Azay-le-Rideau stands in the heart of the Loire valley and is included on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. In this region of forests, vineyards and châteaux, the Indre, a tributary of the Loire, which flows near Azay, enabled stones to be transported.
In the 12th century, one of the knights of Philip Augustus, Hugues-le-Ridel, was the lord of Azay-le-Rideau. He can probably be credited with building a defensive fortress to protect his town. As time went by, the name Ridel became Rideau.
Fleeing Paris which was in the hands of the Burgundians and the English, King Louis XI took up residence in the castle of Plessis-les-Tours and reigned over France from the city of Tours. His two successors, his son Charles VIII and the latter’s cousin, Louis XII, also governed France from Touraine. To enable their rulers to know and recognize them, the kingdom’s great nobles built themselves homes close to those of the king, as Gilles Bertholot did at Azay-le-Rideau.
View of the southern front of the château, 2011.
In the Middle Ages, a fortress stood where the château is now. In the early 16th century, Gilles Bertholot, one of the financiers of Francis I, was its lord. With the help of his wife, Philippe Lesbahy, he embarked on the construction of a completely new château between 1518 and 1524.
Aerial view of the château, 1999
To establish his legitimacy, Gilles Berthelot retained the medieval tower situated to the north-west but added to it the westward-turning wing and then raised the accommodation block in the center. The accommodation block then joined the medieval wing turning back eastward. This old wing fell down in 1704.
The Chinese pavilion annexed to the north-eastern corner of the château
A new fashion appeared in the 18th century, coming from China and then from England. At that time, Chinese fabrics and pavilions and irregularly laid out gardens were popular. Following that fashion, a Chinese pavilion was built at the north-eastern corner of the château. The 19th century owners destroyed it, as they did the large medieval tower. With the aim of homogenizing the style of their château, in 1848 and 1856 they had the two neo-Renaissance towers built which can still be seen today.
The encircling walkway, loopholes and machicolations, 2010.
From the Middle Ages the château retains its drawbridge where the footbridge is now located, its machicolations, its encircling walkway and the continuous presence of towers and turrets, steeply sloping roofs and open bays. This is the vertical alignment of these openings, which gives the building its upward momentum and offers his elegance.
View of the encircling walkway, loopholes and machicolations, 2015.
The wide and numerous openings surrounded by a series of horizontal and vertical lines are typical of the Renaissance. The rows of horizontal stones and bands give the façade is orderly appearance. The pilasters framing the windows mark the vertical aspect of the building.
Detail of the South side's dormer window, 2011.
More generally, the decorations of the facades of the 16th Century castles inspired ancient temples :
– Pilasters, fluted pilasters and attached pillars are everywhere;
– Pediments like those which adorned antique temples can be seen above the dormer windows
– The pediments are surmounted by concave shells.
The grand staircase, 2010.
In the Middle Ages, spiral staircases were situated outside the accommodation blocks, and alongside the towers. At Azay-le-Rideau, the staircase is inside the block. It is located in the center, is straight rather than spiral, and rises from ramp to ramp, as in Italy. This is one of the first straight staircases in France with landings and resting places, also known as loggias. From the staircase, the owners could see and be seen by their guests.
Right-hand ramp of the staircase, 2000.
The staircase is decorated with niches, attached columns and pilasters. The capitals of the columns bear the carved initials of Gilles Berthelot (who ordered the construction work in the early 16th century) and of Philippe Leshaby, his wife. Several full and part arches line the staircase.
Carved detail of the great dormer of the staircase, an ermine, the emblem of Claude of France, 2015.
The ermine was the emblem of Claude of France, the daughter of Anne of Brittany and the wife of Francis I. Her motto is inscribed on a scroll in the niche, “Un Seul Désir” [a single wish].
The staircase has a richly decorated coffered ceiling with portraits of the kings and queens of France.
Portrait of Francis I by an unknown painter.
In 1525, Francis I suffered the disaster of Pavia where the French army was decimated and the King was held hostage in Madrid by the Emperor Charles V.
When the King returned, the royal coffers were empty and he inspected the accounts of his financiers. Gilles Berthelot was accused of embezzlement and fled. Francis I confiscated his property and redistributed it.
The château’s second owner was Antoine Raffin, a companion in arms of the King, Captain of the Royal Guard during the Italian wars and Sheriff of Normandy. Raffin’s descendants owned it for two hundred years. The Raffins were courtiers. Antoinette Raffin (1571-1629), Antoine’s grand-daughter, was a maid of honor to Queen Margot (the first wife of King Henri IV).
A presumed portrait of Margaret of Valois (or Navarre), known as Queen Margot, by an unknown painter, 1590.
Antoinettes's son, Artus de Lansac, Governor of the Royal House of Plessis-les-Tours, had the honor of receiving King Louis XIII at the château in June 1619.
One of their descendants, Marie de Lusignan (1651-1684) was brought up alongside King Louis XIV.
Incidentally, the Sun King witnessed Marie’s marriage to Henri François de Vassé.
Portrait of Louis XIV, Pierre Mignard, 1660.
For annoying the court and the King, Louis XIV exiled Mr de Vassé and his wife to their “little” château in Touraine. It was probably during that time that the service quarters were built and the grand drive laid out. Financially ruined, the last Raffin descendant sold the estate in 1791.
View of the service quarters, 2011.
The château was then acquired by Marquis Charles de Biencourt, the member of the States General for Haute Marche. He weathered the Revolution without too much difficulty.
During the 19th century, the Biencourt descendants created the landscaped park and pools which surround the château and changed its architecture again.
Ruined by the stock market crash experienced by Union Générale in 1882, the last Marquis of Biencourt sold the estate to the Count of Larocque-Latour, who did not honor his financial undertakings, and then to Mr Arteau, a lawyer from the city of Tours.
The château has belonged to the French State since 1905. From 1939 to 1940, it accommodated the National Department of Education. It is now managed by the National Historical Monuments Center.
This virtual exhibition has been put together by teams from the Centre des monuments nationaux, with the help of teams from the Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, the support of teams from the images unit and coordination by the digital unit.
The images were taken from Regards - Banque d’images des monuments © Centre des monuments nationaux.