Welcome to Chambord - the fairytale chateau built to give a king a home for just 72 days

The Chateau de Chambord
The Chateau de Chambord

Once, Chambord was famous for being the empty palace where the kings of France rarely set foot, surrounded by a forest that was later only accessible to those in presidential favour. Now, Francis I’s ‘Utopia’ is being restored to its former glory, as Gary Lee Kraut finds out

IT REPRESENTS the epitome of French Rennaissance architecture but the Chateau de Chambord has never stood on its own two feet.

However the secrets to its future financial survival and a plan to make it into a working, self-sufficient tourist attraction lie in its history: a heritage of hunting, breeding, wine-making plus its architectural heritage and, albeit minimal, historic role.

Just nine months after assuming the throne in 1515 at the age of 20 upon the death of his cousin Louis XII, Francis I, the last of France’s knight-kings, won a stirring victory at the Battle of Marignano, in Italy.

So rousing was that defeat of the Old Swiss Confederacy that it has come to serve as a bookend to France’s own tremendous loss to the English at the Battle of Agincourt exactly a century earlier.

As a military victory, however, Marignano had little lasting effect.

Four years later the French lost Milan, the prize of that victory, as the Italian Wars continued.

The lasting legacy of this and other incursions in Italy turned out instead to be France’s contact with the arts, culture and architecture of the Italian Renaissance.

The king and the artist

In December 1515, three months after his defining victory at Marignano, Francis I met Leonardo da Vinci.

Within a year, the two were neighbours in the Loire Valley. The king stayed at his chateau at Amboise, while Leonardo lived just up the road at the Château du Clos Lucé.

Though no plans are known to exist from the time of Chambord’s construction and Leonardo da Vinci died three months before work on the chateau began, d’Haussonville is one of many to find the Renaissance genius’s spirit and inspiration, if not his hand, behind the structure: a Greek cross rotating around a double staircase.

The highly decorated roof at Chateau de Chambord
The highly decorated roof at Chateau de Chambord

“Chambord is to architecture what the Mona Lisa is to art,” he said. “It’s deep with meaning.”

He further likens the chateau to Mona Lisa’s smile in both the mystery that it presents and its significance as a major marker of the Renaissance.

Though Francis I’s only spent a smattering of days at the chateau, his vision — not to mention his power and influence — are clearly evident throughout the palace.

The arches and ceilings of the second level are sculpted with a profusion of F’s within a Franciscan cord and a firebreathing salamander whose fire nourishes the good and extinguishes the bad (nutrisco et extinguo).

Chambord vision

Francis I died in 1547 — the same year as one of his greatest royal rivals, Henry VIII of England — with work on Chambord still incomplete.

Successive sovereigns and owners of the chateau and domain pursued Francis I’s grand vision with

surprisingly few modifications.

Even Louis XIV, a man around whom all things rotated, respected his predecessor’s vision when he balanced Francis I’s royal wing with a chapel on the opposite side of the dungeon.

Three distinct but attached buildings speak of the trinity of power in France: the church, the nobility, and the king.

The use of religious architecture for a royal project culminated in a lantern tower crowned not by a cross but by a fleur de lys.

The domain of 2500 hectares under Francis I’s reign was increased to its current size of 5,540 hectares comprising Blois and Chambord in 1650 under Gaston d’Orléans, an uncle of Louis XIV who was exiled to live in the area for plotting against his king.

Covering a surface roughly the size of Paris intramuros, the domain is surrounded by a 32km wall that encloses the chateau, a village, farms, ponds, marshland, and wooded areas.

Today, Chambord remains a rare example of a royal-cum-national domain that has remained relatively intact over the centuries The king’s will, insisted d’Haussonville, was 'to build a utopia'.

Modern view

Jean d’Haussonville outside Chateau de Chambord
Jean d’Haussonville outside Chateau de Chambord

Jean d’Haussonville is dedicated to maintaining Francis I’s vision as a builder-king and seeing Chambord flourish as an enduring monument and natural reserve.

The domain’s project for the next five years is titled ‘Chambord or the Ideal City’.

It provides a roadmap to financial self-sufficiency, provided the “realistic and necessary” goal of one million paying visitors per year can be reached by the end of the decade. In 2014, the number of annual visitors was 769,220.

“The potential for increase comes from foreigners,” d’Haussonville said.

Overseas tourists made up 45% of paying visitors at Chambord last year.

D’Haussonville, like many in the tourist industry, is looking to China for some of the growth. From about 23,000 Chinese visitors in 2014, primarily in groups, he is aiming to welcome 70,000 by 2020.

Last year, Chambord signed a partnership with the Summer Palace in Beijing, which is expected to increase the Chinese awareness of the existence and significance of Chambord. Like Chambord, the Summer Palace’s ensemble of palaces, gardens, landscape and lake are a Unesco World Heritage Site.

D’Haussonville — who was groomed as a diplomat before his career took a bend in the road towards culture — also cites potential in the number of American visitors (29,000) who, along with Germans, currently top the list of foreigners coming through the doors at Chambord.

Asked if American visitors were more attracted to chateaux of anecdote and charm, such as nearby Chenonceau, rather than of power, he said: “Americans are sensitive to innovation, and we are on the site of the innovation of the Renaissance in France.”

The number of visitors from Britain lags behind at about 17,000 a year.

It is estimated that 1.5million visitors freely enter the domain’s 32km enclosure each year, but nearly half of those appear not to have the time, interest or budget to visit the chateau.

In 2005, the year National Domain of Chambord formally became a Public Industrial and Commercial Institution (EPIC), its income covered about 67% of its annual operating budget (excluding restorations) that stood at a little more than €5million.

Nine years later, in 2014, the domain’s direct income accounted for nearly 87% of an operating budget of about €16.5 million.

Self-sufficiency, at least in terms of the operating budget, if not restoration, is the goal for 2020.

The State hasn’t specifically instructed managing director Jean d’Haussonville to ensure the domain’s financial selfsufficiency, he says, but he is well aware that France has been backing away subsidising historical monuments that have earning potential.

“Being independent is a good thing,” he said.

An additional €6-7million currently goes into heavy restoration work each year, of which d’Haussonville would like to see half covered by the domain’s direct income.

Why not 100%? “The State must continue to assume its responsibility,” he said.

The empty chateau

Chambord was built at the time of an itinerant royal court. It wasn’t until the early 1600s that kings and the court settled down and furnished and decorated their properties for the long-term.

Francis I was constantly on the move. He set down his trunks and unfurled his tapestries at Chambord eight times during his reign, for a total of 72 days and 42 nights. Ahead of him travelled all of the furnishings and trappings of the king and his entourage. About 3,000 people might accompany the king, hundreds of whom would sleep in the chateau.

Bringing a sense of life to a place that had no life beyond the rare days when the king was present is one of the challenges of creating an environment that attracts and informs visitors.

Until about a decade ago, Chambord had a reputation as a huge, empty chateau where the kings of French history had rarely set foot, surrounded by a forest that was later accessible only to those in presidential favour. For most people, stealing views from the front and back alleys had to be enough.

In recent years, however, d’Haussonville and his team have been busy acquiring various furnishings on loan from other national institutions, developing interactive multimedia tours, and creating, restoring, or improving rooms that reveal aspects of its history, and holding temporary exhibitions.

“Chambord was only seen when the king was here. It was a place to hold events,” he said, adding it would be inappropriate to decorate and furnish the chateau as though it had been permanently occupied.

Nevertheless, there are hints at Chambord of how rooms might have looked during Francis I’s visits.

This is particularly the case in the king’s bedroom. Studies are currently under way to restore this room to offer a vision of the daily life of the king in residence.

Since July this year, visitors have been able to hire a HistoPad, a tablet computer that allows them to see eight rooms as they may have been during the time of Francis I, particularly during the several days in 1539 when he hosted arch-nemesis Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.

Chambord's most notorious residents

IT MAY not have been a favourite long-term residence for the kings of France but Chambord is linked to a number of famous — and notorious — French figures/

MAURICE DE SAXE

THE presence that is most easily imagined inside the chateau is that of Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750).

The illegitimate son of a Saxon prince-cum-Polish king, little should have destined him to live like a prince at Chambord.

For much of his adult life he was a restless aristocrat soldier in search of a seat of power. Then, in 1745, thanks to his service to Louis XV, the king granted him use of Chambord for life.

Work was undertaken to make the old chateau livable for an 18th-century prince, including the redecoration of his living quarters, the maintenance of the French gardens, and the construction of stables – needed to house his cavalry regiments.

Although Maurice de Saxe would only live here for two years, he is the resident who profited most from Chambord.

COUNT OF CHAMBORD

ANOTHER figure associated with Chambord, though he never actually lived here, is Henri de Bourbon (1820-1883), legitimist pretender to the French throne.

The fall of Napoleon III in 1870 gave rise to hopes for another restoration of the monarchy in the form of Henri, grandson of Charles X, the last French king from the senior branch of the House of Bourbon.

Henri enjoyed the title Count of Chambord due to his ownership of the domain, despite the fact he had lived in exile since 1830.

He sought a peaceful return to France as king under the fleur de lys monarchy.

But the National Assembly in 1871 voted in favour of the tricolour and the Republic and the Count of Chambord died in exile, childless.

His nephew, and heir to the chateau, later installed a throne room in honour of his uncle’s royal claim.

In February this year, that room and an adjacent exhibition about Henri de Bourbon were reopened to the public.

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