In the heart of a vast forest, around the bend of a wide, misty path, Chambord rises from the marshes – surreal, sumptuous, unfathomable. With the passing days and seasons, I and my entire team invite you to discover this one-of-a-kind national treasure. Isabelle de Gourcuff
Deputy Administrator of Chambord
Chambord, which measures 156 meters by 117 meters and has 440 rooms, is the largest of all the Loire castles. In terms of sheer scale, it foreshadows Versailles. It appears suddenly at the edge of a path, and the sight of its white massive structure that widens and takes shape little by little, produces a dramatic impression, which is even more striking at sunset. Adding to that – the building’s construction, the richness of its Renaissance decor and, finally, its two wonders: the grand stairway and the roof terrace.
An Imposing Creation of Francis I (16th century)
The counts of Blois, passionate hunters, built a fortified castle in this out-of–the-way corner of the Boulougne forest abounding in game, at a distance of four leagues from their capital. That building was razed by Francis I. In 1519 he began the current structure whose construction would be pursued with passion. This edifice cannot not be compared to any other construction of Francis I. With this castle, the king meant to celebrate not only the power of his kingdom but also of himself.
Chambord was born out of a meeting between Francis I and Leonardo da Vinci. In 1516, the young king brought Leonardo to France and set him up in Amboise, where he died in May 1519. During those three years, he entrusted him with several projects, in particular the castle of Romorantin and, undoubtedly, Chambord. Plans for Chambord were drawn up in 1518-1519. A wooden model, which disappeared without trace in the 17th century, was created by Dominique de Cortone, “the Boccador”. In 1519, the king named François de Pontbriant superintendant of the construction of Chambord, and work began that same year.The work would continue into the 1560s with just one brief interruption when the king was held captive in Madrid. This was the project’s only interruption during the reign of Francis I. Even when the treasury dried up, when the king needed money to pay Spain the ransom for his two sons who came to “replace” him, when he was reduced to pillaging the church treasuries or melting the silver of his subjects, the work at Chambord continued at full throttle. Francis, in his zeal, even wanted divert the Loire and bring it to the foot of the castle; but faced with the enormity of the task, diverted the Cosson instead. In 1544, the work continued with the construction of the wing which housed the royal apartments. In 1559, upon the death of King Henry II, the castle was unfinished. Its construction stopped, and it was not until the 17th century that the wing got a roof.
From 1539 on, the king enjoyed saying to Emporer Charles V “come to my place” for a visit. A swarm of young women, dressed up as Greek divinities,came before the emporer and threw flowers at his feet. The visitor, charmed by the welcome and amazed by the castle, said to his host, “Chambord is the epitome of human ingenuity.” Henri II continued its construction. It was at Chambord that, in 1552, a treaty was ratified with three German princes which brought the cathredral towns of Metz, Toul and Verdun to the crown. Henry II and Charles IX often came to Chambord to hunt in the forest. Henry III and Henry IV scarcely ever made an appearance there, but Louis XIII renewed the link.
The park surrounding the castle provided wonderful hunting grounds. There were 300 falcons at Chambord. The numerous royal hunting dogs were the object of constant care. For breeding, they had the best dogs in all of Europe brought to Chambord. The kings, trained from childhood, were passionate hunters. Louis XII jumped ditches of over 15 feet on horseback. In spite of his blow his hunting horn until he spit blood. He fell ill after every expedition. But it was he who succeded this feat: to hunt down a stag without the use of dogs.
The « Grande Mademoiselle » ( 17th century.).
Chambord made up part of the county of Blois which Louis XIII bestowed to his brother, Gaston of Orleans. A man can be a born conspirator and still be a good father. The daughter of Gaston, the “grande mademoiselle” described her favorite game: to have her father go up and down the openwork steps, with her in pursuit, without ever catching him. Years later, it was at Chambord that she declared her undying love for Lauzun: she led him close to a mirror, fogged it with her breath, and traced out with her finger the name of the irresistible seducer.
Louis XIV and Molière.
Under Louis XIV, Chambord returned to the crown. The king made a total of nine visits there. It was there that Molière created “Monsieur de Pourceaugnac”, written at the castle itself in just a few days. At first, the king didn’t warm up to it. Lulli, the musical composer, who played the part of an apothecary, had an inspired idea: to jump off the stage onto the harpsicord and walk across it. The king burst out laughing and the play was saved. Later, “The Would-Be Gentleman” caused Molière further distress. The king’s initial response was icy. The courtiers, trounced in the play, were already preparing their sarcastic remarks. But, after the second perfomance, Louis XIV congratulated the author and the court changed their witticisms into compliments.
The Marshal of Saxony (18th c.).
Louis XV put the castle at the disposition of his father-in-law, Stanislas Leczinski, the deposed king of Poland.. Later, he presented it to the Marshal of Saxony, along with 40,000 pounds revenue, as recompense for the Saxon’s victory at Fontenoy. Hand of fate or malicious son-in-law? Maurice of Saxony was the natural son of Augustus of Poland, the rival of Stanislas Leczinski; the one who had chased him from the throne. Lavish, proud, violent, the Marshal of Saxony kept things busy at the castle. To satisfy his appetite for arms, he lodged two cavalry regiments composed of Tartars, Valaquans, and Martiniquans. In the park, this strange assembly mounted lively Ukrainian horses trained to come running as soon as the trumpet sounded. The marshal ran the place with an iron fist: for the slightest prank, he would hang the guilty parties from the branches of an old elm tree.
Through fear rather than through ardor, Maurice of Saxony obtained the favors of a famous actress, la Favart, and obliged her to stay at Chambord. For her amusement, he rebuilt the stage where Moliere had played. Favart had the triple role of director, writer and “mari complaisant”. He died at age 54 – some say killed in a duel by the prince of Conti avenging his marital honor; others, more mundanly, attributed it to a bad cold. Glorious even in death, Maurice of Saxony wanted the 6 canons, which he had placed in the court of honor, to be fired every 15 minutes for 16 days as a sign of mourning.
From the Revolution to the Restoration.
After the death of Maurice of Saxony, the castle, unmaintained, slowly fell into a state of disrepair. The revolution destroyed whatever personal property remained.
In 1809, Napoleon made a gift of Chambord to his faithful Berthier, Prince of Wagram. Berthier was content to sell the wood and neglect the estate. After Bertier’s death, the princess was authorized to put Chambord up for sale, and it was bought by public bond in 1821 for the Duke of Bordeaux – posthumous son of the Duke of Berry, who had just been assassinated – and heir to the crown. Paul-Louis Courier wrote such a scathing criticism of this bond that he was jailed for 2 months. Motivated by political passions, he went so far as to call for the demolition of Chambord. But the state eventually bought it in 1930, at a price of 11 million, from the heirs of the count of Chambord plus the remainder of the mortgage assumed by the Duke of Parma.
Today, the park is a National “Cynegenic” Park, a hunting reserve since 1948. It is the largest enclosed forest park in Europe – with over 13,000 acres, of which over 11,000 are made up of native oak and pine, but also includes varieties which were planted such as chestnut, birch, elm and willow. A 19 mile wall, the longest in France, encompasses it. The wall has six doors corresponding to six beautiful alleys.
People are only allowed to stoll in the western part, which covers about 1500 acres. Three observation towers have been built for the benefit of visitors wanting to view the stag, buck and wild boar, which gather after sunrise and before sunset in search of food.
The diverted Cosson, flows in front of the castle. The channels which fed it were filled in by Stanislaus Leczinski, giving the castle a somewhat weighed-down appearance.
The layout of Chambord is feudal: a central donjon (keep) with 4 towers and an enclosure. But its Renaissance construction evokes no such war-like impressions. Chambord is a leisure residence for royalty. In its architectural planning, Chambord combined the most in-vogue Italian ideas with the most traditional French architectural styles. It was built according to the same conceptual principals as Italian churches and is reminiscent of the work of Leonardo da Vinci in the chancel of the Cathedral of Pavia in the 1490s. With Chambord, the use of coffered vaulted ceilings was employed for the first time in France. This Italian inspired innovation links Chambord to the architecture of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome.
The Donjon and the Stairway.
Other aspects of Chambord’s architecture are, however, typically of the French traditional style – notably the central donjon confined by 4 round towers and encircled by an enclosure. The “double spiral” stairway (two parallel stairways wrapped around one another) is the most remarkable feature of the castle and is written into the lineage of French architecture. The donjon is found in the center of the edifice. Its construction began in 1519 and was completed in 1540. In its center we find the “double spiral” stairway, which was most likely designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Its structure is very unusual: The parallel stairways ascend in such a way that two people can go up and down them without ever meeting. The casing has an openwork design, like the stairway of Francis I in Blois, so that one can see through the entire structure. The columns are decorated with unusual corner figurines: cherubs, lizards, a wingless Pegasus coming out of Mars’ temple. At the top of the donjon, a lantern crowns the grand stairway. This lantern is topped by a narrow turret and then by a skylight.
The stairway climbs three floors, and on each level, square apartments occupy the four corners Each apartment connects to another apartment contiguous with the central stairway. The cruciform space left open by this configuration is taken up by four large galleries. These galleries were not included in the original layout. There was only a simple terrace, giving the donjon a much more spacious effect.
The king’s private apartments were located in the northeast corner of the building. The “logis” (living quarters) of the king matched the chapel located in the west wing. The chapel was begun between 1545-1550 and completed under Louis XIV. Tapestries adorn the rooms of the apartments which were fixed up under Louis XIV. In these apartments are several paintings –notably, a Clouet of Henri III and a portrait of Anne of Austria by Mignard. The royal chamber was decorated at the time of of Stanislas Leczinski. In the souvenir room of the Count of Chambord, are more paintings, the ceremonial bed given to him by his loyal subjects, statues of Henri IV and the Duke of Bordeaux (the first and last counts of Chambord) as children, and a little artillery set given to the young prince to amuse and instruct him – the “play” pieces being capable of sending a projectile through a wall. One can even find there the third manifesto dated July 5, 1871, “Henry V will not abandon the royal flag of Henry IV.”
In the office of Francis I (later changed into a chapel by Stanislas, we find the window pane on which the king-chevalier engraved with his diamond ring this melancholy verse, which summed up a long romance, “Women are often inconstant; quite mad is he who trusts them.” This, followed by another testimony, “All women are inconstant, quite foolish is he who trusts them;” On the ground floor of the donjon is a collection of carriages and harnesses prepared for the entrance of the Count of Chambord for a gala thrown in 1871 in the Hermes workshops in Paris.
The Roof Terrace.
Inspired directly from Italy, it provides a unique sight: lanterns, gables, dormer windows, 800 columns and 365 chimneys, spires and pinnacles intermingled together, all detailed by the sculpter’s chisel. Under the kings, the court spent most of their time on the terrace. From there, they watched the coming and going of the hunts, military exercises and reviews, tournaments, parties. The thousand nooks and crannies of the terrace lent themselves to private little secrets, intrigues, romantic exchanges, which played a major role in the life of this dazzling society. An unusual decorative feature: the slate tiles which run along the chimneys, cut in circular, square and diamond shapes, create a kind of mosaic reminiscent of (a less expensive version of) Italian marble facing.
Long exterior galleries link the wings and the donjon. On the south side, two towers were orginally planned, but were never built. Just like the moat, which was supposed to go around the entire castle, only the northern and eastern sides were excavated.
(1) For more details, please read : « le Château de Chambord » by Ernest de Ganay