France celebrates the great Leonardo da Vinci and the French Renaissance throughout 2019 at the Viva Leonardo Festival. Leonardo died 500 years ago at the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise. In a fitting tribute, the glorious towns, châteaux, museums, abbeys and more along the Loire Valley show us how the French Renaissance was born. Viva Leonardo lasts for most of 2019. Here are some of the main events for Viva Leonardo.

The Loire Valley Châteaux

Chateau de Chenonceau built in the lake with its white walls and towers reflected in the water
Chateau de Chenonceau © D Darrault/CRT Centre VdL

The châteaux of the French Renaissance sit like pearls in a necklace along the banks of the river Loire, the longest river that rises in France and empties into the sea on the French Atlantic coast. It was here in what is now the Central-Val de Loire region that artists, architects and gardeners arrived from Italy in the 16th century. Their Italian ideas melded with French cultural sensibilities and the French Renaissance became a movement independent from Italy.

An Intellectual Renaissance

Fontainebleau. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It was the Kings of France, particularly Charles VIII and Francis I who inspired the movement. Humanism took over. Jean Calvin, Erasmus, Guillaume Budé (who founded the Collège de France and the library at Fontainebleau which became the Bibliothèque Nationale) all worked at the University of Orleans.

Renaissance Architecture

Huge white chateau of Chambord in front of the river

Château de Chambord © M Jeschke/CRT Centre

The Renaissance style produced the châteaux of Chenonceau in 1514 and the Francis I wing of the Royal Château de Blois in 1515; Chambord in 1519, Azay-le-Rideau in 1518, and Valençay in 1520. Today a tour of the Loire Valley offers a glorious romp through this beautiful architecture.

The Arrival of Leonardo da Vinci

Château duClos Lucé. Red brick chateau in background, lawns and Leonardo da Vinci model
Château du Clos Lucé © Château du Clos Lucé/L. de Serres

Leonardo da Vinci arrived in the Loire Valley in 1516. Invited by King France I, he was 64 years old. The King gave him the Château de Cloux (which became the Château du Clos Lucé), near the King’s summer Château of Amboise plus a princely pension.

Virgin, Jesus and Saint Anne by Leonardo da Vinci
Virgin, Jesus and Saint Anne by Leonardo da Vinci © DR

He arrived with some of his greatest art works: the Mona Lisa, Saint John the Baptist (which he finished in France), and The Virgin, Jesus and Saint Anne. Also in his massive luggage train were his notebooks and manuscripts…a lifetime of his observations.

A Hero’s Welcome

Portrait of Francis I by Jean Clouet in magnificent Renaissance costumes with big sleeves!
Francis I by Jean Clouet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Both King Francis I and his mother Louise of Savoy greeted Leonardo with a suitably princely welcome. The King, whose admiration of Leonardo was such that he called him ‘my father’, conferred the official title of “First painter, engineer and architect of the King” on him.

Leonardo in France

Leonardo's Books of notes at Clos Luce
Leonardo’s Books of notes at Clos Luce © C Mouton

In France Leonardo concentrated on scientific studies, his treatise on painting and the Visions of the End of the World series where he envisaged cosmic forces to be huge swirling cloud formations as the world of elements splits asunder. On a lighter note, he organised magnificent royal parties, complete with set designs, decorations, automatons and sound and light effects.

The Death of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci's tomb in the Chateau of Amboise. Simple slab with his name
Leonardo da Vinci’s tomb in the Château of Amboise ©V Treney CRT Centre/Val de Loire

He died on May 2, 1519, aged 67 and was buried in the collegiate church in the Château Royal d’Amboise. The church was destroyed in 1808 and his tomb transferred to the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in the Amboise Château.

What you must try to see…

…The Loire Valley Châteaux

Royal Amboise Chateau in background overlooking Loire with formal gardens in front
Royal Amboise Chateau © David Dauuault

The royal Château at Amboise, which became the official summer residence of the Kings and Queens of France in the 15th and 16 centuries, stands looking majestically over the Loire. Leonardo da Vinci is buried here and there’s a special exhibition from 2 May to 2 September on the friendship between Francis I and Leonardo.

A Chadouf for irrigation in the garden at Clos Lucé invented by Leonardo da Vinci
A Chadouf for irrigation at Clos Lucé invented by Leonardo da Vinci. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Château du Clos Lucé is relatively modest, but well worth seeing. And don’t miss the gardens which are not only beautiful but are full of reproductions of some of his scientific inventions. The exhibition Leonardo da Vinci, his students, the Last Supper and Francis I runs from 6 June to 8 September.  It’s a good chance to see the restored tapestry of The Last Supper based on Leonardo’s mural, which normally hangs on the walls of the Vatican in Rome.

chambord Chateau from the air with its gardens
Château de Chambord from a hot air balloon © L de Serres

The vast Château de Chambord stands in what was one of France’s great hunting parks. It was, and still is, a masterpiece, designed to impress the royal and imperial visitors invited by Francis I.
From 26 May to 1 September Utopia at work explores the château’s architecture and Leonardo da Vinci’s involvement in the original plans. It also incorporates ideas by contemporary architects of what a modern-day Chambord might look like.

Château de Blois Sound and Light Show flickers on the walls
Château de Blois Sound and Light Show @ pashrash

Dominating the delightful city of Blois, the Château de Blois is superb. Don’t miss the gardens and book a ticket for the stunning sound and light show. The Children of the Renaissance exhibition takes on the theme of childhood from the late 15th to the early 17th century. 18 May-1 September.

Chaumont-sur-Loire with white chateau in background and gardens in front
Chaumont-sur-Loire © E. Sander

One of my favorite châteaux, Chaumont-sur-Loire is a must for garden fans for its summer and autumn long international garden show. Chaumont’s theme for 2019 is the bedroom of Queen Catherine de’ Medici. Look at everyday items the Queen would have used and marvel at the tapestries she went to sleep looking at.

corner towers of Azay le Rideau Loire Chateau reflected in the moat
Azay le Rideau Mary Anne Evans

One of my favorites, Azay le Rideau, definitely has fairy tale quality. Its stately white walls and towers are reflected in the still waters of the surrounding moat. The beautiful rooms inside are full of equally stately furniture, and some extraordinary moving models.

Events and Festivals

There is so much going on throughout 2019 that it’s best to check the official Viva Leonardo website. There are one-off concerts, changing exhibitions, street parties and of course the odd gastronomy event. Here are just a few of them.
On 2 May, Amboise commemorates the death of Leonardo da Vinci with a day of activities.
On 2 May there’s a day of discovering the perfumes and cosmetics of the Renaissance at Candes-Saint-Martin near Saumur.
On 11 May there’s a special organ recital in the Abbey of Beaugency. Cheverny celebrates the hat on 19 May.
From 28 June to 13 July, Chambord presents its annual Festival, celebrating Italy and Utopia. Plenty of Renaissance music to listen and dream to.

Doulce Memoire in Renaissance costume on stage
Doulce Memoire in Renaissance costume © Laurent Genoix

From 20 June to 23 July, the group Doulce Mémoire puts on performances mixing music, singing and dancing in magnificent Renaissance costumes at Amboise. If you miss this one, don’t worry. The group are performing all over the Loire Valley throughout the summer.