The royal Château de Chambord at Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France is one of the most recognizable châteaux in the world because of its very distinct French Renaissance architecture that blends traditional French medieval forms with classical Italian structures.
It was constructed by King François I in part to be near to his mistress the Comtesse de Thoury, a member of a very important family of France, whose domaine the château de Muides was adjacent. Her arms figure in the carved decor of the château.
Chambord is the largest castle in the Loire Valley, but was built to serve only as a hunting lodge for François I, who maintained his royal residences at Château de Blois and at Château d'Amboise. The original design of the Château de Chambord is attributed, though with several doubts, to Domenico da Cortona, whose wooden model for the design survived long enough to be drawn by André Félibien in the seventeenth century. Some authors, though, claim that the French Renaissance architect Philibert Delorme had a considerable role in the Château's design. Chambord was altered considerably during the twenty years of its construction (1519 ‑ 1547), during which it was overseen on-site by Pierre Nepveu. In 1913 Marcel Reymond first suggested that Leonardo da Vinci, a guest of King François at Clos Lucé near Amboise, was responsible for the original design, which reflects Leonardo's plans for a château at Romorantin for the King's mother, and his interests in central planning and double helical staircases; the discussion has not yet concluded.. Nearing completion, King François showed off his enormous symbol of wealth and power by hosting his old enemy, Emperor Charles V at Chambord.
The massive castle is composed of a central keep with four immense bastion towers at the corners. The keep also forms part of the front wall of a larger compound with two more large towers. Bases for a possible further two towers are found at the rear, but these were never developed, and remain the same height as the wall. The castle features 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces, and 84 staircases. Four rectangular vault hallways on each floor form a cross-shape.
The roofscape of Chambord contrasts with the masses of its masonry and has often been compared with the skyline of a town: it shows eleven kinds of towers and three types of chimneys, without symmetry, framed at the corners by the massive towers. The design parallels are north Italian and Leonardesque. One of the architectural highlights is the spectacular double-helix open staircase that is the centerpiece of the castle. The two helixes ascend the three floors without ever meeting, illuminated from above by a sort of light house at the highest point of the castle. There are suggestions that Leonardo da Vinci may have designed the staircase, but this has not been confirmed.
The castle also features 128m of façade, more than 800 sculpted columns and an elaborately decorated roof. When François I commissioned the construction of Chambord, he wanted it to look like the skyline of Constantinople.
The castle is surrounded by a 52.5‑km² (13,000‑acre) wooded park and game reserve maintained with red deer, enclosed by a 31‑kilometer (20‑mile) wall.
The château was never intended to provide any form of defense from enemies. As such, the walls, towers and partial moat are purely decorative, and even at the time were an anachronism. Elements of the architecture - open windows, loggia, and a vast outdoor area at the top - were also borrowed from the Italian renaissance style, which made them out of place in colder central France.
The design and architecture of the château inspired William Henry Crossland for his design of what is known as the Founder's building at Royal Holloway, University of London. The Founder's building features very similar towers and layout but was built using red bricks.
During François I's reign, the castle was rarely inhabited. In fact, the king spent barely seven weeks there in total, comprising short hunting visits. As the castle had been constructed with the purpose of short stays, it was actually not practical to live there on a longer-term basis. The massive rooms, open windows and high ceilings meant heating was impractical. Similarly, as the castle was not surrounded by a village or estate, there was no immediate source of food other than game. This meant that all food had to be brought with the group, typically numbering up to 2,000 people at a time.
As a result of all the above, the castle was completely unfurnished during this period. All furniture, wall coverings, eating implements and so forth were brought specifically for each hunting trip, a major logistical exercise. It is for this reason that much furniture from the era was built to be disassembled to facilitate transportation. He died of a heart attack in 1547.
For more than 80 years after the death of King François, French kings all but abandoned the castle, allowing it to fall into decay. Finally, in 1639 King Louis XIII gave it to his brother, Gaston d'Orleans, who saved the castle from ruin by carrying out much restoration work. King Louis XIV had the great keep restored and furnished the royal apartments. The king then added a 1,200-horse stable, enabling him to use the castle as a hunting lodge and a place to entertain such notables as Molière for a few weeks each year. Nonetheless, Louis XIV abandoned the castle in 1685.
From 1725 to 1733, Stanislas I (Stanislas Leszczynski), the deposed king of Poland and father-in-law of King Louis XV, lived at Chambord. In 1745, as a reward for his fighting valor the king gave the castle to Maurice de Saxe, Marshal of France who installed his military regiment there. Maurice de Saxe died in 1750 and once again the colossal castle sat empty for many years.
The final attempt to make use of the colossus came from the Comte de Chambord but after the Comte died in 1883, the castle was left to his sister's heirs, the Ducal family of Parma, Italy. Firstly Robert, Duke of Parma who died in 1907 and after him, Elias, Prince of Parma. Any attempts at restoration ended with the onset of World War I in 1914.
In 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the art collections of the Louvre and Compiègne museums (including the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo) were stored at the Château de Chambord. An American B 24 bomber plane crashed onto the castle lawn on June 22, 1944.
The castle became the property of the Government of France in 1930, but restoration work was not begun until a few years after World War II ended in 1945. Today, Chambord is a major tourist attraction.
In a small aside, an image of the Château de Chambord is used in the Microsoft Windows computer operating system as one of the standard wallpaper selections. It is referred to in the selection list as simply "Chateau".