The road that leads from Blois to Chambord crosses the Loire by a fine stone bridge, which the inscription sets forth to be the first public work of Louis Philippe.
For some distance the rails of a small tramway followed the road by which our carriage was slowly rolling toward the IeveI plains of the Cologne, but we gradually left such uncompromising signs of activity, and came into a flat country of endless vineyards, with here and there a small plaster tower showing its slated roof above the low green clusters of the vines. We passed through several villages, whose inhabitants that day seemed to have but one care upon their minds, like the famous Scilly Islanders, to gain a precarious livelihood by taking each other’s washing. On every bush and briar fluttered the household linen and the family apparel, of various textures and in different states of despair; and with that strict observance of utility which is the chief characteristic of the French peasant, the inevitable blouses, of faded blue were blown into shapeless bundles even along the railings of the churchyard tombs.
At last we came to an old moss grown wall, and through a broken gateway entered what is called the Park of Chambord. There is very little of it to be seen now, the trees have been ruthlessly cut down and mutilated, and of the wild boars, which Francis I. was so fond of hunting there is left only the ghostly quarry that Thibault of Champagne chases through the air, while the sound of his ghostly horn echoes down the autumn night as the fantom pack sweeps by to Montfrault.
It is impossible for the uninstructed mind to grasp the plan or method of this mass of architecture; yet it is unsatisfactory to give it up, with Mr. Henry James, “as an irresponsible, insoluble labyrinth.” M. Viollet-le-Duc, with a sympathetic denial of any extreme and over-technical admiration, gives just that intelligible account of the chateau which is a compromise between the unmeaning adulation of its contemporary critics and the ignorance of the casual traveler.
“Chambord,” says he, “must be taken for what it is; for an attempt in which the architect sought to reconcile the methods of two opposite principles, to unite in one building the fortified castle of the Middle Ages and the pleasure-palace of the sixteenth century.” Granted that the attempt was an absurd one, it must be remembered that the Renaissance was but just beginning in France; Gothic art seemed out of date, yet none other had established itself to take its place. In literature, in morals, as in architecture, this particular phase in the civilization of the time has already become evident even in the course of these small wanderings in a single province, and if only this transition period is realized in all its meaning, with all the “monstrous and inform” characteristics that were inevitably a part of it, the mystery of this strange sixteenth century in France is half explained, of this “glorious devil, large in heart and brain, that did love beauty only” and would have it somewhere, somehow, at whatever cost.
Francis I. had passed his early years at Cognac, at Amboise, or Romorantin, and when he first saw Chambord it was only the old feudal manor-house built by the Counts of Blois. He transformed it, not by the help of Primaticcio, with whose name it is tempting to associate any building of this king’s, for the methods of con-temporary Italian architecture were totally different; but, as Mr. de la Saussaye proves, by the skill of that fertile school of art particularly of one Maitre Pierre Trinqueau, or Le Nepveu, whose name is connected with more successful buildings at Amboise and Blois. The plan is that of the true French chateau; in the center is the habitation of the seigneur and his family, flanked by four angle towers; on three sides is a court closed by buildings, also with towers at each angle, and like most feudal dwellings the central donjon has one of its sides on the exterior of the whole. . . .
It may well be imagined that Chambord is the parody of the old castles, just as the Abbey of Theleme parodies the abbeys of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Both heaped a fatal ridicule upon the bygone age, but what Rabelais could only dream Francis could realize, yet not with the unfettered perfection that was granted to the vision of Gargantua; for surely never was the spirit of the time, seized and smitten into incongruous shapes of stone at so unfortunate a moment, just when the old Renaissance was striving to take upon itself the burden which was too heavy for the failing Gothic spirit, just when success was coming, but had not yet come.
It is only from within the court, where the great towers fling their shadows over the space, where pinnacles and gables soar into the air, and strange gargoyles and projecturcs shoot from the darkness into light, that it is possible to realize the admiration which Chambord roused when it was first created. Brantome waxes enthusiastic over its wonders, and describes how the king had drawn up plans (mercifully never carried out) to divert the waters of the Loire to his new palace, not content with the slender stream of Cosson, from which the place derived its name. Others compare it to a palace out of the Arabian Nights raised at the Prince’s bidding by a Genie, or like Lippomano, the Venetian ambassador, to “the abode of Morgana or Alcinous”; but this top heavy barrack is anything rather than a “fairy monument”; it might with as much humor be called a “souvenir of first loves,” as M. de la Saussaye has it. ° Both descriptions fit Chenonceaux admirably; when used of Chambord they are out of place.