five centuries ago, an Italian artist and jobbing inventor, somewhat
down on his luck, made a 500-mile journey on foot and mule across
the Alps to a small town by the river Loire. He was accompanied,
apart from the mule, by two faithful followers and three paintings.
When he died in France in 1519, the artist left the paintings to
one of his Italian followers. All three of the works went on to
become famous; one of them went on to become the most celebrated
painting of all time. The artist was Leonardo da Vinci.
and burial, in France, and his final job as court artist, philosopher
and architect to King François I, meant that Leonardo was,
for many years, regarded by the French as an honorary Frenchman.
Other than the presence in the Louvre of two of the three paintings
that crossed the Alps by mule – including, of course, the Mona
Lisa – Leonardo’s French connection is now relatively little
remembered outside France. Over the next few years, starting this
spring, the Château du Clos Lucé in the beautiful town
of Amboise on the banks of the Loire, plans to change all that.
The building where Leonardo lived for three years before his death
has already reinvented itself as a Da Vinci museum and visitor centre.
It now has ambitious plans to become the world’s first "intellectual
and cultural theme park".
The aim is
to encourage visitors, from tourists, to school groups, to academics,
to unlock the "real" Da Vinci code: the mystery of his
dazzling, but exasperating, versatility. Leonardo was not only a
painter, perhaps the greatest painter of all time. He was a poet,
musician, philosopher, engineer, architect, scientist, mathematician,
anatomist, inventor, architect and botanist. He attempted much but
completed relatively little. He was a universal genius to some;
a brilliant and frustrating dilettante to others. An exhibition
on Leonardo’s French connections this summer will include a recreation,
for the first time in nearly 500 years, of one of Leonardo’s most
astounding inventions. During his stay at Clos Lucé, he designed
a life-size, clockwork robot lion that could walk and move its head
and open its chest to reveal bunches of fleur de lys (lilies), the
French royal symbol.