When I arrived in Paris for the first time, my cousin drove me by the Place de la Concorde. That’s where we chopped the Royalists’ fucking heads off, he said. It’s a good example of the European tendency to have a very long memory, as compared to the typical American preference to look only towards the future. It’s also a good example of my family’s general lefty-ness—on both sides of the Atlantic, actually. In light of that lefty-ness, I’ve always had mixed feelings about the French fondness for the great Renaissance-era châteux. So, it was without great enthusiasm that I let myself be talked out of my general impulse to never, ever leave Paris and be talked into a tour of Chenonceau, one of the finer ones. As I looked out of the windows at the beauty of the sun setting over the Cher River, I found myself wondering, over and over again: just how many peasants did one have to starve in order to build such an edifice?
And yet: like so many things in France, it’s more complicated than it looked to me at first glance. Is Chenonceau a vestige of a brutal feudal system, built on the backs of starving farmers? Absolutely. It was also, under the ownership of Louise Dupin, essentially a country salon for many of the Lumières–the Enlightenment thinkers, philosophers, writers, and Encyclopédistes who laid the intellectual groundwork for the 1789 Revolution that would end the aristrocratic system (minus minor bumps in the road in the forms of the First and Second Empires and a Restoration that I don’t really understand) that had kept the French people in a state of servitude for so long. During World War I, the owner of the château, Gaston Menier, would turn it into a hospital at his own expense; over 2,000 soldiers would be nursed back to health there. During the Second World War, the line of demarcation between the Free Zone and the German-occupied zone was marked by the Cher River, and the bridge over that river that the château formed (see the picture above) became a method of transit for Resistance fighters and for Jews escaping from the slaughter that claimed the lives of 70,000.
le château fort: a “strong castle,” the original castles of the Middle Ages, built for defense from attacks. If I understand correctly, the invention of artillery made them considerably less useful–building a castle in a way that would withstand artillery made them uncomfortable to live in.
le château Renaissance: a “Renaissance castle,” serving essentially as a country residence for royalty and aristrocracy, rather than as a defensive structure as was the case with the old châteuax forts.
la solive: joist. French buildings of this era often had magnificent ceilings, and I was quite surprised at how many rooms in Chenonceau have solives apparentes–ceilings with exposed joists.