Chambord, Renaissance Genius

By The Château of Chambord

Château de Chambord

"[I] would have stayed, were it not for my great desire to see Chambord, which I found such that no one is worthy of praising it other than its maker, who, by his perfect works, causes his perfection to be admired." It is in these terms that the sister of King Francis I, Marguerite de Navarre, expresses her amazement at discovering the Château de Chambord that she visits in his absence. On of the monarch's "perfect works"... Chambord is indeed universally admired by visitors in the XVIth century and during the centuries that followed, whether they were a king, prince or princess, diplomat, writer or a traveler simply passing by. The castle's singular and unique architecture is an example of the genius of Renaissance men and an architectural ideal. There is much to be said about its central plan, an innovation in France, its double spiral staircase, independent dwellings, terraces, harmonious facades, and the towering constructions the give it a unique silhouette. Chambord was born from the fruitful encounter of France and Italy, tradition and innovation, power and lightness, solidness and delicacy. We encourage you to discover, through this virtual exhibition, iconic elements of the architecture of the Chambord castle, and everything that makes this palace a symbol of the French Renaissance throughout the world and a place of wonder. Don't forget to click on the images to discover new details and comments!

Façade nord du château au coucher du soleil by DNC / Olivier Marchant 2018The Château of Chambord

The Work of King Francis

1519. A new palace, erected to the glory and will of King Francis I, arose in the heart of the wetlands of Chambord, in a lonely area, in full loneliness, a few miles from the Royal City of Blois.

The young monarch, who loved architecture, cleverly advised and surrounded by artists and intellectuals, did not hide his ambition: he began by building a "beautiful and sumptuous edifice," destined to dazzle the world. Work began in September 1519. The castle's apparent architectural unity seems to indicate a well-mastered project from the beginning. However, an analysis of the construction stages sheds light on a more complex reality. Archaeological and historical research reveal an initial dungeon project, a cube-shaped building with a tower at each angle (occupying the center of the current complex).

The project moved forward around 1526, upon Francis I's return from captivity in Madrid. The king, who returned with his honor and ambition intact, decided to add two wings to the dungeon - one to house his lodgings, the other the royal chapel - and lower enclosure for the court. The building has since kept the plan of a fortress, similar to Vincennes.

Portrait de François Ier, École française, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more
Veüe du chasteau de Chambor du costé de l’entrée, Israël Silvestre, 1678, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more

Vue de la façade sud du château de Chambord (2016) by © DNC / Sophie LloydThe Château of Chambord

Site du sondage réalisé dans la cour du château, au droit de la tour sud du donjon (2007)The Château of Chambord


In 1550, Venetian diplomat Giovanni Soranzo states in the account of his travels to the court of France, that the foundations of Chambord castle "are made like those of the houses of Veneto, placed on posts, with stones added afterward." The nature of the foundations has always been of interest: is the castle actually built on stilts? The reason for the interest in this question, is that constructing such an imposing castle on the Chambord wetlands would have been a monumental task in the XVIth century, even a challenge to nature.

In the minds of all, extraordinary work requires extraordinary foundations. A recent archaeological survey in the castle courtyard (2007) delivered several observations: the castle is built partly on an ancient medieval castle, but also on a stone foundation of an impressive depth of 5.20 m placed directly on the limestone subsoil. Its implementation required extensive excavation of sedimentary layers to place the castle directly on the "hard" ground. Thus, the existence of "Venetian style" foundations cannot be absolutely excluded, but the most recent excavations steer the debate towards an equally remarkable alternative.

Travaux de réfection de la cour du château, 2007, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more

Détail des vestiges d’une tour médiévale araséeThe Château of Chambord

Puits de chantier mis à jour dans la cour sud du donjonThe Château of Chambord

La façade Nord-Ouest du château de Chambord (2006)The Château of Chambord

The Dungeon's Central Plan

The architecture of Chambord, like most of the great architectural achievements of the Renaissance, respects the ancient principles of arithmetic and geometry, that should give it order and beauty. Harmony of facades and proportions, symmetry and modular design are in fact directly inspired elements from the ancient school of thought of Vitruvius. The dungeon is thus a square mass, with massive round towers at each corner. Inside, the space is organized around a Greek cross formed by four large rooms, heated but not "inhabited". At the center of the cross is the double spiral staircase; in the corners, the lodgings of the King and his court. The Greek cross "central" plan, repeated on each level, had no equivalent in France at that time, in particular for civil building. However, it was customary in Italy to use this type of plan for religious buildings, such as St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, whose plans were designed in 1506 by Bramante. Its use in XXVIth century France gave the new palace of Francis I the image of an innovative and well thought out construction.

Façade de la galerie de l'aile de la chapelle (2016)The Château of Chambord

Schéma du plan modulaire du donjon de Chambord, Eric Johannot, 2008, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more

Détail de la volée Sud de l'escalier à doubles-révolutions au 2ème étage (2013) by © DnC cliché Guillaume PerrinThe Château of Chambord

The Grand Staircase

While at the beginning of the XXVIth century stairs were usually built in turrets protruding from the facade of a building, or built outside the fabric, the grand ceremonial staircase of Chambord stands out as a unique architectural experience unique and is in itself a monument. It impresses in the heart of the dungeon, occupying the space born from the meeting of the arms of the cross-shaped room. It is also the base module of the plan since its 9-meter diameter is the measure of all the other spaces that make up the building. The staircase provides a real surprise, almost a trompe l'oeil: while we think we see a single staircase at first, it actually consists of two staircases winding one above the other around a core. Thus, two people can simultaneously use the stairs without ever meeting, and they can see through the windows in the hollow core. The effect is almost unbelievable for those who have never experienced it. His widely open structure gives it a "transparency" that allows users to see and be seen. All of these qualities make Chambord's double spiral staircase a true work of art and a staging that has long fascinated visitors to the castle.

Schéma de l'escalier à doubles révolutions, 2013/2016, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more

Chambre du logis de François 1er, décor de la cour itinérante par Jacques Garcia (2019) by DNC / Sophie LloydThe Château of Chambord

Lodgings and Movement

The Chambord dungeon is a large main building comprising a total of 6 floors of living space. Each level is organized into four cantons of living space arranged around a great room in the shape of a Greek cross. Four lodgings occupy the square spaces defined by the cross, while four others are in the corner towers. On the first three levels, each apartment includes a large and high living area - the room - and a number of smaller rooms that are wardrobes, study rooms and oratories. These rooms are mezzanines, that is to say they have identical rooms on top of them. The dungeon lodgings are separated from each other by a network of horizontal and vertical hallways. In the center, the grand staircase, connects the rooms of the cross, serving more directly the square lodgings. The lodgings in the four towers are accessible from the rooms through open galleries, called loggias. The latter are connected between the different levels by staircases rising high up in the towers. Finally, each unit has a small service staircase to reach its mezzanine level. This internal partition of the dungeon, skillfully composed and standardized, is truly innovative. However, it remains a beautiful utopia, unsuited to the realities of court life, as Francis I finally settled into a wing to hierarchically distinguish his own dwelling.

Plan des logis du donjon (2016) by Eric Johannot - Virginie BerdalThe Château of Chambord

Cabinet d’entresol du logis nord-ouest du donjon au 2e étage, 2013, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more
Loggia du canton nord du donjon, au 2e étage, 2016, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more
Escalier de fond-en-comble de la tour nord-ouest du donjon, 2016, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more
Combles de la tour Ouest du donjon, 2016, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more

Matériel archéologique mis à jour au cours des fouilles des fosses (2002)The Château of Chambord

The Dongeon's Privy System

The castle has a very sophisticated latrine system. Each of the dungeon's towers has two contiguous underground pits connected by a vaulted passageway. One receives urination from the ground floor or the attic through a duct in the masonry. The other pit seems to be designed to collect liquids by sedimentation. A second pipe, parallel to the first, extends up under the roof for to ventilate the latrines. This "vent" system is reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's recommendations. In one of his books, the Italian genius recommends that "lavatories [be] provided with openings for ventilation in the thickness of the walls, so that the air can come from the roofs "(Codex Atlanticus, fol. 76v). Long ignored by architectural and historical studies, the rediscovery of the castle's latrines in 1994 shed new light on everyday life in Chambord and the first phases of the construction site.

Schéma du système d’aisance du donjon (2007) by Eric Johannot / Dominique HofbauerThe Château of Chambord

Grande fosse de la tour sud du donjon (2016)The Château of Chambord

Prospections dans la fosse unique de latrines de l’aile royale, 2002, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more
Matériel archéologique mis à jour au cours des fouilles des fosses, 2002, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more
Ensemble de dés à jouer retrouvé au cours des fouilles des fosses de la tour sud du donjon, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more

Plan originel et plan final du donjon de ChambordThe Château of Chambord

Détail du décor sculpté des arcs boutants de la tour-lanterne (2014)The Château of Chambord

Sculpted Decor

Chambord's sculpted decor is made from the soft, fine white tuffeau limestone, which enabled Renaissance to express all their skill and fantasy. Sculpture is curiously more abundant on the outside: a multitude of columns and pilasters, with their carved finials, adorn the castle's facades and top sections, also ornamented with other sculptures. Inside the dungeon, the decor is more subdued, unless it is to showcase the remarkable areas. Thus, almost 200 finials follow and highlight the grand double central staircase, up to the small screw of the lantern tower surmounting it. The patterns are varied and inspired: cornucopias, leaves, fantastical creatures, mythological characters, masks, angels, coast of arms and many other subjects. In coffered vaulted rooms on the second floor of the dungeon, salamanders and "F" alternate by the hundreds and celebrate like triumphal arches the glory of Francis I. The iconic monarch is also found on the ceiling of the chapel of the sovereign's oratory, on the rare wood panels of the original doors still kept on site. This tremendous work remains a valuable witness of the patterns and themes dear to the Renaissance and is among the best preserved of the Loire Valley.

Salle voûtée ouest au 2e étage du donjon, 2013, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more
Détail des voûtes à caissons au 2e étage du donjon, Détail des voûtes à caissons au 2e étage du donjon, 2015, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more

Détail de la coursière sur les terrasses du donjon (2015)The Château of Chambord

The Dungeon Terraces

Located at the mouth of the grand double spiral staircase to double-revolutions, the dungeon's four terraces magnify the exterior of the lower rooms' Greek cross plan. They allow open air traffic in the heart of the impressive architectural forest of the upper parts of the building or, according to others, the heart of a "heavenly village." At the extremity, a passageway bordered by a railing goes right around the dungeon and provides an exception view of the estate. Implemented in 1537-1538 on the fourth level of the dungeon, the terraces of Chambord continue to spur the imagination. They are also a technical curiosity. In fact, an ingenious waterproofing system, unparalleled at that time, was created to protect the arches of the lower floors from water infiltration. However, this system did not stop the leaks, which caused irreversible damage to the splendid carved decorations of the second floor, right from the start. The terraces were the subject of restoration between 2005 and 2008. The old structure was preserved (and in some cases the old materials) but sheets of lead or copper were added under the tiling to strengthen the sealing system.

Au cœur des terrasses du donjon, 2013, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more
Détail de la coursière des terrasses du donjon, 2013, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more
Détail du système d’étanchéité des terrasses, 2006, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more

Détail des tegulae d’origine (2006)The Château of Chambord

Détail des superstructures du donjon de Chambord (2015)The Château of Chambord


From the terraces rise high roofs covered with slate, which house the dungeon's last three floors of living area. The verticality and abundance of the chimney stacks, staircase turrets, dormers and lanterns give the castle a gothic silhouette. Meanwhile, their ornamentation, draws its inspiration from Italian Quattrocento architecture, especially geometrically-patterned slate veneers imitating ultramontane marble decorations. The center of the composition is dominated by the highest tower of the castle, the lantern tower, topped by the symbol of the kings of France: the lily.

Vues des parties hautes du château de Chambord (2013)The Château of Chambord

La tour-lanterne du château de Chambord, 2013, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more

Plan du rez-de-chaussée du château de Chambord (1576) by Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (vers 1515 - 1585) © DnCThe Château of Chambord

The Quest for the Architect

The question of the identity of Chambord's architect has intrigued both historians and art historians since the XVIIth century. Some have attributed the plans of Chambord to an Italian: Vignola, Primaticcio, Rosso or, more recently, Leonardo de Vinci because some of his sketches are reminiscent Chambord's architecture (double spiral staircase, central plan, latrine system vent and watertight terraces). Reference was also made Dominique de Cortona, called "The Boccador", who definitely received payment to make a wooden model of the castle of Chambord, which no longer exists. Other historians have conversely argued for a Franco-French architectural design, since all the men associated with the construction of Chambord, whose names have survived, were French. But should Chambord be viewed as the creation of a single "architect"? The joint intervention of contractors and French and Italian architects, even the king himself, may well explain Chambord's modern arrangement and its Franco-Italian components.

Léonard de Vinci expirant dans les bras de François Ier by d’après Jean Auguste Dominique IngresThe Château of Chambord

Vue aérienne du château by DNC / Olivier MarchantThe Château of Chambord

The Castle in its Environment

Chambord originated in the mind of Francis as a comprehensive project, in which the construction of a "beautiful and sumptuous edifice" was accompanied by the creation of a vast surrounding park. A "garden" devoted to hunting-related activities, where untamed nature recreation, to the king's glory and the magnificence of his sumptuous residence, where unspoiled nature is combined with a more domesticated kind. This design is not unlike the areas of the Duchy of Milan that Francis I visited early in his reign. Like the estate of Chateau Pavie, Chambord offers rich and varied landscapes, numerous watering places and abundant wildlife. The king also intends, as in Pavia, to enclose the park with a masonry wall and annex private land to build an estate of great magnitude. At the end of his reign, it would seem that the Chambord had reached 2,500 ha, below his initial ambitions. The construction of the enclosure was underway and a is also underway and a detachment of guards slept on the king's estate under the authority of the contingent of guards sleep on the royal domain under the authority of a master of the hunt. Luckily, the successors of Francis I preserved the park's integrity and even continued his work. In the XVIIth century, Chambord had 5,440 ha of land and 32 km of boundary wall. The estate has been changed since.

Image missing

Harde de cervidés aux abords du canal et de la façade Nord-Est du château (2012)The Château of Chambord

Détail du mur de clôture du parc de Chambord du côté de la porte de St Dyé (2013)The Château of Chambord

Chambord since Canardière (2014) by Ludovic LetotThe Château of Chambord


Chambord appears as one of the great architectural achievements of the Renaissance. Designers have imagined it as a perfect palace in which innovations of the century and traditional elements of French architecture, symbols of power and continuity, are combined. Yet Chambord is in the XVIth century, as in the following centuries, a magnificent but empty building, royal but uninhabited, admirable in its arrangement but uninhabitable. It has never been the permanent residence of a king. Some occasionally stayed there in the fall to enjoy the hunting, others simply visited or never came, preferring to leave the temporary enjoyment to a foreign prince or an officer of the Crown. Fortunately, all have respected the integrity of the monument and intervened only to restore it or complete it in accordance with the original program. Chambord remains the personal work of King Francis I, prince, architect and father of Arts and Letters. We hope that this virtual exhibition has enabled you to understand Chambord, born for the glory of a king from the most enlightened minds and most skillful hands of their time.

Chambord : Get into the world of genius, Gédeon Production, 2015, From the collection of: The Château of Chambord
Show lessRead more
Credits: Story

Auteurs de l'exposition :
Virginie Berdal, chargée de recherches (Domaine national de Chambord)
et Eric Johannot, chargé de recherches et de l'action éducative (Domaine national de Chambord)

Avec la participation de Luc Forlivesi, conservateur général du patrimoine, directeur du patrimoine et des publics (Domaine national de Chambord).

Sélection des images, création de l'exposition : Virginie Berdal

Remerciements :
Catharina Bruley, Cultural Institute Coordinator (Google).
La société Histovery
Le Service de prévention spécialisé de l'ACESM (Blois/Vendôme)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
The Castles of Loire
Explore the romantic castles and gardens of France's Loire Valley.
View theme
Google apps