Renaissance Architecture in France

Renaissance architecture in France is some of the finest in Europe, and is most often seen in the country’s iconic chateaus. In this post we’ll take a look at how Renaissance architecture first came to France, and five of the country’s most famous chateaus, focusing particularly on their Renaissance features.

How did Renaissance architecture arrive in France?

In the late 1400s and early 1500s, the French launched many invasions into Italy, where Renaissance architecture (and indeed the Renaissance itself) had originated. It was during these military campaigns that the French kings and nobility were first brought into contact with Italian Renaissance architecture, a style in which they now wanted their properties to built.

For the first quarter of the 16th century, the French had procession of Milan, meaning that much Early Renaissance architecture in France is inspired by the Lombard Renaissance style. (Milan is the capital of the Lombardy region.)

From about 1530, the French king Francis I invited many Italian architects, artisans, and artists into France, who further designed and embellished buildings in Italian Renaissance styles. Many of these Italian artists also worked in the Italian Mannerist style of the Late Renaissance, which can often be seen in the decorations of the chateaus.

Nevertheless, as the period went on, French Renaissance architecture took on a more and more distinctively French style.

You’ll find that a lot of Renaissance architecture in France is in the Loire Valley, which is because during the reign of Louis XII and the beginning of that of Francis I, it was the nearby city of Tours that was the capital of France, not Paris.

Château de Chambord

The Château de Chambord
Château de Chambord

The Château de Chambord is the example of early French Renaissance architecture par excellence, blending together both medieval and classical Renaissance features. The construction of the château was ordered by King Francis I, who was to use it as a hunting retreat and show it to fellow rulers and ambassadors as a symbol of his wealth and power.

The design of the château is attributed to the Italian architect Bernabei Domenico da Cortona, which the French builder Pierre Napveu then executed. Indeed, it was common in this period for French builders to execute an Italian architect’s design, to which they often made many changes.

The centrepiece of the Château de Chambord is the double helix staircase, which was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, and is one of 77 staircases in the building. Another of the château’s notable features is its asymmetrical roofscape, which is often compared to that of a whole town.

The château is also a huge structure – its about 500 feet in width, and contains 426 rooms.

Château de Blois

The Château de Blois offers a panorama of four different architectural styles with its 13th century medieval fortress, its Louis XII Flamboyant Gothic wing, its François I Renaissance wing, and its Gaston d’Orléans Classical wing.

The façade of the Francois I Renaissance wing at the Château de Blois
The façade of the Francois I Renaissance wing at the Château de Blois

One of the most notable features of the François I wing is its Italian-inspired open octagonal staircase, of which five sides project into the courtyard. The staircase is decorated with pillars and motifs, including the letter “F” for François and the salamander – lizard-like amphibians which were the emblem of that king.

The open octagonal staircase in the François I Renaissance wing.
The open octagonal staircase in the François I Renaissance wing of the Château de Blois

The facade of the François I wing also consists of three open loggias, which echo the iconic series of loggias that Raphael and Bramante had just completed at the Vatican palace. Although the ornament of this wing was in the Renaissance style, its structure did remain Gothic with the irregularity of the spacing of its vertical windows, and its high roof and dormers.

Château de Chenonceau

The Château de Chenonceau. This photograph shows the main building, the gallery spanning the River Cher, and the keep.
The Chateau de Chenonceau, Chenonceaux. The keep is the free-standing building on the right.

The Château de Chenonceau is one of the finest in the Loire Valley, and combines Gothic and Renaissance architecture. It’s sometimes referred to as “Château des Dames”, a reference to its numerous influential female owners over the centuries.

The site was brought by Thomas Bohier, whose wife Catherine hired architects in 1515 to build the château on the pilings of an old mill, and also had (most of) the old medieval castle destroyed. The exterior architecture of their château has the greater simplicity afforded by Classical design, but combines this with the more elaborate turrets and chimneys of late Gothic tradition. Medieval gothic style also prevails in the keep, which was the only feature of the castle that wasn’t removed, although the owners did add to it some decorative windows so it didn’t appear so starkly Gothic.

However, the château was confiscated from the Bohiers and went into royal hands in 1535 (during the reign of Francis I) following something of a financial scandal. A few decades on, Henri II gave the château to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, and it was under her instruction that the iconic arched bridge was built to connect the château with the opposite bank of the River Cher.

The interior of the gallery of the Château de Chenonceau.
The gallery of the Château de Chenonceau.

Upon the death of Henri II in 1559, his widow Catherine de Médicis forced Diane de Poitiers to exchange the château for that in Chaumont-sur-Loire. Catherine then added the long gallery with the Renaissance-style checkerboard flooring that spreads across the bridge. Another notable feature added by Catherine is the set of giant Mannerist-style caryatids that are now in the park, but were originally placed on the entrance facade of the château.

Château de Fontainebleau

The Château de Fontainebleau on a snowy day
Château de Fontainebleau

The Château de Fontainebleau, also known simply as Fontainebleau, was originally a hunting lodge built in the 12th century that was enlarged by Louis IX a century later. Upon the instruction of Francis I, it was entirely rebuilt into a royal residence, with only a single medieval tower of the previous building remaining.

The exterior architectural work of the château was carried out by French builders working under master-mason Gilles Le Breton. To further decorate the palace, Francis I called in acclaimed craftsmen, many of whom were Italians who worked in the prevailing style of Mannerism. The artists who worked on Fontainebleau are known as the School of Fontainebleau.

One of the most notable features of Fontainebleau is the Gallery of Francis I, the interior decoration of which the Italian mannerist painter Rosso Fiorentino was placed in charge. The Gallery is fine product of the Renaissance, with its elegantly decorated beamed celling and walnut dados, and its relief sculpture and painting on the walls.

Another jewel of the château is the Salle de Bal, a ballroom around 100 feet in length, which was made during the reign of Henri II and decorated by Francesco Primaticcio, another Italian Mannerist painter. The Salle de Bal is acclaimed for its frescoes, coffered ceiling, and marquetry floor.

Château d’Anet

The château d'Anet
Château d’Anet

In 1546, Diane de Poitiers started to build a relatively modest house in Anet. This property was then extensively enlarged after 1547, when Henri II became the king of France. Philibert de L’Orme, a leading architect in France at the time who had studied in Rome, was placed in charge of designing the château, for which Catherine now had practically unlimited funds and resources from Henri.

However, much of the original château was destroyed after the French Revolution. All that remains of it now is the west wing, the entrance portico, and the chapel that formed part of the east wing. There is also a mortuary chapel on the site that was built after Diane’s death to contain her tomb, in accordance with her wishes. The chapel built during her lifetime is a fine example of French Renaissance architecture, and is often noted for its diagonally coffered dome.

The mortuary chapel at the Château d'Anet
The mortuary chapel at the Château d’Anet

The château is also known for the sculptures that once decorated it. The most famous of these is the Fountain of Diana, a marble sculpture depicting Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting, accompanied by her dogs and reclining against a stag. This Mannerist artwork originally ornamented a fountain in the courtyard of the château, but it now housed in the Louvre. Another famous sculpture that was once a part of the château (now in the Louvre) is The Nymph of Fontainebleau, made by Benvenuto Cellini, the celebrated Italian Mannerist artist (among other things, including a goldsmith).

One sculpture that does remain on the château is a bronze group of a stag that is being held back by four dogs, which stands above the clock that crowns the entrance portico.