The Castle of Amboise stands high above the town, like another Acropolis above a smaller Athens; it rises upon the only height visible for some distance, and is in a commanding position for holding the level fields of Touraine around it, and securing the passage of the Loire between Tours and Chaumont, which is the next link in the chain that ends at Blois.
The river at this point is divided in two by an island, as is so often the case where the first bridge-builders sought to join the wide banks of the Loire, and on this little spot between the waters Clovis is said to have met Alarie before he overthrew the power of the Visigoths in Aquitaine.
Amboise gains even more from the river than the other chateaux of the Loire. The magnificent round tower that springs from the end of Charles VIII.’s facade completely commands the approaches of the bridge, and the extraordinary effect of lofty masonry, produced by building on the summit of an elevation and carrying the stone courses up-ward from the lower ground, is here seen at its best. .
But Amboise has a history before the days of Charles VIII. There was without doubt a Roman camp here, but the traditions of the ubiquitous Cesar must be received with caution. The so-called “Greniers de Caesar,” strange, unexplained constructions caverned in the soft rock, are proved to be the work of a later age by that same indefatigable Abbe Chevalier to whom we have been already indebted for so much archeological re-search.. A possible explanation of them is contained in an old Latin history of the castle, which goes down to the death of Stephen of England. According to this, the Romans had held Amboise from the days of Caesar till the reign of Diocletian; the Baugaredi or Bagaudee then put them to flight, but let the rest of the inhabitants re-main who, “being afraid to live above ground, tunnelled beneath it, and made a great colony of subterranean dwellings in the holes they had dugout,” a custom apparently common in Touraine from the earliest times. The Romans at any rate left unmistakable traces of their presence; many of their architectural remains still exist, and their fort is spoken of by Sulpicius Severus; but they can have built no bridge of stone, for in St. Gregory’s time there were only boats available for crossing the river.
Not till the fifteenth century did the castle be-come royal property, when it was confiscated by Charles VII as a punishment for treacherous dealings with the invading English very similar to the treason discovered at Chenonceaux just before. But beyond strengthening the fortification of the place this king did little for his new possession.
In a few years the castle is overshadowed by the cruel specter of Louis XI, whose memory has al-ready spoiled several charming views for us. It was to Amboise that the father of this unfilial prince was carried from Chinon on his way north, when wearied out by the annoyance caused by the Dauphin’s plots. The castle had become a royal residence, and soon after the whole town turns out to meet the new king with a “morality-play made by Master Etienne for the joyous occasion of his arrival,” for Amboise was already famous for those dramatic performances always so dear to the French, and particularly to these citizens, in the old days at any rate. There is no trace of such frivolities now in the sleepy little town… .
The two great towers of Amboise with the inclined planes of brickwork, which wind upward in the midst instead of staircases, were the result of the work which Charles set on foot as a distraction of his grief. These strange ascents had been partially restored by the Comte de Paris, the present owner of Amboise, before his exile stopt the work of repairing the chateau, and it is still possible to imagine the “charrettes, mullets, et litieres,” of which Du Bellay speaks, mounting from the low ground to the chambers above, or the Emperor Charles V., in later years, riding up with his royal host Francis I., always fond of display, amid such a blaze of flambeaux “that a man might see as clearly as at mid-day.”
These great towers and the exquisite little chapel were the work of the “excellent sculptors and artists from Naples” who, as Commines tells us, were brought back with the spoils of the Italian wars; for the young king “never thought of death” but only of collecting round him “all the beautiful things which he had seen and which had given him pleasure, from France or Italy or Flanders;” but death came upon him suddenly. At the end of a garden walk, fringed with a mossy grove of limes that rises from the river bank, is the little doorway through which Charles VIII. was pass ing when he hit. his head, never a very strong one, against the low stone arch, and died a few hours afterward. The castle had been fortified before his time; he left it beautiful as well, and the traces of his work are those which are most striking at the present day… .
Within the shadow of the lime trees on the terraced garden of Amboise is a small bust of Leonardo da Vinci, for it was near here he died. His remains are laid in the beautiful chapel at the corner of the castle court, and the romantic story of his last moments at Fontainebleau becomes the sad reality of a tombstone covering ashes mostly unknown and certainly indistinguishable; “among which” as the epitaph painfully records, “are sup-posed to be the remains of Leonardo da Vinci.” He had been brought to Paris a weak old man, by Francis, in pursuance of a certain fist artistic policy, to which it may be noticed this forgot-ten and uncertain grave does but little credit.
To Francis I., rightly or wrongly, is given the glory of having naturalized in France the arts of Italy; to him is due the architecture built for ease and charm which turned the fortress into a beautiful habitation, which changed Chambord from a feudal stronghold to a country seat, and which left its traces at Amboise, as it did at Chaumont and at Blois. He found in France the highest and most beautiful expression of the work of “the great unnamed race of master-masons,” he found the traditions of a national school of painting, the work of Fouquet and the Clouets, but for these he cared not ; for him the only schools were those of Rome and Florence, and tho by encouraging their imitation he weakened the vital sincerity of French art, yet from his first exercise of royal power the consistency always somewhat lacking in his politics was shown clearly and firmly in his taste for art.