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From Romantic Castles and Palaces, As Seen and Described by Famous Writers, edited and translated by Esther Singleton; New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1901; pp. 367-374.
CHÂTEAU D’AMBOISE, FRANCE.
THE Castle of Amboise is placed at the entrance of Touraine like the jealous sentinel guarding the entrance to the Garden of the Hesperides. It is not a palace like the castle of Blois, nor a villa of a royal mistress like Chenonceaux, nor a sort of immense convent full of mysterious cells like Chambord: it is a military place, a veritable fortress of the Middle Ages upon which is grafted a castle of the Fifteenth Century.
This formidable military position has been at all times the key of this beautiful province. When Cæsar marched against the Armoricans, there lodged here a Roman garrison. From the height of these impregnable rocks, the counts of Anjou, and later the Plantagenets, their descendants, these worthy sons of the Black Falcon restrained within their talons the slightest movements of Touraine, while they kept a jealous watch over the counts of Blois and Champagne, who possessed but a few leagues away the sombre fortress of Chaumont. Amboise and Chaumont were the two advanced sentinels of these two impregnable neighbours. These solid walls served under Charles VII. as the rampart for the monarchy menaced by the English invasions; they protected the Catholic royalty of Francis II. 368 against the stroke of Renaudie; they have enclosed turn by turn the illustrious victims of royal ingratitude like the Marshall de Gié, powerful rebels like the princes of Vendôme, accomplices of Chalais, state prisoners like Fouquet and Lauzun, and the vanquished like Abd-el-Kader. When you interrogate these enormous towers, these menacing battlements, and these inaccessible walls, you draw from them no memories of joy, peace, or love; nothing but bloody deeds spring from them; nothing but memories of mourning are evoked.
Buildings have, even more than mankind, their own physiognomy upon which their history is reflected. History and physiognomy are here in perfect union. No romancer, even were he possessed with Melusine’s enchanted ring, would dare to place an intrigue of love behind these walls impressed with deep wounds of gun-shots, or, if he did so, it would doubtless be on account of that law of contrasts, so loved of Nature, that places the nests of the warbler in the mouths of deserted cannons.
Stop upon this old bridge constructed by Hugues d’Amboise, one of the heroes of Tasso. From here you will take in the entire imposing and truly Roman view of the powerful citadel, from the Gate of the Lions, which opens upon the moat dug by Cæsar, as far as the two towers, now decapitated, of the ancient donjon above the trunks of which rises the slender spire of the Chapel of St. Hubert. Remove by imagination the narrow and common dwellings that encroach upon the old castle. Throw into the Loire the modern levee and quay that obstruct it here, and picture 369 the noble river freely beating the base of the fortress. The great tower erected by Charles VIII. casts its shadow upon the Loire, on which opens a door that forms on this side the only entrance to the castle. Further back, and as if lost in the shadow of the immense tower, is the principal building of this habitation, the base of which dates from the counts of Amboise and whose five windows pierced at a considerable height on the side overlooking the Loire, although they are on the ground floor on the side of the court, seem like vigilant eyes upon the country. Then by mental effort throw down the terrace in front of these windows, the work of Louis-Philippe, who caused this façade to lose some of its crabbed countenance; close up the five rounded bay windows, also the work of the same King, which light the kitchens; in a word, leave nothing that juts out upon that straight and perpendicular façade except the balcony that overhangs the five casements of which we shall speak, and upon which open the large windows of the royal apartment. You will then have an approximate idea of what Amboise was in the time of Henri III., when Du Cerceau conceived the plan in 1576.
This balcony from which you look upon the Loire, is the work of Louis XII.: it is an historical monument. Nothing could be less complicated, nothing could be more formidable in its simplicity. It was upon this balcony that the chief ringleaders of the conspiracy against Amboise were hanged. The bodies, attached to these solid bars, hung in the open air; the stroke of a poignard cut the rope and they fell into the Loire: a means of burial as rapid as had 370 been the judgment and the execution. Such is the Castle of Amboise seen from the Loire.
The tunnel, the stairway, and even the vault are modern works, which in moulding this old castle to our ideas of comfort deprive it of its feudal character. It is by the southern tower that we must ascend if we wish to be deeply impressed by this character. In the time of Charles VIII., this tower was the only entrance for knights and litters, for the one on the north corresponding to it bathes its foot in the Loire, as we have said. It was through the southern tower that Charles V. entered when he crossed France in 1539. This solid and immovable work is certainly the largest construction of the kind in France. The thick masonry that forms the nucleus of it is in itself a respectable size. The stairway turns four times from the base to the summit around this hollowed-out centre, and reaches a height of more than 600 feet.
This stairway, or rather these steps in helix, rest upon an ogival vault. Carvings sustain the points from which the large arches spring and terminate the nerves of the little arches. These carvings present all kinds of little figures, some of which are fantastic, others grotesque, and others again indecent, for the artists of the late Gothic period were willing enough to execute the latter to please their patrons who enjoyed these grotesques and the laughter they caused far more than fine arabesques. Monks abound in these sculptures. This one holds his stomach in both hands, like a gastronome punished by his exploits; this one, suffering from a terrible toothache, makes a grimace like 371 one possessed. Most of these figures have been mutilated with blows of the bayonet by the prisoners who for about fifteen years were shut up in this tower in 1815. Louis-Philippe began its restoration.
About one-third of the way up, a little stone step, pierced in the outer wall, leads to a kind of hollowed-out rostrum, where, if we may believe tradition, Louis XII. harangued the multitude, when an attack on the municipal franchise aroused the inhabitants of the town of Amboise, or Petit-Fort. Happy time! when revolutionary uprisings could be calmed by orations!
At the top of this tower you see the gigantic horns of a stag that formerly ornamented the base of the Chapel of Saint Hubert. This is more than ten feet high, and was made at the order of Charles VIII. with such art and truthfulness of imitation that allows the guide to show it to unsophisticated tourists for the natural horns of a full-grown and gigantic stag killed in some forest in the Brobdinagian country.
The donjon, the first dwelling of the lords of Amboise, occupied the west, the space comprised between the two little headless towers which still exist.
On the side of the Loire, opposite the building of the Sept-Vertues, there rise other buildings belonging to Amboise, but they were restored by Charles VIII. and completely changed by Louis XII. and Francis I. There are to be found the apartment of the King and Queen, due to the last prince, and, close beside it, that curious chamber which was supported by four massive pillars of masonry, 372 and to which no entrance was possible except by a single opening pierced through the floor. This was the work of Catherine de’Medici, after one of her astrologers had forewarned her of the fall of a great edifice. She thought that, by means of these material precautions, she could escape the menace of Fortune which allowed her to see the fall of quite a different edifice to Amboise: that of the Valois dynasty, so laboriously restored by her efforts.
The chapel is the perfect antithesis of the castle.
Just as the one is sombre, severe, dominating and sinistrously beautiful, on account of its mass and size, the other is bright, efflorescent, and smiling, delicately embroidered and pierced like lace.
This charming chapel, proudly encamped upon a rocky peak, is one of the best products of the third ogival style of that period of Flamboyant Gothic that immediately preceded the Renaissance. But it is not, as has been believed until now, the work of Italian artists brought from Naples by Charles VIII. That is an error in which even M. Jules Quicherat shared, but which was obliterated at the recent discovery of an itemized account of all the expenses of furnishing and decorating the Chapel of Amboise and for the contiguous apartments in the towers. This precious document states that the expenses commenced in 1490 and continued until 1494. Now the year 1494, in which Charles VIII. finished ornamenting and furnishing the Chapel of Amboise, is precisely the one in which he started on his expedition to Italy. The honour of this charming conception then reverts wholly to native artists.373
The façade is entirely occupied by a large ogival entrance, the top of which presents one of those great, circular rose-windows, — the characteristic sign of the Flamboyant Gothic. An authority no less exact for the construction of this façade is shown in the form of the two doors cut in the entrance, these showing that surbased arch so common in the English buildings of the reigns of Henry VII. and Henry VIII., and which derives from them the name of the Tudor arch. These two doors, separated by a pilaster and niche, support a stone bas-relief, the principal motive of which is the conversion of Saint Hubert.
A gigantic stag stands in the centre of the composition. Between his horns there rises a flamboyant cross. The ardent huntsman stops in terror at this sight, he bends one knee, and with one hand restrains his horse, while with the other he salutes the miraculous sign destined to convert him to Christianity: instead of the Aquitaine Nimrod, the persecutor of the forests of Ardennes, he is only an apostle, the successor of Saint Lambert. A host of wild animals form the accessories of this picture, as if the entire population of the forests is taking part in the conversion of the patron of huntsman. Saint Anthony, in a corner to the left, contemplates Saint Christopher bearing his divine burden.
This bas-relief, somewhat clumsy in workmanship, does not give the slightest idea of the charming delicacy of the interior. The banal and rather strained comparison of lace woven by the fays, is more than a truthful one here. Imagine two rows of point d’Alençon, half a metre high, festooned the entire length of the walls to form a series of 374 canopies and niches in corbelling, diversified by graceful little columns with prismatic arches. Carvings and figures, inexhaustible in variety, terminate the pendentives of these niches. Not one of these motives is repeated a second time: vine leaves, acanthus leaves, holly leaves, oak leaves, cabbage leaves, and thistle leaves, — the entire architectural flora of the Fifteenth Century is here under our eyes mingled with a host of real and fantastical animals. There are also some human figures: a little monk in a corner by the side of the altar blows the trumpet in a whimsical manner, exactly like the one that serves for a reading-desk in the Temptation by Callot.
Upon this profusion of lace, of foliage, of crockets, and stags’ horns, upon this mass of curled leaves, pinked leaves, and leaves turned and twisted in a hundred fashions, there falls a glowing light, sifted through the windows, where vermilion, orpiment, and ultra-marine are the dominating colours. These windows, upon which saints are represented in life-size, were made in Sèvres, some of them after the designs of the Princess Marie d’Orléans. Perhaps there is a slight false note in the selection of these strong colours. Light tones and yellowish and whitish tints were generally preferred at the end of the Fifteenth Century. It was this gradual awakening of colour that fifty years later engendered the grisailles.
Before it was restored by Louis-Philippe, this church had been used for twenty years as the hall for the castle’s police. One may judge by that alone of the seriousness of the mutilations.