Chenonceau, Loire castles. The remarkable dwelling of a remarkable woman
Chenonceau. Beauty advice from the 16th century
-She dived at dawn from the castle into the cold water of the river?
-Imagine the skin she had.
-That explains her accomplishments.
The above comments are some of the many said by my students, when I told them the story of Diane de Poitiers, on the occasion of the presentation of the castle of Chenonceau at the Loire valley.
If you find yourself in the Loire valley on a package trip, it is certain that one of the castles you will see will be Chenonceau. Not only because of the incredible story of the famous 16th-century beauty, to whom it belonged, but also because it is one of the most beautiful castles in the world, thanks not only to its architecture but also to its location.
A castle above the river
The Loire castles are built on the banks of the eponymous river, which starts from central France with a western direction and flows into the Atlantic.
Already from the end of the Middle Ages, but mainly in the Renaissance, it became a favourite resort of the French nobility and kings. All those built luxurious castles on the banks of the Loire itself and its tributaries.
Only Diane de Poitiers didn’t build it next to the river. She built it ABOVE the river.
This is the very first thing that distinguishes Chenonceau from the hundreds (indeed, it’s not an exaggeration) castles of the Loire. This castle stands on massive stone pillars, based in the riverbed of the Cher, a tributary of the Loire.
I found myself in the Loire valley many times, especially in the years I was studying in Paris . I had heard the name of Diane de Poitiers but didn’t know many details. Those I learned from a guided tour on the spot.
Diane de Poitiers was a French nobleman who was born in 1499. She began as a lady of honour in the royal court, a young widow of a husband 39 years older than her, and ended mistress of King Henry II.
You will say, that’s not original. The originality lies elsewhere. The king was 20 years her junior!
An unusual relationship
Diane was in the royal court since the time of his father, Francis I, so Henry knew Diane since he was a child and she was young. So, I guess her youthful image was strongly impressed on him. Anyway, when their relationship began, she was 36 and he was 16.
But she remained his mistress for 24 years, which means until Henry was 40 and she 60. Let’s don’t talk about what a 60-year-old woman meant in the 16th century. You understand.
So you think the relationship ended because Diane at 60 was at last not presentable? Wrong! The relationship ended just because Henry died by accident in a tournament, a royal feast with armed contests.
Considering that his spear carried the emblem of Diane, perhaps he was the victim of a curse (of his wife, the infamous Catherine de’ Medici).
Compare the portraits of mistress and wife and you will believe that Henry chose his twenty years senior Diane over his coeval Catherine.
But we have to say that in addition to being beautiful, Diane had also received a humanistic education and, among many other things, she knew Latin and Greek. And she was so smart and capable, that Henry had entrusted her with serious state affairs. To her, he owed largely the fact that he was one of the best kings of France.
One of the many portraits of Diane de Poitiers. Naturally, she was immortalised by the leading painters and sculptors of her time. The crescent on her head was the emblem of Artemis (Diana in Latin). Do not forget that she was a Hellenist.
The not so favoured by nature Catherine de’ Medici. The Medici, the famous powerful family of Florence , were all of a proverbial ugliness.
A very expensive gift
Henry extended the old royal castle that was there for Diane and donated it to her. She wanted it to expand over the river, so that she could dive from a hole in the floor directly into the icy water every morning, at dawn.
This was one of the many things she did to keep young and beautiful (another was that she drank liquid gold, but I don’t know if that did her good).
The castle became one of the architectural masterpieces of the French Renaissance, a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance elements (the Italian Renaissance penetrated slowly in countries with a strong Gothic architectural tradition, such as France).
Two great female personalities
Unfortunately for Diane, the premature death of Henry threw her at the mercy of the infamous Catherine de’ Medici. Suffice it to recall that 13 years later this lady organised the massacre of the Protestants in Paris.
If the night of St. Bartholomew means something to you, this is it. The namesake saint had nothing more to do with it beyond the misfortune to be celebrated that day, the 24th of August 1572.
So, given the temperament of the Queen, Diane should consider herself lucky to escape just with the seizure of her castle.
Not even really a seizure. It was a compulsory exchange with a much less nice one, the castle of Chaumont. It was Catherine who settled at Chenonceau, taking her revenge. We can imagine, though, how powerful was Diane, if even the mighty Catherine didn’t dare hurt her.
And because I’m sure you are with the sweet and beautiful Diane and not with the mean and ugly queen, don’t worry. Snow White, I mean Diane, was not lost. She settled at her not bad at all ancestral château d’Anet and lived there the rest of her turbulent life.
Diane died in 1566, aged 67, pretty old for that time. So, it seems that diving into icy water at dawn is a good advice, at least if one is accustomed to it.
Let alone that her death was not from completely natural causes. Two years previously she was injured while riding on horseback and never fully recovered.
Don’t make the mistake to just see the castle, listen to the story of Diane from the guide and then leave. Your visit can not be considered complete unless you have seen the beautiful gardens just next to the castle.
This is the fundamental difference of Renaissance castles from the medieval ones. The medieval castles are closed, with small windows and tall towers, since the main objective was the defence from the countless external risks.
On the contrary, in the Renaissance, conditions have improved. The kings of Europe are strengthened. They have imposed a relative order in their countries and don’t face so frequent external risks.
Their castles and those of the nobles acquire then large windows, balconies and… gardens. Beautiful gardens, designed by skilled gardeners (today we would say landscape architects). In complex geometric shapes, with artistically shorn trees and shrubs, forming up to human and animal figures.
Among the most beautiful are the gardens of Chenonceau, created according to Diane’s desire, of course. Maybe somewhere in there wanders the spirit of the most remarkable woman of 16th-century France …
Travel tip: If you find yourself in the Loire valley and don’t go with an organised tour from Paris, the best way is to choose an organised trip by coach from Tours, the largest nearby city.
These tours usually include two or three castles. Prefer the combination with the castle of Chambord, the largest Loire castle and the second most beautiful, I think, after Chenonceau.
But this will be for another time (soon).
About the author
Hello! I am Denis, an architect based in Athens, Greece. I teach history of art and architecture in higher education. That’s one passion of mine. The other one is hiking, in and out of town. If you follow me, I’ll share my discoveries with you.
My book about Athens
If you liked this article, share and follow my page on facebook
The blog culturehikes.com features in Alltop, the list of top sites, in the category “travel”