The best part of writing a book is the research. It takes you on a journey of discovery to places you would never have heard of and therefore would never have seen.
A good case in point is Romorantin in France. Researching for Leonardo da Vinci: The Amboise Connection I found out that once upon a time royal plans were afoot to make Romorantin the new capital of France.
Who did the King ask to draw up the plans? None other than Leonardo da Vinci, his architect in residence, who lived in Clos Lucé, just down the road from Château Amboise.
Why did François I choose Romorantin? Sentimental reasons a) it was his childhood home and b) his mother, Louise of Savoy, lived there. Château Romorantin, on the banks of the Sauldre, less than fifty miles from him in Château Amboise, was, of all her many homes, her favourite, where she was happiest. As châteaux go, it was modern, just seventy years old. Amazingly, a small part has survived.
In January 1517, when François visited his mother in Romorantin, Leonardo was with him. For the next two years, all Leonardo’s energies would be channelled into plans for rebuilding the town.
While surveying Romorantin, Leonardo and his student Melzi lived in the Chancellory (you do wonder why they didn’t stay in the Château). Luckily, the lovely old Chancellory, although much the worse for wear, is miraculously still there.
Leonardo’s plans ran to seven hundred pages.
François wanted two new châteaux, one for his mother and one for himself. Leonardo’s design for the Queen Mother’s Château is in Windsor Castle Library in England.
Palace entrance doors would open and close automatically when approached using sophisticated balance and pressure points on a crank mechanism system. One could speak through a device installed into the wall to another person anywhere in the building via bitumen covered copper pipes inside clay tubes.
Leonardo’s new town had large, green open spaces, schools, recreational centres and fountains similar to those of ancient Greece. Sadly, his model has disappeared. Had Romorantin happened, it would have revolutionised architecture.
Like many architects, Leonardo wanted a clean sheet. His new town meant razing the Romorantin of Louise of Savoy with its old buildings, orchards, farms and mills but one wonders what he planned to do with the wonderful Church of Saint Stephen built in the 1100s.
He also planned to raze the nearby village of Villefranche.
The river of Villefranche must be re-channelled to Romorantin – the same should be done with the population. The wood pieces of their housing should be taken by river to Romorantin. The river should be re-channelled and set on a height so that the water descends to Romorantin, where it can be used for many watermills.
Again, what did he envisage for the wonderful old church of Saint Mary Magdalene built in the 1100s?
His planned waterway connecting nearby Tours to Lyon passing Romorantin excited everyone. Obsessed all his life with water and the power of water, Leonardo designed; an underground system of collecting and disposing of household and street waste; a water tower using a wheel based on Archimedes screw which would fill with water from his new canal and pipes for a cooling, heating and ventilation system. Using the power of the river’s strong current, his crank machines would force air over a cold pool into pipes installed between walls. In the winter, the pool would be heated and hot air would warm the buildings. His plumbing and heating-ventilation system was designed to be accessible to every resident. Houses would have hot and cold water piped to kitchens, toilets and bathrooms on all floors.
Leonardo designed multi-purpose adaptable flat pack four story interconnected buildings to house the kingdom’s administration. All State departments would be housed in the same complex. Houses for public servants, ministers, their families and court residents were dotted among open spaces, gardens, piazzas, and wide avenues.
Leonardo and Melzi may have been in Romorantin for six months because he wrote:
The eve of St. Anthony’s Day I returned from Romorantin to Amboise, and the king had left Romorantin two days before
He arrived there in January. Saint Anthony’s Day is 13 July.
In The British Library is a sheet of architectural notes and plans from 1517-18 containing Leonardo’s project. On the top right of a page a ground plan shows an urban complex of twin palaces and gardens placed at either side of the river, with a system of canals flowing round and through it. Beneath the ground plan is the note ‘Let us have fountains on every piazza’.
François invested a huge amount of money to make the river Sauldre from Romorantin to the Cher navigable. The successful drainage of some parts meant that Leonardo’s plan for a canal went ahead. He imported new varieties of cedar, pine, and cypress from all over Europe to be planted among existing established trees to stabilize the newly drained land.
François brought vines from Burgundy. The grape became known as Romorantin. An instruction exists given by him in March 1518 to buy 80,000 vines from Beaune. They were transported by river to the port of Digoin, then to Tours and on to Romorantin where he had them planted around his mother’s Château. His vineyards at Château Chambord are being re-created using ungrafted Romorantin vines. Today, the Cour-Cheverny (Cour as in Court of the King) appellation holds the exclusivity for the Romorantin grape. The first harvest will be in 1519 as part of the commemorations of the death of Leonardo.
August 1518 was exceptionally hot. The Sologne region became infested with the malarial mosquito. Malaria, an infectious disease, is carried by parasites. There was no treatment. A hundred and fifty died in one week in and around Romorantin. Entire families were wiped out. The population was close to panic fearing Plague. Half
To overcome his disappointment over Romorantin, François turned his restless mind to his other project, rebuilding Château Chambord. Leonardo said the foundations would not support a new château; new ones would have to be laid. He said great care would need to be taken because the land there is wet and unstable. Leonardo would not be surprised to know that Château Chambord was partially submerged under water in July 2015 when the Cher flooded its banks and again in 2018.
When Leonardo died in 1519, François abandoned the Romorantin Project. Despite his disappointment, he still loved the town of his early boyhood and returned often. In 1521 he was there to celebrate Twelfth Night, the official end to Christmas. There was nothing François enjoyed more than taking part in mock battles. A party of courtiers led by the King laid siege to the house of his close friend, the Count of Saint Pol, François de Bourbon, a prince du sang (prince of the blood) who fought with François at the famous Battle of Marignano in 1515.
As he tried to break down the door, one of the Count’s defenders dropped a burning log on his head from an upstairs window. François was knocked senseless and for many days his life hung in the balance. The Court was in Romorantin for three months while he recovered from his injuries. He was twenty-seven. The firebrand scarred his chin so Francois grew a beard to hide it.
Known then and now as Hôtel St. Pol or The House of François I, the once magnificent building, which is shamefully being allowed to fall into ruin, is still there. Vestiges of its original diamond pattern of glazed green bricks can still be seen.
Romorantin means marshland. In November 1770, a flood rising to five feet caused widespread destruction in the town. People, houses, bridges and mills disappeared. It happened again in June 2015.
The Tourist Board issues a self-guided walk leaflet to enable visitors to follow in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci.
Given its illustrious history and its connections with the most famous artist in the world, it’s a mystery as to why Romorantin is not a popular tourist attraction, why it’s not better known and is not more prosperous.
There is more about Leonardo da Vinci and his connection with the Loire Valley in Leonardo da Vinci: The Amboise Connection (available from Amazon).
The book was written to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death in 1519 at Clos Lucé, Amboise, France. This is where he spent his last three years.
Leonardo’s life began with his illegitimacy in Florence, fame and success in Milan, public humiliation in Rome and ended as the close friend of the most powerful king in Europe.
When François I met Leonardo in Italy in 1515, he invited him to live near him in Amboise. Here, Leonardo found a security incomparable with his previously precarious existence. He entered old age basking in the gentle climate of the Loire Valley with no more financial insecurity, no more wars on his doorstep, no more jealous rivals. No longer forced to take commissions, Leonardo spent his days editing notebooks filled with his scientific studies and treatises on painting and anatomy. He had with him his paintings of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, St. John the Baptist and the Mona Lisa. Leonardo was a tourist attraction. He still is. Fans can see where he lived, where he died and where he is buried. In Close Lucé, they can even see working models of some of his visions. The book contains many interesting, little known facts. For example. Did you know that Leonardo designed and made elaborate wigs for his models as seen in his (lost) painting of Leda and the Swan? That he dissected thirty corpses? Or that to dissect an eye ball he immersed it in egg white then boiled it?
Post by Pamela
Pamela, a Graduate and Tutor in the History of Art, trained as a magazine journalist at the London College of Printing and has been a freelance writer for over twenty years. She has a passion for history and has published several books on various subjects.