Château du Clos Lucé

By Yvonne Michie Horn
This item appears on page 49 of the December 2015 issue.
Some 40 translucent canvases, taken from works of Leonardo da Vinci, suspended in trees near Château du Clos Lucé — Amboise. Photos by Yvonne Michie Horn

France’s Loire Valley is known as the “Garden of France.” Wandering off the well-trod châteaux route, I took a discovery tour of unique gardens of the Loire. In this series of four articles, the first, “Chedigny,” appeared in the October 2015 issue. Here is the second. — YMH

How many historic, over-the-top, Loire architectural monuments to money and power can one ooh and ahh over before château fatigue settles in? I knew I’d reached my limit before I boarded the train at Blois station bound for Amboise.

It was nearing the end of my spring 2015 Loire Valley stay of a month and a half, headquartering at Blois, the once-powerful city of medieval counts. The primary reason for my stay was to improve my French via self-imposed immersion in the language and, while doing so, to sally forth into the fabled countryside.

In addition to visiting Blois’ imposing royal château, sitting smack-dab centre-ville, my teeny and tinny, green rental Fiat had already taken me to six other grand châteaux plus several lesser ones.  So it was that I’d already decided, as I walked from the Amboise railroad station into town, crossing the Loire on the bridge that straddles the river, that I’d skip Amboise’s royal château glowering from high on the bluff straight ahead.

My destination was Clos Lucé, a small château built of pink brick and tufa stone. It is where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life, dying there in 1519 at the age of 67.

He’d moved to Amboise at the beckon of King Francis I, Amboise château’s (then) owner, carrying with him from Milan his unfinished “Mona Lisa,” “Saint John the Baptist” and “Virgin & Child with Saint Anne & Saint John the Baptist.”

Francis appointed Leonardo “First Painter, Architect and Engineer to the King” and, along with the château, provided him with a hefty allowance. All he asked in return was that they spend time talking every day, which they did.

A replica of da Vinci’s helicopter design, with Château du Clos Lucé in the background.<br />

So that neither king nor Leonardo would have to brave inclement weather for their daily conversations, a 400-meter tunnel was constructed between the royal château and Clos Lucé.

Leonardo’s Garden

My ticket at Clos Lucé’s entrance gave access to both the house and surrounding garden. I headed directly to the garden.

As I wandered down the path into the heart of the 15-acre, park-like area below the château, it became evident that the sweep of woodlands and water that greeted me was less about shrubs, flowers and trees than about the Renaissance genius who lived in the pink-brick, tufa-stone edifice. 

Following paths through woodlands and past ponds and crossing rustling streams on rustic bridges, I came across the haunting sight of some 40 translucent canvases — for the most part, faces taken from Leonardo’s most famous works — suspended in the trees.

Appearing like pieces of sculpture along the way were 20 full-sized, interactive reproductions of his inventions — a helicopter, a fan-type machine gun, an armored tank, a swing bridge and a variety of wheels and sluices to harness water. Had it been later in the season, I could have made my way around the garden’s ponds in a Leonardo-designed paddleboat.

I crossed the swing bridge and followed the path to Leonardo’s Garden, an area inspired by the more than 100 sketches and descriptions of plants found in notebooks in which he, a keen gardener, had started to list their features and major attributes.

It is said that had he not abandoned this aspect of his life, he could have been a big jump ahead of 18th-century Carl Linnaeus, considered to be the father of modern botany.

But Leonardo had other things on his active mind, among them, surprisingly, party planner. To thank Francis I for his generosity, Leonardo threw a grand party at his pink-brick mini-château. He draped its courtyard in sky-blue cloth and on it portrayed the stars, planets and moon.

Following the path through the woodland below the château.

How I would have loved to have been among the invited guests!

Visiting the château

Leonardo’s small château, which I did visit after walking the gardens, is restored as it would have been during his stay. Not to be missed is the basement’s permanent exhibition of 40 of his most famous inventions, the models re-created by IBM.

The château’s rear door opens to a gardened terrace where there is a delightful café with both indoor and outdoor seating.

The Château du Clos Lucé (2 rue du Clos Lucé, 37400 Amboise, Val de Loire, France; phone +33 [0] 2 47 57 00 73, is open year-round except Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. Opening times vary according to season, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in January to 9 a.m.-8 p.m. in July and August.

Ticket office closes one hour before site closure. In high season, admission costs 14 (near $15.50) adult or 9.50 child 7-18.    F

Next in this 4-part series on Loire Valley gardens, to appear in the February 2016 issue, a look at Jardin du Plessis Sasnières, a botanical and English garden with roots in the 15th century.