France, Italy mark 500th anniversary of Leonardo's death

President Emmanuel Macron and Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella on Thursday kicked off commemorations to mark 500 years since Leonardo da Vinci died in France, paying their respects to the Renaissance genius in a private visit to his grave.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella arrive in Amboise, in central France, to mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's death. (Video source: AFP)

The sleepy town of Amboise on the Loire River -- where Leonardo died in 1519 at the age of 67 -- was in virtual lockdown because of fears of protests by France's grassroots "yellow vest" movement.

Traffic in the town of just 13,000 was banned within a five-kilometre (three-mile) radius and the usually teeming restaurants and shops shuttered. On Wednesday, dozens of cars were towed away, with some foreign owners apparently unaware of the draconian security measures.

The presidential helicopter had arrived on a river island in the heart of the town, touching down on a pad usually used to launch hot-air balloons over the chateau-studded valley.

After the visit to Leonardo's grave, Macron and Mattarella headed for lunch at the nearby Clos Luce, the sumptuous manor house where Leonardo lived and died under the patronage of King Francis I.

Later they planned to visit the sprawling chateau of Chambord -- whose central double-helix staircase is attributed to Leonardo though the first stone was not laid until four months after his death.

Among glitterati attending the events will be Italian star architect Renzo Piano and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

The joint celebrations come after months of mounting diplomatic tensions between Paris and Rome over the hardline policies of Italy's populist government and its support for France's anti-government "yellow vest" protesters. 

In the worst diplomatic crisis between the two countries since World War II, Paris briefly recalled its ambassador from Rome.

Mattarella, staunchly pro-EU like Macron, played an "essential role" in lowering tensions, Macron's office said. 

'Architect of the king' 

Francis I, known as the "Sun King of the 16th century", is widely credited with bringing the Renaissance to France, even if his predecessor Louis XII had begun the process by bringing in architects and artisans from Florence, Milan and Rome.

Leonardo was 64 when he accepted the young Francis I's invitation to Amboise, at a time when rivals Michelangelo and Raphael were rising stars.

With Leonardo's commissions drying up, it came as a great relief and no small vindication for the Tuscan artist, who received a handsome stipend as the "first painter, engineer and architect of the king".

At the time, Francis I was barely 23, and his ambitious mother Louise of Savoy "knew that Leonardo would be the man who would allow her son to flourish", Catherine Simon Marion, managing director of the Clos Luce, told AFP. 

Leonardo brought with him three of his favourite paintings: the Mona Lisa, the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, and Saint John the Baptist -- all of which today hang in the Louvre museum in Paris.

Italy and France have also sparred over an accord under which Italy will lend several Leonardos to the Louvre in October.

With fewer than 20 Leonardo paintings still in existence, many Italians are resentful that the Louvre possesses five of them, as well as 22 drawings. 

During his three years in Amboise, Leonardo organised lavish parties for the court and worked to design an ideal city for Francis at nearby Romorantin -- one of the polymath's many unrealised projects -- all while continuing his research. 

Macron is the first French president to visit the town since Charles de Gaulle came in 1959.  

Emmanuel Honnet, who runs the Cafe des Arts snack bar by the chateau, said the precautions were "understandable... given the terrible social climate and the real terrorist risk".

But the 51-year-old vented "frustration" that the townspeople were largely sidelined. "It should be the memory of a lifetime," he said.

File photos: VCG