Our parade of castles along the Loire Valley continues with Chateau Amboise, an awe-inspiring historical monument and a splendid example of Renaissance artistic refinement. Majestically perched on a cliff rising tall above the valley, the castle sagaciously watches over the peaceful town below. I’m pretty sure Charles VII knew just how to take advantage of its extraordinary potential when he took shelter here during the British invasions.
The town of Amboise has been inhabited ever since Antiquity, its long and tumultuous history leaving behind permanent scars, its olden days never to be forgotten. Our story begins in the 11th century, when an old fortress strategically positioned on the majestic Loire Valley was restored. At the beginning of the 12th century, the powerful and influential Amboise family took possession of the fortress and its neighboring town, and would control them for the next four centuries. In 1434, the castle was confiscated by King Charles VII and was annexed to the crown, becoming a royal residence. During the Renaissance, Chateau Amboise served as residence for a number of French kings.
Charles VIII of Valois, also known as “the Affable,” was born at Amboise. Between 1492 and 1498, he rebuilt the old fortress, contracting Italian builders and French artisans, turning the once defensive castle into a refined palace. It was he who built the Saint-Hubert Chapel, the Charles VII wings, the two knightly towers (Tour des Minnes and Tour Hertault), as well as the terraced park. Following his Italian campaign, during which he was introduced to a richer, more sophisticated way of life, Charles VIII became the pioneer of a new court lifestyle in France. It all began at Amboise. Aged 27, the king died in the very same castle where he first saw the light of day. In a hurry to get to a fashion parade, very popular at the time, he tripped and banged his head on a stone door frame.
His successor, Louis XII, continued with a magnificent work of art in the wing that bears his name, but it was during Francis I that Amboise saw its golden days. Surrounded by the time’s greatest artists, he organized pompous festivities. Francis I invited Leonardo da Vinci to live at Clos Luce Manor, near the castle, which is where the great Renaissance genius died. According to his final wishes, he was buried at Saint-Florentin church. The chapel was destroyed in 1807, and his remains were moved in Chapelle Saint Hubert in 1874. During World War 2, the count of Paris managed to save da Vinci’s earthly remains from the hands of the Nazis who were planning to hand them over to Benito Mussolini. Henry II, son of Francis I, extended the castle to an amplitude that is difficult to imagine today. Sadly, a great part was demolished during the First Empire.
In 1560, the castle was the scene where a bloody event, the Amboise conjuration, was played. With the intention of releasing Francis II from the influential of the powerful des Guise family, the conspiracy proved a disaster with over 1,200 conspirators either hanged by the ramparts of the castle or drowned in the Loire. It was the foreplay of the religious wars that would shake France t the grounds for the next decades. The tragic episode had drastic consequences: the royal court moved out of Amboise, the castle never returned to its royal favors, it even served as prison in the 17th century. One of its most famous inmates was Prime-Minister Nicolas Fouquet, during Louis XIV.
It was later passed on into the hands of noblemen before being seized by the people in 1792, in the midst of the French Revolution, when a great part of it was destroyed, more to be wrecked during the 1848 Revolution. Also in 1848, Emir Abd El-Kader, who opposed French colonization in Algeria, together with his suite of attendants, were transferred at the castle and held captive until 1852, when they were released by Napoleon III.
In 1873, Louis-Phillipe inherited the castle and made great efforts to restore Amboise, but it was severely damaged once more during the German invasion in 1940. Nowadays, Louis-Phillipe’s descendant, the count of Paris, is administering the castle with the help of the Saint Louis Foundation.
Today, only one fifth of what was once the plush Chateau Amboise stills stands before us. Upon entering, we climb a long platform that leads us to the terraced gardens offering a lovely panoramic view of the Loire Valley, the town’s buildings and rooftops, as well as of the two impressively large knightly towers. Above the castle, Jardin de Naples stretches out, a lovely park inspired by Italian gardens.
We stop at Chapelle Saint-Hubert, believed to shelter the earthly remains of Leonardo da Vinci. Built in 1491, the Gothic style chapel boasts a beautiful sculpted façade, while its interiors are wonderfully lit up by stained glass windows.
Inside the castle, in Salle des Gardes Nobles, a replica of a 16th battle armor welcomes visitors. The sovereign’s guard was mostly comprised of noblemen, and this particular chamber controlled access to the upper floor.
Salle des Tambourineures, whose name refers to the numerous celebrations and balls hosted by the castle during the Valois kings, is the chamber where the sovereign used to dress up for parties. The furniture includes a Renaissance table, a chair and a chest dating from Charles VIII’s reign, while the walls boast a splendid 16th century tapestry depicting the homage of Darius’ family to Alexander the Great.
Salle du Conseil is the biggest and most important chamber in the castle, the place where the king would call his counsel, with opulent columns decorated with lily flowers and ermine tails, and the emblems of French royalty and of the Duke of Bretagne. There are two fireplaces, the first with a Gothic style trapezoidal chimney, boasting Charles VIII’s emblem. The second, in the opposite corner, is a great example of Renaissance refinement. Charles VIII and Anne de Bretagne’s monograms are on the ceiling and the portraits of the Bourbon kings are on the walls: Henry IV and his son, Louis XIII.
We enter the Renaissance apartments, starting with Salle de l’Echanson, which recalls the customs at the king’s table, where the cupbearer would serve drinks, with an Italian-style extendable table and a massive carved walnut chest. Chambre de Henri II takes pride in its large canopy bed, a double-bottom jewelry chest, a finely sculpted closet, and large tapestries on the walls. Further on, Chambre de la Cordeliere is the former antechamber of Renaissance apartments, with a decorated fireplace boasting Francis I’s emblem, the salamander.
Cabinet Louis Philippe is the replica of the work cabinet during his reign, and Chambre Louis Philippe, furnished in First Empire style, stands out with its ship-shaped bed, richly decorated, with a small canopy with red fabrics, and the walls covered in curtains of the same color.
Inside Salon de Musique, where an Erard grand piano dominates the room, there are small epoque tables and chairs, a giant fireplace, Queen Marie-Amelie’s portrait with her two sons hangs by the wall, and Louis Philippe Joseph’s on the other. On a chevalet lies the portrait of Abd El Kader.
Our visit ends with Tour des Minimes, the Knight’s Tower, an exquisite example of innovation. Dating from the 15th century, it features an access ramp which allowed medium size carts to enter the castle. The tower offers lovely views of the Italian gardens, with Leonardo da Vinci’s bust reminding of his initial burial place.
Time has come to leave this imposing and glamorous castle, not without a sigh of regret. Once the sumptuous theater stage where the history of France unscrupulously unrolled, I’ll leave it to Charles Peguy, French poet and essayist, to take over, who could not have captured the beauty of these castles any better in his poem, “Chateau de Loire:”
Le long du coteau courbe et des nobles vallees
Les Chateaux sont semes comme des reposoirs
Et dans la majeste des matins et des soirs
La Loire et ses vassaux s’en vont par ces alles…