A Few Days In

Finding Leonardo da Vinci in the Loire

by Erica Firpo
Leonardo Admiring Leonardo's work at Clos Lucé. All photos by Erica Firpo.

To commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death, tributes and exhibitions honoring Leonardo da Vinci have been mounted around the world — most notably at The Met in NYC, The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace, and currently at the Louvre until February 24, 2020. But the Loire Valley, where he spent his final years, remains a treasure trove of Leonardo's life and work. Rome correspondent and modern art aficionado Erica Firpo spent time exploring the area and the legacy Leonardo left behind.

LOIRE VALLEY, France – The Mona Lisa. The Last Supper. Vitruvian Man. Even Salvator Mundi, the mysterious "found" painting that sold for $450.3 million in 2017 and now is oddly off the radar. The subject matter, the inventions, and especially the hair — everything about Italian-born Leonardo da Vinci and his art screams Italy, so why did I trek all the way to France to find him?

The multi-disciplinary genius born in 1452 dominated Italy for six decades, creating masterpieces of painting, architecture, and engineering while living in epic cities like Milan and Florence. But Leonardo was an international living legend, and when France's King Francis I (a Leo fan boy) invited him in 1515 to Château d'Amboise, the royal residence in the Loire Valley, the 64-year-old artist packed his bags and moved to the beautiful and historic château and spent his final years dreaming ideas fit for a king.

So off I went to follow in his footsteps on a long weekend celebrating the quincentennial of Leonardo da Vinci. Leo died in Loire in May 1519, and five hundred years later, his legacy continues to thrive in the valley, where his work remains as captivating as ever.

Now that's a castle. Photo courtesy of Château d’Ambois.

Leonardo Slept Here: Amboise and Clos Lucé

My first stop is Château d'Amboise. Perched on a hill overlooking the Loire, the castle is a beautiful slate grey fortress and estate. During its heyday from the 1400s to the French Revolution, it was a favored residence of Valois and Bourbon royals. Today, the château is a beautiful monument to French history — from royals and revolution to restoration and rethinking. Leonardo's three-year tenure here may have been brief, but he left a huge imprint.

I experienced much of it virtually (and lived my best Ren-faire dream) by touring with the chateau's L'Histopad, a handheld tablet that overlays Renaissance scenes on Amboise's rooms, allowing visitors to imagine how the rooms used to look and where the famous paintings now seen in museums once hung when Leonardo roamed the halls. Check the schedule before a visit, and try to come when the chateau is hosting a concert or a multimedia event in the arena that could double as a Quidditch backdrop.

The castle comes back to life with L'Histopad.
Chapel of Saint-Hubert.

Following his final wishes, Leonardo was buried at St. Florentin church on the grounds at Amboise, where he died. The church was demolished during the Revolution, but the artist's remains were rediscovered in 1863 and now have their final resting spot at the Chapel of Saint-Hubert, an intimate and elaborately decorated chapel at the edge of the estate overlooking the town of Amboise. On the floor inside the small chapel is a a simple concrete slab inscribed with the name Leonardo da Vinci and a bronze disc portrait. Here lies the master.

Amboise, which is an hour from Paris by train, could be a morning visit or an entire day and evening. The surrounding town is charming and quintessentially French, the kind of place where I could sit in a bistro or cafe all day.

The town of Amboise.
Leonardo's studio at Clos Lucé.
Leonardo's bridge at Clos Lucé.

The next stop on my tour was Château du Clos Lucé, the mini-mansion that served as Leonardo’s pied-a-terre, home, and studio. It was in this former summer home of French kings that the artist who Francis I decreed "Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the King" conceived his whims and work. An underground passage used to connect the two castles, though it's mostly inaccessible today. Clos Lucé is otherwise a time capsule, restored in design and furnishing to what it was in 1519, ready for Leo to walk in the door, crawl into bed, eat a feast or brainstorm another invention. Tiny as it may seem initially, Clos Luce is an entire day trip for me.

After exploring the living quarters, I needed to get into Leonardo's brain, so I went down to the basement where 40 models created from Leonardo's designs are on display: the helicopter, a kind of car, a parachute, a tank, and his famous flying machine. But the fun happens in the garden, where all the designs have been recreated in life-size scale. I meandered the beautiful and bucolic oasis as if I were Leonardo waiting for my next idea, and chuckled at the incredible inventions like revolving bridge and the assault chariot. At some point, I walked into the museum hall, a turn-of-the-century warehouse building and I stopped in my tracks: I was face to face with the precious tapestry version of the Last Supper that I have only seen in the Vatican museums. This tapestry (which doesn't leave the Vatican) was designed by Raphael in the early 1500s, inspired by Leonardo's 1498 painting. Spanning some nine meters in length and five in height, the tapestry underwent a meticulous restoration in the Vatican lab before it was transported to Clos Lucé for its first public outing. Leonardo da Vinci and France, an exhibition exploring the link between the Italian and French Renaissances will re-open in 2020 with a copy of Mona Lisa by Ambroise Dubois, a replica of Donatello's bronze sculpture David, and a mechanical lion made according to the specifications in da Vinci's manuscripts.

Fully immersed in 1519, I found myself in front of an early Renaissance half-timber building, L'Auberge du Prieuré, the château's fine-dining restaurant whose chef recreates recipes from the early 16th century. The past was so close, I could taste it. Literally.

Domaine de Chaumont sur Loire

Domaine du Chaumont

I had to plan what to do next: continue on the trail of Leonardo or visit more châteaux? Option A would have sent me looking for Ramorantin, the massive and forgotten urban planning project that Leonardo conceived for Francis I, or to Château du Chambord, the famous castle that the king built instead (allegedly with some of his design input). Since Leo's trail was theoretical at these chateaux, I chose plan B and made my way to Domaine de Chaumont sur Loire, the kind of chateau that had everything I love — lurid history, gardens, and contemporary art.

Domaine du Chaumont sur Loire is the fairy tale castle of your fantasies. The Gothic fortress architecture of stone towers and turrets was originally owned by Queen Catherine de Medici, who forced Diane of Poitiers, mistress of her husband, King Henri II, to swap it for Chenonceau, another picturesque château. (Seriously, they're everywhere around here.) Chaumont's rooms, decorated with period furniture and original frescoes and wood beams, no longer host mistresses but rather contemporary art installations which rotate annually, as the Chateau invites twelve artists to create pieces for the Centre for Arts and Nature.

The visit should be spent outdoors exploring the site-specific installations. Through the grounds, I found sculptures and installations by artists I love, including El Anatsui, Giuseppe Penone, and Tadashi Kawamata. I could’ve spent hours wandering around, but at some point I found myself in the stables and lost myself in Stéphane Guerain’s Le Nid Des Murmures (the nest of whispers), a dark corner space covered in what seemed like floating geodes, listening to a soft whisper soundtrack. The stables themselves are beautiful, restored to their original design by none better than Maison Hermès, whose tack room includes several vintage Hermes saddles, crops, and bits.

Art at Chaumont.
Hermès Tack Room at Chaumont.

Chaumont also hosts the annual Festival International des Jardins, a veritable garden fest in which landscape artists from around the world create fantastic and whimsical gardens based on a yearly theme. This year, it was "Gardens of Paradise," and though I was expecting to see Dantean tropes, I found myself in futuristic utopias that questioned what paradise could mean. There were digitally interactive gardens, synthetic creations, and Zen oases — greener and more uplifting versions of a Black Mirror experience.

Three days exploring chateaux was incredible — and an overload. I had inhaled all things Leonardo and Loire and was ready to return to the 21st century. But before leaving, I figured something out. There is something about this endless Loire green that mesmerizes people. I'm pretty sure that Leonardo didn't give up Italy for a 700-crown paycheck and his final days in a charming château. He left for the landscape.

Art at Chaumont.

Plan Your Trip

How to Get Here
From Paris by train, it's one hour to Orlèans and two to Tours on a high-speed or regional train. The Gare de Tours, the city's central station, was designed by Victor Laloux, who created what is now Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Flash forward to the 21st century, and artist Daniel Buren (the man who created the oh-so-Instagramable striped column installation at Palais Royal in Paris) spiced up the city’s tramway with colorful installations and his signature lines.

Getting Around
Y ou’ll probably want to rent a car to explore the area, but consider renting a bike if you're fit and the weather is nice. Detours Loire has rental locations in eight cities throughout the Loire Valley, making it easy to hop from town to town. The valley is great for distance biking trips, as it’s mostly flat and every time you want/need to take a break, you have beautiful countryside to enjoy.

Weather Notes
You'll be daytripping through the Loire, and once you get to the chateaux (whether by car, bike, horse, or driver), you'll thank yourself for wearing comfortable shoes that can get wet or are water-resistant. The Loire Valley is its own microclimate and can be overcast, sunny and humid, hazy hot, and chilly — all in the same day.

More Leonardo — in France and Anywhere

Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre, Paris — on view until February 24, 2020

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson — the bestselling biography

Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy — iPad app of sketches

Leonardodavinci.net — a fan site