The Legend Continues

Last week we concluded our post with a visit to the Chateau d’Amboise.  Our bikes are parked in convenient bike racks on the main square of Amboise, near the entrance to the chateau.  Leaving the chateau we walk up the rue Victor Hugo 400 m to the Clos-Lucé, a small chateau where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last three years.  At the end of our visit there we will return to our bikes and cycle the 30 km back to Tours.

Clos-Lucé was built in the late 15th century of tufa stone and pink brick.  This is a rare and lovely combination; it is also to be seen at Louis XI’s chateau in Tours, Le Plessis-les-Tours, a place we will visit on a subsequent bike ride.

The University of Western Ontario 2010 student bike trip

1. Students on the 2010 Western bike trip at the Clos-Lucé.

The property was acquired by King Charles VIII in 1490 as a refuge for his wife, Anne de Bretagne, a very devout woman.  He added an oratory at the chateau for her, where she came frequently to pray.  A fresco in the oratory is titled the Virgin of Light (Virgo Lucis); it is thought that the Lucé in the chateau’s name comes from Lucis, a reference to the painting, which may have been done by da Vinci’s loyal assistant Francesco Melzi. Clos means an enclosed place, and in this case a quiet, protected place.

The chateau, which has been the property of the Saint Bris family since 1855, was opened to the public in 1954.[1]  From the chateau terrace, there is a splendid view of the Chateau d’Amboise, which Leonardo must have enjoyed.

Chateaux of the Loire: Amboise

2. The Chateau d'Amboise seen from the terrace of the Chateau Clos-Lucé.

The French kings of the 16th century knew Italy through warfare.  From 1494 to 1559, Charles VIII, Louis XII, François I, and Henry II waged a series of wars which involved invasions of northern Italy.  The wars were often based on competition among France, Spain, and Venice for control over the various city states of Italy. These excursions allowed the French kings and the nobles fighting with them to see the marvels of the Italian Renaissance.

In 1499 Louis XII’s troops marched through Lombardy and took Milan, where he visited the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan and saw Leonardo’s fresco of 1498, The Last Supper, painted on the wall of a large room which became the refectory.  He was so taken by the work that he asked if it could be detached and transported back to France. His request was perforce denied (frescos don’t travel well), but copies of the painting soon appeared in noble houses in France.

François I invaded Italy and captured Milan in October 1515.  The king met with Pope Leo X in Bologna; Leonardo, who was present at the meeting, received a commission to make a mechanical lion for the French king. A year later, at the invitation of François  I, Leonardo was in France; he had been living a difficult life in Italy with few commissions. He arrived at Clos-Lucé during the first few months of 1516.  François I was out of town that day on state business, but he certainly would have joined Leonardo at the first possible moment.

François I had been well educated in the wonders of the Italian Renaissance and during his reign sought to bring the new artistic styles to France.   He would have known Leonardo as one of the leading lights of the Renaissance.  What better way for the King to show his leadership in cultural affairs than to have Leonardo live next to his court in Amboise? Leonardo was given Clos-Lucé as a residence and a substantial annual pension, so that he could work without financial worries.

The many sides of Leonardo’s genius are on display at the Clos-Lucé: the artist, the philosopher, the creator of magical events, the scientist, the engineer.  The artist is celebrated with reproductions of his paintings, including the Mona Lisa (La Joconde in French), which hangs proudly in the Renaissance Great Hall of the chateau.

Da Vinci at Clos Lucé

3. Da Vinci, "Mona Lisa" (1506).

The philosopher appears in the many pithy Leonardo sayings that are hung throughout the chateau, like the one below.

Da Vinci quote, Every obstacle is overcome by stern resolve

4. Dr. Al Salmoni of The University of Western Ontario at the Clos-Lucé during the 2010 Western student bike trip, bike helmet in hand.

Translating the French (“La rigueur vient toujours à bout de l’obstacle“) involves at least two options, depending on how you treat rigueurRigeur often refers to precision of thought, and thus da Vinci may be making a statement about science and intellectual work in general; in that case the translation might be “Precise thinking overcomes every obstacle.”  A more general interpretation of rigueur would lead to the translation which dominates the many websites devoted to da Vinci quotes: “Every obstacle yields to stern resolve.”  As a career professor and lifelong runner, Dr. Salmoni can endorse both interpretations, as his smile in the photograph indicates.

Leonardo had established a reputation in Italy as a creator of magical events, often held at night, using innovative lighting, costumes and backgrounds of his own design, and employing his technical skill with machines created for a specific party.  His first such event at Clos-Lucé was on May 3, 1517, to celebrate the baptism of the King’s first son, and the marriage of the King’s niece.  Leonardo was a master of theatrical drama and surprise, and the King and his guests loved his shows.

Leonardo the scientist and engineer appears in the many drawings displayed from Leonardo’s notebooks, including the one below.

Da Vinci sketch of helicopter at Clos-Lucé

5. Drawing by Leonardo of a machine with some characterstics of a modern helicopter.

Apart from his paintings, it is the sketches in his notebooks which provide the most tangible evidence today of Leonardo’s genuis. The notebooks consisted of some 13,000 loose pages which have wound up in museums across Europe. The pages show models for machines and scientific inventions, and sketches for paintings, along with grocery lists and household budgets.

The pages were not published during Leonardo’s lifetime and virtually all remained unpublished for centuries; thus for most of his proposed inventions, the eventual machines were designed, built, and run by people who had no knowledge of Leonardo’s drawings. A great many of the pages were gathered, translated, and published for the first time in 1883 by Jean-Paul Richter, a German art historien.  The Notebooks, as assembled by Richter, are now on the internet; Richter’s Preface is fascinating, as are Leonardo’s notes and sketches. [2]

Happily, of Leonardo the scientist and engineer, at Clos-Lucé we can see more than the sketches.  Years ago the IBM Corporation built actual models of forty inventions shown in the sketches, using materials available in Leonardo’s time.  These are on display in the basement of the chateau.  One of the models is a cross-section of a boat propelled by two side paddle wheels, driven by cranks which would presumably be turned by hand.   Two large flywheels would steady the motion.

6. Model of a boat driven by paddle wheels, built by IBM based on a Leonardo sketch

Like so many of Leonardo’s inventions this one had to wait until the appropriate source of power was available.

The park outside the chateau celebrates Leonardo’s love of nature; he strolled in this park 500 years ago.  The small Amasse river flows through the park on its way to the Loire; the river has been cleverly redirected to allow for a series of bridges and other structures which illustrate Leonardo’s designs: a two-level bridge, a swinging bridge for military use, a mill operated with gears he sketched, an Archimedes screw.  On the edge of a small pond is a larger model of the paddle wheel boat.

7. Paddle wheel boat in the park of Clos-Lucé.

While the IBM models in the chateau basement are fragile and cannot be touched, many of those in the park are made to be operated by hand, much to the delight of children, and indeed some adults.  There are two cranks for turning the paddles on the boat in the park.

A model of the “helicopter” sketch in photograph 3-5 is to be found down a grassy slope from the chateau entrance.

8. A helicopter model at Clos-Lucé

In the middle of the six supports is a vertical shaft.  In theory, if you could turn that shaft fast enough, the wings of the structure on top could lift it up into the air.  Just as with the paddle boat, the needed power was not available in de Vinci’s time.  Commercial paddle boats would await the steam engine and the early 19th century.  Helicopters, which needed the internal combusion engine, became operational in the 1930s and 1940s.

While celebrating Leonardo’s achievements, the Clos-Lucé site also allows us to contemplate the mystery of this extraordinary man.  Why so few completed paintings by one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance?  Why so many projects, artistic and engineering, begun but not finished?  Why no major publication during his lifetime on his philosophy, his science, or his engineering?  And why, despite these shortcomings, do we hold him up as the ultimate Renaissance man?

This mystery is at the heart of a recent biography by Sophie Chauveau, Léonard de Vinci (Gallimard, 2008), who traces the life of a genuis who is constantly seeking new challenges and working most of the time in difficult circumstances.  She cites the British author and art historien Kenneth Clark, that each generation must reinterpret this extraordinary person.[3]  It is no accident that in his fabulously successful fictional story, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown gives a central role to Leonardo and his paintings and sketches, and even puts his name in the book’s title.  The da Vinci legend continues to fascinate us.

Leonardo died on May 2, 1519 at Clos-Lucé.   A popular myth, that he died in the arms of Francois I, is the subject of a painting by the great 19th century artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.  A reproduction of the painting hangs next to his bed in Leonardo’s bedroom at Clos-Lucé.

Ingres painting at Clos-Lucé

9. Ingres, "The Death of Leonardo da Vinci" (1818)

In all likelihood, however, the King missed Leonardo’s death at Clos-Lucé just as he had missed his arrival.  According to Chauveau, on that day Francois I was baptizing his second son at Saint-Germain-en-Laye west of Paris, over 200 km away.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Part of the mystery of Leonardo is the resting place of his final remains.  At his request he was buried inside the Chateau d’Amboise, in the Saint-Florentin church.  The church was badly damaged during the Revolution, and taken down by order of Napoleon I in 1808. A bust of Leonardo was later erected on the site of the church.

Where is Leonardo da Vinci buried?

10. Bust of Leonardo da Vinci in the park of Chateau d'Amboise.

So far, so good, but now the tale gets twisted.  One story has it that in the 1860s Leonardo’s bones were found on this site, and transferred to the Saint-Hubert chapel, where they still lie under the stone on the floor in the photograph below.

Where is Leonardo da Vinci buried?

3-11 The Saint-Hubert Chapel at the Chateau d'Amboise

The plaque on the wall in the photograph concludes with the following sentence on Leonardo’s remains: “His presumed remains found during excavations undertaken in 1863 were transferred to this chapel.”  The use of “presumed” (restes présumés) shows the appropriate doubt.   The official Chateau pamphlet drops the doubts and tells the visitor flat out that the Saint-Hubert Chapel is indeed the grave of Leonardo.

Yet doubts remain.  Why were the bones discovered so long after the razing of the original chapel in 1808?  One source suggests that the 1863 excavations were done by the French State.[4]  If true, this could certainly increase our scepticism, because the head of state at that time was Emperor Napoleon III, who was desperate to justify his undemocratic regime with popular causes.   Why not associate himself with Leonardo, just as François I had done three centuries earlier? The bust in Figure 3-10 is dated 1869, just a year before Napoleon III had to flee France.

Sophie Chauveau is convinced the whole “discovered bones” story is a myth and that his final resting place is just one more Leonardo mystery.  Indeed, she believes that the mystery of da Vinci’s life was one that he himself cultivated.  She ends her book as follows [5]:

“So Leonardo has played his last trick.
There is no gravestone real or figurative for the greatest artist of the Renaissance.  Nothing? Not the smallest trace.  A man who scattered traces of himself all his life, as if to cover his footsteps, sees his wishes literally granted in his death.
He rests nowhere.
The legend can continue.
And it continues.”

[1] The current head of the family, Gonzague Saint Bris, is a remarkable man–journalist, novelist, biographer, romantic, shameless self-promoter, loved or hated by all in the literary elite.  Jean-Louis Gouraud has written a wonderful portrait of Saint Bris, “Les Éléphants Sont-Ils Romantiques?” (La revue, no 6, octobre 2010), which is displayed on Saint-Bris’ website,
[3] Chauveau, p. 9:  “qu’a chaque génération cet étonnant personnage devait être réinterprété.”
[5] Chauveau, pp. 263-264:
“Ainsi le dernier tour de Léonard est joué.
Aucune sépulture réelle ni figurée n’existe pour le plus grand artiste de la Renaissance. Rien?  Pas la moindre trace.  Lui qui n’a cessé d’en semer de son vivant, comme pour mieux brouiller les pistes, voit ses voeux littéralement exaucés dans sa mort.
Il ne repose nulle part.
La légende peut continuer.
Et elle continue.”

Photographs 3, 5, and 9 are from the Wikipedia Commons,  All other photographs were taken by the author.

The Amboise Conspiracy

Biking from Montlouis-sur-Loire to Amboise, 12 km

At the end of last week’s article we enjoyed a winetasting with M. and Mme. Blot at the Domaine de la Taille aux Loups in Husseau, on the east side of Montlouis-sur-Loire.  Leaving the domaine, we head east along the Loire à Vélo to Amboise, where we visit the great royal chateau. To see our route from Montlouis to Amboise in Google Maps, click here.  Next week we walk up the rue Victor Hugo in Amboise to Clos-Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life.

Our route to Amboise is not along the Loire River, but up on the plateau, where we share the quiet roads with an occasional car.  After a few kilometers we pass by the Aquarium du Val de Loire, which offers a convenient rest stop (02 47 23 44 44) for those who did not stop at the Taille aux Loups.  I was biking this route in the summer of 2008, planning our Western student bike trip for 2009, and looking for a rest stop on a rural plateau with no cafes.

I came around a corner and there was the Aquarium, to which we had taken our young children during summer vacations in Touraine two decades earlier.  I had always come to it from the opposite direction by car, and indeed I had forgotten its existence.  What a surprise to find it there on my proposed bike route.  The perfect rest stop: if you don’t want to visit the aquarium, buy a snack at the counter, to thank them for the use of the washrooms.

This is one of the largest fresh water aquariums in Europe, with some 10,000 fish in 4 million litres of water.  The emphasis is on fresh water European fish, but there are also various exhibits involving sea water, including tropical fish, a coral reef, and sharks.  My favorite fish is the silure, which looks like an enormous catfish out of a horror movie.  They hang out on river bottoms and seem too fat too float or swim.   They can be up to 2.5 m long and weigh up to 250 kg, making them the largest fresh water fish in Europe.  They do well in the lower reaches (below 400 m altitude) of the significant rivers of France, including the Loire, where a reduction in oxygen (through pollution) can make life difficult for other sorts of fish.

Aquarium du Val de Loire

1. Silure for dinner?

Leaving the Aquarium, our route continues east, and then turns south, down the hill past the impressive St. Denis Church to the Loire and Amboise.  From the bridge over the Loire we have a fine view of the Chateau Royal d’Amboise.

The University of Western Ontario 2010 student bike trip

2. The Chateau d'Amboise

In the late 15th century the chateau was substantially expanded and renovated by Kings Louis X1 (who reigned 1461-1483) and Charles VIII (1483-1498).   The work occurred just before the adoption by French monarchs of the new Italian Renaissance styles in architecture, and Amboise maintained the look of a fortified castle.  Later renovations by Francois I (1515-1547) and Henri II (1547-1559) introduced the new Italian styles to the chateau.  Our visit inside the chateau takes us to the Royal Apartments, which include a magnificent Council Room, with a double vaulted stone ceiling and beautiful fireplaces at either end.

The University of Western Ontario 2010 bike trip

3. Students from the Western 2010 bike trip gather in front of a roaring fire in the Council Room on a very cold spring day.

The large round tower on the left of the main building in photo 2 is the Minimes Tower, housing a large spiral ramp which was used to bring horses with carts up to the terrace to provision the chateau.   The views from the tower are spectacular.   Looking west we can see the Boys’ Tower at the western edge of the Chateau terrace, the roofs of Amboise, and the massive St-Denis Church in the background.

The University of Western Ontario 2010 student bike trip

4. Looking west from the Minimes Tower at the Chateau d'Amboise

Looking east, we can the Loire winding down to Amboise.

5. Students on the Western 2010 bike trip on the Minimes Tower.

The beauty and peace of the chateau and the surrounding town may make it hard to imagine that they were the site of cruel, bloody events that took place here in March, 1560.  Those events have left their mark on French history.

The Amboise Conspiracy

Religion and politics should not be mixed.  When they are, the result is often disorder and bloodshed, as France experienced in the seven decades after 1560.   Among the best known events of the Religious Wars in France are the Saint-Barthélemy Massacre in 1572, and the assassinations of two kings, Henry III in 1589, and his son Henry IV in 1610.  A portent of all this bloodshed were some brutal killings in Amboise in March, 1560, which had both religious and political dimensions.

On the religious side, it all began with a German priest, Martin Luther, who in 1517 wrote his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”  (also known as the Ninety-Five Theses); he may have affixed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg, although many modern historians believe he simply sent them to his bishop.  Luther argued that salvation could not be bought, but only achieved through faith in Jesus Christ.  He wrote that our knowledge of God comes from the Bible, thereby disputing the authority of the Pope and his hierarchy.   These views were offensive to the established Church, and in 1521 Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X.  Today in Germany there are roughly equal numbers of Roman Catholics and Protestants.

Luther’s ideas travelled quickly through Germany in a 16th century version of social networking involving pamphlets and ballads.[1]  His doctrines also spread to other countries in Europe.  In France, the Reform movement was led by John Calvin, born in 1509 in Picardy.  In university, Calvin was attracted to humanism, and then to religious Reform.  His views forced him to flee to Switzerland in 1535.

The following year he published his Institutes of the Christian Religion, setting out his Reform doctrines.  Despite intermittent persecution, the number of Reformers or Protestants in France (or Huguenots, as their enemies called them) grew rapidly after 1850, especially among the nobility.   The criticism of each other’s church by Reformers and Roman Catholics was often bitter and extreme; each sought control of the French state as a means to control the rival church.

These tensions came to a head with the sudden death of Henry II, after a jousting accident in June, 1559.  His son became king at just 15 years of age, as François II.  Through an arrangment concluded when he was four, François was married at age 14 to Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots (later imprisoned and put to death by Elizabeth I of England).  When he became King, two of his wife’s uncles, the duc de Guise and his younger brother, the cardinal de Lorraine, became his chief advisors. They quickly took control of the government.  The painting below of the duc de Guise is by François Clouet, the official painter of King François I.

Amboise Conspiracy, Wars of Religion

6. François, duc de Guise.

The Guises became known for their violent suppression of Protestantism.  The House of Guise was found by Claude de Lorraine (1495-1550), a valiant military commander under François I, who in appreciation gave him the title of 1st duc de Guise. In 1525 the duc de Guise suppressed a revolt of Anabaptists, a Protestant sect, in a massacre in Saverne, Alsace, which earned him the title of “the Great Butcher.” His son François, the 2nd duc de Guise, organized the massacre at Amboise in 1560.  François’ son Henri, the 3rd duc de Guise, played a role in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572, and later founded and led the Catholic League (la Ligue Catholique), devoted to the anti-Protestant cause.  He was assassinated at Blois in 1588 on order of King Henry III, a story we will tell when our bike trips arrive in Blois.

In early 1560 members of the Huguenot nobility began plotting to kidnap the King, and return him to power after they had removed the Guises.  A meeting of the conspirators was held in Nantes on Feb. 1, 1560.  The plot was discovered and the King was moved from Blois to Amboise, where the Chateau was more defensible.  The conspirators were poorly organized, and an attack on March 17, at the gate of the Bons-hommes under the Heurtault Tower on the north side of the Chateau, was quickly repulsed by the troops of les Guises.

St-Hubert Chapel, Chateau d'Amboise

7. The Heurtault Tower, with the gate of the Bons-homme. In the distance, at the top of the wall, is the St-Hubert Chapel.

There followed a bloody massacre of all the conspirators and their troops.  The town quickly ran out of gallows and began hanging Huguenots from the balconies of the chateau.  Others were decapitated.  “The cobblestones of the interior courtyards were red and sticky from the blood of decapitated nobles.” [2]  An engraving by Jacques Tortorel and Jean Perrisin from 1570 shows the horror of the scene enacted in Amboise over several days.  Tortorel and Perrisin were Protestant artists in Lyon.  In 1570 they published in Geneva a collection of engravings on the religious conflicts in France between 1559 and 1570. [3]

8. Jacques Tortorel and Jean Perrisin, "The Execution of the Conspirators of Amboise" (1570).

The engraving shows the north wall of the chateau, as seen from the direction of Photo 2. In addition to the troops present, there are a good many spectators, including, near the lower right corner, a woman with a young boy.  The Huguenots are to be taught a lesson.

Two men are being thrown from the chateau balcony with ropes around their necks.  Five more are already hanging, along with a sixth on a gallows in the center of the engraving.  The latter is the leader of the conspiracy, Jean de Barry, lord of la Renaudie manor in Périgord.  La Renaudie was killed in a skirmish on March 19 in the Forest of Chateau-Renault as he headed toward Amboise with a small troop.  His body was displayed as the engraving shows, and then chopped into five pieces, each hung at a gate to the chateau.

In the left foreground, a gallows carries three heads; headless bodies lie nearby.   A Huguenot Captain, M. de Villemongis, about to be decapitated with a sword, seems ready for his fate, as he washes his hands in the blood of those who have gone before him. [4]

This last figure reappears a century later, as the great French historian Jules Michelet describes how those who had fought with the Huguenot forces faced death that day in Amboise:

“Dying, they raised their loyal hands to God.  One of them, M. de Villemongis, dipped his in the blood of his comrades already executed, and raising his red hands, cried in a strong voice, ‘This is the blood of your children, Lord!  You will avenge it!'”[5]

His words foretold 70 years of cruel religious wars in France.

[1] “How Luther went viral,” The Economist, December 17, 2011, pp. 39-41.
[2]  Jacques Debû-Bridel, La Conjuration d’Amboise (Paris: Editions Mondiales, 1963), pp. 203.  “Le pavé des cours intériueres était tout rouge et gluant du sang des gentilshommes décapités.”
[3]  A remarkable exposition of the work of Tortorel and Perrisin was held in 2006 at the Musée de la Rénaissance at Chateau d’Ecouen north of Paris, in collaboration with the Bibliothèque National de France.  The title was D’encre et de Sang – Les guerres de Religion gravées par Tortorel et Perrissin (Ink and Blood – the Wars of Religion engraved by Tortorel and Perrissin).  A summary of the exposition can be downloaded from the museum website,
[4]  Villemongis is identified by Nicolas Le Roux, Les Guerres de Réligion 1559-1629 (Editions Belin, 2009), pp. 42-43, where the engraving in Photo 4 is also shown, although in a mirror image (left and right are reversed, as compared to Photo 4).
[5]  Jules Michelet, Histore de France, le XVIe siècle, II, Un siècle partagé, La Réforme (Lausanne, Editions Rencontre, 1966), p. 350.  “Ils levaient en mourant leurs mains loyales à Dieu.  L’un d’eux, M. de Villemongis, trempa les siennes dans le sang de ses amies déjà exécutés, et, les élevant toutes rouges, cria d’une voix forte: ‘C’est le sang de tes enfants, Seigneur!  Tu en feras la vengeance!'”

Photograph 1 is from the website   Photographs 6 and 8 are from the Wikipedia Commons,  All other photographs were taken by the author.