Last year I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Martin Clayton, Senior Curator at the Royal Collection, and one of the world’s leading authorities on the sketchbooks of Leonardo Da Vinci that the Collection maintains – He was speaking at the Bristol Museum on the opening night of the Da Vinci drawings loan exhibition.
Personally I consider those sketchbooks to be among the most inspirational bodies of work of all time, and after the lecture I was keen to ask Martin a question I had been wondering for a while. A great deal has been written about the brilliance of Da Vinci as an inventor, an engineer, an astronomer, a physicist, an anatomist and a mathematician, and sometimes even as an architect. Many sketches survive showing designs for houses, palaces and even cities – but it was my understanding that none were ever known to have been built.
Although it was unfair to request of an academic who works with facts and evidence, I asked if there were any buildings from the Italian Renaissance that could have been attributed to Leonardo, even in the wildest most tenuous conjecture imaginable. He replied by telling me the story of Chateau Chambord.
Leonardo Da Vinci spent the last 3 years of his life living in the Loire Valley in France at the Chateau du Clos Luce, as a guest of the French King Francis I, with whom he is thought to have became a close friend. He died at the Chateau in 1519, less than a year before construction began on the Chateau Chambord, which was destined to become one of the most lavish and distinctive of the French Royal houses, sited just 60km to the north east of Clos Luce.
The House became famous as a landmark of the French Renaissance style, and unique to the region in its unmistakable Italian influences. Furthermore the Chateau Chambord did share certain characteristics with one of Da Vinci’s unbuilt houses (the documentation of which survives in the remarkable sketchbooks), again for his patron Francis I, at Romorantin to the east.
Although no one knows who the architect of Chambord was, it is so so tempting to think it could have been Leonardo, bringing the motifs of Milan north with him as he escaped the French wars with Italy. Or that perhaps he contributed his inventive engineering mind to the design of the stunning double helical stone staircase that creates the centerpiece of the house.
I tell this story for no other reason than its a great story, and to illustrate that any building that survives long enough is likely to pick up a few great stories of their own. Working with historic architecture is unravelling the stories, behind the stone libraries and the brick towers, identifying the protagonists and establishing their motives; Underneath abbeys, at the top of chimneys and behind warehouse facades.
There will always be black holes in the patchwork narrative, and blind spots in the evidence where debate and discussion (and perhaps dreaming) can thrive. No one can prove that Da Vinci designed the Chateau Chambord, but it is still an amazing building with an evocative history ripe for interpretation.
And the best part is that no one can prove he didn’t design it either.