Leonardo da Vinci’s total retreat
I would like to invite the reader to share a fine summer’s day at Charles VII’s Maison des Pages, from where routes lead to Clos Lucé and to the castle of Amboise, built for the French Kings on a rock.
Nature is more beautiful than ever, with a delightful mildness. In summer the sun overleaps the box hedges, whereas winter sees it hiding at the end of the park, gleaming wanly through the branches of the beeches, the lime trees and the oaks.
Lying on a chaise-longue, I am leafing through books about Amboise and its history. It is early. Beneath the park, the five levels of the Maison des Pages are still steeped in the morning shade. Slowly, they emerge into the light. Fastened to the rock, the house unfurls before the river Loire, the nurturing river.
After discovering Oriental deserts and North American towns, I moved to a medieval house and enhanced my knowledge of Amboise, France’s capital when François Premier was King. The house we dwell in is an anchorage, stronger than all journeys put together. One thing is certain, travels and tours soothe the anxieties of youth and bring one finally to a « dwelling-place built by my ancestors », as the poet Joachim du Bellay had it (Les Regrets, XXXI, 1558).
The origins of the Maison des Pages are mingled with legend. The house is protected by a chalky cliff and the River Loire and has its back to the Rocher des Violettes ; it was the best place to watch for out the convoys arriving at the castle. It is said to be its most ancient outbuilding. With its square tower spiraling up around a fossilized ship’s mast, it was in existence during the lifetime of Charles VII (1403-1461), whom Joan of Arc recognized as the real King. After this chaotic era the Renaissance gave a new lease of life to Greco-Roman art ; it had survived, though falsified and misrepresented, and was now linked with technical skill.
The Renaissance gave the house mullions, ornamental sculptures, and mantelpieces with columns which complemented the caves and the wine-presses. Tunnels were said to exist through the rock at each floor in order to go beyond the river and the fortifications. They have been walled up.
In the park where, I take my morning walks, tools from the Iron Age in the mound show that the settlement is thousands of years old. The healthy climate, the strategic importance of the rocky promontory which offers a ledge of greenery overlooking the Loire has always been advantages for those looking for somewhere to live.
Two years after the coronation of Charles VII, in 1431, when Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake — and Agnès Sorel was nine years old —, the house was chosen as a royal residence because of the extraordinary position of the town and the quality of its castle. The Court took up residence in Amboise. In a spirit of discovery, François Premier and his sister Marguerite de Navarre invited the most famous artists of the Quattrocento. Among other things they brought with them their architectural knowledge, and they sculpted the tufa stone of houses in Touraine. They decorated the Maison des Pages which used to belong to the lords of Chapuiset, conveying the indefinable impression of « a house for artists ». Two inhabitants from the 20th century, Count Jacques Mareuse and Al Sarcy bequeathed to the house some exquisitely elegant poems and a monumental set of sculptures carved in the rock, which give it a poetry of its own.
I cannot ponder the perfect proportions of these dwellings and the castles of the River Loire without a feeling of fulfillment. The most talented of the Italian artists, Leonardo da Vinci, was fascinated by the study of rock formations. He spent the last years in his life at Clos Lucé putting the seal of his genius on his last home.
Built for Louis XI’s chef rôtisseur, Étienne Leloup, around 1477, the clos de lumière welcomed the Queen of Navarre, and later Leonardo da Vinci. In this manor on a human scale, the Renaissance « all-round man » chose to get away from the plots, jealous friendships and harmful designs of a powerful entourage. He was invited by François Premier to Amboise in 1516, and refused to be subject to restrictive and blind rules. His lordly solitude meant that he became unique.
One of the books about Amboise reproduces Leonardo’s paintings with such accuracy that it is easier to discern the painter’s strength of character and subtle genius. I am gazing at the Mona Lisa, the famous portrait of Lisa di Noldo Gheradini, born in 1479, Francesco del Giaconda’s wife. This coded painting, with its pyramidal lines, the only one Leonardo da Vinci did not sell in Renaissance Italy, changes the way we usually look at things. Mona Lisa’s grieving countenance has lifted its black veil. Around this face looking very much like the painter’s, albeit not his, a double landscape unfolds: a double track, a path of red-colored earth and the blue river flowing into an expanse of waters. The background is a world taking shape, being brought to birth aeons before the human face. The Mona Lisa communes with a rocky landscape. The roads and the rocks breathe softly while the young woman’s smile unveils the unity of the light.
This is the matchless painting, on wood, which Leonardo brought to Amboise. The fifteenth-century Chronicles of Amboise gave a late etymology of the town’s name. Ambacia is said to be a contraction of the Latin Ab ambabus acquis, because the town was built “between two waters”, the Loire, the merchant route, and the river Amasse which winds across the landscaped garden of the Clos Lucé. The « Two Waters » bring to mind the union of the « Two lands » which the kings of ancient Egypt had to accomplish. For the two paths of the Mona Lisa witness to a search for balance. Duality and the Other must exist for things to be inscribed in time. Bequeathed to Salaï, a companion and a disciple as well (though he left no works of art), the Mona Lisa entered the royal collections until the day she became an object of universal enthusiasm.
As the Mona Lisa’s smile hovers over the Clos Lucé, a rock and two rivers have given birth to a fortified house raised up in the West, a garden of light to the South and a high point to the East, ever a sacred direction. The manor is the southern corner of the triangle of which the others are Charles VII’s Maison des Pages, and the castle to the West.
For the last month, the garden has put on its summer clothes again ; sun, violets, and sweet peas mingling with wild berries. Every morning I draw near to the door hidden in the laurel hedge which separates it from a field. A rampart walk overlooks the formal gardens of the hotel Choiseul and the hotel Minimes. This old road, along the top of the cliff, is a straight line paved with sets. It links the Maison des Pages and the castle and runs above huge caverns — « fear of dark and threatening cave, but curious to see whether it contains some extraordinary wonder », wrote Leonardo — which are called « Caesar’s Granaries ». These are ancient grain silos where ceremonies take place now as in the past. The walk links the Logis des Pages to the castle.
To follow the sun, I return to the main entrance of the observatory, opposite the Minimes Tower. The castle stands on the rocky height chosen by a captain of the Roman army to build a fortified house. It was around 374 CE and this Roman was called Avicinius.
The great architectural works of Amboise were designed at the time of Marguerite de Navarre – Marguerite meaning Daisy, she was called « Daisy of Daisies » – and of François Premier, the able and enlightened brother-sister royal couple, brought up to be free and wise. The castle confiscated from the Amboise family became the meeting place for philosophers, poets, musicians, and architects such as Fra Giocondo who built the hotel Joyeuse, an architectural jewel, as a place to dwell.
The Italian artists turned the town « between the two rivers » into an ideal city of the Renaissance whose houses converge at the castle where Gothic and Renaissance antique furniture is still to be found today. Its rich ornaments can take one’s mind away both from the austere medieval fortresses and from the fatal shadows which hang over the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The King’s House opposite the river, la Tour des Minimes — it should be called « Tour de Bayard » out of respect for the famous knight who used it so often — and la Tour Hurtault were built by Charles VIII during his short existence. He was born in the castle, which was rebuilt by Italians and Flemish craftsmen and his mother gave him in marriage to Anne de Bretagne. He died in an accident in 1498 after losing the Italian Wars. Like a bowl retaining the fragrance of the first fruit gathered in it, the castle evokes the names of kings, Charles VII, Charles VIII, Louis XII, and François Premier. Their names are carved above a door, but they are adrift in the perpetual cycle of births and deaths.
In front of the castle lies the Golden Island. It is the only inhabited island along the river Loire. Alaric, King of the Visigoths and Clovis King of the Franks, signed Le Pacte des Gaules (503 CE) there. On the chalky promontory anchored along the river, the city has established its foundations. There it grows, there it gives shape and volume to reliefs and shadows, following the moods of the river. It has risen high above kitchen gardens cultivated along the alluvial banks of the Loire. Its suburbs, especially the Rocher des Violettes, used to supply the Kings with much appreciated wines. The plateau was covered with vineyards ; the caves hollowed out of the rock would look after the best vintages so that happy hours might have fitting celebrations.
The rock formation calls to mind Leonardo’s masterpiece « The Virgin of the Rocks », in the Louvre. A chiaroscuro effect causes the rock to close up around the Virgin Mary, the Christ-child and the Angel, all pursued by Herod’s killers. They are isolated, with no support. The rock comes to life. The Angel, part matter and part light, makes a symbolic gesture. He points his forefinger at the horizon and tucks his middle finger under his thumb, thus representing the set-square and the compasses, the builder’s tools.
The country began to be rebuilt just after Les Trêves de Tours (1444), starting with Amboise. This means that Charles VIII’s city is the focal point of France, in the heart of a country where a refined, humanist civilization possessed the secret of embellishing the ancient fortified castles in order to integrate them into a world where every passing second is a delight of orange-colored light and hidden beauty.
Carpe diem. Before the walls, the blue twilight is mingling with the waves of the Loire. The oblique light of the setting sun is chiseling the houses of the Golden Island. The ground is no longer swathed with the buttercups which gave the island its name, but with tents and caravans going together with evenings of rock music. It is one of the most enjoyable and beautiful views of the castle. Equidistant from the two chapels of the island, Charles VII’s Maison des Pages is sheltered like a great butterfly in the folds of the rock, and seems to say: « Here I am, and here I stay ».
The sun is setting. The sky becomes the canvas for a strange scene. Haloed with pale light, the outlines of a ghostly city separate off from the town. The ideal City is moving in the clouds. It is flying over the houses of Touraine with their Virginia creepers, their sloping roofs and their oblong tufa foundations.
Released from sorrow and futile adornments, the everlasting town flies yet higher. Decked with the finest of colors, it thrills away into the distance beyond the modern buildings and the deserted streets, inspiring a sense of beauty in those with eyes to see it.
Translated into English by TONY JAMES
Née à Paris le 13 octobre 1959, Camille AUBAUDE est Docteur es Lettres, personnalité de la ville d’Amboise, et poétesse de renommée internationale.
Après avoir enseigné à l’Université Paris III, Sorbonne nouvelle, et dans des universités étrangères (Egypte, Etats-Unis, Jordanie), Camille AUBAUDE représente la poésie française dans de nombreux colloques et festivals de poésie et reçoit des poètes dans la Maison des Pages d’Amboise, une étrange maison médiévale qu’elle a réhabilitée et qui a donné son nom à une collection de poésie accueillant des poètes contemporains. Jury au Prix de Poésie Paul Verlaine, Camille AUBAUDE anime, à Paris, des « Dialogues de Poésie » diffusés sur le web (voir temporel.fr). Le recueil des Poèmes d’Amboise a été traduit et édité dans neuf pays, notamment au Japon, et a fait l’objet d’un film de Jérémy Véron au Cercle Anna de Noailles, à Paris, en 2010. Des lectures des poèmes de La Sphynge et d’un nouveau livre de bibliophilie, Chant d’ivresse en Egypte, parus en 2009, ont été filmées dans Une nuit à la Vénus noire, par Galya Milovskaya.
« Camille : Paix – Poésie, et amour des belles choses », a écrit Michael Lonsdale. « Un imaginaire féminin, secret, fécond, inoubliable. L’union de l’Orient et de l’Occident, de l’amour et de la solitude, de la culture et de la liberté me fait entendre votre chant immense et déchaîné », a observé Léopold Sédar Senghor. L’œuvre de Camille AUBAUDE aimante une foule de lecteurs anonymes ou célèbres, et aussi des photographes, des comédiens, des cinéastes et des peintres. Défendue dès 1979 par Henri Michaux, puis Jorge Luis Borges, Julia Kristeva, Claude Vigée, Marguerite Duras, Henri Bauchau, cette œuvre très dense ajoute aux poèmes des traductions, des essais littéraires marquants (Les Femmes de lettres, Le Mythe d’Isis de Gérard de Nerval), des critiques littéraires, artistiques et cinématographiques, des proses poétiques et des récits sous forme de « journal », tels La Maison des Pages et Le Voyage en Orient.