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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.