Chenonceau, Ever After

BY SARA LIEBERMAN  •  FEBRUARY 12, 2019

Chenonceau, Ever After

By Sara Lieberman  •  February 12, 2019


Forget any notions of damsels in distress. In the Loire Valley, women have made the “Château des Dames” a living, breathing repository of French culture and beauty for 500 years.

Few palaces seem as gloriously out-of-a-fairytale as the Loire Valley’s Château de Chenonceau. The white, turreted castle stretches serenely across the Loire Valley’s slow-moving Cher River, its arches forming perfect O’s with their reflections in the water. With its mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles and expansive formal gardens, its restored interiors hung with tapestries and masterpieces by Rubens and Tintoretto, Chenonceau effortlessly evokes “once upon a time” fantasies.

Behind that fairest-of-them-all façade is a unique fact of history: For half a millennium, the Château de Chenonceau has been under the domain of women.

In the late 1510s, with her husband off fighting wars in Italy, noblewoman Katherine Briçonnet oversaw the château’s construction, incorporating her own designs and hosting King François I in her new home. In 1547, King Henri II gave Chenonceau to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who added gardens and the bridge over the Cher. After the king’s death, his wife, Catherine de’ Medici, banished Poitiers to nearby Château Chaumont and took up residence herself. Her contributions: the dazzling Grand Gallery, with its checkered slate-and-chalk floors and crystal chandeliers; expanded gardens; and France’s first-ever fireworks display, held here to mark her son’s ascension to the throne.

Following this Renaissance–Meets-Real-Housewives drama, the property remained under the control of women for centuries. In the 1700s, Louise Dupin turned Chenonceau into a center for the Enlightenment, hosting literary salons attended by Voltaire and Montesquieu and hiring Rousseau to tutor her son. A century later, one owner spent so much of her fortune restoring the palace that she went bankrupt. Nowadays, Laure Menier, of the famed chocolate house, heads the privately owned estate.

“Even today, the owner is still a woman, which is very unique,” says Xavier Desforges, co-founder of French beauty company Maison Caulières, who grew up nearby. “The architecture of the castle is very feminine; it’s very light and pure and elegant—all like a woman.”

Under Menier’s supervision, the château is open to the public but remains a living, breathing space where visitors can experience French culture and history, rather than an inert museum to be looked at. A year-long calendar of events—concerts, garden parties, flower workshops, wine tastings, night walks—allows latter-day visitors a taste of life in de’ Medici’s time.

For Desforges, the eldest of six siblings raised on a farm 12 miles away, the manicured estate was, literally, a playground. In summers, he’d bike over to have picnics and swim under the castle’s arches. “We’d spend the afternoon dreaming in the gardens,” he recalls. These days, he still turns to Chenonceau for inspiration: The estate’s famed Dames de Chenonceau white rose will soon appear as an essence in a new bath oil produced by Maison Caulières.

Chenonceau comes especially alive during the holidays. “Each year, they create the sort of Christmas the whole world has dreamed of since childhood,” says Desforges. In 2018, a 130-foot table took over the Grand Gallery, topped with sculptural displays of lemons and and orange. “This type of decoration was emblematic of [de’ Medici’s] reign, says Jean-Francois Boucher, the château’s head floral designer.

But Boucher, whose deft arrangements take into account a particular room’s colors and existing artworks, also turns to the present when crafting his creations. “Each piece must provide respect to the past,” he says, “but I add modern lines, using vegetation and things found in the surrounding woods and forest.”

This year, Chenonceau will celebrate de’ Medici’s 500th birthday with an even more robust lineup of events, plus new designs for the château’s halls and gardens. The festivities bring to mind a quote from Enlightenment doyenne Louise Dupin: “Be happy, and you will make others happy,” she said. Stop to smell the roses at Chenonceau, and it’s hard not to be.

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Written By: Sara Lieberman

2.12.19

Locations: Paris

See more: Art & Culture

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