Monday, 27 May 2013

Preview: Chateau de Chambord

The Loire is the longest river in France, with the Loire Valley stretching out across the middle third, at the heart of the country. In the 15th and 16th Centuries, it became a popular spot with lords, princes, and kings, looking for a bit of fun. With dense forests for hunting, fertile land for grapes and therefore wine, a river full of fish, and a pleasant climate, it was a perfect getaway for royals in need of a holiday break. Being along a river made transportation of materials easy - far easier than convoys of horses dragging heavy loads. Chateaux were built, in effect luxury castles for kings and queens to rest and play in, built not for actual defense, just for grandeur and glory. The largest, most magnificent, most imposing, and perhaps most useless of all these was the Chateau de Chambord.

Built in the 16th Century by King Francis I, the Chateau de Chambord has been described as "the parody of a feudal castle" by our old friend, Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. That's not necessarily derogatory, it's a pretty accurate summation of Chambord. The overall layout resembles a fortress - it has a square central keep (i.e. the fortified residential core) with four corner towers, surrounded by a ring of low buildings also with corner towers which create a courtyard. It follows an essentially medieval plan - but there's no defense. There's even a moat, but again not for any actual defensive purpose. The key word here, I suppose, is "faux". It's a faux-fortress, built for ornamental purposes. Hardly the only fancy chateau built in the area, Francis I wanted yet another one, and in France the absolute monarch always got what he wanted.

And in Chambord's case, that was something undeniably pretty. Blending medieval and fantasy, the Chateau de Chambord has an essence of fantasy. Part of a vast estate of 55 square kilometres - approximately the size of Manhattan - the chateau itself is 128 metres wide and 54 metres high at its tallest, approximately the dimensions of the Taj Mahal. Built from soft white tuffeau stone usually more suited for sculpture, it shares a bright, unusual beauty with the Taj Mahal too, with an overall structural symmetry. But Chambord's standout feature is the almost entirely asymmetrical roof. Featuring eleven kinds of towers, and taking on an unforced, higgledy-piggledy form, it resembles an exotic skyline - "Constantinople on a single roof".

Following the French Revolution, most documents were lost or destroyed, so little is known about the construction of Chambord. An Italian influence has long been suspected; tantalisingly, Leonardo da Vinci spent his last few years in the Loire Valley in the employment of Francis I. He died prior to construction but had sketches not dissimilar to Chambord in his notebook. Possibly he contributed ideas; probably it is wishful thinking to call him its architect. A 1532 payment to architect Domenico de Cortona links him to the chateau; he built a wooden model of it, thought to have been inspired by an Italian villa designed by his mentor. Other names are suggested, and other people are likely to have executed his design (designs of Italian architects were usually executed by French builders), but de Cortona is the strongest candidate by weight of, albeit inconclusive, evidence.

The site of the chateau was occupied in ancient times - the name Chambord apparently comes from the Celtic cambo ritos meaning "ford at the bend", the bend not actually being at the Loire river but the Cosson, which is a small tributary river that joins the Loire shortly after. It is by this tributary that a castle was built by the Count of Blois in around the 12th Century. By the 14th Century there was a chapel and some mills additionally, but none of this remains, for by 1519 they had been razed to the ground as Francis I's new chateau began construction. It was slow progress at first - not helped by Francis I being captured in battle by his arch rival, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, in 1525. He was only released a year later upon concessions that included his two young sons swapping place with him. Cheers dad. Nonetheless, by 1539, Chambord must have been in a suitably impressive state, for Francis I was able to entertain and impress his new mate, Charles V, there during a lull in their many wars. Presumably Charles said "nice house" and they enjoyed some light-hearted banter, before getting straight back to some war soon afterwards.

Francis I died in 1547, and except for some fits and bursts, construction more or less stopped then. In the 28 years since it was first begun, and in about 15 years of the chateau being at least habitable, Francis I stayed in it for a grand total of 36 days. Thar's according to his official itinerary, at least. When he wasn't there, nobody was: the chateau was empty - no furniture, no people, nothing. Chambord was never used militarily, and Charles V's visit was its only political use. It was a holiday home, and when Francis went on holiday, all his court of up to 10,000 people, and all of the trappings of luxurious royal life travelled with him. Possibly this figure of 36 days is misleading - it's only the amount of time recorded with his court, and he likely used Chambord as a hunting retreat, leaving his court behind for days at a time when he did so. Perhaps Chambord was used a little more therefore - but this is unrecorded. Even so, the chateau spent most of its time during Francis's reign being either built, or being totally empty.

In fact, emptiness has been a near permanent state of the Chateau de Chambord ever since it was built. After Francis I's death, Chambord was virtually abandoned. Successive kings barely ever visited, and rarer even spent money on repairs or construction. During Louis XIV's 72-year reign, he paid only nine visits to Chambord, for a total of 150 days: he was much more interested in developing Versailles. In the 18th Century, the exiled Polish king lived there for nine years, complaining a lot about the noxious fumes from the moat, and a few other privileged members of the nobility spent a few years as well, kind of treating it like a rental home while they looked for something more permanent. The French Revolution came and went, stripping Chambord of whatever wealth it might have had, and by the 19th Century nobody really know what to do with it. Napoleon considered making it a kind of school, and it was also considered as a utopian commune, but in the end it did what it does best - sit about being empty, slowly falling apart. It had short roles as a gunpowder factory, a prison, and as a field hospital during war, and it pops up again near the end of World War 2 when an American B-24 bomber crashed in its gardens, both pilots surviving. But really, unlike many of my Wonders, the Chateau de Chambord never did anything important, never saw anything important, never made anything of itself really. A huge, beautiful construction, it is like a talented teenager who never does anything with their lives. At best playing minor background roles in history, Chambord is unfulfilled. In the words of the author Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, "Without man, the most beautiful monuments and the most splendid halls are nothing more than empty shells."

Chambord may well have been a white elephant throughout history, a colossal chateau for kings, but almost always without them or anybody else. But as a Wonder, that doesn't really matter. Because I try not to look so much at the beauty within, I prefer to judge on the beauty on the surface. Chambord may not have served a grand role in history, but it's the impression of grandeur I'm looking for. Sure, I won't disagree that playing pivotal roles in the ebbs and tides of history is an attractive feature for a building, but sometimes just looking good is enough. My Wonder quest is less of a talent show, more of a beauty contest. Francis I, Louis XIV, Napoleon: none were very interested in the chateau; but I am.

And, fortunately for Chambord, it's starting to turn its fortunes around. From birth, in a perpetually unfinished and mostly empty state, by the 19th Century the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said of it, "All is mournful and deserted. The grass has overgrown the pavement of the courtyard, and the rude sculpture on the walls is broken and defaced." Well, these days upwards of 700,000 people visit annually, to a chateau in the best shape of its life. Since the 1960s, it has been extensively restored and refurnished, in an "ideal state" vision of what it might have been, had things turned out differently. No longer deserted, no longer empty, the Chateau de Chambord doesn't need kings, it's got tourists.

And I'll be one of them, probably around summer next year. At which time I'll give a fuller account of it and its lonely history then, as well as my own impressions.


  1. Make sure you check out the double helix staircase, in your last photo, said to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci himself (although there is no conclusive evidence of that, it's mere conjecture based on the fact that the staircase is quite cleverly designed and Leonardo happened to be around at the time). He's also buried near the chateau I believe.

    1. Although a direct link with da Vinci might be fanciful, surely only someone of his genius would be able to design a staircase based upon DNA structure 400 years before it was discovered.

      A google search tells me he's buried at the Chapel of Saint-Hubert at the Chateau d'Amboise, which is indeed pretty close.


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