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Château De Chambord: A Mighty Castle in the Loire Valley of France

FlourishAnyway welcomes the opportunity to travel both stateside and abroad and especially enjoys documenting her fun through photography.

King Francis took great interest in the construction of Chambord which began in 1519.  He died in 1547.  The castle was still incomplete after 28 years.

King Francis took great interest in the construction of Chambord which began in 1519. He died in 1547. The castle was still incomplete after 28 years.

Almost Done: The 28-Year Pet Project of King Francis I

Have you ever had a pet project that seemed to drag on and on? A project that you continually worked on but . . . let's be completely honest here . . . you will never actually complete?

Maybe it's perfectionism, love of the process, or simply biting off more than you can chew. Whatever the case, the project gets stuck at 90% done. Or even less.

When my family and I visited Château de Chambord on a day trip from Paris, I was relieved to learn that even the royals have had those never-ending projects.

In 1519, when 25-year-old King Francis I embarked on the construction of Château de Chambord, little did he expect it would be his lifelong endeavor. The expansive château was a project that took on a life of its own and required a construction team of 1,800 men.1

Royal Hunting Lodge . . . Seriously?

The king built Chambord partially because he wanted to be closer to his married mistress, the Countess of Thoury, Claude Rohan. She lived on an adjoining property. Primarily, however, he built it as a flamboyant hunting lodge and location for large receptions.

For the next 28 years, the king patiently monitored Chambord's construction. While he waited, Francis fought in the Italian wars, transformed the Louvre into a Renaissance marvel, and attracted prominent writers and artists such as Leonardo da Vinci to France.

He also kept busy by financing expeditions to the New World, persecuting Protestants, and maintaining an ongoing personal feud with Charles V (King of the Holy Roman Empire).2

Ah, but there was always Chambord.

A Royal Priority

Chambord was such a regal priority that nothing could stop its progress.3 Not the royal treasury's near bankruptcy. Not even the huge ransom to free the king's two sons who "replaced" him as a hostage in Spain.

As fundraising, the king pillaged church coffers and put appointments and offices up for sale (e.g., the role of magistrate).4 Construction continued, regardless of the country's financial wellbeing.

So grand was the king's plan that he even had visions of diverting the Loire River to the front of his château. He settled instead for the Cousson River, a mere tributary.5

Dream Unfulfilled

Francis intermittently occupied the castle for a total of only 72 days, as the massive structure's open windows made temperature control impractical. Unfortunately, he died of syphilis before the massive château could be fully completed.

If the king found any consolation, however, it was the opportunity to host his archnemesis at Chambord, thus rubbing Charles V's nose in his achievement.

Chambord's famous roofline resembles the skyline of the Constantinople (now Istanbul)

Chambord's famous roofline resembles the skyline of the Constantinople (now Istanbul)

Chambord's Claims to Fame

Today the immense castle is a testament to King Francis I's dogged persistence. It also stands as a monument to royal wealth and power. The largest château in the Loire Valley region of France, Chambord features

  • 440 rooms
  • 84 staircases
  • 282 fireplaces
  • 13,000 acres (5,440 hectares) of wooded parkland surrounding the château and
  • a 19-mile (31 km) wall that completely encloses the property.5

Chambord endures as one of the most recognizable châteaux in all of the Loire Valley. It is particularly well known for two architectural elements: its roofline and double helix staircase.

The double helix staircase is a central feature of the castle and joins four floors.

The double helix staircase is a central feature of the castle and joins four floors.

Chambord's Famous Roofline

Francis intended for the castle's roofline to resemble the skyline of the city of Constantinople (now Istanbul). Author Henry James remarked that Chambord's "towers, cupolas, the gables, the lanterns, the chimneys, look more like the spires of a city than the salient points of a single building."

Double Helix Staircase: A Touch of da Vinci?

Equally notable is the château's double helix staircase, an architectural marvel thought to have been inspired by Leonardo da Vinci. Francis was da Vinci's friend and benefactor, supplying the aging painter with a generous pension and living quarters on the grounds of a nearby château, Amboise.

The artist was a brilliant thinker and had a remarkable range of interests: science, math, engineering, inventing, anatomy, botany, music, and writing.

Chambord's double helix staircase is actually two spiral staircases that are independently wound around a central column. They are positioned so that two people walking on the staircases—say, a servant and a royal—would never meet. The double helix staircase is located in the central keep and joins four floors. It is the central feature of the castle's interior.

King Francis I chose the salamander as his personal symbol.  It appears over 800 times throughout Chambord.

King Francis I chose the salamander as his personal symbol. It appears over 800 times throughout Chambord.

Famous People Who Died of Syphilis, the "French Disease"

To insult a whole country of people, simply refer to a deadly sexually transmitted disease as "their" disease.

The Italians referred to syphilis as a "French disease" because a major outbreak occurred when the French invaded Italy in 1495. (In turn, the French called it the "Italian disease.")

Caused by a bacterium, syphilis produces the following symptoms: chancre sores, swollen lymph nodes, fever, weight loss, bone and joint pain. In later stages, it can lead to heart damage, paralysis, dementia, blindness, and mental illness.6

Syphilis was a major killer during the Renaissance period.7 King Francis I died of it, and throughout history, many famous politicians, artists, and musicians reportedly suffered from the ailment as well.

Until penicillin was discovered to safely and reliably cure syphilis in 1928, syphilitic patients were often injected with mercury (or they swallowed or inhaled it). This deadly treatment gave rise to the saying, "a night with Venus; a lifetime with Mercury."8

The following is a short list of famous people whom historians allege either suffered from syphilis or died from it.

  • Explorers Christopher Columbus and his crew are believed to have brought the disease back from the New World.
  • Gangster Al Capone died of syphilis.9
  • Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Artists Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Édouard Manet
  • Composers Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and Robert Schumann10
  • Authors/Poets/Playwrights Giacomo Casanova, John Keats, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Guy de Maupassant, William Shakespeare, and Leo Tolstoy
  • World Leaders and Politicians: Napoleon Bonaparte, Henry VIII, Adolf Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, Vladimir Lenin, Abraham Lincoln, Benito Mussolini, and yes, even George Washington.

With all this suffering among the famous, can you imagine how the rest of the population fared? Thank goodness for the advent of penicillin.

What Does the Salamander Symbolize?

If it seems like salamanders have overtaken Chambord, you're right! Over 800 of them are carved into the masonry, particularly on third flood ceiling tiles.

Francis adopted the salamander as his personal emblem, and they appear along with the decorative initial "F" throughout the castle.

Salamanders also appear on other buildings Francis commissioned or renovated. On royal buildings, the salamander was generally depicted with a crown or floating crown, and on non-royal houses, the animal's head is bare.

Francis selected the salamander for its Renaissance symbolism. The animal was believed to be able to not only survive a fire but also to extinguish flames with its cool, moist skin. The salamander thus represents bravery, invulnerability to harm, and triumph over destructive forces.

Francis accordingly adopted the motto "Nutrisco et extinguo," meaning "I nourish [the good] and extinguish [the bad]."11 The king believed that he was nourished by the flame of faith, peace, and love and that it gave him the strength to extinguish injustice and greed.

King Francis I: Monarch Behind the Mighty Castle

To fully appreciate Chambord, one must understand the essence of the monarch behind this mighty castle. King Francis I was a power-hungry ruler who loved the arts. He was also a spendthrift who did not hesitate to indulge his passions.

Unexpected Inheritance

Francis was a long shot in the line for the throne. No one expected that he would inherit the monarchy.12

However, when he was four years old his cousin, Louis XII, died without a male heir, leaving him as king of France. Francis' own father had died two years earlier, and both his mother and sister coddled him. They were such a tight threesome that sometimes they were referred to as "the trinity."

Man of the Arts

Francis' mother, Louise of Savoy, ruled France on his behalf until he was old enough to assume the throne himself in 1515. She instilled in her only son a love of the budding Renaissance era: philosophy, theology, art, literature, poetry, and dancing.

Ornate carvings of salamanders and the king's initial on the ceiling of the third floor.

Ornate carvings of salamanders and the king's initial on the ceiling of the third floor.

Francis is credited as initiating the French Renaissance. During his reign, he became a great patron of the arts, procuring a vast collection of sculptures and paintings to fill the Louvre as well as the châteaux he built.

Francis also became a benefactor of several acclaimed Italian artists, and he brought them to France. These included masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Giulio Romano, and Primaticciohe.

King Francis I was known for his disproportionately large honker.  They say that he was considered otherwise attractive.  After all, he was king.

King Francis I was known for his disproportionately large honker. They say that he was considered otherwise attractive. After all, he was king.

"Every woman is fickle, he who trusts one is a fool."

— the lovelorn King Francis I scratched this into the surface of Chambord

Chambord is filled with evidence of royal hunting conquests:  stuffed game, antlers, and artwork depicting the hunt.  The wall surrounding the castle made it more of a "canned" hunt.

Chambord is filled with evidence of royal hunting conquests: stuffed game, antlers, and artwork depicting the hunt. The wall surrounding the castle made it more of a "canned" hunt.

Royal Spendthrift

Francis greatly expanded the royal library which had been depleted by war. He also poured enormous sums of money into construction and renovation projects, including Chambord, the Louvre, Amboise, and Fontainebleau. Although he had champagne dreams and wine money, that was no deterrent for a man on a mission.

Francis' construction projects were a testament to his love of luxury, wealth, and good taste. His primary concerns in life became hunting, tennis, jewelry, and making a show of his bravery and good manners.

Player or Played?

An attractive man of over six feet tall, Francis had one unfortunate feature: a very long and large nose. As a result, he was sometimes referred to as "King Francis of The Large Nose." Nevertheless, he enjoyed the ladies and welcomed the pretty ones to the court: "A court without women is a year without spring and a spring without roses.” (What a smooth-talking son of a gun!)