The Château de Chambord is the largest of the Loire Valley castles. Although it has a keep, corner towers, and a moat, they were all for show and served no defensive purpose. This 440 room hunting lodge – yes, hunting lodge – was built for François I from 1519 to 1547. The roof is an amazing hodge-podge of turrets, towers, and chimneys; author Henry James described it as looking like a city skyline rather than the roof of a single building. In fact, the king was aiming to replicate a particular city skyline, that of Constantinople.
Some say that Leonardo da Vinci was responsible for all, or part of, the design of the château, particularly the double-helix staircase. After all, the Italian artist and inventor was living nearby as the king’s guest at the time. The ingenious design allows those mounting the staircase to pass unseen by those descending it. According to legend, this allowed the king’s wife and mistress to live there simultaneously without having to come face to face. I’ve got my doubts about this one. After all, François I picked the site to be near to his mistress’s estate and he even included her coat of arms in the décor. I don’t think he was taking his jewel encrusted slippers off and tip-toeing around the château after midnight when the coast was clear.
Almost 2,000 workmen strove to complete the castle, but it was never entirely finished when the king died of a heart attack in 1547, bringing construction to a halt. François I had spent only about seven weeks here spread over 6 hunting trips. At the time, the court was itinerant; when the king and 2,000 of his closest friends showed up for a visit, they brought everything with them, including the furniture. So when he died, the totally empty château just moldered for about 100 years. During the Revolution, the floors were pulled up and sold as timber and the great doors were burned as firewood. In 1939, many art treasures from the Louvre, including the Mona Lisa, were hidden here in obscurity to protect them in case Paris was bombed. Ironically, an American bomber crashed into the château lawn in 1944, but the art collection was undamaged. Serious restoration work got underway after the war and has been proceeding ever since.
Today’s expression, aucun château n’est imprenable (ohkuhn shatoe net am-pre-na-bluh), means “no castle is impregnable.” We’d say that “everyone has a weak point” or “everyone has an Achilles heel.” The biggest enemy Chambord has had to face is subsidence that has caused structural weaknesses. In 2003, a ceiling beam broke in a tourist-filled room, requiring six to be hospitalized. When I’ve been there, this story is never far from my mind!
Château de Chambord (English edition)