Azay-le-Rideau Castle (in French Château d’Azay-le-Rideau) is located in the town of Azay-le-Rideau in the department of Indre-et-Loire, about 2-3 hours from Paris by high-speed rail or by car via highway. The castle, built between 1518 and 1527, is considered one of the outstanding examples of early French Renaissance architecture. The picturesque castle, located on an island in the middle of the river Indre, has become one of the most popular tourist castles in the Loire Valley.
History. The current Château Azay-le-Rideau occupies the site of a former feudal castle. In the 12th century, the local lord Riedel (or Rideau) d’Azey, a knight in the service of Philip II Augustus, built a fortress here to protect the road from Tours to Chinon, where it crossed the Indre River. However, this original medieval castle fell victim to the rivalry between the Burgundian and Armagnac factions during the Hundred Years’ War. In 1418, the future Charles VII passed through Azay-le-Rideau when he fled from Burgundy-occupied Paris to Armagnac in the faithful fortress of Bourges. Outraged by the insults of the Burgundian troops occupying the city, the Dauphin ordered his army to storm the castle. All 350 soldiers inside were executed and the castle itself burned to the ground. For centuries, this fate was etched in the city’s name Azay-le-Brûlé (literally Azay the Burnt), which was used until the 18th century.
Berthelot and 16th century. The castle remained in ruins until 1518, when the land was acquired by Gilles Berthelot, mayor of Tours and general treasurer of the king’s finances. Wanting the residence to reflect its wealth and status, Berthelot set about renovating the building in a way that would combine its medieval past with the latest architectural styles of the Italian Renaissance. Although the castle was intended mainly for habitation, the defensive fortifications remained important symbols of prestige, and therefore Berthelot was keen to have them as part of his new castle. He justified his request to King Francis I with an exaggerated description of many “public thieves, vagabonds and other vagabonds, villains committing quarrels, disputes, thefts, thefts, excesses, extortions and a host of other evils that threatened unfortified cities such as Azay-le- Rideau. Berthelot’s duties meant that he was often absent from the castle, so the responsibility for supervising the building work fell to his wife, Philippa Lesbahy. This took time, as it was difficult to lay a solid foundation on the wet ground of this island in Indre, and the castle had to be built on piles driven into the mud. Even after the foundations were laid, construction proceeded slowly, as most of the stone for the castle came from the Saint-Aignan quarry, which was famous for its strong rock, but was also located at a distance of about 100 km, that is, heavy blocks must be brought to Azay-le-Rideau by boat. The castle had not yet been completed in 1527, when the execution of Jacques de Beaune (Jacques de Beaune, chief minister in charge of royal finances and Berthelot’s cousin) forced Gilles to flee the country. Perhaps fearful of his financial misdeeds being exposed, he went into exile, first to Metz in Lorraine and then to Cambrai, where he died just two years later. Ignoring the pleas of Berthelo’s wife Philippa, Francis I confiscated the unfinished castle and in 1535 gave it to Antoine Raffin, one of his knights. Ruffin made only minor renovations to the castle, so the building work was left unfinished and only the south and west wings of the planned quadrangle were completed. Thus, the castle retained the characteristic but random L-shape that it retains to this day.
17th–18th centuries, In 1583, Raffin’s granddaughter Antoinette, former lady-in-waiting to Marguerite of Valois, settled in the castle and, with the help of her husband Guy de Saint-Gelais, began to modernize its decor. Azay-le-Rideau was inherited by their son Arthur and his wife Françoise de Souvre (Françoise de Souvre), the future governess of Louis XIV, and it was during their possession that the new castle received its first royal visit: June 27, 1619 On the way from Paris In order to visit his mother, Marie de’ Medici, in Blois, Louis XIII interrupted his journey to spend the night in Azay-le-Rideau. Later in the same century, his son Louis XIV would also be a guest in the same room.
Biencourt and the 19th century, The Ruffins and their relatives by marriage, Vasse (Vassés), retained ownership of the castle until 1787, when it was sold for 300,000 livres to the Marquis Charles de Biencourt, field marshal of the royal army. However, the castle was in poor condition, and from the 1820s, Biencourt carried out extensive rebuilding work. In 1824 he added a “Chinese Room” (destroyed in the 1860s) to the ground floor of the south wing, and in 1825 or 1826 he decorated the library with carved wood panels to match the living room on the opposite side. His son, Armand-François-Marie (Armand-François-Marie), the guard of Louis XVI, who participated in the defense of the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, began the first large-scale restoration of the castle. This included restoring the old medallions and royal insignia on the staircase (which had been closed during the Revolution), extending the front of the courtyard, and adding a new tower in the east corner. These developments destroyed the last remnants of the old medieval fortress and meant that the castle finally acquired a finished look. For these renovations, he hired the Swiss architect Pierre-Charles Dusillon, who also worked on the neighboring Château de Usse.
During the Franco-Prussian War, the castle was again threatened with destruction. It served as the headquarters for Prussian troops in the area, but when one night a chandelier fell from the ceiling onto the table where their commander, Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia was dining, he suspected an assassination attempt and ordered his soldiers to burn down the building. Only assurances from his officers that the lamp had fallen by accident convinced him to reverse the decision and thus saved the castle from re-igniting. After the retreat of the Prussian troops, Azay-le-Rideau returned to Biencourt. During this period, the castle became well known for the collection of over 300 historical portraits that the owners exhibited here and, unusually for a private collection, could be visited by tourists. In 1899, financial difficulties forced the young widower Charles-Marie-Christian de Biencourt to sell the castle, along with its furniture and 540 hectares of land, to businessman Achille Arteau, a former lawyer from Tours, who wanted to sell its contents for profit. As a result, the castle was emptied, and its art and furniture sold out.
The Castle in the 20th century, In 1905, the estate was bought by the French state for 250,000 francs and listed as a Historical Monument.
WW2, During the early years of World War II, from 1939 to 1940, the castle housed the Ministry of Education when, like many other French ministries, it left Paris.
The Château de Azay-le-Rideau is now one of the many national monuments under the protection of the National Monument Center and is also part of the Loire Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Architecture and the decor
Situated on an island in the center of Indre, Azay-le-Rideau Castle seems to rise straight from the waters of the river, which reflect the castle’s facades so that the castle seems to float in its own image. The writer Balzac, who lived nearby and was sometimes a guest at the castle, deeply admired the building, describing it as “a cut diamond set in the Indre”. This striking setting has made Azay-le-Rideau one of the most famous castles in the Loire.
This relatively small castle is divided into two parts, the central building and a wing at right angles to it, and is a mixture of architectural styles. The influence of the fashionable Italian Renaissance style is seen in its long proportions and ornate sculptural decorations. Along with these Italian elements, remnants of medieval defensive architecture survive, such as traces of a covered passage on the outer walls or hinged slits under the roof, which were no longer necessary for defense but were incorporated into the design of the castle due to their symbolic prestige. Finally, other architectural features, such as the corners of the bastion with their pointed conical turrets, the vertically placed dormer windows separated by a string, and the high, steeply sloping slate roof, give Azay-le-Rideau an unmistakably French air.
The most prominent feature of the castle is the majestic central staircase for guests of honor. Its design is believed to have been inspired by the staircase of the Châteaudun castle, which it resembles from the outside, although its internal structure is very different. The staircase ascends in straight flights rather than spiraling as was most common at the time, and is the oldest surviving of its type in France.
The staircase consists of three floors, each of which has double bay windows forming a mezzanine overlooking the courtyard. The entrance, reminiscent of a Roman triumphal arch, is adorned with the initials of Gilles Berthelot and his wife, and the pediments overhanging each window opening are carved with salamanders and ermine of Francis I and his wife, Claude of France, in honor of the monarch of that time. Inside, the staircase ceiling consists of medallions carved from the profiles of the kings and queens of France from Louis XI to Henry IV. This impressive staircase, with its columns and pilasters, as well as decorative carvings of shells, medallions and other symbols, is a prime example of the influence of the Italian Renaissance style on castle design.
Interior, The richly decorated interior of the castle once again reflects the influence of the Italian Renaissance. Consists of several living rooms and majestic apartments, most of which are decorated in the neo-Renaissance style, popular in the 19th century. Many of these rooms display Flemish tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries, most notably Scenes from the Old Testament, woven in Audenard, and The History of Psyche, created in Brussels and housed in 2009 for an exhibition on Greek myth. The castle also houses a significant art collection, including Dame au Bain (possibly depicting Diane de Poitiers) by François Clouet and several portraits of French monarchs, including Francis I, Henry III and Catherine de Medici.
Also of note are the attics, where the charpent (French for charpente) or handmade timber frame that supports the roof has been recently restored (2010–11) and can be seen along with an exhibition explaining its complex construction methods.
Park and gardens, The modern gardens were designed in the 19th century by the Biencourts, who created a large landscaped park in the English style. To the south and west, the river creates a water mirror for the castle, reflecting the façades and creating an attractive picture.
The description of the excursion. When approaching the castle, it seems that a rectangular building with round towers at the corners seems to be floating on the river Indre. The island of the castle is almost invisible and it seems that the walls rise directly from the water.
Tourists have access to 7 halls in which antique furniture, tapestries, household items and paintings have been preserved. In the blue bedroom, pay attention to the bed of Marshal Pierre Fillet de la Bar, who died in 1705 during the siege of Nice. The chambers of Francis I contain an interesting chest depicting a salamander. Of interest is the cabinet of Spanish work. There is a large collection of ceramic and metal antique dishes.
Opening hours for visitors: June – September 9.30-18.00, July-August 9.00-19.00, October – March 9.30-12.30 or 17.30. Excursions and audio guides.
What else is interesting to see. Night performance “Les imaginaries d’Azay-le-Rideau” from May to September 22.00
Official website www.azay-le-rideau.fr
How to visit from Paris. Getting here on your own is quite difficult, especially without the knowledge of French. The best option is to include the visits to the castle in the program of an individual tour from Paris by car with a guide.