The château de Villandry during the Renaissance
The Château de Villandry is the last of the great Loire Valley châteaux to be built during the Renaissance. Following in the footsteps of François I, Jean Breton, the King’s Secretary of Finance, transformed the medieval fortress of Colombiers into an elegant château representative of the architectural audacity of the Renaissance.
Coat of arms of Jean Breton
Azure a chevron Argent a chief Gules charged with three golden bezants
In the tradition of Francis I, the builder king
Under the impetus of Francis I, seduced by the Italian culture with which he came into contact during the Italian Wars (1494-1559), France in the 16th century gradually converted to new practices in painting, sculpture, the decoration of large residences and architecture. The ambition of the young king was to raise the French court, boorish by reputation, to the level of the refined courts of the Italian princes in order to compete with and even surpass the cultural supremacy of its transalpine neighbour. Francis I gradually built up his legend as a protector of the arts and a builder king. With the help of Italian artists, he undertook several major projects, including Chambord in the Loire Valley and Fontainebleau in Ile-de-France. While the aristocracy refused to embrace modernity, due to a lack of desire and financial means, it was the royal secretaries who built Azay-le-Rideau, Chenonceau, Beauregard, etc., grouped together under the name of the “châteaux of the Loire”.
Among these state officials was Jean Breton (c.1490-1542). Jean Breton seems to have come from the Orléans petty bourgeoisie. Throughout his life, he experienced a social ascension which he owed to his management skills and his marriage to Anne Gédoyn, daughter of Robert Gédoyn, the King’s Secretary of Finance. He held several positions at both local and national level, the most important of which was that of Secretary of the King’s Finances, which made him a member of the sovereign’s inner circle.
Jean Breton took possession of the castellany of Colombiers (officially renamed Villandry in 1639) on 4 March 1532 for the sum of 35,000 pounds. This was his second architectural project in the Loire Valley. A few years earlier, on his return from captivity after the defeat of Pavia, François I entrusted Jean Breton with the supervision of the work on Chambord; in addition to this responsibility, he received the land of Villesavin, the materials and the workers to build a castle there (1527-1537). Located less than 10 km from the future Chambord castle, Villesavin was nicknamed “Chambord’s building site cabin”.
Anne Gédoyn, wife and Renaissance woman
Anne Gédoyn’s family originated in Orléans. Her father, Robert Gédoyn, was close to the government: he was successively secretary to the Duke of Orléans, whom he continued to serve once he became King Louis XII, and then finance secretary to Francis I, an office he bequeathed to his son-in-law Jean Breton. Through her marriage to Jean Breton in 1521, Anne Gédoyn allowed her husband to continue his social ascent. After Jean Breton’s death on 19 August 1542, she inherited and maintained the superintendence of the works at Chambord. The archives have kept track of the contracts she signed on 27 March 15434, in 15445 and on 9 May 1554 with masons for work on the Château de Chambord. She also had the charge and custody of the rooms of the castle of Chambord by decree of 23 May 1545. Anne Gédoyn, widow, received Francis I at Villandry on 17 January 1543.
An avant-garde architectural design
At Villesavin and then at Villandry, Jean Breton made the most of his exceptional experience of architecture, which he owed in particular to his travels in Italy. At Villandry, he transformed the old feudal fortress.
The medieval castle has two wings on either side of the L-shaped keep: Jean Breton had a third wing built, thus rebalancing the castle through symmetry. These three buildings form a U-shape open to the views of the valley where the Cher and the Loire flow. This opening to the outside world illustrates the spirit of Renaissance architecture, which set aside the defensive function of the building in favour of aesthetics. Arcades, mullioned windows surrounded by richly decorated pilasters, high roof windows with sculpted gables and broad, steeply sloping slate roofs give the château its Renaissance finery. In the south-western corner of the main courtyard, a staircase contained in a tower attached to the building served the different levels; this typical Renaissance element disappeared in the 18th century.
3D reconstruction of the Château de Villandry from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance produced on the occasion of the “500 years of Renaissance in the Loire Valley”. Agence Dripmoon
The tour de force achieved by Jean Breton is to have exploited the medieval architectural foundations of the château by bringing it into the modern world thanks to Renaissance innovations. The result is a sober and elegant ensemble. This elegance lies in the strict respect for the proportional relationships between architectural elements and the application of symmetrical principles. However, several details differ here and there to disrupt the monotony of excessive symmetry, making the façades more pleasing to the eye.
The style developed at Villandry prefigures Anet or Fontainebleau and what would later become the Henry IV style. The fortress of Colombiers is consigned to the past; the Villandry pleasure house is the symbol of an avant-garde architectural concept.
Villandry, a pleasant place
The spirit of the new Renaissance residences lies in the physical and intellectual well-being that they bring to their occupants. This principle was theorised by Leon Battista Alberti in his architectural treatise De Re Aedificatoria (On Architecture). Located outside the city, in the heart of nature, the Renaissance villa is a pleasant place (locus amoenus) to gather family and friends. The notion of a pleasant place originated in the writings of the ancient poets, which inspired the Renaissance humanists. For a place to be called “pleasant”, it must meet seven criteria: a stream, shade, a gentle breeze, flowers, plants, trees and fruit.
The Colombiers/Villandry site meets all these conditions: a stream feeds the moat, thus providing freshness and water for watering or ornamental purposes; the climate is temperate and healthy thanks to the air that circulates there; the hillside is covered by a forest that forms a planted setting, and during the Middle Ages, vines were planted on its slopes. Finally, in order to meet all the criteria, Jean Breton had a parterre laid out on the southern terrace (future Jardins d’Amour), to be composed of geometric parquets (squares) planted with flowers and simple plants, as can be seen in the engravings of the Plus Beaux Bâtiments de France by Jacques I Androuet du Cerceau.