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French, Italian leaders honour da Vinci 500 years after death

Philippe Wojazer, REUTERS | The presidents of France and Italy lay wreaths at Leonardo's grave in Amboise.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella on Thursday marked 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci, paying their respects to the Renaissance genius in a show of unity after months of diplomatic tensions.

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"The bond between our countries and our citizens is indestructible," Macron said after the two men lunched at the Clos Luce, the sumptuous manor house where Leonardo spent the last three years of his life as the protégé and official artist of French king Francis I.

The two heads of state began their visit at the nearby royal chateau in Amboise, where they laid wreaths at Leonardo's grave.

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.

>> Read more: Undiplomatic relations  How Franco-Italian ties fell apart

Amboise, a sleepy town on the Loire River where Leonardo died in 1519, was in virtual lockdown because of fears of protests by the Yellow Vests.Traffic was banned within a five-kilometre radius and the usually teeming restaurants and shops shuttered.

The presidential helicopter 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.

Later Thursday, the two presidents headed to 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.

Guests attending the events included Italian star architect Renzo Piano and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, reflecting the extraordinary breadth of Leonardo’s interests and inventions.

'Architect of the king'

Leonardo was 64 when he accepted the French king’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", said Catherine Simon Marion, managing director of the Clos Luce.

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.

>> Read more: Political row threatens Louvre plans to mark da Vinci anniversary

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.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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