ve been able to date what projects he worked on at the chateau. One of the great items Francis commissioned was the design a chateau that in itself was like a city. Though it was never completed, 150 years later Louis XIV’s Versailles was to follow this route.
In the basement dozens of Leonardo’s designs have been bought to life with models and film.
There are magnificent gardens at the chateau, filled with the designs of Leonardo da Vinci such as his tank and paddle boat. There’s a lovely cafe and restaurant where you can take a break and enjoy the scenery. You can even do wine tasting in the underground passages of the Chateau, it gives you goose bumps to know that the great artist and the great King once travelled along this route to meet each other in secret.
The Chateau du Clos Lucé is one of the most atmospheric da Vinci sites in the world and makes for a truly fascinating visit.
How to get to Chateau du Clos Lucé
The train from Paris to Amboise takes from 1hour 15 minutes (average journey time is 1 hour 52 minutes). There is a year-round bus service from the station to the town centre.
The Chateau du Clos Lucé is open year-round (except 25 December and 1 January). See the website for details: www.vinci-closluce.com;