The Chateau of Villandry is the last of the great chateaux of the Loire built during the Renaissance in the Loire Valley. The sober elegance of its architecture combined with the charm of its outstanding gardens make this one of the jewels of world heritage.
An avant-garde architectural design
Villandry is one of the great chateaux built on the banks of the Loire during the Renaissance. It has the distinctive feature of being the residence of neither a king nor a courtesan, but of Jean Le Breton, Minister of Finance for François I.
At Villandry, Jean Le Breton drew on his exceptional architectural experience acquired on a large number of sites, including the Chateau of Chambord, which he supervised and directed on behalf of the Crown over many years.
When he arrived in Villandry in 1532, he had the old feudal fortress razed to the ground, except for the keep, a dramatic testimony to the conference held on 4 July 1189 at which Henry II of England (Henry Plantagenet) admitted his defeat before King Philip Augustus of France, signing the treaty known as “La Paix de Colombiers ” (The Peace of Colombiers) two days before he died.
In place of the fortress, he had three apparently simple main structures built adjoining the keep, to form a horseshoe opening onto the valley through which the Cher and the Loire flow. Arcades, mullioned windows surrounded by richly decorated pilasters, high lucarnes with sculpted curves and broad, steeply sloping slate roofs frame a main courtyard in proportions of rare elegance, the whole stamped with the architectural principle of the period: symmetry.
Despite being nearby and almost contemporary to Azay-le-Rideau, at Villandry the Italian influences and medieval references – turrets, pinnacles, decorative machicolations – completely disappeared to make way for a simpler, purely French style which, in particular as regards the form of the roofs, prefigured Anet, Fontainebleau and what was to become Henry IV style. Villandry’s originality lies not only in its avant-garde architectural design; it is also to be found in the use made of the site on which it was built, in complete harmony with nature and stone, with gardens of outstanding beauty.
Already outstanding gardens
Keen on architecture, Jean Le Breton was also interested in the art of gardening, which he had occasion to study when ambassador to Rome. Times had changed. Feudal fortresses made way for delicate chateaux, ramparts became walls which now allowed one to gaze out over the surrounding landscape, the enclosed, utilitarian gardens of the Middle Ages made way for ornamental gardens, in a gentle transition between the house and its natural setting. Villandry was no exception to the new fashion. At the foot of the chateau, overlooking the River Cher, gardens were laid whose splendour already earned the estate a reputation outside the Loire Valley.