Visionary Designer Leonardo da Vinci
A French castle where he lived now hosts a museum of his inventions
AMBOISE, FRANCE — ON a chilly October day in 1516, Leonardo da Vinci, accompanied by an assistant and a servant, rode through the tall portal of the Chateau of Cloux at Amboise and settled in the large and comfortable quarters that his host and sponsor, the art-loving King Francois I, had provided for him.
Leonardo was 74 years old by that time, and the journey from Rome must have been arduous. It is clear from his writing that he had a busy and fulfilling time here, in the heart of the Loire Valley, and continued his work in the arts and sciences in which he excelled. He lived and worked at the chateau of Cloux until his death in 1519, at the age of 77.
Today, the imposing chateau is called Clos-Luce (after a charming mural of The Virgin of Clos-Luce in the chapel), and its basement is home to an extraordinary exhibit of inventions - scale models created by engineers of IBM-France from Leonardo's quite detailed and astonishingly visionary sketches and blueprints.
Upstairs, rescued from 19th-century alterations and coverings are a series of large rooms flooded with light, where the master lived and worked. The exquisite Renaissance-era furniture and the large 15th- and 16th-century hanging tapestries create the uncanny impression that Leonardo has just left the place.
From the windows, there is a splendid view of Amboise Castle, home to Francois I, and on the wall hangs a Leonardo sketch of precisely that view and a looming castle tower.
In the basement there is the entrance of a tunnel that leads to the castle. Tradition has it that the admiring king, who found in Leonardo an intellectual soul mate, used that tunnel to visit his guest at Clos-Luce.
It is strange to think that, when the great painter arrived at Clos-Luce, he carried in his saddlebag three paintings, one of them the Mona Lisa, which now hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris.
Leonardo was truly a Renaissance man, a skilled artist, engineer, architect, and an ingenious designer of hydraulic, mechanical, and aeronautical devices that were ahead of their time. Many of them Leonardo could not translate into practical use simply because the required means of propulsion had not been invented.
Among the IBM models displayed (they were constructed with materials available in Leonardo's time) are: a detailed design for a helicopter; the basic structure of a car; a prototype of a parachute; the batwing construction on which he based his dream of manned flight, the forerunner of a flying machine; the design for a paddle steamer; a swivel bridge that allows tall ships to pass through; an instrument to measure the speed of currents; and a metric gauge mounted on a wheelbarrow.
There was no end to Leonardo's imagination. He even explored the possibilities of a submarine.
Certainly, his mind worked in all directions. He invented a system for draining the Pontine marshes near Rome. He worked with hydraulic pumps and military hardware. Before he left Italy, Leonardo was court artist and military engineer for the Duke of Milan, Lodovico Sforza, and in a 1482 letter, offered him a whole series of radically new war machines, including a tank on wheels, the first version of a multi-directional machine gun, an extension ladder that looks incredibly modern, and a gun that used st eam to hurl a projectile with great force.
He also designed machines for peaceful purposes, such as a pump for drawing water from a ship's hold and a double hull for a ship, the ancestor of the watertight partition.
And, of course, as his hundreds of studies prove, he possessed a detailed knowledge of the human anatomy.
"In times of peace, I can equal anyone in architecture. I believe I can build both private and public monuments and convey water from one place to another. I can perform sculptures in marble, bronze, and terra cotta. In painting I am able to do what another may," he wrote to the duke, proposing at the same time practical trials of any of his inventions. In fact, there is some evidence that Leonardo tried out his airplane idea, which simulated bird flight powered by human energy.
Clos-Luce today is privately owned. Kept as a fortress and part of the royal domain since 1490 when Charles VIII bought it, it has been in the Saint Bris family for several generations. Jean Saint Bris, the conservator and one of the owners, proudly relates how 19th-century rubble had been carefully removed throughout the chateau to reveal the beautiful painted beams and frescoes underneath. More than 250,000 visitors toured the house and its magnificent gardens last year.
Clos-Luce was one of the rare chateaux to survive the French Revolution virtually intact, thanks to some quick-witted person in the castle whose quote from Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man" appeased the mob that had come from Amboise to do its destructive work.
Although the original drawbridge of Clos-Luce is gone, the castle itself retains its original, turreted look. Letters from the period show that Francois I threw some elaborate parties at the chateau and elsewhere, and that Leonardo contributed ideas to enliven the proceedings.
For an amusement staged for the Duchess of Nemours, the widow of Giuliano Medici, he created an automated lion which, when pounded on the chest, gushed fleur-de-lis. In a thank-you gesture for the king, Leonardo covered the courtyard of his castle with sky-blue sheets that had the sun and the moon painted on them. In the evening, he lit the yard with 400 two-branched candelabras, illuminating it so that, according to one letter, "it seemed the night had been driven away."
The covered balcony from which the ladies watched still exists.
There is no question that Leonardo, disappointed by his rejection by the Pope in Rome, was happy in the welcoming atmosphere of Clos-Luce and the French court which, under Francois I, reached great intellectual and artistic heights. Somehow, the chateau reflects that feeling.
And the intricate models in the basement speak volumes about the great artist's inventiveness, his curiosity, his powers of observation and, of course, his genius.