Chateaux didn’t magically appear during the French Renaissance, but judging from the numbers of them still in existence across France, you would be forgiven for assuming that they did. They did, however, start to change their basic appearance during the Fifteenth Century and took on a decidedly foreign flair.
During the Middle Ages, the typical French chateau or castle was what was known as a chateau fort, a stronghold built primarily for defensive purposes. To defend the complex, the walls were heavily fortified, beginning with an outer wall that encircled the interior structures and served as the first line of defense. Further inside, there were confusing and complicated ways of entering the structure as a way of confusing enemy attackers. The innermost part, the donjon, or keep, was typically a square tower which housed the lord and his family in the event that the previous security features failed.
Why the need for such defensive features? Not only were the Middle Ages known for warfare, the French countryside had to deal with invaders from England. Only after the Hundred Years war concluded and the English invasions ceased did the French start to enjoy the peace that comes with a lack of foreign invaders.
Francis I gets credit for starting the Renaissance in France, but the truth is that France turned its attention towards the Renaissance and Italian influences during the reign of one of his predecessors, Charles VIII. In the 1490s, the Charles decided to turn his armies towards Italy to reassert the French claim on the Kingdom of Naples. During the 15th and 16th centuries, this kingdom encompassed about half of the Italian peninsula, far more than the modern city state of Naples.
Renaissance France and the reduced need for fortifications
As France faced the beginning of the 16th Century, much of the warfare seemed to be occurring outside of French lands. Brittany became part of what would be the French nation, and no one imagined that the Catholic church would face any challenges to its power in Europe. Suddenly, new chateaus featured a lack of fortifications, missing the thick walls, drawbridges, and byzantine floor plans designed to confuse invaders. Symmetry, a feature of the Renaissance, ruled these new structures.
The lack of fortifications later came back to taunt the French monarchs. In the 1560s, the Chateau d’ Amboise was defenseless when the Huguenots came to forcibly take Francis II from the hands of the Guise family. Only the Duc de Guise’s quick thinking saved the royal court from becoming hostages in the hands of the Protestants.
The same threat came to St. Germain en-Ley in the 1580s, when the Protestant forces headed towards the completely undefended chateau to “rescue” the Huguenot leaders Henry of Navarre and the Duc d’Alceon.
Creating new dedicated spaces for the French nobility
With the new floor plans, these new chateaus created new spaces for their inhabitants. In the basements, nobles built great kitchens. Thanks to the influx of Italian workmanship, cooks followed who taught the French the joys of cooking more edible food. The renaissance chateau had no designated dining room, any room could be used for dining once the food was carried into rooms that featured expandable tables inspired by the ones in Tuscany. French dining was on its way to becoming an institution.
New spaces started to appear, beginning with one of my favorites: the library. Francis I carried carts full of books from Italy, and the new chateaus needed a place to store them. As the nobles grew rich from Valois patronage, they started to collect not only books but cameos, statues and even shells within the cabinets springing up in the rooms of their new chateaus.
With little need to flee to safety in the middle of a fortified structure, the renaissance noble could afford to have a designated bedroom, with their loyal servants sleeping on pallets outside in antechambers. Above the newly designated rooms were exposed beams, which would over the years become painted and more elaborate. Since France stood further north than Italy, the French needed fireplaces to keep them warm. The ones that started to appear were more than just workhorses: they were enormous, elaborately decorated, with sensual details that would make any stonemason proud.
The rules for designing a chateau changed dramatically during the Renaissance. Thinking that they were in a country at peace, the French started to build homes that were more about being showpieces than fortifications. The French Religious wars would prove them wrong, but many of the chateaux built during the Renaissance still stand across the countryside.