‘Leonardo da Vinci belongs to everyone’: Celebrating a universal genius

With his last breath, the renowned artist gazes up at French King Francis I. The king compassionately places his arm underneath the aged, dying Leonardo da Vinci.
Several concerned and distressed people surround the death bed, among them Leonardo’s faithful servant, Batista de Vilanis.
This large-scale painting by French painter Francois-Guillaume Menageot hangs in Amboise Castle on the Loire river close to where, 500 years ago, the Renaissance genius died.
A powerful scene, but not quite as it seems. Today it is known, for example, that King Francis I was not present at Leonardo’s death, butwas in his residence in Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris.
The monarch, an art-lover who was 40 years younger than Leonardo, did however play a key role in the artist’s life. He had invited him to reside in Amboise in 1516, fascinated by the Italian polymath whom he encountered during one of his trips to Italy.
A trip today following the path of Leonardo da Vinci, the creator of the Mona Lisa, begins in Vinci, a town of a few thousand residents near Florence.
There’s a Mona Lisa print hanging right outside the butcher’s; a bar called “Leonardo” nearby; in the display window of a household goods store there’s yet another Mona Lisa — one painted by children and hailed as being “better than the original.”
“Naturally we are proud to be from Vinci,” the butcher, Francesco, says.
To mark the half-millennium since his death, the earliest-dated work by Leonardo has been brought to Vinci from the Uffizi gallery in Florence. The drawing titled “8P” shows the landscape of the Arno River as it winds through Tuscany’s gently rolling hills of vineyards and olive trees.
Normally the work is kept under lock and key at the far more prestigious Uffizi, but until October it can be seen in the small Leonardo Museum in Vinci.
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452 in a stone house near Vinci, the illegitimate son of the notary Ser Piero and a maid, Caterina. Today one can visit the house, surrounded by olive trees and rosemary bushes. There is a small exhibition here as well.
Leonardo spent his childhood with his grandfather Antonio in Vinci before going to live with his father in Florence, the city of the Medici dynasty.
His stay there would shape the direction of his life. Leonardo was employed in the workshop of one of the most important Renaissance artists, Andrea del Verrocchio. Because Milan had even greater influence at the time, Leonardo went to the royal court there in 1481.
Leonardo painted such major works as “The Last Supper” and “Virgin of the Rocks” during his Milan period.
Yet Leonardo was more than just a brilliant painter. He was insatiable in his thirst for knowledge. He designed machinery for warfare and canal systems studied both animal and human anatomy, producing countless sketches. He wanted to build flying machines, ships and buildings.
He was a sculptor, inventor, architect, engineer, designer and painter all in one. He worked for popes, kings and dukes. Much of what he started remained unfinished.
Leonardo had immeasurable curiosity in order “to overcome boundaries,” says Vinci mayor Giuseppe Torchia. “Leonardo does not belong to Vinci, he is the cultural heritage for all mankind.Leonardo belongs to everyone.”
He was 64 years old when, accompanied by his pupils Francesco Melzi and Salai, as well as his servant de Vilanis, Leonardo arrived in Amboise.
In his luggage, besides numerous documents and sketches, he was carrying the paintings “St. John the Baptist” and “The Madonna and the Child in the lap of St. Anne,” as well as the 1503-painted “Mona Lisa” which King Francis I acquired.
It remains the undisputed star of the Louvre in Paris and the most famous painting ever created.
In Amboise, the young monarch provided his guest with the Clos Luce castle, a magnificent mansion surrounded by a wall of red brick and grey tufa rock located not far from the royal castle of Amboise.
It was in Clos Luce that Leonardo da Vinci died in his ornately-decorated canopy bed with its red velvet curtains.
The fascination with Leonardo remains strong, and the artist’s last residence is a popular pilgrimage site. In 2018, around 400,000 people came to Amboise to trace Leonardo’s last footsteps. — dpa