I was enjoying myself in France the other day and while in the Loire Valley happened on some of the most gorgeous chateaus in all the world. They had been the property, in the XIV Century, of two remarkable regents, their queens, their favorite ladies and an assortment of friends, progeny and others to whom was owed vast sums of money. The chateaus are filled with crystal chandeliers, tapestries and precious furnishings – and cold. Really, it’s no wonder that progeny were so numerous: everyone was just trying to stay warm!
In France, you could start in the 13th Century with Louis IX and work your way slowly (and painfully) through all the Phillipes, the Charles, the Louises and the Henris, but it is très confusing! So for clarity’s sake, let’s begin with François1ier. An imposing person, he stood a smidge over six feet tall – and remember, s’il vous plait, this was the Fifteenth Century, when you were considered “tall” if you measured about five feet six. How do I know this? Well, about the fourth time I banged my head on a castle lintel, I figured it out: either people walked around all bent over or very bruised; in fact, one of the French kings smacked himself on a lintel and died of brain injury.
Anyway, back to Francis I. He was born two years after Columbus touched the shores of what would become the New World. He married Claude of Brittany, his cousin, when he was 20 and upon the death of his uncle, Louis XII, her father, became King of France. Now ponder this: here’s a very young man with very limited knowledge of his world and his times, not even raised to be a ruler, and suddenly, he’s one of the most powerful people in Europe and, arguably, much of the rest of the known world. Furthermore, he may have been one of the first true “Renaissance Men.” As he matured – and fathered seven children – his interests ranged across a wide spectrum: art, architecture, poetry, foreign relations, philosophy and letters.
His dearest friend was none other than Leonardo da Vinci who accepted Francis’ invitation to come to Amboise, bringing with him a few paintings he had dashed off: the Mona Lisa, Saint John the Baptist and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.
His dearest friend was none other than Leonardo da Vinci who accepted Francis’ invitation to come to Amboise, bringing with him a few paintings he had dashed off: the Mona Lisa, Saint John the Baptist and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. Leonardo received 1,000 gold crowns each year, but his true worth during those years at Blois was the counsel and friendship he provided to Francis. Leonardo may have been the mastermind behind one of Francis’ most extravagant projects, the magnificent Chateau de Chambord. He died at Amboise in 1519, leaving us to wonder what other marvels were percolating in his fruitful brain.
Francis died at the age of 52, and again one can only wonder what this most interesting man could have accomplished had he been given a few more years.
But on (or, a continuer, as we say in France) with my new friends, the Kings of France. Francis’ son, Henri II, succeeded Francis in 1547 – and here was another most interesting person. As a child, Henri and his older brother were held hostage in Spain for four years in exchange for their father who had had the misfortune to lose a battle to Charles V. His older brother, the Dauphin, purportedly died after a game of tennis (I’d love to know who he was playing, wouldn’t you?) and so Henri was crowned in 1547. He was already married to Catherine of Medici – yes, one of those Medicis. He spent a great deal of his reign in wars, intrigues and your basic 15th Century turmoil, but still found time to initiate a patent law to protect inventions, produce 10 children with Catherine plus three children with three mistresses. But his long-time and most famous favorite was the beautiful (if a touch greedy) Diane de Poitiers, 15 years his senior, to whom he gave the Castle at Chenonceau, among other properties. He also raised the future Mary Queen of Scots at his court: at 15, she was married to Henri’s son, Francis Duke of Anjou. So, you see how all of these fabulous people lived intertwined lives and politics and wars, marriages and liaisons make our own era seem a little anemic?
But I digress. Excusez- moi. Henri II also experienced an interesting leave-taking from this earth. He was to joust with a Scottish knight and, in a show of disrespect for the Grim Reaper, he decided to do so without using the armor that covered his face. Score one for the Reaper: the knight’s lance went into his eye and a few days later, Henri II was no more. And furthermore, Catherine de Medici extracted her revenge on Diane de Poitiers, turning her out of Chenonceau, but “awarding” her Chaumont, an estate heavily in debt.
Walking through these fairy-tale castles in the Loire Valley, I thought I caught a whiff of very old wood smoke every now and then. It was probably my imagination, but there was also a very faint sound of viola de gamba and footsteps on the stairs. As the chandeliers glistened and danced in an unfelt breeze, it occurred to me that these great homes are haunted – I certainly hope so!
On January 21st, as I enjoy the ethereal sound of Chanticleer, I am going to think of my kings and their lavish homes, their incredible lives that have resounded through the centuries and enriched imaginations for 500 years. I think Chanticleer’s voices echoing through the Temple will fit right in, don’t you?
– E Doyle