Imagine a celebrated, aging genius crossing the Alps on the back of a mule with priceless artistic masterpieces in his saddlebags. That is what a 64-year-old Leonardo da Vinci did in 1516, carrying with him three paintings – “Saint John the Baptist,” “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne,” and the “Mona Lisa” – now all classics included in the Louvre’s permanent collection. The 500th anniversary of Da Vinci’s journey from Italy to France will be celebrated in 2016.
In October 1515, France’s great Renaissance king, Francis I, present in Italy after recapturing Milan from the Papal States and the Old Swiss Confederacy, commissioned a mechanical lion from Da Vinci. Following the advice of his sister, Marguerite de Navarre, Francis then invited Da Vinci to France and gave him full use of the Clos Lucé, then known as the Manoir du Cloux, a stately house made of pink bricks and tufa stones near the king’s residence at the royal Château d’Amboise.
Da Vinci spent the last three years of his life in Amboise as “The King’s First Painter, Engineer and Architect,” dying there on May 2, 1519. He painted very little during that time, but took advantage of the king’s offer that he be “free to dream, to think and to work” by giving great attention to architectural and engineering projects like the design of a new but never-realized royal palace and ideal town at Romorantin, a proposed draining of the Sologne marshes, the construction of a new canal between the Loire and Saône rivers, and the famous double-helix staircase at Chambord.
Today, the Clos Lucé is a museum in Leonardo da Vinci’s honor, a listed monument restored to its Renaissance appearance and turned over to exhibits about both the history of the region and about Da Vinci, including 40 IBM-produced models of the variety of machines he designed: an airplane, automobile, helicopter and tank, among others. In the extensive gardens surrounding the house, an additional 20 giant interactive constructions allow you to experience Da Vinci’s inventions at their full scale, and 40 giant translucent canvases reveal different facets of his work.
Another indoor exhibit, “Léonard de Vinci et la France” (“Leonardo da Vinci and France”), explores 10 years of the fascinating relationship between three kings of France (Charles VIII, Louis XII and Francis I) and the Tuscan Master.