The Loire Valley and Leonardo da Vinci. Can there be a better combination for an unforgettable trip? The answer is no. Following in the footsteps of the genius of Tuscany in France will take you to some of the most beautiful castles in the Valley of the Kings, to delve deeper into his figure and to understand why Da Vinci – who always said that water is the vehicle of nature – chose the banks of the Loire, the largest of the French rivers, to spend his last years.
The Loire Valley and Leonardo da Vinci: from character to myth
If there has been a man capable of standing out in every discipline he tackled, it was Leonardo da Vinci. Painter, scientist, inventor, architect, botanist, writer, sculptor, philosopher, engineer, poet, visionary… Da Vinci embodies like no other the ideal of the Renaissance man, the absolute expression of talent, and his legacy, as his controversial and unapprehensible personality, continues to fascinate all who are interested in his person.
Beauty perishes in life, but is immortal in art.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
It is enough to approach the region Center Valley of the Loira to verify it. Even more so this year as it is the main stage for the commemorations of the fifth centenary of his death. A date that coincides in time with two key anniversaries in the history of France: the birth of Catherine de Medici and the beginning of the construction of the Royal Castle of Chambord.
The Loire Valley, the final destination for a multidisciplinary artist
Da Vinci arrived in France in 1516 on a donkey and carrying three of his masterpieces – St. John the Baptist, St. Anne and La Gioconda – and a good bundle of frustrations and disappointments. At the age of 63 he decided to cross the silver bridge of his native Italy, an Italy fascinated by the talent of Michelangelo and Raphael who did not value his art, was shocked by his revolutionary studies of anatomy and did not understand his particular vision of the world.
The French court, on the other hand, put the kingdom at their feet. The young Francis I, instructed by his mother Louise of Savoy, offered him his protection and an irrecusable offer: the position of the king’s first painter, engineer and architect, a pension of 700 gold escudos, a luxurious residence and total freedom to give free rein to his creativity.
In the Loire Valley, Leonardo da Vinci found the peace he so longed for and a place to dream, think and work surrounded by splendid landscapes that accompanied him until the end of his days. For this reason, the region and the entire country rescues this year its memory and its intellectual testament with an interesting cultural agenda that includes more than 700 events: unique exhibitions, musical cycles, gastronomy…
The Royal Castle of Amboise, the sophistication of the first French Renaissance
Built on an ancient fortress overlooking the Loire and the medieval city, the castle of Amboise, royal residence and summit of French art de vivre, is the first surprise that awaits us this route linked to the Italian genius.
The dazzling collection of Gothic and Renaissance furniture in the different rooms -created thanks to the technology of the Histopad-, the terraces and spacious gardens with panoramic views of the valley, the imposing towers, its location next to the peaceful historical centre of Amboise… The whole complex that frames this castle erected between the 15th and 16th centuries is truly sublime. It was the favorite palace of Francis I and many other monarchs of the houses of Valois and Borbon.
So was Leonardo da Vinci who wanted to be buried in his domains. And it is here, in a simple tomb guarded by the chapel of Saint-Hubert, under a marble tombstone decorated with his face, that rests that bastard son, denigrated by the Vatican, who became one of the great men of history. If you know his prolific work, it is impossible not to be touched by the unfairness of his words: “I have offended God and humanity because my work did not have the quality it should have had.
Clos Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci’s last abode
The luxurious mansion that Francis I made available to the master is Clos Lucé, the former summer residence of the kings of France. Situated just 400 metres from Amboise, this castle with the soul of the Da Vinci palace was probably the happiest years of her life until she died in May 1519 at the age of 67, leaving behind an exceptional legacy.
His bedroom, the workshops in which he worked tirelessly, his painting studio, the kitchen in which Mathurine – until then a royal cook – prepared his vegetarian meal, the superb oratory of Anne of Brittany, the great Renaissance room, the library and the cabinet of curiosities, the basement where his inventions are exhibited, the secret passageway that communicated with the castle of Amboise and that, it is said, Francis I used to visit “his father” far from the eyes of the court… No doubt, if there is a place where the spirit of Da Vinci is still alive five centuries after his death, this is his home on French soil.
But the magic of Clos Lucé does not end in the noble outbuildings of the stately villa. It continues in the open sky, along a vast garden that immerses us in the mind of the one who so longed to know the workings of nature and man.
Mobile models of his visionary life-size inventions, canvases hanging from the trees playing, like the painter himself, with light and shadows, audios with their reflections, the vegetal mantle reproduced in his drawings by the botanical Da Vinci, his ideal city project… An initiatory and inspiring walk like few others, at the height of a polymer that understood art and science as an indissoluble whole.
INTEREST YOU → If you visit Clos Lucé before 2 September, you can admire the tapestry of the Last Supper, a valuable fabric woven with silk and gold threads, which for the first time in its history leaves the Vatican Museums to form part of a unique exhibition. This masterpiece, commissioned by Francis I, has the same measurements as the fresco painted by Da Vinci in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.
Chambord, the colossal masterpiece of Francis I
According to Leonardo Da Vinci there are three kinds of people: “those who see, those who see what is shown to them and those who do not see”. In the Loire Valley, there is no place for the latter because it is impossible not to fall in love with the beauty of castles such as Chambord, an architectural wonder located in the heart of La Sologne.
Although construction began in the same year Da Vinci died, many attribute the design of one of its most outstanding elements to it: the central staircase with a double spiral that allows people to climb up and down without crossing each other. Be that as it may, what is clear is that Chambord is one of the most spectacular castles on this route.
What began as a hunting lodge ended up becoming the largest mansion in the valley. A palace designed by Francis I to demonstrate his power that translates into more than 400 rooms, 365 fireplaces, panoramic terraces and six towers that stand at the foot of its beautiful gardens. All this, as it could not be otherwise, surrounded by nature. More than a thousand hectares of forest that provide a truly unique atmosphere.
GASTROTIP → Have you ever wondered what French gastronomy was like during the Renaissance? You will find the answer in the menu of the Restaurant de l’Agriculture de Tour-en-Sologne, a magnificent establishment that has joined the celebrations of the V Centenary with a Renaissance menu that allows us to discover the recipes of the time and the rich culinary heritage of the Loire Valley. Ricotta soufflé with Parmesan cheese and Parma ham, chicken fricassee with lemon, pears with wine and the best Tatin cake I have ever tasted.
Hills, vineyards, lush forests, sumptuous castles that exemplify the exquisiteness of the French Renaissance, peaceful villages where you would like to extend your stay, its superb cuisine… The fifth centenary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death is the perfect excuse to get to know this exceptional World Heritage destination. His name: Val de Loire. His last name: the garden of France.
More information: Loire Valley.