Leonardo’s Chateau in Amboise, France

Mendel Letters
5 min readApr 3, 2023

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Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise. On the left is one of Leonardo’s designs for a helicopter.

One of the highlights of my recent trip to France was a visit to the Loire Valley Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise. It was the last home of Leonardo da Vinci, who was invited to live there by French King Francis I after a lifetime spent largely in the Tuscany and Lombardy regions of Italy.

Leonardo, who died in 1519, has been in the news lately because of increased academic speculation that his mother was an enslaved Circassian woman from the Caucasus Mountain region of Russia north of the Black Sea. His father was a notary near Florence, Italy who owned the woman and later granted her freedom. Leonardo was born in or near the town of Vinci, hence his last name, where he was baptized. Although he was illegitimate, Leonardo was raised by his father’s family.

Leonardo is considered the classic European Renaissance man. He is most remembered today as a painter of the iconic portrait of Mona Lisa, now in the Louvre in Paris, and his version of Jesus’ Last Supper, a Passover Seder Jesus shared with his disciples. During his lifetime, Leonardo was also a noted sculptor, architect, engineer, philosopher, diarist, designer of military equipment, and religious heretic. His 1469 Madonna and Child portrays Mary as a teenager, but a 1478 painting shows an adolescent Mary, about the age of 12, holding her baby.

Mona Lisa is in the Louvre in Paris
Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

Leonardo was a keen observer of nature and his etching of the Vitruvian man captures the symmetrical design of the human body.

A page from Leonardo’s Notebook.

While Leonardo left behind thousands of pages of manuscripts, he gave few hints about his personal life. In his 16th century The Lives of the Best Painters, Sculptors and Architect, Giorgio Vasari described Leonardo as a person who “transcends nature,” endowed with such “beauty, grace and talent . . . that he leaves other men far behind… Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty who displayed infinite grace in everything he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied were solved with ease.”

Leonardo’s Study
Workroom for mixing paints

Evidence strongly suggests that Leonardo was gay. One of the few times he discussed his own attitudes is a passage from his Notebooks where he described his “disgust” with “The act of procreation and anything that has any relation to it.” He speculated that “human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions.” Florentine court records from 1476 show that when he was a young man, Leonardo was accused of sodomy because of a relationship with a male prostitute.

Leonardo maintained long-lasting relationships with two male pupils who were apprenticed to him as children. Gian Giacomo, who was known as Salaì, was apprenticed to Leonardo in 1490 at the age of 10. He served as a model for Leonardo’s painting of Saint John the Baptist where John is portrayed in a sexually erotic way. Francesco Melzi was apprenticed to Leonardo in 1506 at the age of 14 and remained with Leonardo as he moved to different patrons until Leonardo’s death in 1519. Salaì also followed Leonardo into exile in France and he was rewarded in Leonardo’s will. Melzi was appointed guardian of Leonardo’s notebooks and prepared them for publication.

Whether it was for protection from the Roman Catholic Church because of his sexuality or his portrayals of the Virgin Mary, or just his need for financial backing, Leonardo served a series of powerful patrons. They included Andrea del Verrocchio, master of a major art workshop in Florence, Lorenzo de Medici, the de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, and finally Francis I.

It is not clear why Francis I offered Leonardo safe haven in France, but one possibility was the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas negotiated between Portugal and Spain by Pope Sixtus IV. The treaty divided newly explore territories in Asia and the Americas between those two countries. Francis is believed to have declared, “The sun shines for me as it does for others. I would very much like to see the clause of Adam’s will by which I should be denied my share of the world.”

But back to the Château du Clos Lucé. It has been restored as a museum to display inventions designed by Leonardo de Vinci, most of which were never built in his lifetime. It is a phantasmagorical exhibit well worth visiting.

There are giant water wheels and paddle boats, devices for pumping and bilging water, portable bridges for facilitating troop movement, a tank, a breech or rear loading cannon, a device capable of shooting multiple missiles at the same time, a variety of gear shifts, proposals for fortifications and advanced city construction, designs for parachutes and flying machines, clocks and meteorological instruments.

An easily assembled bridge.
A construction hoist
Flying machine
Man parachuting
A gun that can fire multiple projectiles.
Breech loading cannon
Military tank powered my men inside the vehicle.
Inside of the tank
Leonardo’s design for an improved printing press.
A device to measure humidity
Paddle Boat

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