500 Years After Leonardo Da Vinci's Death, France Celebrates His Life And Work


When Leonardo da Vinci arrived in France in 1516, he brought three of his own paintings with him — "Virgin and Child with Saint Anne" (left), "Saint John the Baptist" (right) and the Mona Lisa.
RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre), René-Gabriel Ojéda (left) Michel Urtado (right)

When Leonardo da Vinci arrived in France in 1516, he brought three of his own paintings with him — "Virgin and Child with Saint Anne" (left), "Saint John the Baptist" (right) and the Mona Lisa.

The largest-ever collection of works by Leonardo da Vinci is drawing record crowds at the Louvre in Paris this year, the 500th anniversary of the artist's death. The Louvre has brought together more than 100 paintings, drawings and manuscripts for the exhibition, which opened in October and will end in February.

Leonardo was a perfectionist, which is why, experts say, he produced only about 15 paintings. The exhibition includes 11 of them, the most ever brought together in one place. The Louvre keeps five of his paintings in its permanent collection.

The show also includes more than 80 drawings. Biographer Serge Bramly says the drawings and notebooks give visitors a vivid sense of how Leonardo, who was born near Florence in 1452, worked.

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

One of Leonardo's most famous drawings, "Vitruvian Man," showing the anatomy of a man's body, almost didn't make it into the exhibition. An Italian cultural heritage group sued to keep the drawing from being transported to Paris from Venice because it is so fragile. It is rarely displayed and spends most of its time locked in a climate-controlled vault at Venice's Gallerie dell'Accademia. An Italian court allowed the loan to go through just a few weeks before the Louvre exhibition opened.

Support comes from

Bramly says lending such rare and fragile works is complicated.

"A drawing that is shown is exposed to light," he explains. "So after a couple months, it goes back into a dark cellar for about five years. That's why no museum wants to lend too often."

While Leonardo completed relatively few paintings, Bramly says, "For da Vinci, 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 muscles of the face react. And this you get very well in the show."

But the Mona Lisa is not part of this show. With nearly 30,000 visitors a day, it would have been impossible to include her. So the painting hangs in its usual Louvre gallery.

Leonardo spent his final three years in France, and died in 1519 at age 67 in the Loire Valley. His chateau, the brick-and-marble Clos Lucé, is the artist's only known residence and workplace that is still standing.

France's 16th century King Francis I invited Leonardo to France to help imagine and build a new French capital at Amboise in the Loire Valley. When Leonardo arrived in 1516, he came with three of his own paintings — "Saint John the Baptist," the "Virgin and Child with Saint Anne," and the Mona Lisa, all of which are part of the Louvre collection.

The French king's invitation came at the perfect time, says François Saint Bris, whose family now owns the Clos Lucé. In Leonardo's own country, he was facing competition from younger Renaissance artists Raphael and Michelangelo.

"When he received this royal invitation from this young king of 22 years old, he can't resist," Saint Bris says. "It was a royal mansion given to Leonardo da Vinci, and with a pension of 1,000 golden écus [crowns], which was really a fortune. And he gave him 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."

Saint Bris says Leonardo served as a father figure to the young king. 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 Lucé, a 30% increase over its usual annual traffic. One of them, Valerie Chaillou, says Leonardo is special to the French.

"He lived a long time in France and he died here," she says. "And 'La Joconde' is in France. So I think he's a little French. For us, he's a little French."

Leonardo's remains lie in a chapel in Amboise. As for "La Joconde," the French name for the Mona Lisa, she survived a revolution and two world wars after Leonardo brought her to France 503 years ago. He continued to work on her right up until his death.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit

You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.