Pomp and Pleasure: palaces & gardens of French nobility

Moats, drawbridges and towering keeps: discover the castles and pleasure gardens of the French nobility from the Middle Ages to the Court of King Louis XIV.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by SmartHistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Castle of Châteaudun, Châteaudun, France (exterior)

The castle of Châteaudun was begun around the year 1170 on a high point above the river Loire, a two hour drive southwest of Paris.

The building dates to two periods, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. During the Renaissance, the castle was owned by a member of the royal family who fought against the English with the legendary heroine Joan of Arc.

The massive stone tower (or keep) is the oldest part of the castle. Its round surface and small high windows were designed to withstand attack. Note the thin “arrow slit” window near the base of the tower for archers.

This garden recalls the working gardens of castles and homes of the Middle Ages where food and medicinal herbs were grown for the household.

Castle of Châteaudun, Tower (interior view)

The tower (or keep), built by Thibaud V, Count of Blois, would have been an expensive project and taken years to construct. We are on the bottom of three levels.

The tower was originally accessed from the castle through an entrance some 30 feet above the ground level. At its base, the walls are up to 13 feet thick. This is among the biggest and best preserved keeps from the Middle Ages anywhere in France.

Keeps were the the safest part of castles. Stone was held in place with lime mortar made by heating chalk or limestone and adding water and sand. Often the a thick wall was made of loose stones sandwiched between solid mortared inner and outer layers.

We are now looking up. Even though this is the bottom of three levels, there is a domed ceiling made of stone above us. The second story also has a domed stone ceiling. The top floor has a ceiling made of timber.

Château de Sully-sur-Loire (exterior)

This castle, with its picturesque towers and moat dates back at least to the 1200s and may date back as far back as the ancient Roman era.

It was built to guard a crossing of the Loire river. One of its owners was an important minister to King Henri IV and the castle later became a favorite haunt of the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire.

Castles use numerous types of fortifications. Here we see a moat filled with water (some moats are dry), high walls, and an easily defended bridge. In fact, the castle was once reached via a drawbridge.

Here is a reconstructed drawbridge, a reminder that this beautiful architecture originally had a serious defensive purpose. The bridge would likely be pulled up each evening to help secure the castle.

Look closely, underneath the protruding stone band near the top of the tower there are holes called machicolations. These allowed defenders to drop rocks and burning fuel unto attackers below. This idea was imported from fortresses seen in Egypt and the Middle East during the crusades.

The Château de Sully-sur-Loire was originally built to control this stretch of the Loire river, one of the few places where the water could be easily crossed. This is a reminder that castles were built in strategically important locations.

The Great Hall, Château de Sully-sur-Loire

The great hall is more than 3000 square feet and was built to impress visitors.

It is located on the second story, the main floor in a substantial French home. Here are enormous fireplaces, portraits of those that owned this property, and paintings meant to look like sculpture and architecture.

Let’s look up! The room has no columns, its impressive size is made possible by massive beams above our heads that span the full width of the room. The trees these were made from would have been enormous, making rooms of this scale rare.

A massive fireplace tall enough to walk into dominates the Great Hall. Above the mantle a painting depicts a castle near Paris where the Duke of Sully was born. Look at the framing columns, they are paint, not stone!

The walls are hung with large oil paintings depicting the descendants of the Duke of Sully, minister to king Henry IV, and who purchased the castle in 1602.

The window alcoves are also painted illusionistically to look as if they hold large stone sculptures set in niches under carved stone arch. In reality, this is all just paint.

Château du Clos Lucé - Parc Leonardo da Vinci © château du Clos Lucé (2018)Castle of Clos Lucé

Château du Clos Lucé

Clos Lucé was built in the 1400s and was home to two French kings, Charles VIII and Francis I, but it is most famous as the last home of the great Italian Renaissance artist, engineer, and scientist, Leonardo da Vinci.

Château du Clos Lucé - Parc Leonardo da Vinci © château du Clos Lucé (2019)Castle of Clos Lucé

Legend has it that Leonardo died while being comforted by the king, Francis I, here in this house.

Clos Lucé is thought to have been built atop an ancient Roman era foundation in 1471. The building is brick and limestone, a common combination in France during the Renaissance.

The Model Room (2004 - 2004) by UnknownCastle of Clos Lucé

Models of Leonardo’s inventions

Look around you, we are in the basement of the Clos Lucé, now a museum dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci. The room is filled with Leonardo’s inventions.

These modern recreations are based on drawings and descriptions found in Leonardo’s famous notebooks. While Leonardo is best known as the painter of the Mona Lisa, he was also interested in physics, anatomy, botany, hydraulics and many other branches of science and engineering.

Here is a model of one of Leonardo’s best known sketches, an armored vehicle often seen as a prototype of the modern tank. Its round form is designed to deflect fire and to allow its guns to fire in any direction.

Leonardo’s design for a parachute made of linen over a pyramid-shaped wooden frame was to be some 22 feet tall. A full scale model was tested and reportedly worked well during a jump from nearly 10,000 feet (though the heavy rigid structure is dangerous during landing).

One of the most effective weapons against a castle was a large catapult (made to hurl objects like stones). Here is a design developed by Leonardo for his patron, the Duke of Milan.

Zoom Dungeon Chambord (2007) by Domaine national de ChambordThe Château of Chambord

Château de Chambord

The Château de Chambord was built by king Francis I. It is the grandest palace in the Loire Valley and is considered a gem of French Renaissance architecture.

Chambord en Octobre 2013 by Ludovic Letot and 2013The Château of Chambord

Chambord was a hunting lodge where the king would bring visiting dignitaries, including his onetime enemy emperor Charles V, as a way to express his taste and power.

Vue générale du château (façade sud-est) (2015)The Château of Chambord

Unlike Medieval fortresses, Chambord was never meant to withstand attack. Its moat, walls, and keep were included for their beauty, not their utility.

We have made our way past the moat, and the outer walls. The great four-lobed keep looms before us. Francis I later added the two wings that just peek out at the left and right.

Look closely and you will see flat decorative columns called pilasters. These are borrowed from ancient Roman architecture and are a reminder that the word “Renaissance” refers to the rebirth of ancient Greek and Roman culture.

Just visible amidst all chimneys is the enormous lantern at the center of the keep. Its tall thin “lancet” windows brighten Chambord’s famous double spiral staircase that rises through the center of the keep.

Double helix staircase (2013) by Domaine national de ChambordThe Château of Chambord

Double helix stair, Château de Chambord

At the center of Chambord’s keep is one of the palace’s most distinctive features, a double helix staircase—in other words, two opposing stairs that do not meet as they twirl around a central shaft illuminated by windows in the lantern high above.

On the left you can see broad stone step rising and moving away from us in a clockwise motion. On the right you can see the underside of an opposing staircase that seems to descend in a clockwise direction.

Above our heads the complex ceiling is a checkerboard of squares called coffers. Each coffer is decorated with either a capital “F” for Francis I or with his emblem, a crowned salamander.

Vue sur la façade Nord du château by Le château de Vaux le Vicomte - Dessin de Charles Fichot (19ème siècle)The Château of Vaux le Vicomte

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte (exterior)

The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is an hour’s drive southeast of Paris. Nicolas Fouquet, king Louis XIV’s finance minister built the estate we see today.  He brought together a celebrated architect, painter, and landscape designer to create a vast estate that matched his position and ambition.

Vue aérienne du domaine de Vaux le Vicomte by A. Chicurel et L. LourdelThe Château of Vaux le Vicomte

In 1661, Fouquet entertained the king at a lavish celebration at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Soon after the king had Fouquet arrested believing the estate had been paid for in part with public funds. Fouquet died in prison.

As with so many French estates of the 17th century, symmetry is a central organizing principle. The house is perfectly aligned with the gardens and its left and right sides mirror each other creating a sense of order.

We’ve turned around 180 degrees and can see some of the 100 acres of geometrically arranged gardens, reflecting pools, fountains, and sculptural groups designed by André Le Nôtre, an expression man’s control over nature.

Flanking either side of the stone bridge that leads over the moat, two sphinx stand guard. The sphinx is a mythical creature that is part human and part lion and comes from ancient Egypt.

Le Grand Salon by Louis Le Vau, Mathieu Lespagnandelle, and Charles Le BrunThe Château of Vaux le Vicomte

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, interior

The architecture of Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is innovative in several ways.

Le Salon des Muses by Le Salon des Muses et quatre tapisseries de la série Aminte et Sylvie © Béatrice Lécuyer-BibalThe Château of Vaux le Vicomte

For example, the most important rooms are all on the ground floor, typically they would be placed one story up. This meant that no grand staircase was needed and there is a greater sense of lightness and openness.

The Grand Salon is oval in shape, a design likely borrowed from Italy. It is double height walls are pierced with windows, bringing the sky and the gardens into this dramatic open space.

The Grand Salon is filled with details that recall classical Greece and Rome. Above the window hand garlands, between them are herms, male figures with tapered rectangles instead of legs. Below are pilasters and sculptured busts (a head, shoulders, and chest), in a Roman style.

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
Google apps