Chateaux of the Loire

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Chateaux of the Loire

Why the chateaux of the Loire are important (1) They are located in some of the loveliest countryside in France. (2) Much of French history is packed into them; they were used by French kings as well as nobles, and many events which shaped modern French history took place in or around them. (3) Many of them are splendidly preserved, and convey a vivid impression of courtly life and manners in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Characteristics of the Loire region  This area is the "Garden of France," renowned for agricultural produce, its wines, and its mild climate. Some famous wines are Vouvray, Pinot, Anjou, Muscadet, and Saumur. The mild climate (created by soft breezes blowing in from the Atlantic) has produced an equal mildness and moderation on the part of the people, a non-chalance and absence of fanaticism. Some famous Frenchmen hail from this area: the writers Rabelais and Balzac, and the philosopher Descartes. The area is the heart of "Old France" and the birthplace of many French traditions. The purest French is said to be spoken here.

The legend about how the art of pruning the vine was discovered  Vintners used to allow the vines to grow wild, trusting the fates for a robust crop. But one day, it is said, some donkeys got into the vineyards and nibbled off the leaves and sprigs, leaving only the stalks. The monks, outraged, chased them off, and lamented their lost crop. But — surprise — the harvest turned out to be more abundant than ever. The donkeys had taught the monks a lesson about vine-pruning. And ever since, wine-making and wine-tasting have been developed to a fine art in this region. The people love their wines, often drinking them out of special glasses which have no base and which can't be put down; thus, each glass is drained to the last drop.

Two types of chateaux  The chateaux on the Loire are basically of two kinds: (1) medieval fortresses which were improved and augmented in later centuries, and (2) palaces which were built later on, during the Renaissance and the 17th century. The latter type may have castle-decorations, such as crenellated walls, turrets, and moats, but these are purely ornamental. The best way to tell the difference between the two types is to notice how massive and squat the earlier medieval castles are, in spite of later refinements. The newer chateaux, on the other hand, are more gracefully proportioned, more comfortable, and have larger windows.

The political importance of these chateaux  To understand this, you must understand French political life in the 16-17th centuries. The king didn't have any one fixed political capital. Paris was an important commercial center, but the king spent only part of his time there. French kings preferred to journey from one Loire castle to another, partly because of the loveliness of the area, partly because of the excellent hunting forests. Also, the king often lived in the chateau as a guest of the noble owning it, and this enabled the king to save money on household expenses. This sometimes drained the resources of the noble, who was forced to sell the chateau to pay his debts; sometimes the king himself stepped in to take it off the noble's hands. Such French kings as Charles VIII, Louis XII, and (above all) Francis I acquired several of the Loire chateaux this way, and they based their Court at one or the other. Thus, the chateaux were the center of French political life in early modern times. All sorts of intrigues, murders, royal marriages, diplomatic maneuvers, and elaborate festivities took place in them. Also — and this is especially important — the French kings brought artists to them from all over Europe, especially Italy. The chateaux became the artistic mecca of France in addition to its political center.

NOTES ON INDIVIDUAL CHATEAUX

Blois  The castle was the residence of the Orleans family, acquired by Louis d'Orleans from the Comte de Chatillon by devious means. Louis was a great charmer and the Comtesse de Chatillon could not resist him. Louis was always broke, and so he accepted the handouts given him by his mistress, the Comtesse. The Comte was ruined by this, and had to sell his castle to Louis, who had acquired enough of Chatillon's money through his wife to buy it! Louis was the archetypical sponge. Later, Louis d'Orleans was murdered, and his widow carved on the walls of the castle the motto, "Plus ne m'est rien, rien ne m'est plus," meaning "Nothing means anything to me anymore." Another major event taking place at Blois was the assassination of the Duc de Guise. Henry III was the French king at the time, and the Duc de Guise was the champion of he Catholic cause in France. Henry III displeased the Duc de Guise because he was wobbly on religion, and the Duc de Guise forced Henry III to call a Parliament at Blois; Guise himself expected the delegates, who were sympathetic to him and to the Catholic cause, to depose the king. The king suspected this, and had to resort to murder to get rid of Guise. The killing took place on the second floor of the castle. Later, Henry III himself was assassinated.

Amboise  Two names are associated with Amboise: King Charles VIII, and King Francis I. Charles VIII was largely responsible for building the chateau. He was inspired by Italian landscape design and furniture, which he brought back to France from his expedition to Italy in 1496. This date is usually said to mark the arrival of the Italian Renaissance in France. Charles brought back an Italian landscape designer, Pacello, who laid out the gardens of the castle. Charles' death took place in a strange manner: he hit his head on a door lintel, but did not seem affected by it at first. Only later did he collapse and die. Then came Francis I, who continued Charles' work, and made Amboise a center of gracious living and festivity. Francis I brought Leonardo de Vinci to Amboise in 1517, where de Vinci died and is now buried. Notes on Leonardo: said to be exceptionally handsome and strong — could bend a horseshoe with his hands. He worked in Florence until he was almost 30, then moved to Milan. He designed fortifications, flying machines, submarines, worked on sculpture, and created great paintings. As he grew older he came into artistic competition with Michelangelo. Finally he accepted the invitation of Francis I to go to Amboise, leaving Italy for the first time. He died at Amboise in 1519, and is buried in the Chapelle St. Hubert.

The Amboise Conspiracy of 1560. Small groups of Protestants agreed to journey to Amboise one by one, perhaps to meet with King Francis II, to ask permission to practice their religion. It is now suspected that their real aim was to assassinate the king, who was Catholic. The conspiracy was discovered and the bands of Protestants were captured as they arrived in Amboise. The retaliation was fearful to behold: the conspirators were hanged from the balconies, some sewn into sacks and flung into the Loire, others beheaded. It is said that Francis II and his young wife, Mary Queen of Scots, witnessed these events from one of the balconies.

Chenonceaux  One of the most picturesque of the chateaux, built out over the River Cher, a tributary of the Loire. Thomas Bohier, the royal tax collector, wanted the spot, and used his private gains to purchase the land and the building. He knocked down the original castle (only the Keep — a separate tower — remains) and built the present one. He left the interior design to his wife, Catherine Briconnet: the result is that all sorts of practical features can be seen inside that reflect a housewife's tastes — e.g. the rooms are placed on either side of a central hallway, making service easier; instead of the usual spiral staircase, there is a straight staircase, which is more practical for carrying trays and furniture. After Bohier died, his son learned that he owed the king a large sum of money. His only choice was to give the chateau to the king (Francis I) as payment. Francis' son and heir, Henry II, gave the castle to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers (known at the time as "Diane the Ever-Beautiful"). Diane had the main garden laid out. Diane was the widow of Louis de Breze, and could never get over his death (in spite of her attachment to Henry II). She always wore mourning-colors: black and white. Diane's influence over Henry II was so strong that he wore mourning-colors too. In one of the rooms inside, you'll see the letters "H" and "D" intertwined in the wallpaper. They stand, of course for "Henry" and "Diane." When Henry II died, his wife — Catherine de Medici planned her revenge against Diane. She forced Diane to accept an exchange of Chenonceaux for Chaumont, knowing how attached to Chenonceaux Diane was. Catherine herself proceeded to make enlargements to the chateau, and to lay out the smaller garden.

Great festivals were held at Chenonceaux. Visiting dignitaries were entertained by displays taking place along the avenue leading to the chateau. (Tell the kids to watch for avenue.) On either side of this avenue is a shallow moat. Young ladies would stand in these moats dressed as nymphs and mermaids (i.e., half-naked) calling out to the passers-by. There were fireworks, and mock naval-battles on the River Cher. Another famous woman who lived at Chenonceaux was Madame Dupin, who made the place a salon for visiting literary figures. She commissioned Jean-Jacques Rousseau to educate her sons, and it was for them that Rousseau wrote his great educational treatise, Emile, and he enjoyed his days at Chenonceaux. Because Madame Dupin befriended the local villagers, she became quite popular with them, and this is the reason why the chateau was spared destruction during the French Revolution. Today, Chenonceaux is owned by the Menier family, the chocolate manufacturers, although it is kept open to the public.

Chambord  This is the largest and most impressive of the Loire chateaux. It was built by King Francis I, who had high ambitions for the palace. His original plan was to divert the Loire River so that it would run in front of it. But that proved too ambitious, and a smaller river, the Cosson, was diverted instead. At the time, Francis hardly had the money to construct such an elaborate palace. His treasury was empty and his sons were awaiting ransom in Spain. So he raided the treasuries of the churches, or confiscated silverware from petty nobles and melted it down, and finally he had his chateau. Francis and his successors came to Chambord to hunt in the large forests around it. Over the centuries, this reduced the supply of game, and all wildlife in the area is now under government protection. The chateau was 440 rooms, 360 chimneys, and reflects the rich decorative style of the Renaissance. King Louis XIV (the "Sun King") would come here from time to time from Versailles, since Chambord was the only Loire chateau large enough to accommodate his entourage. Many of Moliere's plays were first performed here. If the king enjoyed the plays, then others present expressed their approval; if not, then no one said anything. This illustrates the code of etiquette which governed court life at the time. The chateau is now the property of the state. During World War II, many art treasures of the Louvre were stored at Chambord for safe-keeping.

Azay-le-Rideau  Along with Chambord, the most-photographed of the Loire chateaux. The name of the chateau comes from the name of the nearby town, which stands at the point where the old road from Tours crosses the River Indre. Being such a strategic site, the town was fortified early, and a castle has stood here from the earliest times. The village was named for one of its early lords, the Rideau d'Azay.

The disaster of 1418: One hundred years before the present chateau was built, a massacre occurred in the town. King Charles VII was passing through, and was insulted by a corps of Burgundian guardsmen (the Burgundians were then a proud lot, and the Duke of Burgundy could rival the king of France for power). Charles sent a detachment to Azay to wreak revenge. The entire guard of 350 men, along with the captain, were executed, and the town was burned. For more than a hundred years after that, Azay was nicknamed "Azay-le-Brule" (Azay the Burnt).

Building the Chateau: Like Chenonceaux, Azay was built by a wealthy financier of he 16th century. The one who built Azay was Gilles Berthelot, who acquired the land and had this residential chateau built between 1518 and 1529. His wife, Philippa Lesbahy, directed the work, adding housewifely features inside that made for greater convenience. But Berthelot had become associated with Semblancay, a rich man out of favor with the king, and he saw his own fortunes ebbing. He fled France into exile. King Francis I took over the chateau and gave it to the captain of his guard.

The Prussians at Azay: Prince Frederick-Charles of Prussia was living at Azay in 1870, at the end of the Prussian victory over the French. One evening as he was dining, a huge chandelier crashed down on the table. The prince suspected it was a plot to assassinate him, and almost had the chateau burnt down — shades of "Azay-le-Brule!"

The French state finally bought the chateau in 1905 for 200,000 francs, and it has been a museum ever since.

Features of the chateau: The main part of the chateau is built right on the River Indre; the reflection in the water is what makes the chateau so photogenic. The graceful lines of the chateau show that its medieval turrets and towers are purely ornamental — it was from the beginning a residence, not a fortress. A huge gable with double openings contains the Grand Staircase, not spiral as at Chambord, but straight. Fine furniture and tapestries inside give you a glimpse of the luxury enjoyed by France's Renaissance nobles.

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