The Château de Chambord, in the Loire Valley, represents the triumph of perseverance over probability. The brainchild of the builder-king François I of France, it was conceived as a uniquely spectacular hunting pavilion. Work on its construction, which commenced in 1526, was interrupted by the spectacular defeat of François at the Battle of Padua in 1529, which culminated in François’ capture and subsequent captivity in Spain for the following two years.
From that moment forth, the history of Chambord was to be a chronicle of abandoned plans, massive neglect, and equally massive efforts to implement François’ grand vision at last.
Built on marshy ground in the middle of a royal hunting reserve, Chambord rests on a foundation which itself lies on a base of wooden piles driven deep into the wet subsoil, much like the palaces of Venice. Some 1,800 men were involved in the initial phase of its construction, many of whom died from working in the malarial marshland. Although work on the château did resume after François I was ransomed from captivity and François was to use the work-in-progress to host his arch-enemy the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain in 1539, the builder-king spent a total of no more than eight weeks in Chambord during his entire reign. It was left to subsequent patrons – Henri II in the 16th century, Gaston d’Orleans and Louis XIV in the 17th – to continue the realisation of François’ vision.
It is something of a miracle that the work was ever completed, in fact, the château having been commandeered and used as a munitions depot during the French Revolution.
Of course Chambord, although spectacular today, has not been completed according to plan. It is thought that Leonardo da Vinci, who spent his final years in Amboise on the Loire at the invitation of François I, had a hand in its design. To him is accredited the château’s famous double helix staircase, in which two flights of stairs spiral around one another without ever touching. A version of this design exists in his notebooks. Moreover the entire château, with its looming towers and fantastic roofscape, could easily be imagined gracing the far distance of a Leonardo portrait. Certainly, if the detail of the plan is not Leonardo’s – most of the planning documents were destroyed during the French Revolution – his extravagantly imaginative spirit appears to inform it.
So does the extravagantly restless ago of François I. The capital letter F appears endlessly in the stonework of the ceilings, and the castle boasts no fewer than 800 stone salamanders – the emblem of François I. Supposedly born from the fire, the salamander was believed in the day not only to be able to survive flames but also to be able to extinguish them. Hence François I’s motto, Nutrisco et extinguo (“I nourish [the good] and extinguish [the bad]”).
The real salamander rather than its mythical counterpart is perhaps an appropriate symbol for Chambord for other reasons, however: it is the one animal in the world that can regenerate entire limbs if it suffers amputation.
As such it is a potent symbol of the Château de Chambord, which has lost so much in its history but has always grown back into some sort of shape.
And although probably not part of François’ original vision, the château seems to me to represent not only the nature of artistic endeavour, which is never realised in its full purity but always subject to compromise, but also the nature of the artist as such – incapable of becoming him- or herself without the work of a thousand other, often unknown, hearts and minds.
Jonathan Steffen is a writer and musician. Jonathan was a published author while still at university. Born in London, he read English at Cambridge, where he won the King’s College James Prize and the Cambridge University T.R. Henn Prize, both for creative writing. On graduating, he received a Harper-Wood Travelling Studentship for English Poetry and Literature, awarded by St. John’s College, Cambridge.
His work encompasses poetry, short stories, novels, literary translations, songs and instrumental music.