Pride of Da Vinci's genius walks again after 500 years

This king of the jungle was created to flatter a king of France. Now Leonardo's amazing feat of engineering has been given new life by an Italian designer, to roars of approval. John Lichfield reports

It lives. It lives! After almost five centuries, a legendary, artificial monster, which has intrigued scientists and art historians for decades, cranked back into life in central France this week.

The monster in question is a friendly-looking, curly-maned, almost life-sized, mechanical lion, which can walk, and move its head and shake its tail and open its jaws. The original was designed in 1517 by a 16th-century special effects man, who later achieved fame as a painter (but was also musician, philosopher, engineer, architect, scientist, mathematician, anatomist, inventor, architect and botanist).

Leonardo da Vinci left only a rudimentary sketch of his robot lion but it has been reconstructed in full-size for the first time by a French-based, Venetian-born designer of automatons, Renato Boaretto. Using contemporary accounts and the other mechanical sketches left by the great artist, the 66-year-old has built a spectacular clockwork toy over 6ft long and four feet high, which can walk and wag its tail and simulate roaring movements of its head.

Leo's lion was created to demonstrate an old man's prowess and to flatter and amuse a French king. Even in the technology-sated early 21st century, it is impressive. In the early 16th century, it was the highest of hi-tech, up to 300 years ahead of its time.

The Da Vinci cat prowls again this summer – and until 31 January next year – as part of an exhibition on the many links between Leonardo and France. The exhibition is at the beautiful Château du Clos Lucé, in Amboise, beside the River Loire, where Da Vinci passed the last three years of his life and died in 1519.

François Saint Bris, president of the Château du Clos Lucé and Parc Leonardo da Vinci, has plans to turn the house and grounds into a cultural theme park, devoted not to just Leonardo but all the achievements and figures of the Renaissance from Shakespeare to Machiavelli. M. Saint Bris commissioned the robot lion from Mr Boaretto as a way of explaining the range and versatility of the artist's talents.

"Leonardo was, as well as everything else, a kind of George Lucas of the early 16th century," M. Saint Bris said in an interview. "His special effects were legendary."

The Leonardo da Vinci and France exhibition at Clos Lucé has brought off another coup. Four original Leonardo sketches, drawn at the château in the artist's final years, have been allowed out of the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice for the first time and have returned to the place where they were created. There are also reproductions of other celebrated Da Vinci drawings from the Royal collection in Britain, including a sketch of the royal château at Amboise seen from the artist's bedroom at Clos Lucé.

The French king François I – great rival of England's Henry VIII – brought Leonardo to France in 1516 as court painter, philosopher and architect but also as court mécanicien or engineer. The ageing Italian master was paid 700 gold crowns a year. He was given the new Château du Clos Lucé as his home and instructed to "think, work and dream".

Contemporary accounts of Leonardo's mechanical lion, or lions, are somewhat confused but he appears to have designed at least three. In around 1509, he created a robot lion for the triumphal entry to Milan of the previous French king, Louis XII. This could rear on its hind legs and present lilies – the French royal symbol – but it could not walk. The second lion, designed just before Da Vinci moved to Clos Lucé, could walk under is own power and move its head. It was presented to François I when he visited Lyons in 1515. When the king stepped forward and tapped the lion with his sword, its body opened and presented him with lilies.

The second Leonardo lion may, accidentally, have changed the course of art history. King François I was so impressed that he invited Leonardo to come to France the following year. The artist arrived by mule, carrying with him several paintings, including the Mona Lisa, which remains in France until this day.

The lion presented this summer is based on descriptions of a third animal, designed in 1517 when Leonardo was at Clos Lucé. Despite the many notebooks and scraps of paper left behind by Leonardo – including plans for a mechanical knight – there is no surviving description of how the walking lion walked.

Carlo Pedretti, the eminent Leonardo scholar who has overseen the exhibition, wrote: "The irony of the whole thing is that there is not a single hint in Leonardo's manuscripts of this (which may be his) greatest technological invention... Imagine to have a lion walk. This is top technology!"

The automaton-maker Boaretto has studied other Leonardo manuscripts, including the artist's many advanced studies of how to improve the mechanism of clocks. "My big problem was to try to get inside Leonardo's mind and to try think as he might have thought, based on the technology which existed or that he envisaged in his sketches for other machines," M. Boaretto said.

"Leonardo's big problem was to give such a heavy machine – 50 or 60 kilos – enough power in one motor in a limited space to walk forward and to move its head and tail."

The technology which M. Boaretto concluded that Leonardo used to solve this conundrum involved a complex meshing of gears, pulleys, chains, wheels, pendulums and axles. The pendulum technology looked forward to the early 17th century and the axle – which makes the lion's legs move – presages methods not fully developed until the late 18th and 19th centuries.

The reborn lion is wound up by a large crank, or key, in a chamber on its right side. The Clos Lucé handyman, Fabrice Madier, is called away from his work in the grounds to turn this handle whenever visitors request to see the lion walk. Once fully wound, the animal shuffles forward for up to ten paces, twirls its tail, rotates its head and displays its fangs: a spectacle fit for a king.

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