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France’s Amboise, Home to François I and Leonardo da Vinci

Amboise, France

In 1516 the ultimate French Renaissance king invited the ultimate Italian Renaissance artist to join his court. The small mansion of Clos-Lucé in Amboise — open to visitors today — became Leonardo da Vinci’s home for the final three years of his life.

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Straddling the Loire River, Amboise is an inviting town with a pleasing old quarter below its hilltop château. A castle has overlooked the Loire from Amboise since ancient Roman times.

As the royal residence of François I in the early 1500s, little Amboise wielded far more influence than you’d imagine from a lazy walk through its pleasant, pedestrian-only commercial zone.

The busy, pedestrianized Rue Nationale survives from the 16th century. Back then, when the town spread at the foot of the king’s castle and was the second capital of France, this was its main drag.

The château of Amboise was the favored royal residence of several kings. Today visitors can stroll through its peaceful grounds and enjoy commanding views.

Here in the Loire, you’ll notice the impact of the Italian Renaissance. When French big-shots traveled to Italy, they returned inspired by the art and architecture they saw. Tastes in food, gardens, artists, and design were all influenced by Italian culture.

And François I did what he could to physically bring the Renaissance to France. It just made sense: The ultimate French Renaissance king invited the ultimate Renaissance Italian artist, Leonardo da Vinci, to join his court.

The king set Leonardo up in Clos-Lucé — a small mansion, just down the street. In 1516, Leonardo da Vinci left Rome, accepted the position of engineer, architect, and painter to France’s Renaissance king, and moved in. The 64-year-old Leonardo spent his last three years here, in the court of 22-year-old François I.

Clos-Lucé thoughtfully recreates the everyday atmosphere Leonardo enjoyed while he lived here: the great hall where he received VIP guests, his bedroom, and the fine kitchen, which came with a chef provided by the king. Enjoying the patronage of the French king, Leonardo pursued his passions to the very end. This romantic painting shows François I comforting his genius pal on his deathbed.

Clos-Lucé displays models of Leonardo’s remarkable inventions, built according to his notes. Leonardo was fascinated with water and was brilliant in harnessing its energy.

Five hundred years ago, when Leonardo was looking for work, the résumé he sent to kings touted his engineering skills. It read something like, “I can help your army by designing tanks, flying machines, water pumps, gear systems, and rapid-firing guns.”

The château’s grounds are a kid-friendly, interactive park with life-size models of the clever contraptions Leonardo dreamed up. While parents relax, kids spin the helicopter, raise heavy stones with innovative gear systems, pump water upward with an Archimedes screw, ponder tanks and machine guns, and propel boats with paddle power.