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Chateau de Chenonceau...alias Chateau des Dames

Updated: May 11

Reasons for enjoying travel are diverse, and very personal. For me, the reasons are many. Sometimes it may be just to see and experience a particular sight. I do confess to being fascinated by architecture, especially in combination with water. Combine this with my strong affection for history, my tenderness for the romantic, and my enchantment with the magical, and you can predict that the 16th century Chateau de Chenonceau with its wildly romantic past would be on my travel wishlist. Although I have been relatively close multiple times (it's about 150 miles from Paris), I have either been heading in a different direction or didn't have the time to spare. Planning our 2019 holiday trip to France, I made certain our plans included a short visit to the Loire Valley; Chateau de Chenonceau was at the top of my Loire Valley wishlist.

Chateau de Chenonceau resides in the lush (in the summertime) Loire Forest, at the end of a magnificent tree-lined passage.

The delicately beautiful Chateau de Chenonceau, designed almost exclusively by women, is nicknamed "Chateau des Dames".

The property was purchased by Thomas Bohier, King Charles VIII's chamberlain in 1513. Because Bohier was away, taking care of the king's business, his wife Katherine Briconnet, made the majority of decisions regarding construction of the main chateau, 1513-1521. The chateau was built on the pilings of a previous mill, representing a type of architecture style transitional between Gothic and Renaissance. Due to unpaid debts of the Bohier family, the crown subsequently took possession of the castle in 1535; originally the chateau was just the tall, spired portion of the building you see today from the front. In 1547, King Henry II presented it to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. A little back story is appropriate here.

After Henry's father, King Francis I, was captured in Spain, his oldest sons, 8 year old Prince Francis and 7 year old Prince Henry were held as hostages by Spain to secure the King's release. During his 4 year captivity, Henry found comfort in reading the book Amadis de Gaula; it is conjectured that Diane was the embodiment of the ideal gentlewoman as portrayed in Amadis. There is conflicting information on when Henry and Diane first met; some accounts suggest Diane gave him his motherly farewell kiss when he was leaving for captivity; however, it is well established that they had a relationship of tutor and student when Henry was quite young. In 1533, at fourteen years of age, Henry married fourteen year old Catherine de' Medici from Florence, another important woman in this thread; their marriage was arranged by Catherine's uncle. Only a few years later, Henry convinced Diane, 19 years older than him, to become his mistress. Already a widow, Diane was also wealthy, having inherited a fortune following the death of her much older husband.

Diane as Diana the Huntress

Diane was considered to have exquisite beauty which rivaled Diana, goddess of the moon. An avid hunter, she was also one of the most accomplished women of her time, well-educated, with a sharp wit, politically astute, a lover of the arts, and a favorite at the royal court. Diane loved Chenonceau, and walking the grounds, I couldn't help but think "Who wouldn't love this place?" In 1547, King Henry II gave her the keys, a gift for her personal residence.

Diane loved hunting, however, the river Cher separated her chateau and the hunting grounds on the opposite bank of the river. What would a person of means and vision do in that case? Diane had a brilliant plan and called in the top architects and builders. First she greatly expanded the beautiful gardens.

Even though we were there in winter, it was easy to envision the beauty of the gardens with everything in bloom and the fountains flowing with water.

Diane then incorporated a multi-arched bridge, gracefully crossing the River Cher, and allowing her easy access to her hunting ground. Devoted to the arts, Diane envisioned an art gallery above the bridge, though this did not come to fruition during her ownership.

Diane enjoyed her lovely retreat until King Henry II died. The king was pierced at a jousting tournament in Paris when he was 40 years of age. He asked for Diane repeatedly after his injury, but the jealous Catherine, assumed control and denied her visitation. Upon his death, the king's wife, Queen Catherine de' Medici, quickly made Chateau Chenonceau her own, ousting Diane, providing her with another chateau.

Catherine established Chenonceau, the gift her late husband had given his lover, as her own personal residence, erasing signs of Diane within the castle. Catherine continued building, completing the rooms Diane had started, and adding three stories on top of Diane's bridge. Catherine died before adding her final effort to diminish Diane's imprint on Chenonceau by constructing another matching chateau on the opposite bank.

In the photograph above, the original chateau is the first square building with spires. Diane then built the five arched bridge from her castle, across the River Cher, for easy access to the hunting grounds. Catherine added the rooms and levels above Diane's bridge.

I was so elated to see the exterior of this chateau, I had barely thought about the interior. It was lovely also and truly worth visiting.

Diane's Bedroom; to the left, a painting "Madonna and Child" by Murillo

King Henry II wore Diane's colors and sported her emblem, the crescent moon. He flaunted her in court and bestowed her with gifts, including the crown jewels, while he excluded Catherine from participating in state affairs. Diane remained his primary confidant, advisor and love, throughout his life. Whether personal matters or affairs of state, Diane was his essential counselor. Reflecting that she was the most important woman to him, his official monogram was two interwoven Ds with a line through the middle to form H, and his signature on official letters and state documents was often HenriDiane. In his final joust, the king was wearing the ribbon of Diane, not that of his wife. For twenty-five years, Diane de Poitiers had been the singular most powerful woman in France. Catherine bid her time.

After ousting Diane from Chenonceau, and claiming it for herself, Catherine placed a large portrait of herself in the bedroom which had been Diane's. Her guests had a clear display of who was in charge now. She also uncoiled the king's monogram, making separate Hs and Cs, with no Ds to be discerned. She also claimed ownership of the crown jewels from Diane.

The grandest room may be the black and white tiled Grand Gallery, which sits squarely over the arched bridge built by Diane. Literally crossing over the Cher River, this was once a ballroom where Catherine threw lavish parties; this became the place for French aristocracy to see and be seen.

The Grand Gallery

Visiting the Loire Valley chateaus at Christmas offers several benefits, one of which is seeing the magnificent Christmas trees and decorations, while definitely avoiding the large numbers of people that visit in the summer. There was not a tour group in sight.

We must express appreciation for one additional woman in the history of this chateau, Louise Dupin, whose portrait is to the right in the photograph above. She is credited with saving the estate from destruction during the French Revolution. Her husband had purchased the estate in 1733. Now widowed, she was the owner of the property and had turned it into a literary salon. During the uprising, she opened the house to the people, currying their favor rather than their destruction; it had the additional advantage of being the only bridge across the river for many miles.

If one needs even more reason to visit Chateau de Chenonceau, visit for the art. A number of masterpieces have been shown above, but there are more.

A portrait of Louis XIV by Rigaud with an extraordinary frame by Lepautre. The Christ Child and Saint John the Baptist by Rubens. Adoration of the Magi by Rubens, The Three Graces by Van Loo, and the list goes on. Truly a collection of unique works reside within Chateau Chenonceau.

Maybe my visit was particularly sweet since I had been anticipating it for years, but maybe it was the fascinating, almost fairytale story of four women over more than 200 years providing nourishment to my love of architecture and water, art, romance and magic that made it so special. Chateau des Dames indeed!

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