AMBOISE, France —Soon we will be in a Leonardo mode as Dan Brown’s best-seller, “The Da Vinci Code,” brings its tale of conspiracy, art history and clandestine societies to movie theaters around the world.
The book is based on a 1975 find in Paris in France’s Bibliotheque Nationale that Leonardo da Vinci was a member of a European secret society called the Priory of Sion.
Fellow members included Sir Isaac Newton, Sandro Botticelli, Victor Hugo and other notables. A trail of murder clues are found in Leonardo’s paintings.
In Amboise, we join the millions who have viewed a real-life Leonardo mystery: Where is the Renaissance genius buried? Our guide at the chateau of Amboise is unsure.
“He’s either buried over there under the statue,” he says, pointing to a white marble bust of Leonardo, “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 St. 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 and parts of the castle 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.”
The white marble statue of Leonardo glistens in the bright sun, serene amid the expanse of castle lawn. The chateau dominates the awakening town and the swiftly flowing Loire River below.
We enter the nearby white-marble Chapelle St. Hubert, a jewel of flamboyant Gothic architecture, and pay our respects at a transept that may, or may not, hold Leonardo’s bones. The name of the Italian painter, sculptor, musician, poet, architect, engineer and inventor is carved here in the marble. He died at Amboise on May 19, 1519 at age 67.
We push on to the castle’s eclectic rooms and descend on a winding cobblestone street to Le Clos-Luce, a red-brick manor house where Leonardo spent his last three years. A private foundation has restored the manor to its Renaissance appearance. In so doing, they rediscovered walls, beams, fireplaces and frescoes from Leonardo’s time.
In 1516, France’s great Renaissance king, Francis I, offered Leonardo the chateau as a gift if he would settle in France. Accompanied by his pupil, Francesco 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 we know as the Mona Lisa — La Giaconda in Italian, and portraits of St. Anne and John the Baptist, which he finished painting at Le Clos-Luce.
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 royal spectacles or building new castles.
“I do not believe that any other man has as much knowledge about sculpture, painting and architecture,” Francis said.
Here, Leonardo worked as an engineer, architect and organizer of court festivities, but in his last years he seems to have been frustrated. He stopped painting and wrote, “Tell me if anything was ever done.”
We climb the watchtower and cross the loggia where the court once sat to watch Leonardo’s spectacles and admire his figure of a lion that, when struck in the chest, released lilies or fleurs-de-lis.
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 stay here. It houses a wide white-stone fireplace with the arms of France, a large Renaissance bed embellished with carved sea serpents and putti, 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 in the royal collection at Windsor Castle in England; a copy of it hangs on the wall of the chateau.
Television antennas and dishes now rise above Amboise’s pinnacled slate roofs, but much remains the same.
In his large, white-walled study, with a thick, beamed ceiling, Leonardo worked as an artist and engineer. In winter, the massive fireplace blazed. The 1,119-page Codex Atlanticus, dating from 1517, bears this address.
At age 37, he decided to write down his ideas in the fields of human knowledge. He did this using his mirror-writing to protect his ideas and himself from the Inquisition. His writings and diagrams cover engineering, music, sculpture, painting and science in an age without electricity, steam power or the combustion engine.
Here, Leonardo developed a model chateau for the king with 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 movable houses that could be dismantled as the court moved.
Leonardo’s study is neat, but it feels 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 chapel of Anne of Brittany, wife of King Charles VIII, is illuminated by stained-glass windows. On its walls are frescoes painted by the school of Leonardo, including his young assistant Francesco Melzi.
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-Luce 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 here on cold nights.
Under the kitchen’s main beam, two rungs held wild game to be spit-roasted and basted with hot wine. Below are bread bins, copper pans and dishes. The rustic 16th-century benches contrast with fine tapestries of the era and the elaborate gossip’s chair. When Leonardo died, he left his fine black coat with leather trim to Mathurine.
Leonardo completed his last will in his bedroom, leaving his books, drawings, paintings and instruments to his beloved disciple 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.”
Leonardo 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 Giorgio 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-Luce to the chateau of Amboise. Francis 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 walk to the garden to see a video that portrays Leonardo as a spiritual humanist. It is filled with his quotes, such as: “He who wishes to be rich in a day will be hanged in a year. … Wisdom is the daughter of experience.”
We eat at the creperie off Leonardo’s garden and enjoy the scene as we consider Leonardo’s thought: “Look at the light and admire its beauty. Close your eyes and then observe. What you saw at first is no longer there. What you will see next is yet to come.”
Bourdaisiere a Loire Valley elite retreat
Enjoy an elite retreat fit for royalty and savor the flavor of French history in a private, family-run chateau or manor house.
In the Loire Valley, home of medieval French kings and nobles, we chose Chateau de la Bourdaisiere, surrounded by the Vouvray and Montlouis vineyards, in the Cher Valley between Tours and Amboise.
For information on France call 410/286-8310 or visit www.franceguide.com.
For the chateau, visit www.chateaux-france.com/bourdaisiere or, by e-mail, email@example.com. The chateau’s address is 25 rue de la Bourdaisiere, F-37270 Montlouis (Indre et Loire), France.
For information on Logis of France and its listing of moderately priced hotels and restaurants, visit www.logisdefrance.com, or write for a booklet from Federation Nationale des Logis de France, 83 avenue d’Italie, 75013 Paris, France.