1519. A new palace was erected to pay tribute to the greatness of King Francis I. It arose in the heart of the Chambord wetlands, in a completely isolated area, a few miles from the Royal City of Blois.
The young monarch loved architecture. He was cleverly advised and surrounded by artists and intellectuals, making no secret of his ambition. He began by building a beautiful and sumptuous edifice, destined to dazzle the world.
A mysterious architect
The question of the identity of Chambord's architect has intrigued both historians and art historians since the 17th century. The design of Chambord has sometimes been attributed to Italian artists and architects: Giacomo Vignola, Francesco Primaticcio, Rosso Fiorentino or, more recently, Leonardo da Vinci
Following the Battle of Marignano, Francis I discovered the marvels of Italian architecture and the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Upon his return to France in 1516, Francis I invited the genius polymath to come and work at the French Court as the king's Chief Painter, Engineer, and Architect.
His influence in planning the construction of Chambord is apparent when comparing the architectural drafts adopted at Chambord and the sketches he drew in his notebooks. Let's visit them!
The central plan in the shape of a Greek cross
The internal layout is the result of an approach that was unprecedented in France and constitutes an undeniable trait of Italianism.
It uses a central plan in the form of a Greek cross: the four faces of the building open into large rooms, each 29.5 feet (9 meters) wide by 59 feet (18 meters) long, forming a Greek cross.
The double-helix stairway
The centerpiece of Chambord is the grand staircase, which is a monument in itself. It hides a surprise for anybody using it, almost an illusion.
What appears, at first glance, to be a single staircase, is actually made from two intertwining spirals that circle each other, one above the other, around a large central column.
Two people can simultaneously use the stairs without ever meeting, only catching sight of one another through the windows in the hollow core.
The keep terraces
Located at the mouth of the grand double-helix staircase, the keep's four terraces magnify the Greek cross layout of the lower rooms outdoors.
They allow people to circulate in the open air in the heart of the impressive architectural forest of the upper parts of the building—or, as some put it, the heart of a heavenly village.
At their ends, a passageway bounded by a railing goes all the way around the keep and provides an exception view of the estate.
The terraces are also technically fascinating. An ingenious waterproofing system, unparalleled at that time, was created to protect the arches of the lower floors from water infiltration.
Prospections dans la fosse unique de latrines de l’aile royale (2002)The Château of Chambord
The vented latrine system
Finally, the castle is equipped with a highly sophisticated latrine system—which could very well have been recommended by Leonardo da Vinci!
In one of his books, the Italian genius recommends that "lavatories [be] provided with openings for ventilation in the walls, so that the air can come from the roofs" (Codex Atlanticus, fol. 76v).
So, was it Leonardo or not?
With almost no archives whatsoever regarding the royal construction site (they were lost or destroyed at the end of the 18th century), it is impossible to say for sure.
But the central plan of the keep, the presence of a double-helix staircase, a twin-pit latrine system with a ventilation duct, and even the waterproofing system used for the terraces are all clues which point to him as the inspiration for Francis I's work.