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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Chambord is the Versailles of the feudal monarchy; it was to the Chateau de Blois, that central residence of the Valois, what Versailles was to the Tuileries; it was the country-seat of Royalty. Tapestries from Arras, Venetian mirrors, curiously sculptured chests, crystal chandeliers, massive silver furniture, and miracles of all the arts, amassed in this palace during eight reigns and dispersed in a single day by the breath of the Revolution, can never be collected again save under one condition: that there should be a sovereign sufficiently powerful and sufficiently artistic, sufficiently concerned about the glory and the memories of the ancient monarchy to make of Chambord what has been made out of the Louvre and Versailles -a museum consecrated to all the intimate marvels, to all the curiosities of the Arts of the Renaissance, at least to all those with which the sovereigns were surrounded, something like the way the Hotel de Cluny exhibits royal life.
It has often been asked why Francois L, to whom the banks of the Loire presented many marvellous sites, selected a wild and forsaken spot in the midst of arid plains for the erection of the strange building which he planned. This peculiar choice has been attributed to that prince's passion for the chase and in memory of his amours with the beautiful Comtesse de Thoury, chatelaine in that neighbourhood, before he ascended the throne.
Independently of these motives, which doubtless counted greatly in his selection, perhaps the very wildness of this place, this distance from the Loire, which reminded him too much of the cares of Royalty, was a determining reason. Kings, like private individuals, and even more than they, experience the need at times of burying themselves, and therefore make a hidden and far-away nest where they may be their own masters and live to please themselves. Moreover, Chambord, with its countless rooms, its secret stairways, and its subterranean passages, seems to have been built for a love which seeks shadow and mystery. At the same time that he hid Chambord in the heart of the uncultivated plains of the Sologne, Francois I. built in the midst of the Bois de Boulogne a chateau, where, from time to time, he shut himself up with learned men and artists, and to which the courtiers, who were positively forbidden there, gave the name of Madrid, in memory of the prison in which their master had suffered. Chambord, like Madrid, was not a prison: it was a retreat.
That sentiment of peculiar charm which is attached to the situation of Chambord will be felt by every artist who visits this strange realization of an Oriental dream. At the end of a long avenue of poplars breaking through thin underbrush which bears an illustrious name, like all the roads to this residence, you see, little by little, peeping and mounting upward from the earth, a fairy building, which, rising in the midst of arid sand and heath, produces the most striking and unexpected effect. A genie of the Orient, a poet has said, must have stolen it from the country of sunshine to hide it in the country of fog for the amours of a 'handsome prince. At the summit of an imposing mass of battlements, of which the first glance discerns neither the style nor the order, above terraces with ornamental balustrades, springs up, as if from a fertile and inexhaustible soil, an incredible vegetation of sculptured stone, worked in a thousand different ways. It is a forest of campaniles, chimneys, sky-lights, domes, and towers, in lace-work and open-work, twisted according to a caprice which excludes neither harmony nor unity, and which ornaments with the Gothic F the salamanders and also the mosaics of slate imitating marble, - a singular poverty in the midst of so much wealth. The beautiful open-worked tower of the large staircase dominates the entire mass of pinnacles and steeples, and bathes in the blue sky its colossal fleur-de-lis, the last point of the highest pinnacle among pinnacles, the highest crown among all crowns... We must take Chambord for what it is, an ancient Gothic chateau dressed out in great measure according to the fashion of the Renaissance.
In no other place is the transition from one style to another revealed in a way so impressive and naive; nowhere else does the brilliant butterfly of the Renaissance show itself more deeply imprisoned in the heavy Gothic chrysalis. If Chambord, by its plan which is essentially French and feudal, by its enclosure flanked with towers, and by the breadth of its heavy mass, slavishly recalls the mediaeval manoirs, by its lavish profusion of ornamentation it suggests the creations of the Sixteenth Century as far as the beginning of the roofs; it is Gothic as far as the platform; and it belongs to the Renaissance when it comes to the roof itself. It may be compared to a rude French knight of the Fourteenth Century, who is wearing on his cuirass some fine Italian embroideries, and on his head the plumed felt of Francois I.,-assuredly an incongruous costume, but not without character...
The chateau should be entered by one of the four doors which open in the centre of the donjon. Nothing is more fantastic, and, at the same time, magnificent than the spectacle which greets the eye. It seems more like one of those fairy palaces which we see at the Opera, than a real building. Neglect and nakedness give it an additional value and double its immensity. On entering this vast solitude of stone, we are seized with that respectful silence which involuntarily strikes us under high and solitary vaults. In the centre of the vast Salle des Gardes, which occupies the entire ground-floor, and to which the four towers of the donjon give the form of the Greek cross, rises a monumental stairway which divides this hall into four equal parts, each being fifty feet long and thirty feet broad. This bold conception justifies its celebrity: the stairway at Chambord is in itself a monument. The staircase, completely isolated and open-worked, is composed of posts which follow the winding. Two flights of stairs, one above the other, unfold in helices and pass alternately one over the other without meeting. This will explain how two persons could ascend at the same time without meeting, yet perceiving each other at intervals.
Even while looking at this, it is difficult to conceive this arrangement. These two helices, which are placed above each other and which turn over and over each other without ever uniting, have exactly the curve of a double corkscrew. I believe that no other comparison can give a more exact idea of this celebrated work which has exhausted the admiration and the eulogy of all the connais seurs. "What merits the greatest praise," writes Blondel in his Lefons d'architecture, "is the ingenious disposition of that staircase of double flights, crossing each other and both common to the same newel. One cannot admire too greatly the lightness of its arrangement, the boldness of its execution, and the delicacy of its ornaments, - perfection which astonishes and makes it difficult to conceive how any one could imagine a design so picturesque and how it could be put into execution." The author of Cinq Mars taking up this same idea says: " It is difficult to conceive how the plan was drawn and how the orders' were given to the workmen: it seems a fugitive thought, a brilliant idea which must have taken material form suddenly - a realized dream."
In going through the high halls and long corridors which lead from one chapel to the other, one likes to restore in imagination the rich furniture, the tapestries, the glazed tiles of faience, and the ceilings incrusted with tin fleur-de-lis, which formed its decoration. Each gallery was filled with frescoes by Jean Cousin and the principal works of Leonardo da Vinci... The breath of the Revolution has scattered and destroyed all these rarities. For fifteen days the frippers ran from all points of the province to divide the paintings, the precious enamels, the chests of oak and ebony, the sculptured pulpits, and the high-posted beds covered with armorial hangings. They sold at auction all the souvenirs of the glory of the men, archy. What they could not sell, they burned...
When we descend the noble staircase which Francois I. ordered; which an unknown artist executed, and which deserves to be credited to Primaticcio, it is impossible not to look back upon the Past. What illustrious feet have trod, what eyes have beheld these marvels! What hands, now cold, charming hands of queens, or courtesans more powerful than those queens, and rude hands of warriors, or statesmen, have traced on these white stones names celebrated in that day, but now effaced from the walls, as they are each day more and more effaced from the memory of men! The wheel of Time, which broke in its revolution, has only left enough in this chateau for us to observe and reconstruct in imagination personages great enough to harmonize with such grandeur, and to excite in us that pious respect which must always be attached to everything about to end. Another turn of the wheel and ruin will begin.
Today, and during two Revolutions, the chief of the eldest branch of the Bourbons has remained the master of Chambord. Between this exiled master and this deserted castle there is an intimate and sad relation which will touch the most unsympathetic heart. Each stone that falls in the grass-grown court without a human ear to take note of the noise,-is it not the parallel of an obliterated memory, a hope that is ever weakening? In the absence of this master, who, doubtless, will never return, the old chateau falls into the shadow and silence which belong to fallen majesty. It awaits in this grave and slightly morose sorrow those great vicissitudes, which are imposed on stones, as on men, that the Future has in store.