The Loire's castles, royal residences of incredible elegance, represent the splendor of an era, that of the Renaissance. The wars in Italy allowed French rulers to discover Italian architectural refinement. They then decide to give a “royal” look to their homes and transform their castles or have new ones built. In total, we consider that the Loire Valley has, apart from the royal castles, nearly 1,200 castles, manors and other buildings of character, including Chambord, Blois, Amboise, Chaumont and Chenonceaux.
The Loire Valley, an attractive region
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, sumptuous royal residences appeared in the Orléans, Touraine and Anjou regions. These regions are not lacking in attractions. The climate is mild and sunny, and the green nature has an undeniable charm. Far from borders, they are generally spared from wars. Their geographical position, between the south and the north of the country, is proving to be advantageous for the French sovereigns at a time when they are striving to achieve centralization. After the Hundred Years War, the castles lost their defensive function. They become veritable royal residences, comfortable, bright and luxurious. With the wars in Italy, the French discovered Italian architectural refinement. They then transpose it into their own constructions. The first palaces are the work of masons who follow their inspiration, hence their exuberance. Later castles, the work of architectural theorists, are more sober.
Italian influence and the classical period
In 1496, Charles VIII's return to Italy initiated Italian influence in architecture. The main buildings of the Château d'Amboise (rebuilt from 1490) open to the light, the circulation galleries of Blois (built by Louis XII from 1498) herald a new refinement. The architectural evolutions characteristic of the Renaissance find their full expression at the beginning of the sixteenth century, under the reign of François Ier. From his wars in Italy, the sovereign brought back a taste for the Italian Renaissance. The northern home of Blois (started in 1515), Chambord (in 1519) involve great Italian artists - architects, sculptors, painters. The mixture of brick and stone, which dominated the buildings erected under Charles VIII and Louis XII (Gien, Blois), gives way to white tufa, which becomes the building material par excellence. Brick reappeared under the reigns of Henri IV and Louis XIII, as in the castles of Sully or Brissac.
In the 17th century, the classical style, marked by the balance of forms and symmetry, reached the shores of the Loire. Some buildings bear the mark of this period: the unfinished wing of the Château de Blois, where Gaston d'Orléans dreamed of setting up his court (1635-1638), Ménars (built around 1646 and future property of the Marquise de Pompadour), Brissac (completely renovated from 1608) and especially Cheverny (1604-1634), with harmonious proportions.
The castle of Chambord
This immense palace perfectly illustrates the transition between medieval architecture and Renaissance architecture with its lanterns, white stones, terraces and numerous openings. A double spiral staircase stands in the middle of the guard room. Probably designed by Leonardo da Vinci, it includes a cage with two propellers. Those who borrow it can see each other, but they do not meet. It is richly decorated in Italian taste and reaches the central lantern, 32 meters high. If Chambord inherits a feudal plan, with a central keep and ditches filled with water, it serves only as a hunting palace. We do not know the name of the architect who designed it. The masters Denis Sourdeau, Pierre Nepveu dit Trinqueau and Jacques Coqueau chaired the work, which began in 1519. François Ier was suspected of wanting to impress Henry VIII and Charles V because he received the latter there with great pomp and gave sumptuous receptions. On the other hand, he only resides a few weeks in this house which symbolizes the centralization of power.
The immense park of Chambord now covers a hunting reserve which perpetuates an activity highly prized by the court, at the origin of the construction of the castle. The majestic double spiral staircase, the multiple terraces, the roofs that appear sculpted, all these elements make Chambord one of the splendors of the Loire châteaux.
Amboise is built on a rocky promontory on the banks of the Loire. In 1495, Charles VIII returned from the Italian wars, accompanied by Italian architects. He wants to give his home the prestige of a royal palace. The Boccador and Fra Giocondo are among the architects of the castle, while Pacello takes care of the gardens. The reconstruction includes a renaissance wing with the Minimes tower and its rich Italian decorations. When the king died there in 1498, work was interrupted. They were completed under Louis XII and under François I, who spent the first three years of his reign there.
Today, only the King's Lodge (whose facade faces the Loire), the Saint-Hubert chapel and two towers called the Hurtault tower and the Minimes tower remain of this vast complex. Amboise castle is a Gothic construction: in accordance with medieval aesthetics, the ornamentation of the King's Lodge is concentrated on the upper parts (cornice, dormer window) and verticality directs the elevation. In addition, ingenious arrangements have been made, such as the Hurtault and Minimes towers, which are stair towers whose screws are without steps so that the ramp can be climbed by riders or light teams. But the most beautiful element of the castle is undoubtedly the Saint-Hubert chapel, whose stone ornamentation, often compared to lace, recalls the Flemish altarpieces. The names of Flemish artists such as Corneille de Nesve appear in the archives and attest that this chapel with its rich flamboyant decoration has benefited from foreign contributions.
The castle of Chaumont-sur-Loire
In the 10th century, Chaumont-sur-Loire was the seat of a fortress built by the counts of Blois. In 1465, Louis XI, King of France, ordered the destruction of this old castle, owned by Pierre d´Amboise, when it was compromised in the league of the public good. Four years later, the latter recovered his property and the castle was rebuilt by his son Charles I of Amboise between 1473 and 1475. The construction of the castle was completed by Charles II between 1498 and 1510. On the death of Henri II, Diane de Poitiers is obliged to cede the castle of Chenonceaux to Catherine de Medici in exchange for that of Chaumont which she takes possession.
At the end of the 19th century, the de Broglie family acquired the castle, which became a place of sumptuous celebrations. The castle was restored by the architect Pierre-Etienne Sanson, the stables were fitted out with stalls with enamelled feeders and the park, entirely redesigned by Henri Duchêne, received an electric lighting. In 1940, the castle was classified as a historical monument. It became state property in 1938. Since 1992, the Chaumont-sur-Loire International Garden Festival takes place every year in the castle grounds, where contemporary artists from around the world compose daring gardens.
The fortress of Blois overlooks the Loire. Home to the Counts of Châtillon, it has existed since the thirteenth century. The poet Charles of Orleans inherits this possession. He stayed there after his return from England. His son Louis XII again made changes and made Blois his favorite residence. He furnishes the interior in Italian style. François I had a new wing built to enrich the castle. Le Boccador designs its rich facade in French style. An elegant carved staircase cuts the side of the courtyard. It is embedded in an octagonal cage and can serve as a platform.
Despite several major projects, especially during the reign of Henry IV, few achievements remain from the various works undertaken between the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century. Under Louis XIII, the architect François Mansart was responsible for rebuilding the entire building, but work was interrupted in 1637. Only the building occupying the back of the courtyard saw the light of day. The facade, of a sober classical arrangement, is organized around a richly sculpted avant-corps dedicated to the glory of the prince. Inside, only the dome-vaulted high room which houses the staircase, built late (in 1932) on the model of that of the Château de Maisons, another work by François Mansart, has been completed.
Since 1869, the Château de Blois has housed a Fine Arts museum in the apartments in the Louis XII wing. A room is dedicated to the iconography of the death of the Duke of Guise, assassinated at the castle in 1588 by order of Henri III, during the wars of religion.
The most original of the Loire Valley castles is built on the site of a totally uncomfortable old defensive fortress. Thomas Bohier, receiver of Finances of Charles VIII, buys the residence and builds his castle. His wife directs the work with great taste. She innovated by having straight-ramp staircases built. François Ier takes over the castle and Henri II gives it to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. It is to the latter that we owe the five-arched bridge that spans the Cher. On the death of Henri II, Catherine de Medici demands Chenonceau against Chaumont. On the bridge which gives access to the residence, the queen has a double-storey gallery built in the Italian style. The first floor serves as a ballroom.
The Loire châteaux, a popular tourist destination
Owned by the State (Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord, Angers) and towns (Saumur), or private residences, the vast majority of Loire Valley castles are open to the public. Furnished (Chaumont, Azay-le-Rideau), restored (Talcy) or transformed into a museum (hunting museum in Gien; horse museum and decorative arts museum in Saumur; gallery of the Apocalypse tapestry in Angers) , they attract several hundred thousand French and foreign tourists every year. In the lead are Chambord, Blois, Amboise, Villandry, Azay-le-Rideau and Chenonceaux, which alone accounts for some 900,000 annual visitors.
- The castles of the Loire, by Alain Cassaigne. By Borée, 2019.
- The castles of the Loire Valley, by Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos. Place des victoires, 2000.
- Guide du Routard Châteaux de la Loire 2020. Hachette tourisme, 2019.