Looking for Leonardo da Vinci … in France?

by Harvey Hagnan, Fort Myers Beach, FL

Soon we’ll all be in the da Vinci mode as Dan Brown’s page-turning “The Da Vinci Code,” a tale of conspiracy, art history and clandestine societies, comes to theaters.

The book is based on the premise that a find in Paris’ Bibliotheque Nationale suggests Leonardo da Vinci was a member of a European secret society, the Priory of Sion. Brown’s main character follows a trail of murder clues found in da Vinci’s paintings.

True-life mystery

When we visited Amboise, France, in June ’05, we joined the millions who have followed a real-life da Vinci mystery: where is the Renaissance genius buried? Our guide at the Château d’Amboise was unsure.

“He’s either buried over there under the statue,” he says, pointing to a white marble bust of da Vinci, “or over there in the Chapelle St-Hubert. However, we are sure of two things.

“He is not buried in Florence. Italy asked for his bones in 1874, but we would not give them up. Initially, Leonardo was buried in the cloisters of Saint-Florentin collegiate church here in the heart of the castle. His remains were to be moved to the Chapelle St-Hubert after the destruction of the collegiate church during the Napoleonic period. A 19th-century document hints his bones were moved to the chapel, but we’re unsure.

“But, yes, Leonardo’s bones are here at Amboise.”

Château d’Amboise

The white marble statue of Leo­nardo glistened in the bright sun, standing serenely amid the expanse of castle lawn. The château dominates the awakening town and swiftly flowing Loire River below.

We entered the nearby white-marble Chapelle St-Hubert, a jewel of flamboyant Gothic architecture, to pay our respects at the transept which may or may not hold da Vinci’s bones. The name of the Italian painter, sculptor, musician, poet, architect, engineer and inventor is carved here in white marble. He died at Amboise on May 2, 1519, at age 67.

Le Clos-Lucé

We pushed on to the castle’s eclectic rooms, descending along a winding cobblestone street to Le Clos-Lucé, a red brick manor house where Leonardo spent his last three years. A private foundation has restored Le Clos to its Renaissance appearance. In so doing, they rediscovered walls, beams, fireplaces and frescoes from the painter’s time.

In 1516, France’s great Renaissance king, Francois I, offered Leo­nardo the château as a gift to settle in France. Accompanied by his pupil, Francesco da Melzi, and his servant, Battista de Villanis, Leonardo journeyed to Amboise. In his mule’s leather saddlebags he carried his three favorite canvases, the real-life portrait of a Florentine woman — the “Mona Lisa” — and portraits of Saint Anne and John the Baptist, which he finished painting at Le Clos.

The king, who granted Leonardo a yearly pension of 700 golden crowns and papers of naturalization, requested only that the genius converse daily with him, whether it concern planning a royal spectacle or building new castles. Francois said, “I do not believe that any other man has as much knowledge about sculpture, painting and architecture. . . .” Here, Leonardo worked as an engineer, architect and organizer of court festivities.

An intimate glimpse

We climbed the watchtower and crossed the loggia, where the court once sat to watch Leonardo’s spectacles, to admire his figure of a lion that, when struck in the chest, released lilies or fleur-de-lys. At one of Leonardo’s festivities, 400 candelabras shone so brightly that one participant wrote, “It seems that the night is driven away.”

Perhaps Leonardo’s bedroom best represents his presence here. It houses a wide, white-stone fireplace ornamented with the arms of France, a large Renaissance bed embellished with carved sea serpents and cherubs, cabinets inlaid with ivory and ebony, an Aubusson tapestry with a scene from the life of Esther, a carved wooden bench, a decorated water pitcher, a portrait of Marguerite de Navarre, sister of the king, and other period objects.

From his window, Leonardo looked out on the Loire, his terrace gardens and, to the right, the town and the castle of his friend, the king. Leonardo’s sketch of this scene is now in the royal collection at Windsor Castle. A copy of it hangs on the wall of Le Clos. Today, TV antennas and satellite dishes rise above Amboise’s pinnacled slate roofs, but much remains the same.

Ahead of his time

At age 37, Leonardo decided to write down his ideas in every field of human knowledge. He did this using his “mirror writing” to protect his ideas and himself from the Inquisition. His writings and diagrams covered engineering, music, sculpture, painting and science in an age without electricity, steam power or the combustion engine.

Leonardo developed a model château for the king with a “telephone” system, a water avenue, a landing stage and self-closing doors. He conceived plans for a drainage system for the Sologne region and developed designs for moveable houses that could be dismantled as the court moved.

Leonardo’s study felt like a room where great ideas flourished amid a massive medieval worktable, lush portraits, fine tapestries, painted stoneware, French glass, Italian furniture and 16th-century offering plates.

The hearth of the home

In the stained glass-lit chapel of Anne of Brittany, wife of King Charles VIII, are frescoes painted by the school of Leonardo. In the large reception room, Leonardo welcomed guests. Gothic chairs, chests and tapestries remain from his time. In a corner is the bill of sale by which King Charles VIII purchased Le Clos for 3,500 golden crowns.

Leonardo’s cook, Mathurine, ruled the kitchen, with its monumental fireplace, where foods bubbled over hot flames. Her master warmed himself there on cold nights.

Under the kitchen’s main beam, two rungs once held wild game to be spit-roasted and basted with hot wine. The 16th-century rustic benches contrast with period tapestries and an elaborate gossip’s chair. When Leonardo died, he left his fine black coat with leather trim to Mathurine.

A life well lived

Da Vinci completed his last will in his bedroom, leaving his books, drawings, paintings and instruments to his beloved disciple, Francesco da Melzi. After having written, “No being disappears into the void,” he commended his soul to “Almighty God, to the blessed Virgin Mary, to St. Michael and all the angels and saints in paradise.”

Da Vinci is said to have wept that he should have worked harder on his art. In retrospect, his final regret pales in light of a life that so enriched the world.

Art historian Vasari wrote that Leonardo died with his head cradled in the king’s arms. The tradition inspired many French paintings, but documents later revealed that the king and his court were hundreds of miles away at the time.

In the basement is the secret underground passage linking Le Clos to Château d’Amboise. Francois I often used it to visit Leonardo. Nearby are the fascinating models made by IBM engineers from Leonardo’s drawings of his military, naval, mechanical and aeronautical inventions. Explanations are in English.

Later, we walked to the garden to see a video that portrays da Vinci as a spiritual humanist. It is filled with his quotes.

We ate at the crêperie off Leonardo’s garden and enjoyed the scene as we considered Leonardo’s thought: “Look at the light and admire its beauty. Close your eyes and then look again. What you saw at first is no longer there. What you will see next is yet to come.”

Château stay

Enjoy an elite retreat fit for a queen and savor the flavor of French history in a private, family-run château or manor house. While visiting the Loire Valley, home of medieval French kings and nobles, we chose Château de la Bourdaisière (25 rue de la bourdaisiere, F-37270 Montlouis, France; visit www.chateaux-france.com/bourdaisiere), surrounded by the Vouvray and Montlouis vineyards in the Cher Valley between Tours and Amboise.

For information on visiting France, call the French Government Tourist Office (FGTO) at 514/288-1904 or visit www.franceguide.com.

Logis de France offers a free guide, “Les Guide des Hotels-Restaurants,” to excellent, moderately priced hotels and restaurants. Call its center of reservations at 011 33 1 45 84 83 84 or write Fédération Nationale des Logis de France, 83, avenue d’Italie, 75013 Paris, France; visit www.logis-de-france.fr. The guide is also available from the FGTO.