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Leonardo da Vinci and the French Connection

Just how did it come about that Leonardo da Vinci, giant of the Italian Renaissance, ended his days in Amboise, France?

The short answer is that he had no option. Unwell, nearing the end of his life, Leonardo was down on his luck in Rome. Homeless and jobless he was living on handouts from friends.

Proud, over sensitive, quick to take offence, his sense of self-worth was under siege. Hurt and wounded by the Pope who said ‘This man will never do anything….’,  insulted in public by his rival and successor Michelangelo, he had nowhere to turn.

Pressured by royalty, nobility and popes all his life begging him to do something, anything, for them, he went to Rome assuming rich patrons would welcome the kudos of having the famous Leonardo da Vinci work for them. Not so. New kids on the block, Michelangelo and Raphael were all the rage. Leonardo was yesterday’s man.

At the lowest ebb of his life, Leonardo experienced a reversal of fortune. His greatest fan, François I, the young, handsome, newly crowned King of France had just taken Milan.

Leonardo da Vinci and the Amboise connection

François knew all about Leonardo. Some of his paintings were in the Royal Art Collection at home in Château Amboise. François had inherited them from his predecessors, Charles VIII and Louis XII. Both had known Leonardo. Both men were in awe of him. So much so, he was appointed Official Painter to the French Court.

Besides, when François was welcomed to Lyons on the start of his invasion of Italy, he was presented with one of Leonardo’s robotic lions. An amazing feat of engineering, it moved its head, shook its tail and opened its jaws. When François was invited to tap the lion with his sword, its body opened to reveal a mass of fleur-de-lys. Considering the technology available to Leonardo, the lion was nothing short of a miracle. To say that François was impressed is an understatement.

François, overjoyed at meeting his hero in the flesh, asked him to live near him in Amboise. He would be given Château Clos Lucé, a lovely Grace and Favour home and a generous allowance which would enable him to live in comfort to the end of his days. The King wanted nothing in return except the pleasure of his company.

In Amboise, Leonardo designed another lion for François. This one, powered by gears, pulleys, chains, wheels, pendulums and axles, could walk.

The last known note Leonardo wrote was in Château Clos Lucé on 24 June 1518. It’s poignant. On a page of doodles and geometrical drawings is:

 I must stop now. My soup’s getting cold.

Wherever you go in Amboise you can see St. Hubert’s Chapel where Leonardo is buried. Or not. To mark the 500th anniversary of his death in 2019, scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute in California which pioneered the sequencing of the human genome hope to prove the remains are indeed those of Leonardo. But first, they have to get permission. The endlessly curious Leonardo da Vinci who craved immortality would surely approve.

Leonardo da Vinci. May you never RIP. The world needs heroes.

Pamela Shields is the author of Leonardo da Vinci: The Amboise Connection, available from Amazon you can read our review here

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