AMBOISE, France (Reuters) - A mechanical lion invented by Leonardo da Vinci to entertain the King of France has sprung back to life in the Renaissance genius's last home.
Da Vinci's original automaton is lost, but the animal has been recreated at the Chateau du Clos Luce, in the Loire Valley town of Amboise in France, where the master lived for the last three years of his life and where he died in 1519.
"We loved the idea that Leonardo was not only an artist and an engineer but also a fabulous stage director, a master of special effects," said Francois Saint Bris, president of the privately owned chateau, which is open to the public.
"He knew how to satisfy an audience with amazing creations. He was the George Lucas of his time," Saint Bris told Reuters in an interview, referring to the creator of the Star Wars movies.
Known around the world for the Mona Lisa and Last Supper paintings, Leonardo was also a prolific inventor who envisioned flying machines including a forerunner of the helicopter.
Eye witnesses from Da Vinci's time said a mechanical lion that could walk was presented to King Francois I by the Florentine community in the French city of Lyon in 1515, to celebrate a new alliance between Florence and France.
The symbol of Florence was a lion, and when the king lashed the mechanical beast three times with a small whip, its breast opened to reveal a fleur de lys, emblem of the French monarchy.
A similar lion -- it is not known whether it was the same one or a newer version -- made another appearance at a lavish party organized in honor of the king in 1517.
Da Vinci left no plans or sketches of the lion, although he did leave detailed drawings of mechanisms that give insight into how he may have made it work.
Using those drawings as well as the written descriptions of the lion, master maker of automatons Renato Boaretto recreated the animal for the Chateau du Clos Luce, where it can be seen as part of a Da Vinci exhibition that lasts until January 31, 2010.
Boaretto's lion, which is life-size, is wound up by hand like an old-fashioned clock. Then, it takes about 10 steps forward, shakes its head from side to side, opens and closes its jaws and wags its tail up and down.
A secret mechanism is built into its mane so that when a particular spot is stroked, a trapdoor swings open on the lion's flank and several fleur de lys pop out.
"It's grandiose that as far back as that, he (Da Vinci) managed to make exceptional objects like this one, fully automatic. It's really amazing," said French tourist Benedicte after seeing the lion in action with her husband and children.
Invited to France by King Francois I, who was a great admirer of his work, Da Vinci designed palaces and canals, sketched plants and animals and organized royal festivities.
In 1518, for the set of a play performed for the monarch, he amazed the audience by recreating the night sky over the stage, complete with constellations and planets.
Additional reporting by Antony Paone, editing by Paul Casciato