Leonardo’s Last Years in France: 1516–1519
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) had established himself as a leading artist of the Italian Renaissance. He had moved several times, mostly between Florence and Milan before going to Rome. By the mid-1510s, he had created his famous Last Supper, Lady with an Ermine, Mona Lisa (though he would continue to touch up this work and keep it with him), and several other of the fifteen or so paintings which survive by him. He had thousands of pages of notes, having begun his notebooks back in the 1470s. He developed a strong dislike for the popular Michelangelo and influenced Raphael in his painting technique. Among his patrons were the Medici family, Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan, and the papacy. Leonardo’s work also caught the eye of the French royal family. When the French invaded Milan, overthrew the Sforza, and used Leonardo’s model for the Sforza horse for target practice, King Louis XII was so awed by the Last Supper mural that he thought about having the entire wall brought to France.
Interest in Leonardo’s work really took off at the French court with the accession of François I (r.1515–1547). François I is considered to be France’s first Renaissance monarch. In the previous half century, the French had narrowly won the Hundred Years’ War and launched several invasions of the Italian Peninsula. The kingdom was still stuck in the Middle Ages while neighboring states, such as the Duchy of Burgundy, Hanseatic cities, and Italian states, were flourishing economically and culturally. The French state expanded and absorbed much of Burgundy while maintaining claims to the throne of Naples in Italy. After 1515, the court sought to develop French culture as well as expand the power of the central government. François I was patron of the arts. It was he who invited Leonardo da Vinci to live and work in France.
The king of one of the most powerful states in early modern Europe now had one of the most famous artists at his court. At this stage in Leonardo’s life, his best years were behind him. He was in his mid-60s. His status as a leading painter, knowledge of mechanical engineering, tinkering and writing in his notebooks, and entourage of assistants were all major benefits to the French court, however. Leonardo was allowed to live in a chateau called Clos Lucé, near Amboise in the Loire Valley.
One of the king’s projects during the early years of his reign was the construction of a grand new palace — the Château de Chambord — as a grand hunting lodge. Leonardo da Vinci is believed to have been one of the minds behind portions of the design, though he was not the primary architect. The primary architect was Italian though — Domenico da Cortona. Cortona was also responsible for designing the Hôtel de Ville in Paris (which was burned by radical communists in 1871, along with the archives of the city’s history).
Among the attributes of Château de Chambord considered to have been Leonardo’s contribution are the double helix staircase.
“The château features a staircase of which the layout is as remarkable as its positioning in the edifice. It was placed in the very center of the keep, where four spacious rooms converge. It is composed of twinned helical ramps twisting one above the other around a hollowed out, partially open core. The so-called “double helix” staircase services the principal floors of the building, all the way up to the crowning terraces, which are topped off by the tallest tower of the castle, the lantern tower.” -from the Chambord website
Leonardo continued his experiments and observations with the help of his assistants at Clos Lucé during these last few years, including designs for the Chambord staircase, planning for the town of Romorantin, planning canals, and organizing feasts. With the king’s patronage, Leonardo enjoyed the most financially stable period in his entire life.
During these last years of Leonardo’s life, he seems to have been closer to assistants like Francesco Melzi and more distant from his long-time companion and lover Salai. During these years, Salai appears to have spent little time in France and was not there at the time of Leonardo’s death.
François [Francis] I visited Leonardo and the two exchanged ideas relatively frequently. Both had a love of learning and interests which spanned many disciplines.
“Francis proved to be the perfect patron for Leonardo. He would admire Leonardo unconditionally, never pester him about finishing paintings. indulge his love of engineering and architecture, encourage him to stage pageants and fantasies, give him a comfortable home, and pay him a regular stipend. Leonardo was given the title “First Painter, Engineer, and Architect to the King,” but his value to Francis was his intellect and not his output. Francis had an unquenchable thirst for learning, and Leonardo was the world’s best source of experimental knowledge. He could teach the king about almost any subject there was to know, from how the eye works to why the moon shines.” -Walter Isaacson, ‘Leonardo da Vinci (2017)
Leonardo da Vinci was in great physical condition throughout his life. He was fairly active. In old age, he still remained quite active, though a drawing by Giovan Ambrogio Figino (below) shows Leonardo with his right arm wrapped up, suggesting that he may have injured it. A new study suggests that this injury could have been linked to a fail as Leonardo fainted — a symptom associated with a kind of nerve damage called ulnar palsy. Leonardo stopped work on his painting around this time, and an arm injury might be the reason why. It is believed that, although he wrote and sketched with his left hand, he painted with his right.
Leonardo da Vinci died, possibly of a stroke, on 2 May 1519. Tradition held that he died in the king’s arms. Historical evidence shows that this was not the case — records show that the king was not near Amboise when Leonardo died. This has not stopped later artists from depicting the imaginary scene of the king at Leonardo’s side in his last moments. The world had lost one of the greatest geniuses in recorded history. The remaining paintings in his possession were ultimately purchased from those who inherited them and ended up in the French royal collection. This is why the Mona Lisa, the world’s most famous painting, ended up in Paris.