President Emmanuel Macron and Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella yesterday 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.
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.
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.