first Renaissance castle of France
by McKenna Darby
|Chambord from the East corner. Francis I turret is at far left.|
Paris is a historical novelist’s dream. If you’re a novelist interested in French royalty during the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, however, you can’t follow their trail far without making a trip east to the Loire Valley. France’s kings retreated to the region during the Hundred Years’ War, when England’s control of western France made Paris vulnerable to attack. They stayed long after the war ended, though, and it’s easy to understand why.
Few places on earth can rival the abundant forests, scenic rivers and fertile farmlands of the Loire Valley. The numerous castles left behind by its royal visitors – nearly 70 scattered across just three provinces – only add to the region’s beauty. And so it was that, on a recent trip to Paris, I spent a chunk of my weekend on a tour bus bound for Loir-et-Cher and the largest of the Loire Valley’s castles: Chateau de Chambord, which features 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces, and 84 staircases.
|This bust of Francis I in armor is believed to be the most accurate portrayal of the king in his prime.|
Chambord drew me to the Loire Valley because it was built by Francis I, who was the father-in-law of Catherine de Medici, the Italian noble who helped rule France for more than 40 years, first as queen and then as regent to her three sons. Although most of the court loathed Catherine – ostensibly because she was the daughter of Italian merchants (horrors!) but primarily because she wasn’t French – the king adored his intelligent, witty, and cultured Italian daughter-in-law.
Catherine shared Francis’ dream – never achieved – of uniting France and Italy under French rule, as well as her father-in-law’s love of art, books, and architecture. No one knows for certain how long it took for Catherine to recognize their shared interests after she arrived in France to marry the king’s second son, Henri, when they were both just 14. I like to imagine, however, that the discovery occurred the first time Catherine saw Chambord.
|View f the courtyard and the staircase that serves the North turret, which housed the personal apartments of Francis I.|
Francis built Chambord in celebration of his love of Italian Renaissance art and architecture. At the king’s invitation, Leonardo da Vinci visited the site and consulted on the castle’s design. Several historians actually attribute the castle’s distinctive double-helix staircase – two sets of stairs that twine around one another without ever meeting – to the great Italian artist (although the idea is hotly contested and may never be proved).
Built as France entered the Renaissance, Chambord’s distinctive architecture blends traditional French medieval forms with classical Italian Renaissance structures. The central keep, for example, is consistent with medieval design, featuring turrets at each corner, an extensive curtain wall and a moat. Inside, however, the building is pure Renaissance.
|The "da Vinci" double-helix staircase. Note the wooden beams of the ceiling in one of the four apartments that surround the staircase in a Green cross design on each floor.|
The “da Vinci” staircase, located at the keep’s center, is built around a column of open air topped by an elaborate spire. The spire, which is pierced by intricate leaded windows, floods all four floors with light. On each of its four stories, the stairs open onto four Greek-cross landings with arched ceilings. Each landing is a complete apartment, a break with the medieval tradition of arranging bedrooms along corridors. Additional suites are housed in each of the turrets, for a total of eight apartments on each floor.
|Looking up, inside the da Vinci staircase, toward the decorative tower atop the attic.|
Chambord’s Italian influence is most evident from the outside, however. Arched pillars, superimposed across the front of the façade, give it a beautiful symmetry that is purely decorative. Double-banded friezes separate the three floors, with each story shorter than the one below it. The towers, steeples, chimneys and lanterns that decorate the keep’s attic, when viewed from the chateau’s front lawn, form the outline of a fantastical town; Francis reportedly commissioned the design to replicate the skyline of Constantinople. (I wasn’t able to snap that picture myself, but you can get a sense of it here, especially in the reflection.)
Atop the third floor, a terrace surrounds this entire “city.” At every turn, decorative black slate tiles applied to the white stone give the castle a flamboyant Italian harlequin design. It is easy to imagine the servants, sent to Chambord in advance of the court’s arrival, watching for the approaching royal procession from these ramparts, or craning for a glimpse of the king’s hunting party as it thundered through the nearby forests.
|The decorative tower that tops the da Vinci staircase. Note the black slate used to give the building an Italian harlequin design.|
Because Chambord was rarely occupied (Francis reportedly spent fewer than seventeen weeks there during his lifetime), the castle was never furnished. With no village nearby, the 2,000-member court had to bring everything it needed – furniture, bedding, tapestries, cooking supplies, food – each time it visited. Today, with the exception of a few apartments outfitted with relatively modern furnishings, visitors to Chambord experience the chateau just as it was between Francis’ visits: utterly empty.
The carved Fs stand for Francis. The salamanders were the personal symbol of Francis I, chosen for their mythological ability to regenerate through fire.
Even so, evidence of Francis is everywhere, from the FRF initials formed in black slate to the salamanders carved into fireplaces, doors and coffered ceilings. As king, Francis took the salamander as his personal symbol, reflecting the ancient belief that the salamander, like the phoenix, could regenerate through fire – a worthy aspiration for a king who spent most of his reign at war with Spain.
|A closer view of some of the black slate decorations, plus an engraved shell design, on the fantastical roofline of Chambord.|
After Francis’ death, his son Henri and daughter-in-law Catherine continued to visit Chambord with their ten children until Henri’s death in a tragic jousting accident. Many years later, when their youngest son’s assassination during the Wars of Religion ended the Valois dynasty, the castle was abandoned. It was rescued by Louis XIV, who used it regularly from 1668 to 1675. Moliere’s famous play “Bourgeois Gentilhomme” had its premiere at Chambord during Louis’ reign.
After the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte gave the chateau to a member of his entourage. In 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the art collections of the Louvre and Compiègne museums (including the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo) were hidden at Chambord, where they remained safe until the war ended. In 1991, the chateau became the inspiration for the Beast’s castle in the Walt Disney animated film “Beauty and the Beast.”
Now owned by the French government and open to the public, the chateau receives about 700,000 visitors annually.
McKenna Darby writes romantic historical novels set during the French Renaissance and the American Civil War. Visit her at http://mckennadarby.com