Leonardo's Last Years

Da Vinci's Urban Plan for the Ideal City

Chateau du Clos Luce, final home of Leonardo Da Vinci, near Amboise in France, 1515 - 1519
Chateau du Clos Lucé, final home of Leonardo Da Vinci, near Amboise in France, 1515 - 1519. Photo by DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images (cropped)

Born near Florence, Italy on April 15, 1452, Leonardo da Vinci became a "rock star" of the Italian Renaissance. His notebooks illustrate his genius in art, architecture, painting, anatomy, invention, science, engineering, and urban planning—a vast curiosity that defines what it is to be a Renaissance Man. Where should geniuses spend their final days? King Francis I might say France.

From Italy to France:

In 1515, the French King invited Leonardo to the royal summer home, Château du Clos Lucé, near Amboise. Now in his 60s, Da Vinci reportedly traveled by mule across the mountains from northern Italy to central France, carrying with him sketchbooks and unfinished artwork. The young French king had hired the Renaissance master as "The King's First Painter, Engineer and Architect." Leonardo lived in the rehabilitated Medieval fortress from 1516 until his death in 1519.

Dreams for Romorantin, Actualizing the Ideal City:

Francis I was barely 20-years-old when he became King of France. He loved the countryside south of Paris and decided to move the French capital to the Loire Valley, with palaces in Romorantin. By 1516 Leonardo da Vinci's reputation was well-known—more so than the next generation's young Italian upstart, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). King Francis hired da Vinci, the seasoned professional, to carry out his dreams for Romorantin.

Leonardo had already thought about a planned city while living in Milan, Italy, a city plagued with the same public health crisis that had ravaged Europe throughout the Middle Ages. For centuries outbreaks of the "Black Death" spread from city to city. Disease was not well-understood in the 1480s, but the cause was thought to be related to poor sanitation. Leonardo da Vinci loved to solve problems, so his planned city included inventive ways for people to live near water without polluting it.

Plans for Romorantin incorporated many of Leonardo's idealistic ideas. His notebooks show designs for a Royal Palace built on water; redirected rivers and manipulated water levels; clean air and water circulated with a series of windmills; animal stables built on canals where waste water could be safely removed; cobbled streets to facilitate travel and the movement of building supplies; prefabricated houses for relocating townspeople.

Plans Change:

Romorantin was never built. It appears that construction had begun in da Vinci's lifetime, however. Streets were created, carts of stones were being moved, and foundations were laid. But as da Vinci's health failed, the young King's interests turned to the less ambitious but equally opulent French Renaissance Château de Chambord, begun the year of da Vinci's death. Scholars believe that many of the designs intended for Romorantin ended up in Chambord, including an intricate, helix-like spiral stairway.

Da Vinci's last years were consumed with finishing up The Mona Lisa, which he had carried with him from Italy, sketching more inventions into his notebooks, and designing the King's Royal Palace at Romorantin. These were the last three years of Leonardo da Vinci—inventing, designing, and putting the finishing touches on some masterpieces.

The Design Process:

Architects often speak of the built environment, but many of Leonardo's designs were unbuilt during his lifetime, including Romorantin and the ideal city. Project completion may be a goal of the architectural process, but Leonardo reminds us of the value of the vision, the design sketch—that design can exist without construction. Even today looking at a firm's website, design competitions are often included on the Projects list, even if the contest is lost and the design is unbuilt. Design sketches are real, necessary, and, as any architect will tell you, repurposable.

Da Vinci's visions live on at Le Clos Lucé. Ideas and inventions from his sketchbooks have been built to scale and are exhibited at the Parc Leonardo da Vinci on the grounds of the Château du Clos Lucé.

Leonardo da Vinci shows us that theoretical architecture has a purpose—and is often ahead of its time.

Learn More:

Sources: History of the site at http://www.vinci-closluce.com/en/decouvrir-le-clos-luce/l-histoire-du-lieu/; His life: chronology at http://www.vinci-closluce.com/en/leonard-de-vinci/sa-vie-chronologie/; "Romorantin: Palace and Ideal City" by Pascal Brioist at http://www.vinci-closluce.com/fichier/s_paragraphe/8730/paragraphe_file_1_en_romorantin.p.brioist.pdf; and "Leonardo, Architect of Francis I" by Jean Guillaume the Château du Clos Lucé website at http://www.vinci-closluce.com/fichier/s_paragraphe/8721/paragraphe_file_1_en_leonardo_architect_of_francis_i_j.guillaume.pdf [accessed July 14, 2014]

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Craven, Jackie. "Leonardo's Last Years." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/leonardos-last-years-177241. Craven, Jackie. (2021, February 16). Leonardo's Last Years. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/leonardos-last-years-177241 Craven, Jackie. "Leonardo's Last Years." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/leonardos-last-years-177241 (accessed March 21, 2023).