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France Remembers Leonardo Da Vinci

NOEL KING, HOST:

It has been 500 years since Leonardo da Vinci died. A massive collection of his works is now drawing crowds at the Louvre in Paris. His most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, hangs permanently in the museum. And the Louvre is getting all the attention. But there is another place in France where da Vinci spent his last years. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has the story.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519 at his home in the Loire Valley in central France.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: But through February, da Vinci's home is Paris' Louvre in an exhibition of more than 100 of his works, including the famous drawing Vitruvian Man. The Mona Lisa is not part of the show. She hangs in her regular gallery nearby. But there is a virtual Mona Lisa experience.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: The exhibition is packed. So I meet da Vinci biographer Serge Bramly at a cafe nearby. He says the show, especially the notebooks and drawings, gives visitors a good sense of how da Vinci worked.

SERGE BRAMLY: You can really get into his brain and try to see how he thought. For example, some of the drawings are really impressive because on the same page, you have geometry, machineries. There are some clouds in the corner. You can find very small horsemen fighting. And that's the way he used to think and he used to work, doing everything at the same time.

BEARDSLEY: Bramly says da Vinci showed unlimited curiosity from an early age. And by the time he arrived in France, he'd mastered many disciplines from engineering, to philosophy, to sculpture. Bramly says they all informed his painting.

BRAMLY: Everything exists in the world to be a painting at the end. But in order to paint the Mona Lisa, you have to know geology, anatomy, how the muscle of the face react. And this you get very well in the show.

BEARDSLEY: Despite his talents, da Vinci faced competition in the end of his life from Raphael and Michelangelo, the new stars of Rome. And that's when King Francis I invited him to France.

FRANCOIS SAINT BRIS: When he received his royal invitation from this young king of 22 years old, he can't resist. He has to accept.

BEARDSLEY: Francois Saint Bris's family now owns da Vinci's chateau, which is open to the public.

CAROL GEOFFROY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Guide Carol Geoffroy takes a group of tourists through the chateau, the Clos Luce, in the town of Amboise. Geoffroy says da Vinci came here three years before his death.

GEOFFROY: Maybe Leonardo da Vinci crossed the Alps on a mule back and arrived here with his three masterpieces.

BEARDSLEY: Da Vinci may have actually traveled to France by river. No one knows. But he did arrive with three treasured paintings - Saint John the Baptist, the Virgin and Child With Saint Anne and the Mona Lisa.

SAINT BRIS: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Francois Saint Bris says da Vinci made the journey because King Francis invited him to imagine and build a new French capital in the Loire Valley near where the chateau stands.

SAINT BRIS: It was a royal mansion given to Leonardo da Vinci and with a pension and with the title of first painter, first engineer and first architect of the king and also with the tenderness and the love of the royal court. So he was happy.

BEARDSLEY: And at that time, the city of Amboise was the cradle of the French Renaissance, so the court spoke Italian. This year, half a million visitors have come to the Clos Luce to feel da Vinci's spirit. The chateau and the house where he was born in Italy are his only known residences still standing. Tourist Valerie Chaillou says da Vinci is special to the French.

VALERIE CHAILLOU: He lived a long time in France. And he died here. The last years was here. And La Joconde is in France. So I think he's a little French. He's not French. But for us, he's a little French.

BEARDSLEY: Da Vinci's remains lie in a chapel here. As for La Jaconde, what the French call the Mona Lisa, she survived a revolution and two world wars since da Vinci brought her here 503 years ago. He continued to work on her right up until his death.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Amboise, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.