Why seeing the Mona Lisa is so underwhelming

If you asked me for the most underwhelming art experience of my life, I'd have to say it was waiting in a three-hour queue, battling crowds and then finally standing in front of the modest little painting that is the Mona Lisa.

Leonardo da Vinci was undoubtedly a genius. But hey, he's not the only bloke to paint a portrait. He was, however probably the only bloke in the 15th century to be inventing flying machines (and wisely under the circumstances, parachutes), spanner wrenches, cars, extendable ladders, swinging bridges, canal locks, printing presses, ball bearings, bicycles, odometers and a lot more besides.

How do I know all this? This time round I bypassed the Louvre for a far more entertaining day at Chateau Clos de Luce, the castle in which Leonardo spent his final years.

Clos de Luce is situated in the lovely market town of Amboise on the River Loire in France.

There are no original paintings here - Leonardo appears to have had a concentration issue and finished less than 20 works during his lifetime. In fact there's not even much in the way of personal artefacts except the red-curtained four-poster bed in which he died and scribbled his final will.

What we did see, however, were dozens of drawings, notes and models of his many inventions - including large-scale interactive versions which allowed us to actually go for a sail in his prototype of a paddle boat, fire his cannons, climb into his tanks and have a turn of his Archimedean screw.

Not all his inventions were impressive. His floating shoes that would allow a man to walk across water were not his best legacy. But staying within the aquatic sphere, he did invent the life-belt - still in popular use - the first underwater breathing device and, possibly my favourite item of all, webbed swimming gloves, an accessory beloved by boogie boarders.

I have to admit to still harbouring a grudge against my school for insisting I choose between the arts and sciences and took great consolation from wandering around Leonardo's house and gardens and having the synergy between both confirmed.

Leonardo dissected human corpses to understand how muscles moved a limb so he could draw them more accurately. He was, of course, fascinated by maths, hence the perfectly proportioned Vitruvian Man.


He studied botany and, I learned, every flower in every painting has a particular significance. He was also into engineering and physics and had ambitions to be a town planner.

He drew up plans at Clos de Luce to expand the Italian city of Milan and created a dream city he called Romorantin, notable especially for its attention to the needs for public hygiene.

Back in Paris, the crowds at the Louvre were no doubt wearily debating the reason for the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile. After visiting Clos de Luce, I reckon I've figured it out.

She was trying not to laugh as Leonardo told her about his latest idea.

"A car?" she probably mused. "Flying machines? They'll never catch on."