Over the last months, we’ve talked about King Louis XIV of France—the Palace of Versailles, his excesses, and the divine rights of the king. Yet these characteristics of the monarchy were not exclusive to Louis XIV, nor was the Palace of Versailles the only extravagant royal residence. More than forty thousand castles exist throughout France, some of which have appeared in this blog. The oldest, Château de Thil, began construction in 850 A.D. The youngest, Château Louis XIV, was completed in 2011.
Today, we frown at such overindulgences as wasteful. But some of the world’s most spectacular artwork and architecture exists because kings, queens, and aristocracy commissioned them. What would Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo have done without their patrons? Millions of us flock yearly to ogle these feats of architecture and museums filled with acclaimed artwork spanning millennia across the globe.
We also admire and applaud the Monuments Men—those men and women who, at the close of World War II, sacrificed their families and careers for a time to recover the lost artwork of Europe after the Nazis absconded with them. Long-time readers of this blog remember Johnnie Alexender’s 2022 series on lost and stolen art.
But do you know that even before the Nazis occupied France, an effort was underway to preserve some of France’s most priceless possessions? Deep in the Loire Valley, another royal château became the hiding place for these treasures from The Louvre and other Paris museums, including the Mona Lisa.
Architectural experts view Château de Chambord as one of the world’s marvels of engineering. Commissioned by François I in 1519 at the height of the Renaissance, this uniquely designed château was meant to glorify François and impress the world. Debate continues around who fashioned the magnificent edifice. But most agree it was a collaboration of Italian and French master artists, architects, and masons, including Da Vinci himself.
The Château de Chambord website says of the design, “It is a remarkable architectural achievement that the king is proud to show to sovereigns and ambassadors as a symbol of his power engraved in stone. The plan of the castle and its decors stem from a central axis, the renowned double helix staircase, inspired by Leonard Da Vince, an ascending spiral leading to a profusion of chimneys and sculpted capitals on the terraces.”
François never meant for the château to be a permanent residence and only lived there for a few weeks. Eighty years after his death, parts of the château fell into disrepair. King Louis XXXIII gave it to his brother Gaston d’Orleans, who instigated restoration work to stave off complete ruin.
Finally, characteristic of King Louis XIV, whose predisposition was to do everything in the most ostentatious manner, restored the great keep, furnished the royal apartments, and developed the extensive gardens. He also added a 1,200-horse stable, using the château as a hunting lodge and a place to give grand parties. Louis also invited Moliere to perform his premiere of Le Bourgeois Gentihomme at Château de Chambord.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, relatives of the Bourbons occasionally used the residence. The last was Henri, the Count of Chambord. Finally, in 1930, France bought Château de Chambord to preserve the castle as a “jewel” of the State, setting the stage for how the château became front and center as a repository for France’s great artworks during World War II.
Having observed the events occurring across Europe in the mid-1930s, the French feared German attacks and the loss of their most prized pieces. Paris museums organized an evacuation plan. On August 28, 1939, a convoy of trucks set out with 5,446 cases to deliver to the Chambord
When France declared war, the public could no longer visit the château. But curators and custodians guarded the cache, ensuring its safety and preventing damage from insects and dampness. Though an American bomber plane crashed into the château, causing a fire, not one piece of art perished. After the war, the artwork was returned to the museums from which they were rescued in Paris, and the château was later renovated.
By 1981, Château de Chambord became listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, Château de Chambord is open to the public and receives nearly two million visitors per year. Discover more about the Château de Chambord.
(Original blog appeared on www.hhhistory.com Tuesday, July 4, 2023.)