This post is part of a series I am doing on our trip to the Loire valley in central France. Set on an island in the middle of the Indre river, the château of Azay-le-Rideau seems to rise straight out of the waters of the river, which reflect the castle’s façades so that the château appears to float in its own image. The writer Balzac, who lived nearby and was occasionally a guest at the château, deeply admired the building; over lunch one day he described it as “a facetted diamond set in the Indre”. The striking setting has helped Azay-le-Rideau to become one of the most famous of the Loire’s many châteaux. Just as Chenonceau and Cheverny were, Azay-le-Rideau was once again the work of a woman: Madame Berthelot, even though what she left behind still somewhat resembled a fortress. It was under the rule of Louix XIV that the castle of Azay-le-Rideau acquired all its present-day elegance and witnessed its most lavish period. Even though it was saved from destruction during the Revolution, it lost its medieval castle appearance, namely because of the demolition of its turret.
The current château of Azay-le-Rideau occupies the site of a former feudal castle. During the 12th century, the local seigneur Ridel (or Rideau) d’Azay, a knight in the service of Philip II Augustus, built a fortress here to protect the Tours to Chinon road where it crossed the river Indre. In 1418, the future Charles VII passed through Azay-le-Rideau as he fled from Burgundian occupied Paris to the loyal Armagnac stronghold of Bourges. Angered by the insults of the Burgundian troops occupying the town, the dauphin ordered his own army to storm the castle. The 350 soldiers inside were all executed and the castle itself burnt to the ground. For centuries, this fate was commemorated in the town’s name of Azay-le-Brûlé (literally Azay the Burnt), which remained in use until the 18th century.
One hundred years later, the castle was still referred to as “Azay-the-Burnt” (its original name was “Azay-le-Ridel” which later evolved into “Azay-le-Rideau”). That is when the Comptroller for Kings Louis XI and Charles VIII, Martin Berthelot, bought the old dilapidated fortress. At the time, in the 16th century, French society was undergoing a complete transformation: individualism and personal success were taking center stage. These two factors alone transformed the architectural landscape of France. Martin Berthelot’s son, Gilles, was one of the players in this metamorphosis. In 1515, he was Mayor of Tours and became the Lord of Azay when his father died and left him his office of Comptroller. He soon became the Treasurer-General of the Finances of France under King Francis I, and a very rich man. To anchor his social standing, he had to own a true lord’s estate, and one with incomparable charm. Desiring a residence to reflect his wealth and status, in 1518, Berthelot set about reconstructing the building in a way that would incorporate its medieval past alongside the latest architectural styles of the Italian renaissance.
The foundations and the old turret were preserved to attest to the historic importance of the grounds. At the same time, the premises had to be fit to receive a king or a prince. This meant building facilities such as a large banquet hall, a ceremonial apartment for distinguished guests, a chapel for religious functions, a large kitchen with outbuildings, and a stately bedroom for the landlord. The staircase was, back then, more than just a utilitarian feature; it had become the place that mirrored one’s image, a symbol of the master’s status and power. It had to be grandiose and the Berthelots thought little of the standard spiral staircase. They revised the castle’s construction drawings to accomodate one of the first straight-flight staircases in France, based on an Italian design. Azay-le-Rideau’s staircase rises in straight flights rather than in a spiral, similar to Chenonceau, and is the oldest surviving staircase of this kind in France.
Gilles Berthelot traveled quite a bit. He paid the bills but it was his wise and vigilant wife, Philippa Lesbahy, who oversaw the construction work and the raising of a more gracious and elegant castle, over the course of ten or so years. Unfortunately for the businessman, King Francois I clearly did not approve of this all too powerful and wealthy bourgeoisie. He also needed money to replenish the kingdom’s coffers and satisfy his ambitious policies. A committee was formed to look into the accounts of these men who stood in his way and it quite easily uncovered misappropriations of funds. Gilles Berthelot found himself embroiled in a financial scandal and knew he was in danger. Azay-le-Rideau was not the most imposing of castles but it was still too luxurious for its own good. He wisely stopped any further construction work but that didn’t help divert suspicions from him. After many fellow bourgeois were arrested and executed, it was inevitably his turn. Stripped of his duties and sentenced to death, he managed to escape to Lorraine in 1528 where he died a couple of years later, in Cambrai, without ever having completed the work. By royal decree in 1535, his assets (including the castle) were frozen, then simply confiscated from his wife. The king would end up offering the castle of Azay-le-Rideau to the captain of his archers, as a token of his appreciation for his loyalty and services. Raffin undertook only minor renovations in the château, and so the building works remained incomplete, with only the south and west wings of the planned quadrilateral ever being built. Thus, the château preserved the distinctive, but accidental, L-shape which it retains to this day.
The Raffins and their relations by marriage the Vassés retained ownership of the château until 1787, when it was sold for 300,000 livres to the Marquis Charles de Biencourt, field marshal of the king’s armies. It was his son, Armand-François-Marie who began the first extensive restoration of the château. This included restoring the old medallions and royal insignia on the staircase which had been covered up during the Revolution, extending the courtyard façade and adding a new tower at the east corner. These developments destroyed the last vestiges of the old medieval fortress and meant that the château at last achieved a finished appearance. For these renovations, he employed the Swiss architect Pierre-Charles Dusillon. The reflecting pools that provide the images of the château are created by two small dams crossed by wooden bridges. Note the defense mechanisms, heavy artillery caissons in the basement and a corbelled walkway under the roof for the use of small arms and multiple small windows under the roof for the same purpose.
During the Franco-Prussian War, the château was once again threatened with destruction. It served as the headquarters for the Prussian troops in the area. Following the Prussian troops’ retreat, Azay-le-Rideau returned to the Biencourts. In this period, the château became well known for the collection of more than 300 historical portraits which the owners displayed there and which, unusually for a private collection, could be visited by the public. In 1899, financial difficulties forced the young widower Charles-Marie-Christian de Biencourt to sell the château, along with its furniture and 540 hectares of land, to the businessman Achille Arteau, a former lawyer from Tours who wanted to sell its contents for profit. As a result, the château was emptied and its artwork and furniture dispersed. The current gardens were designed in the 19th century by the Biencourts, who created a large landscaped park in the English style. In 1905, the estate was purchased by the French state for 250,000 francs and became a listed Historical Monument.
The servants quarters and kitchen garden are located north of the château. Today the visitors entrance and a small café are located in the buildings. In my second post on Château D’Azay Le Rideau we will explore the interior of this beautiful small château. As always, if you are in the area, be sure to visit.
Loire Valley Châteaux: http://loire-chateaux.co.uk/19-Chateaux/Chateau-Of-Azay-Le-Rideau.html
France Monthly: http://www.francemonthly.com/n/1104/