Thursday, September 23, 2010

The splendors of the royal Château de Blois

Happily situated in downtown Blois (Loir-et-Cher department) and heading the castles dominating the famous Loire Valley in France, Château de Blois has been for a long time a must on my list, ever since I fell in love with the history of the French monarchy. My dream finally came true and when I first caught a glimpse over the castle towers, I daresay I had tears in my eyes and probably a stupid smile of my face. I am actually coming back to my roots to discover the places I longed for so eagerly. Here are just a few names whose lives are related to the story of the castle – Louis XII, Anne de Bretagne, François I, queen Claude, queen Catherine de Médicis, Henri II, François II, Marie Stuart, Charles IX, Henri de Navarre (future Henri IV), Marguerite de Navarre, Henri III, the Duke of Guise, Marie de Médicis and finally… Louise de la Vallière.
Makes me tremble when I think about all the events that happened in this royal seat over so many centuries, especially the 16th, during the horrors of the wars of religion and the decline of the Valois dynasty.

The initial citadel dates from the 9th century and it was only meant to protect the locals from frequent Viking invasions. It was the Blois counts who owned the castle for several generations, until it came into the possession of Louis d'Orléans in 1392, the king’s brother, subsequently being attached to the crown.

The first significant reconstruction of the château took place under the orders of Louis XII who made Blois his seat, showing a special bond with this wonderful piece of land and aiming to express by its architecture the power of the royalty and the artistic magnificence of those times.  Erected in 1508 and adorned with the porcupine of Louis XII and the ermine of Anne of Brittany, the Louis XII wing displayed quite a modern layout for the beginning of the 16th century. It combines visible Gothic and some Renaissance elements.

François I was especially fond of Blois and took good care to continue the work of his predecessor by attaching a new wing - entirely a Renaissance chef-d’oeuvre, directly influenced by Italian art.  The sophistication of the newly architectural style is reflected in the façade des Loges and culminates with the famous spiral staircase, yet praised and admired by many modern architects. Some say it was Leonardo da Vinci himself who got this idea of asymmetry and innovation. The ornaments are mostly of Italian inspiration, marked by refined bas-relief sculptures. When the sun is shining, the entire façade seems to be brightened by a certain magic luminosity that highlights pleasant contours and evokes the sense of immortality.
As to the library created by François I at the château, although later on moved to Fontainebleau, it clearly constituted a novelty and showed the keen interest of the king for arts and science along with an acute concern for perpetuation.

The castle hosted some happy events, as the engagement of Henri de Navarre & Marguerite Valois, along with some tragic ones, namely the assassination of the Duke of Guise on the occasion of the Estates-General convention held at Blois in December 1588, under the orders of Henri III.  In this context, it is worth mentioning that Blois was the setting for the famous Mary Stuart’s childhood, before she became the wife of François II (who unluckily died a few months after their coronation) and queen of France.

The second wife of Henri IV, Marie de Médicis, spent several years at the castle, placed under house arrest by her son, Louis XIII. Her presence determined some significant improvements that were taken over in 1634 by Gaston d’Orléans, the king’s brother. He actually initiated the construction of the third wing, true mirror of French classicism: allegorical figures, coved ceilings and elegant effects. Due to some circumstances that led to scarcity of funds, the newest wing remained unfinished.

It is not until 1841 that the château de Blois was acknowledged as historic monument and a serious restoration began under the direction of Felix Duban, who seems to have made miracles, because what we actually see today is a fine, almost 100% imitation of what used to be the castle by the middle of the 17th century.

Naturally, the interior decorations and furniture hardly respect the initial disposition of rooms, but the main attractions have been successfully reestablished, and that’s the most important thing: the Royal Apartments, the Queen’s Gallery (Catherine de Médicis), the Queen’s Chamber, the King’s Chamber, the Room of des Guises, the Council Room, all situated in the François I wing. Furthermore, the oldest wing of the château hosts the Musée des Beaux-Arts.

It’s a little bit confusing to stand before such an intermingling of obviously different architectural styles (Gothic, Renaissance and Classic) but it shows progression and a vivid expression of evolution in art.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to allege that Blois is my favorite French royal castle, because I love them all, but let’s say it has a special place in my heart. At the château de Blois I feel like being home. I rediscover myself as I never did before.

For more pictures of Blois click here


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