His & Her Châteaux: Chambord & Chenonceau
by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
Like most visitors, we’re speechless when we first catch a glimpse of Château de Chambord. The 356 turrets, chimneys, spires and towers are spectacular, but whimsically bizarre. The interior is equally extravagant: 426 rooms, 77 staircases and 282 gigantic fireplaces. What could the original builder, King Francis I, have been thinking?
Yet another impressive statistic, the estate — which was primarily used for hunting — sits on a 13,000-acre forest. That Chambord is the largest château in the Loire Valley is no surprise.
What’s unclear, is the identity of the architect for Chambord. Francis I was a great admirer of Leonardo da Vinci, and a number of historians theorize that da Vinci was a kind of father figure to the young king. Whatever the relationship, Leonardo da Vinci came to France with Francis in 1515 and lived in Clos Lucé near Francis’ Château d’Amboise. An underground tunnel connected the two residences, and Francis visited da Vinci regularly.
When Leonardo died in 1519, some of his most prized paintings were with him at Clos Lucé, including the Mona Lisa. Francis, who was 25 at the time, bought the paintings from da Vinci’s student-assistant who had inherited his master’s work. That same year, the king began construction on Chambord.
Some historians believe that the multiple spires and turrets are an accolade to da Vinci and represent a futuristic city that Francis and da Vinci were designing together. The castle’s center piece is definitely a da Vinci design — an enormous double-spiral staircase that connects the château’s three floors.
Francis spent 12 years building Chambord with some 1,800 laborers, masons and artisans. But he would ultimately spend only 72 days at the estate and never saw his project completed. Francis’ son, Henry II, and Louis XIV oversaw construction at various times. In fact, Chambord was Louis XIV’s last residence before he began building his incomparable palace at Versailles.
During the summer, the château is illuminated at night and special events are held. Tours of the park are also available via SUVs, bikes or on horseback. See the Château de Chambord site for more information.
LES DAMES DE CHENONCEAU
Near Chambord is another much-visited Loire château — Chenonceau. Owned by a succession of women, Château de Chenonceau is stately and refined, replete with intricate, romantic details. It stands in sharp contrast to the massive, fantastical Chambord. Interestingly, however, Francis I also played a significant role in the history of Chenonceau, when he seized the property for unpaid debts to the Crown. After Francis’ death in 1547, his son Henry II gave the château to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.
Diane adored Chenonceau and added significantly to the property by commissioning a five-arch bridge to span the River Cher, creating a grand entryway to the castle. She also designed elaborate gardens and orchards.
An intellectual, shrewd financial manager, as well as a great beauty, Diane was much more than a mistress to Henry II. She wrote many of the king’s proclamations and even signed them jointly with him. Her power was the envy of the court.
Henry’s Queen, Catherine de’ Medici, was understandably jealous. When Henry II died, Catherine forced Diane to give up her beloved Chenonceau and then moved in herself. Perhaps in an effort to exceed her beautiful rival, the widowed Catherine continued to add to the estate. Most audacious was her transformation of Diane’s bridge into a two-story promenade resembling the Ponte Vecchio Bridge — a tribute to Catherine’s Medici family and the city of Florence.
Château de Chenonceau also became the site for Catherine’s extravagant parties. In 1560, she launched the first ever fireworks display in France. And the château was also the stage for the wedding of Catherine’s son, Francis II to Mary Queen of Scots.
After Catherine’s death, Chenonceau was neglected, then completely abandoned for over 100 years. Finally, Claude and Louise-Marie Dupin bought the estate in 1733. Madame Dupin was the daughter of a rich financier and used her money to restore the castle. She surrounded herself with the Enlightenment philosophers of the day, including Voltaire, Charles Montesquieu and Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Madame Dupin was also extraordinarily generous and much loved by the local villagers, who protected her during the Revolution. Many estates, Chambord included, were looted and badly damaged during this period. Chenonceau was spared any destruction. Priceless paintings by Tintoretto, Rubens, Van Dyck and Correggio can still be viewed today.
Visit the charming Madame Dupin and the other residents of Chenonceau at the Château’s Wax Museum. See the Chenonceau site for information about special events and activities.