Category Archives: Architecture

Heartbreak at Notre Dame in Paris

I’m shocked to see the images of Norte Dame burning today. I was just there in December, and I took it for granted that it would always be there whenever I was lucky enough to return to Paris. I would not dream of visiting Paris without going inside to be awed once again by the majesty of Notre Dame.

But it appears that a fire started under the spire and spread rapidly. When I visited, I could see scaffolding around the spire; I understand major repairs were going on. The image above is a picture of a TV picture.

Now the news is that the entire roof has collapsed.

It is just unthinkable that a place of such beauty and spirituality is on fire. After all, the Cathedral of Our Lady was built between 1160 and 1260, and has stood through all the centuries of tumultuous French history since then.

I always think of Gothic churches as sort of fireproof because they seem to be made of stone. But actually much of the structure is wood.

Who knows whether Notre Dame can be rebuilt, or even whether the fire can be put out before it’s reduced to a pile of rubble. We can only hope the cathedral has guardian angels watching over it.

Azay-le-Rideau: Island Dreaminess and Bats in the Belfry

Once upon a time a beautiful chateau rose up on an island in the middle of the River Indre…well, not really.

Actually the Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau began as a 12th-century fortress built to protect the road between Chinon and Tours, where it had to cross the River Indre. The site saw a lot of violence over the next few centuries, including an episode in the Hundred Years’ War when 350 soldiers occupying it were executed and the existing building was burned to the ground.

Finally, in 1518, one Gilles Berthelot acquired the property and set about building himself a grand Renaissance chateau. Gilles was the Treasurer of King Francois I, and the King allowed him to cut timber from the nearby Forest of Chinon. A lot of trees were needed to build on the swampy ground. As in the city of Venice, timbers had to be driven vertically into the ground to keep the stone chateau from sinking.

Naturally, Gilles featured his King and Queen prominently in his facade. That’s the fire-breathing salamander of Francois I and the meek ermine of his Queen, Claude.

The central stairway is one of the main architectural features.

I’m a big fan of stone corbels, like this dog guarding his bone from another dog.

Other stone figures are more fantastical.

Sometimes it’s all just a bit much, though. Time for a nap?

The chateau fell into decline in the eighteenth century. All the furniture and art was sold off. Since it became the property of the French government, it’s been refurnished in grand fashion.

I especially liked a bedroom lined with handwoven rushes–very cozy on those chilly evenings.

I have no idea who this lady is, but she’s lovely.

So what’s under that steep oh-so-French roof?

The attic is where the King’s forest timbers really shine.

The roof is a real feat of engineering, sixteenth century style. The original workmen’s marks survive. Everything had to fit together perfectly. It still does.

The colony of about fifty protected bats must enjoy the airy spaces.

Down on the ground, the thing to do is to circle the chateau, admiring the Renaissance grandeur reflected in the water.

And to make plans to come back.

Chateau Gaillard in Amboise: A Smiling Monk and Oranges from Italy

There’s a new chateau in town, complementing the touristic big guns of Chateau d’Amboise and Leonardo da Vinci’s last home, Clos Luce. (It’s not to be confused with the medieval Chateau Gaillard in Normandy, which was the stronghold of Richard the Lionheart).

It’s a smallish chateau. But it’s an interesting stop because it’s possible to imagine actually living there.

Gaillard is a respite from the main tourist track. The gardens are a work in progress, but they’re peaceful and green. And there are already oranges.

Dom Pacello da Mercogliano was a Benedictine monk with a genius for making things grow. He was also something of a hydraulic engineer; growing things always need water.

King Charles VIII brought Dom Pacello from Italy to Amboise in the late 1400s and installed him in this house a short hike from the king’s grand riverbank chateau. Pacello’s mission was to design beautiful gardens like the ones Charles remembered from Italy. Charles especially wanted oranges, which had never been grown in France.

An important part of Dom Pacello’s work was to figure out how to get water from the Loire all the way up to the chateau gardens high above the river. I gather that was no mean feat, and didn’t work out so well.

After Charles’ untimely death, the monk continued to work for his successor, Louis XII. It appears that Dom Pacello lived in France for the rest of his long life, dying at age 87 in 1534.

Once again after centuries of neglect, the estate has oranges in a lot of varieties. Charles would be pleased.

A family (whose name I don’t know) bought the property a few years ago. They’ve been working hard on restoring it and making it a tourist attraction. Other visitors report they’ve met the family and found them charming. I thought the admission price, comparable to major sights in the Loire Valley, was a little steep. But there are a lot of very positive Tripadvisor reviews. Quite a few visitors felt it was money well spent for the tranquility. People really appreciate a place for kids to run around and adults to relax.

There’s a colorful brochure in English, and apparently one English tour a day. We were in a bit of a rush and probably should have allowed more time to let the place grow on us. I did not see even a French tour going on, but there was a colorful little film (in French) running in a pretty garden shed.

It’s especially interesting to see how the mansion was built directly up against and even had rooms tunneled into the sheer rock wall behind it.

The local stone is tufa, and there are a lot of more humble “cave houses” in town.

About nine rooms of the house are open to visitors. The rooms are pretty and atmospheric. It appears that the family actually lives in the house.

They serve orange juice and orange cake on a pleasant terrace.

The website for the chateau is at

http://www.chateau-gaillard-amboise.fr/pacello-de-mercoliano-eng.html

St. Hubert’s Chapel at Amboise: A Resting Place for Leonardo da Vinci

The Gothic Chapel of Saint-Hubert was built between 1491 and 1496 during the reign of Charles VIII.

It’s perched right at the edge of the wall surrounding Chateau d’Amboise, towering over the town far below.

The chapel is tiny but exquisite. The facade tells the story of St. Hubert. He seems to have been an actual person, born around 656 to 658 in Toulouse. By the time he died on May 30, 727, he had become the first Bishop of Liege.

Hubert was a courtier living the good life of feasting, wearing fine clothes, and hunting in the vast royal forests of various parts of France. But when his wife died in childbirth, it seems he had a sort of midlife crisis. He chucked his royal duties and turned his back on religion. Instead he spent all his time hunting, all by himself.

On Good Friday, while everybody else was in church, he was out hunting alone as usual when he had a miraculous vision. A magnificent stag appeared with a crucifix in its antlers. A voice told him to mend his ways and get back to religious life, which he did. He became known as the “Apostle of the Ardennes,” devoted himself to all manner of good works, and died peacefully in old age.

Hubert became the patron saint of hunters (of course). He was much venerated in the Middle Ages for being able to cure rabies. The cure involved using St. Hubert’s Key, a fearsome metal nail-like brand that was heated red-hot and applied to the spot where an unfortunate person was bitten by a rabid animal. I suppose it worked at times, but I’m betting Leonardo da Vinci could have improved on the method if he’d set his mind to it.

St. Hubert has his very own club today in the UK. It’s dedicated to deer and wild boar management.

https://www.sainthubertclub.co.uk/who-was-st-hubert/

St. Hubert’s story is very similar to that of St. Eustace, but it does seem they were different people who had the same vision. I first encountered the crucifix-in-antlers story on a visit to Canterbury Cathedral in England, and wrote about it. Eustace did not fare as well as Hubert, though. Legend has it that Eustace, his wife and children were eventually roasted alive by the Emperor Hadrian.

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2016/04/29/st-eustace-in-canterbury-cathedral/

St. Hubert’s chapel is lovely and peaceful inside even when there are a lot of tourists visiting Amboise. People duck in to see Leonardo’s tomb, but they don’t linger.

The chapel is a nice resting place for Leonardo, who died just up the street in his last house, Clos Luce, in 1519. And I’m sure he appreciates the visitors from all over the world.

Chateau d’Amboise

What if your job was to guard a strategic section of the important River Loire? And this was in medieval times when rival nobles considered themselves mini-monarchs with a duty to become maxi-monarchs by grabbing the lands and strongholds of their neighbors?

You’d probably build yourself a sturdy fort high on the riverbank and post lookouts in both directions. This happened all over Europe, and it happened in Amboise, on the River Loire in France. The exact history is hazy, but by the 900s the powerful Angevin counts had a fortress at Amboise. From the top of their sheer stone walls they could see everything happening below them in the town and on the river. Over the next few centuries, the nobles began owing their allegiance to actual kings of France.

In 1431, Louis d’Amboise, Viscount of Thours, was convicted of plotting against King Louis XI and sentenced to death. But instead he languished in prison until 1434 when the new king, Charles VIII, pardoned him. That was the good news. The bad news was that the king confiscated the chateau and it became the permanent property of the Crown.

Charles VIII grew up at Amboise. As an adult, he decided to extensively rebuild his childhood home.

Possibly he should have paid more attention to the details. Or possibly he just should have watched where he was going. At the age of 27, he knocked his head against a low door lintel and died. He left his young widow, Anne of Brittany, with the ironclad obligation of marrying his cousin, who became King Louis XII. Anne was still Queen.

Louis XII, Workshop of Jean Perréal, 1514, Public Domain

All this had been carefully written into the marriage contract, in order to assure that wealthy Brittany remained part of France.

However, after all that careful planning, Louis XII died without a male heir. So his cousin Francois became King Francois I. The young King Francois was raised at Amboise and lived there as an adult. He brought Leonardo da Vinci from Italy to Amboise to live out his golden years.

Le Mort de Leonardo da Vinci, Francois-Guillaume Menageot, 1781

There’s a famous painting depicting Francois tenderly nursing the dying Leonardo, but actually Francois was not present at the time, in 1519. However, the King did install Leonardo in a very nice mansion, Clos Lucé, just up the street. There was a tunnel connecting the mansion and the chateau so the two men could visit each other. It’s just a guess, but I think Francois did most of the visiting, glad to get away from the pressures of his court.

And Leonardo was buried in the chapel on the chateau grounds.

In 1560, France was embroiled in the Wars of Religion. A Protestant conspiracy was discovered and dealt with harshly. Over a period of about a month, as many as 1200 people were executed and many were hung from the castle ramparts, where they remained for a long time. This was not pleasant for anyone, including the chateau residents. The royals and courtiers departed, and Amboise began to fall into decline. The stained glass panel above is a modern depiction of the grisly situation.

Today, the approach to the castle is from the lively town of Amboise nestled below the formidable castle walls. That’s the royal chapel on top, where Leonardo rests.

The architecture is still forbidding. Nobody would wander in without an invitation.

The townside tower has a ramp big enough for several horsemen to ascend together. The ancient stonework is meant to impress and intimidate.

The castle itself, much restored and added to over the years, looks inviting, at least on a sunny day.

For me, the royal Chapel of St. Hubert is the best part of the whole chateau complex. It deserves its own post.

Inside the castle itself, though, there’s a lot to admire. The main hall is impressive.

I especially loved the stone corbels at the bases of the arches. I think the castle walls really did have ears. This fellow seems like a reminder to be careful of the intrigues of court life.

Anybody’s secrets could be trumpeted far and wide.

Does this fellow want out?

Of course the pleasures of nature were close at hand in the royal hunting grounds.

Are those the thistles of Scotland? Mary Stuart, who later became Queen of Scots, lived here as a child, then returned as a very young bride after marrying the Dauphin Francis in 1558. (He died young and she returned to Scotland).

There’s Francois I, supported by his symbol the flame-breathing salamander.

I don’t think any of the furnishings or even the rooms are in their original state–the chateau is too old for that, and too many lives have been lived there. But the rooms have the flavor of various historical periods. Above are fine Renaissance pieces.

Then there are rooms with a more Napoleonic flavor–although after the Revolution the damage was so great that Napoleon ordered large parts of the chateau demolished.

In fact, the chateau is not very well explained. There are placards, some in English as well as French. But even the French information seems pretty cursory. I know, for instance, that residents included Nicholas Fouquet after his arrest for angering Louis XIV by building a lavish chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Henri II and Catherine de Medici raised their family here. But I couldn’t find any information about any of these people. Possibly some rooms were closed, or I missed some rooms.

Amboise is not my very favorite chateau, but it’s well worth a wander. And the pretty town of Amboise is a fine base for the Loire Valley.

Just walking the back streets is fun. It’s a real town, not a tourist trap. People live in pretty houses set in leafy yards.

In small houses that open onto the meandering main road, I admired one pretty doorway after another.

Some people live in ancient cave houses tunneled into the tufa stone bluffs, and a few of these cave homes are available to rent.

Right down the street from the chateau, Leonardo da Vinci’s last home is a big attraction. There’s also a new attraction called Château Gaillard–more on that in another post. Yet just down a narrow alley from these world-class attractions, I stopped to admire these feathery beauties just hanging out in their unfenced yard.

Amboise is a fine town where it’s still possible to get away from the tourist crush. Nobody here but us chickens!

Winchester Cathedral, Jane Austen’s Resting Place

When Jane Austen died in 1817, she was not famous. She was buried as a gentlewoman beneath the floor in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral, with no mention of her as a writer. She had published four of her great novels while living at Chawton, but readers did not know her name. The title page read, “By a Lady.”

I finally made a visit last spring, after visiting Jane’s cottage home in Chawton and the “great house” that played a big part in her most productive years.

No doubt Jane knew the medieval cathedral well, having lived the last eight years of her life in nearby Chawton Village. She spent the last eight weeks or so of her life in Winchester, undergoing treatment that didn’t work. (Theories about her illness include Addison’s disease and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, among others).

Jane lies underneath the stone floor. Her brothers James and Henry arranged the burial. Her tombstone refers to “the extraordinary endowments of her mind,” but the emphasis is on her qualities as a proper Christian gentlewoman, not her genius as a writer and satirist. Only four people attended Jane’s brief funeral service in 1817. She has much more company now.

I’d like to think Jane was familiar with the Holy Sepulchre Chapel.

The chapel’s wall and ceiling paintings date from the 12th and early 13th centuries.

Even more, I’d like to think Jane once stood and gazed up at the exquisite ceiling of the Guardian Angels Chapel, dating from around 1240, by Master William, the King’s painter.

That would have been King Henry III. The ceiling was restored in 1959, so Jane may not have seen it at its best. But I like to think the guardians angels watch over her anyway.

The cathedral has a nice display about Jane on banners and signs in the north aisle.

One sign explains that by around 1850, as Jane’s identity as a writer came out and her fame began to grow, visitors were coming just to see her grave.

In 1870 Jane’s nephew published a memoir about her and used the proceeds for a brass plaque on the wall near her tomb.

By 1900, a public subscription paid for a memorial window above the brass plaque.

Aside from the Jane connection, Winchester is a fascinating cathedral. The building was finished and consecrated in 1093, after all. It still functions as a church, and it’s possible to wander without crowds of tourists.

The beautiful illuminated Winchester Bible, used by the 60 to 80 monks in residence in the 1100s, is worth a visit all by itself.

I especially like the huge heavy “flying” buttresses that hold up the cathedral walls from outside. They form a sort of secular cloister which locals use all the time. I like to imagine Jane attending a service, then hurrying home with a new plot twist or turn of phrase. Maybe, for instance, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Jane lives on!

Fontevraud l’Abbaye

If I didn’t already believe in ghosts, I’d be positive they exist after visiting Fontevraud Abbey in France. I was looking forward to seeing it again on my last trip to France. I last saw it years ago, and expected it to be more developed for visitors now. It is, but not in a good way, at least not for me.

The Abbey was begun in the 1100s and for centuries was the home of generations of nuns.

Many of them were noblewomen who either chose monastic life or retreated to the convent when they were widowed or retired from public life. Also, quite often women who were in disgrace were packed off to convents so that everybody else could feel better about them. An exhibit in the cloisters earnestly uses this fact to argue that monastic life was similar to prison life. Much is made of uniforms and hierarchies. I don’t buy the argument.

There were actually four different orders of religious people at Fontevraud, one of them made up of male monks under the authority of the nuns. Fontevraud was very unusual in that respect. It was set up as a kind of utopian community run by women. I’m all for that! But there’s very little information posted about the history of the Abbey.

Eleanor of Aquitaine retreated to Fontevraud in her old age and died there. Eventually, her husband, Henry II of England, was buried alongside her in Fontevraud Abbey. Life in the convent was dignified and refined. Eleanor’s effigy shows her peacefully reading a book, probably Scripture (but I like to think it was something racy).

Eleanor and Henry’s son, King Richard the Lionheart, was buried in the same place, along with his sister-in-law Isabelle of Angoulême. Life went on placidly in the convent for centuries.

Then came the French Revolution. The Abbey was deconsecrated and the nuns were unceremoniously turned out.

Sacred images were smashed. Treasures were hauled off. Gold crosses were melted down. Only a few religious images remained, high up on walls.

Then in 1804, after all that was over, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the creation of a high-security prison which soon held as many as 2000 unfortunate men at a time. (I think the prisoners were all men). It became one of the harshest prisons in France, and remained so for over 150 years. The cavernous spaces were filled with cells and workrooms.

Guards patrolled the cloisters where generations of nuns once walked.

Today, an exhibit explains prison life. I think the photo above shows prison authorities. There were some photos of prisoners, but I could hardly bear to look at them. During World War II, resistance fighters were imprisoned at Fontevraud. Ten of them were shot on the grounds.

Prisoners did forced labor in complete silence, never allowed to speak even to each other. They were subject to terrible abuse. They worked day and night with very little food or rest. Life expectancy was 8 months.

I felt chilled and fearful the entire time I was in the Abbey. I felt certain that the place was haunted by the thousands of prisoners who suffered and died there. The prison finally closed in 1963.

Today, there is very little visible information about the royal tombs. Actually, what is visible is probably just the effigies. The tombs are very likely elsewhere.

The huge nave is cold, empty, and unconsecrated. Only a few fragments of wall paintings remain. There’s nothing much to look at except a kind of desk off to one side, where one person can sit and look at computer images. A small group was huddled over it and I could not even get close. And the building was really cold, even on a sunny day in May. It felt like more than just a physical coldness.

I’d have to be a much bigger fan of Romanesque architecture to venture through the Abbey doors again. But I won’t make it that far anytime soon. Entry to the Abbey is through a modern annex that somehow feels prison-like, with automatic sliding air-lock-type glass doors. I didn’t see any free guide brochures, and for once I didn’t feel like springing for a guidebook. Entry fees are stiff, too, and nobody is especially welcoming. Signs directing visitors are few and far between, and confusing.

I know there are other buildings in the complex that I missed. But most of the buildings seem to be closed.

Parts of the complex still seem to be under renovation or off-limits for other reasons. Back in the entry/exit/bookshop, I paged through a guidebook. I couldn’t find anything that tempted me to go back inside.

Maybe I lack imagination when I look at empty ancient spaces. Maybe I just wasn’t persistent enough. But I couldn’t wait to escape Fontevraud. I blame the ghosts.

I left and rushed to the nearest chateau, Usse, where I got in just before it closed for the day. If there are ghosts at Chateau d’Usse, they are friendly, welcoming ones. I know that a lot of people love Fontevraud. But it left me cold. And I don’t think a warm coat would have helped much.