In a nutshell, the royal castle of Amboise occupies a position on a promontory eighty meters above the Loire river. The same location was used for fortified settlements as far back as Neolithic times, intermittently operating as a Roman oppidum, and later providing cover for the Merovingians against Visigoth invaders. It was always busy around that stretch of the river, it seems. In the fifteenth century, the castle became a Crown holding and was extensively enlarged and refurbished by several kings of the House of Valois who made it their home, at times even the Seat of Government. Beginning with Charles VII and including our old friend Frankie First from Cognac, the French kings became enamored with the new Italian culture, style, and philosophy, eventually called Renaissance. The castle we see today is a mere shadow of its former glory. It fell into disrepair through neglect and deliberate destruction, especially through and after the French Revolution.
Extant parts of the castle are shown in black, everything highlighted in red no longer exists. Still rising majestically above the town and river bank are extensive ramparts, grand towers, a section of the castle in Renaissance style, and the St. Hubertus Chapel. King Charles VIII was born here, while François Duc d’Angoulême, later King François 1er and his sister Marguerite d’Angoulême, later Queen de Navarre grew up in Amboise with their widowed mom Louise de Savoy who happened to be the then owner of the château royale. After François became king in 1515, Leonardo da Vinci finally followed the kings repeated invitations to come to France. He packed up three of his paintings, the Mona Lisa, the Virgin and Child with St. Anne, and St. John the Baptist, loaded his possessions on a donkey and began the arduous journey from Rome to the Loire Valley. Leonardo arrived in Amboise in December of 1515 and never left. After a scant three and half years of bliss under the loving protection of the king of France, Leonardo da Vinci died in Amboise on May 2, 1519.
After quite comprehensive preparations, I was hell-bent to be in Amboise on May 2, 2019, for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the genius’ death, since, owing to our Loire Valley trip with our American cousins, we would be a mere 30 minutes distant from Amboise on the auspicious day. But it was not to be. My companions argued the craziness of a visit on the very day of those important festivities quite forcefully. Finally, when one of them said, of course, if you REALLY want to go on the second, we’ll go – all I could picture was the horrible time our group would have in the crushing crowds and that their misery would be my fault alone. Of course not, I lied, it’s not important. Oh well, a leader I’m not, instead, I am a wuss. Turned out, they were right with their council to stay the hell away from Amboise on the anniversary of the death of the most famous Italian since Julius Cæsar but, had I been by myself, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second to throw myself into the fray.
Instead, we moved our timetable forward and visited Amboise the next day, May 1st, arriving in the late morning after a pleasant drive. There seemed to be quite a number of temporary street closures in town, which we attributed to the French custom of staging union demonstrations on the International Day of Labor. We grabbed an incredibly convenient parking spot, congratulating ourselves on our good luck when we heard a shout from above: “Better not park there, the gendarmes will tow your car away!” We learned from the kind gentleman in a third-floor window that all parking in the proximity of the town center and the roads leading up to it was prohibited owing to the visit not only of President Macron but also his guest, the President of Italy. That visit was scheduled for the following day, the infamous 2nd of May!! Our new benefactor gave us directions to an area where it was safe to park and we hiked back to the Old Town of Amboise from there.
After a tasty lunch, we began to climb the ramp system leading up to the castle grounds on the vast promontory.
The final resting place of the master painter and inventor in the Chapel of St. Hubertus may or may not contain the actual remains of Leonardo, but it is revered despite this uncertainty. This chapel, built in the 1490s with local white tuffeau limestone in a Flamboyant Gothic style was built over the foundation of the prayer room for King Louis XI, called Saint-Louis. It served as an oratory for the Queen-Consort Anne who was, uniquely, anointed queen of France twice. Her realm, the Duchy of Britanny which she inherited at age eleven was a price the French kings were absolutely maniacal to incorporate into the territories of the Crown. Above all, they could not allow themselves to become crushed in a pincher-move between Brittany and the Spanish-Flemish-Austrian Habsburgian Empire. Thus, King Charles VIII used warfare to threaten the duchy so seriously that Anne was forced to renounce her marriage-by-proxy to a Habsburg emperor and marry the French king instead. The peace accord prior to their marriage stipulated that after his death, she had to marry his successor should the king die without male issue, which he did. Thus she married his cousin, Louis XII next. But it gets worth. Through all of this, including seven pregnancies by husband number one and nine pregnancies by husband number two, out of which only 2 daughters lived to adulthood, Anne retained her duchy as a nation associated with but independent from Valois France, keeping her inheritance intact. To preserve the autonomy of Britanny through the next generations, Anne entered into protracted negotiations to secure the marriage of her elder daughter Claude to the future emperor Charles V. But Claude’s daddy, King Louis XII had other ideas. A mere four months after her mother’s death, and although he had promised his wife to honor her wishes, Louis married 14-year old Claude to his nephew and eventual successor to the French throne, François Duc d’Angoulême. After Claude’s death of exhaustion after seven pregnancies in ten years of marriage, her son, the Dauphin of France automatically also became the Duke of Brittany. On August 4, 1532, King François 1er completed the annexation of his late wife’s Duchy of Brittany in perpetuity by ever so graciously accepting a “petition” of Anschluss by the ducal government, in other words, his minor son’s government. Citation: « unir et joindre par union perpétuelle iceluy pays et duché de Bretagne au royaume, le suppliant de garder et entretenir les droits, libertés et privilèges dudit pays et duché » And so it goes. However, not until the French Revolution did Brittany lose the last vestiges of autonomy to the French government. See also: “Returning to Britanny” one of my posts from 2016. We better get back to that chapel, before I become completely sidetracked by spousal shenanigans.
From the ramparts, the views over the rooftops, the river, and the terraced castle grounds were breathtaking.
Upon entering the castle, we were greeted by a rather gauche faïence version of François’ beloved salamander, other exhibits were more pleasing.
Some of the rooms in the castle were decorated in the styles of the period between the First and the Second Empire, reflecting the fashions and tastes of the first half of the 19th century.
Looking closely at this mock-up of a period study, it struck me that King Louis-Philippe and I apparently use/d a similar model desk. I like mine better. It has more bronzy stuff and gold-leaf inlay in the leather top, plus tiny casters!
Exploring the outside spaces associated with the Tour of Minimes, we were rewarded with interesting architectural features and yet more views over the rooftops below.
In the fascinating Tour des Minimes, we encountered, as I had hoped, one of the graffiti-canvases created by RAVO for the 500th-anniversary celebrations, to be revealed in a ceremony on May 2nd. Granted, “graffiti” and “canvas” are not naturally paired, neither in the artsy-fartsy world of oil painting nor in the rough culture of spray paint, but a da Vinci event beats those odds. Enter the celebrated [graffiti] artist Andrea Mattoni, aka RAVO, who began in 2016 to merge traditional works of [Renaissance] art with his personal spray-can interpretation. The foundation of Le Château Royale d’Amboise, in conjunction with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, commissioned RAVO to create five canvases of 4.50 x 3 m each. The work was to be titled “La Mort de Léonard de Vinci: la construction d’un mythe” and it was based on the 18th-century romantic painting “La Mort de Léonard de Vinci” by François-Guillaume Ménageot. The subtitle “la construction d’un mythe”, I would loosely translate as “the fabrication of a legend” because da Vinci did not die in the arms of his beloved king, who was sadly away from Amboise during Leonardo’s last hours.
The wide towers with their ramps are a clever addition to the lofty estate that used to make up the Royal Castle of Amboise on its impregnable promontory above the Loire river. Both the Tour des Minimes [North ramparts] and the Tour Heurault [West ramparts] are squat Renaissance structures which were outfitted with gently sloping helical ramps allowing carts and horses to travel between the castle level and the town below with ease. Allegedly, even Charles-Quint, which is casual Frenchy speak for Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, entered the Royal Castle in 1539 via the spiral ramp of the Heurault tower.
Back outside, we enjoyed the dramatically landscaped terraces surrounding the castle structures.
Moving slowly through the gardens, we eventually reached the western edge of the ramparts enclosing the promontory,
where we saw the first of several insect houses we discovered in the gardens of Amboise that day.
We also had another glimpse of Leonardo’s manor house Le Château Clos-Lucé which we wanted to visit next.
In one of the castle galleries, I snapped these images on display. According to the biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson I read recently, these two were soulmates.
The young king turned out to be the only true patron Leonardo ever had. François gave Leonardo a generous stipend, a home, and the title of “First Painter, Engineer, and Architect of the King”. In return, the king only asked for intellectual discourse and creative inspiration from the Florentine Master.