After a recent trip I thought I’d post on these two chateaux, both a half hour or so of driving from Chartres. They’re two castles that compared to, say, Amboise or Chambord, are of marginal interest, and yet none the less worth visiting for their atmosphere and historical/literary links.
The chateau is set just off one side of the main square, an oddly formed space, and the chateau’s placing is odd, too – not like Anet or Rambouillet at the end of a long approach, but aslant, separated off from the town by a courtyard and a low wall. There’s a great medieval gatehouse, but it leads into a courtyard that’s open to the back; the grands appartements are all in a wing on the left, not in the main body of the castle, and the huge grey medieval tour carrée is unused. It’s only at the back of the castle that geometry takes over, with the long canal laid out by Le Notre, flanked by avenues of beeches, running towards the great arches of the ruined aqueduct in the distance. The back of the castle, for its eighteenth century inhabitants, must have been the real front.
The aqueduct is one of the glories of Maintenon, and you don’t have to visit the chateau to see it. This wasn’t the work of Madame de Maintenon, but of Louis XIV; it was meant to carry water to Versailles, which must have seemed at the time like one of those huge planned Chinese new cities that are sprouting up, half building site, half urban sprawl, with the great palace at the heart of it – or, more accurately, to one side. The Versailles gardens needed ever greater quantities of water, not just for the plants but for the fountains, canals, and waterfalls; first the local ponds were used up, then the great machine at Marly, taking water from the Seine, proved insufficient. Louis decided to take water from the Eure at Pontgouin, 80 kilometres from Versailles, and commanded the military engineer Vauban to work out how.
I’ve been told that Vauban, being smart, proposed a siphon as the best way to cross the Eure valley here at Maintenon. (The river here is lower than the canal, since the river falls much more steeply. Taking the water from Pontgouin, 80 feet higher than Versailles, allowed for a gradual and steady slope all the way.) Louis refused; only an aqueduct would do justice to the Sun King. It was a doomed project; only the first of three tiers of arches was ever completed.
Yet the aqueduct is grander in its ruin than it ever could have been complete, I think. Look up from beneath it, and you can see how the middle of one vault has fallen away completely, leaving just a tenuous arch one stone thick on each side. And still it stands.
Back to the castle; through the little arch – no great gatehouse (the original forecourt was demolished long ago) – and into the courtyard, where the capitals of the Renaissance arcades are ornamented by lizards and crescent moons. An odd assortment; particularly as this chateau has nothing to do with Diane de Poitiers, whose badge was the goddess Diana’s crescent moon. (She was mistress of Henri II; Madame de Maintenon, before her ennoblement Francoise d’Aubigné, was mistress of Louis XIV.) The three lizards are the arms of Jean Cottereau, treasurer to three French kings, who built the Renaissance part of the chateau at the beginning of the sixteenth century; and while on one of the shields the crescent moon is shining down serenely on them, on another one of the lizards seems to think it’s a croissant and is biting happily into it.
The chateau mixes Renaissance and Gothic in a wonderful fantasy of spires, towers, turrets, and chimneys, with crocketed gables and pinnacle-crested dormer windows decorating the steep roof. Black patterns flash in the red brickwork. Nothing is quite symmetrical. The big square tower unbalances the chateau, its grey stone clashing with the Renaissance brickwork. The river runs right underneath the chateau’s kitchens – there’s even a small boat parked underneath – and on the other side the steps down from the great gallery are carried on a little bridge over another arm of the canal. There’s a sluice over which the water hisses; a swan sails up, his wings raised high as a ship’s sails.
The interior is perhaps not quite as interesting. The paintings are second rate, with the exception of a lovely Van Dyck, full of shimmer and diffused light, of the two sons of the Duke of Buckingham; and when I look at the hands, they seem rather vague, and less well painted than I’d expect from Van Dyck. Then I remember; this painting’s in London… so what is this? A sketch – or a copy? I try googling, but can’t find any reference to the Maintenon version…
And the long gallery is just horrid. It’s a nineteenth-century creation with positively nasty paintings, nineteenth-century dramatising at its worst. There’s a portrait of one of the dukes killed at Agincourt, looking like a sort of unbearded Falstaff, fat and rascally with a black patch over one eye; he could probably join a death metal band without changing his clothes. There are pictures of battles; at Ter (Toroella, 1694), Girona, a naval battle, all commanded by one or other of the Ducs de Noailles, a good two thirds of them marshals of France; it’s dim even on a bright sunlit day, a deathly cavern turning its back on the loveliness outside.
There are compensations. There is one bed with bright painted hangings, huge vibrant pink, purple and dark blue flowers on a cream background. There’s the embossed leather wall covering in the private apartments, glowing with patina and gilt. There’s one lovely Chinese bowl in the long gallery; outside, that kind of dark blue that seems to suck light into itself and glow dimly while breathing it out again, a flared curve to its lip, the base spreading in a reflection of that curve underneath, a classic shape so natural and harmonious it couldn’t be any other way. (But if you’re not a bit of a pottery nerd, you’d miss it.) And strangely, in Mme de Maintenon’s bedroom, full of the kind of tat you get in any celebrity museum – a bit of a spinning wheel, portraits of her in fancy dress – there’s a strange bench seat with little arches cut in the base, and in each of them stands a little pottery pug dog, each with a different expression, one so quizzical I could have leapt the barrier to hug it.
There’s another dog story that is strangely touching, though you have to reconstruct it for yourself. In one of the nineteenth-century rooms – a more comfortable, intimate space than the chilling grand gallery – are two pictures of the Duchesse de Noailles (Yoland de Luynes). One of them shows her as a little girl, teaching a little pug dog to shake hands – a touching little portrait that’s one of the few in this house to have real interest. The other shows the little girl grown up into a lovely young woman, with dark melancholy huge eyes, and a great chained hound lying at her feet, its eyes sad, its muzzle on its paws. It’s as if the dog, too, has grown up… well, of course it’s not the same dog, but none the less, there’s something rather sweet about the coincidence of the two paintings.
The real gem of Maintenon, artistically speaking, is the pair of Chinese salons; two rooms that seem to recreate an orchard indoors, with Chinese printed-then-painted wallpaper. The background is pale blue sky, against which butterflies flutter or rest, their wings folded together, on flowers, and birds flit; nearer the ground, gaudy-plumed pheasants perch or strut. There are fruit trees in bloom – almonds, or peach perhaps, their trunks gnarled as if half-bonsai’d, their branches curved or bent or twisted artistically. Each tree is different; the background may be printed, but the design isn’t repetitive. This is a miracle of landscape that surpasses Le Notre’s design outside; I’m sure I could feel a cool breeze in the painted trees’ branches.
(I should note that the Eure et Loir département has recently funded a complete restoration of these two rooms; a worthy use of public money.)
Maintenon is very much a castle of the valley. Head towards Villebon, and you’re in the middle of the Beauce, a huge open plain of golden cornfields (or this time of year, bleached yellow stubble).
Here, in 1391, a fortress was raised, built of brick from local kilns, for there’s no good building stone in this region. (There are still tile yards on the road towards Dreux.) It’s every bit as fantastic a sight as Maintenon, with its jettied-out battlements and parapets, its cylindrical turrets at each corner, the water murkily reflecting red brick and blue sky; but unlike Maintenon, it’s built to a precise, exact geometrical plan – a square fortress on a square island in a square moat, with cylindrical towers at the corners, and four towers on the entrance front, two at the corners and two guarding the gatehouse, with its drawbridge that is still raised every night and lowered every morning.
There are a few surprises; the semi-domed end of a bread oven sticking out of the wall, a trio of stars of David in black brick picked out on the red, perhaps the trademark of the builder (there are similar stars at Anet and Gien, we were told). The starkness of the medieval walls has been somewhat toned down by the mullioned windows which were opened up in it during the Renaissance; but it still impresses with its bulk and power.
The chateau was the property of the Estouteville family for two hundred years, standing unchanged and defiant; but then change came. Maximilien de Sully, Huguenot general and then finance minister to Henri IV, bought Villebon, and made it into a mansion fit for a Renaissance noble. It may not look much like one from the outside, but the medieval shell is just that – as soon as you cross the drawbridge and enter the interior courtyard, you’re in a different century. An italianate arcade, perhaps originally open to the air, and portrait busts of Sully and his wife assert Renaissance gentility.
Close to the castle is the delicate flamboyant Gothic chapel (with a fine Renaissance Tree of Jesse window, and English medieval alabaster figures on the altar). But I found more interesting the circular pigeonnier, further away by one of the ponds that feeds the moat. (Pigeons, particularly the young squabs, were a delicacy for the residents of the castle. Pigeon by-products were of course also useful as fertiliser, so that was an important part of the country house economy.) A tiny door forces visitors to stoop as they descend the steps into the cool and dim interior. Around the walls are more than 2,000 nest niches; in the centre, a huge pillar, around which a frame with a ladder rotates, giving access to the nests. It looks clunky, but it swings with surprising ease. It’s a strange space, functional but at the same time impressive and vaguely mystical, like a sort of mandala.
Villebon belonged to the Estoutevilles for two hundred years; it belonged to Sully’s descendants, the house of Bethune, for two hundred years; the de la Raudieres, now in residence, are only the third family to live in the castle. It’s been lucky, this castle; Sully’s acquisition gave it a new lease of life in the Renaissance, and it survived the French Revolution thanks to a charitable – and locally popular – chatelaine.
Yet the castle’s relationship to the village has changed. This was originally a feudal village, the houses crowded in the shelter of the castle; narrow arches still span the road at the entrance to the street. But the nineteenth century brought new desires for privacy and exclusion; a great wall was built between castle and street, with a new gateway, and an orangery – now a ruin since a fire in the 1980s. The castle turned its back on the village, facing to the other side, the great park, where Sully used to walk every day for exercise.
Something else has changed, too; because what you see is not just a work of history, it’s a work of fiction. Or at least, it is if you’ve read Proust, because this is the castle of the Guermantes, the aristocratic counterweights to Swann. (There’s a real chateau of Guermantes, but it never had a duchess; it’s within spitting distance of Euro Disneyland. I wonder what Proust would have made of that…) Illiers-Combray – which was Illiers, but has now taken on its fictional name in reality – is a few kilometres down the road, though not (as Proust would have it) within the easy distance of an afternoon stroll.
Practicalities: Maintenon is open every day. Villebon is only open on the first and third Sunday of the month (April to September), and for the Journées de Patrimoine in September.