The Manoir du Cloux, as the pretty-in-pink small Palais was known, had a hawkish beginning as a stronghold outpost for the Royal Castle of Amboise situated above it. It consisted of an octagonal staircase tower with two short wings positioned in a right angle to each other, which can still be seen today, as can some of the original ramparts that used to protect the installation. During the 15th century, the fort was extended by a square watch tower, connected to one of the wings of the main house by a covered gallery. Eventually, large windows, a grand staircase, and the pink brick and white tuffeau finishes were added, turning the former fortification into an elegant royal summer residence. In 1492, King Charles VIII commissioned the addition of a small chapel to the manor house for his wife, Queen-Consort Anne, the Duchess of Brittany. This Gothic-style oratory, built entirely of cut white tuffeau stone was much more modest in size than the Chapelle de Saint-Hubert he had constructed for his pious queen upon the promontory.
The murals in the oratory were added by Leonardo’s assistants, including a “Virgo Lucis” a Madonna of the Light, which is assumed to have been the motivation to rename the manor Clos Lucé or Court of Light.
After our visit to the royal castle on the promontory, we walked through rue Victor Hugo to le Château du Clos Lucé, entering past a gaggle of gendarmes through a gate beneath the gallery connecting the watchtower with the castle proper.
Before we enter Leonardo da Vinci’s last home, let’s take a step back and consider carefully what we are actually observing in the Château du Clos Lucé.
Over the centuries, the manor house changed hands multiple times and suffered considerable neglect and near destruction during the French Revolution, but for the successful intervention of Henri-Michel Duc d’Amboise who saved the manor house from the worst of the anger of the Republican forces. Finally, in 1854 the Saint Bris family needed a home in the Touraine and bought Clos-Lucé, starting the sanitation of the property in 1866. A hundred years later, Hubert and Agnès Saint Bris decided to open their home to the public. This was a very important step, lovingly explained by Hubert Saint Bris at the time: « faire du Clos Lucé un haut lieu de l’humanisme et de la pensée internationale, dans un monde qui cherche, à travers ses troubles, le chemin d’une nouvelle Renaissance » [turning Clos Lucé into an imperishable place of humanism and international thought, in a world that seeks, despite its troubles, a path to a new Renaissance] To appreciate Hubert’s words, one has to remember that only a few years had passed since the all-encompassing destruction of WWII and that “Renaissance” in its purest form means “Rebirth”.
On the other hand, there is the sad realization that no traces of our Master Leonardo remain in Clos-Lucé today. None of his designs, sketches or models, neither furniture nor tchotchkes, nothing. There is literally no evidence he ever drank a glass of wine in Clos-Lucé, let alone that he lived there. Moreover, there are not even any records or descriptions of the content of Clos-Lucé during Leonardo’s residency, which means that everything you see in the manor house, all the period furniture, all the collectibles, tools, and decorative pieces, have been painstakingly assembled to mimic a Renaissance household and painter’s workshop as closely as possible.
While strolling through the residential spaces of Clos-Lucé, I became enamored with the painted glass windows in several rooms. These were not so much traditional stained-glass windows, but images and designs painted directly on pieces of glass, which were then assembled in leaded frames.
In one room, in particular, one could study the painted windows quite closely. The color variations as they appeared from the front of the glass versus the back seem ever so intriguing to me.
Back home, I googled painted windows of the Renaissance era without much success, as it seems that stained glass windows are of much greater interest to the general public. I did find one reference, though, in the May 1914 Journal of the Royal Society of Arts. Published therein was a paper by John A. Knowles titled “The Technique of Glass Painting in Medieval and Renaissance Times”. A few chapters in, John stated that the earliest recipe we have for making a vitrifiable enamel for painting glass is given in Chapter XIX of the second book of the “Schedula diversarum artium” by Theophilus Presbyter [ca. 1070-1125], a text about various medieval arts and crafts. In case you’d like to cook the paint yourself,
Fun stuff, but I’ll spare you the full article! Here is one more, though much simpler painted window showing the Breton Hermine tails and the Valois lilies.
And one last one, I promise, but that lion was altogether too ferocious to pass up!
Other decorative details in Clos-Lucé included tapestries,
and amazing painted ceilings.
After walking through the Master’s workshops,
and examining his tools and inks,
we entered the grand salon where we encountered a lion. Not just any lion but Leonardo’s automated lion. Sadly not the real one which no longer exists, but a clever reproduction of the original mechanical beast.
Master Boaretto recreated Leonardo’s mechanical Lion in 2009. Shortly after we discovered it in the grand salon, it was removed from the room in preparation for the next day’s festivities. We were very lucky to have seen him!
Next, we descended the stairs to the lower floor past another gentle giant.
The basement of Clos-Lucé is dedicated to Leonardo’s engineering endeavors. In four rooms we admired models of his designs and inventions of astounding diversity and studied graphs recording his observations and calculations. You could see, how the inquisitive mind of a born tinkerer kept niggling at any given problem till he found a solution.
Upon exiting the museum, the ramparts of the Château Royale loomed large above the town roofs.
We concluded our visit to Amboise with a brief stroll through the Garden of Léonard which was landscaped in the spirit of his paintings, including certain scenes and compositions of plants and geological features.