Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Romantic Chenonceau

Of the
Loire Valley
castles--
Chenonceau --built in 1520 over the River Cher
is to me the most harmonious, delicate, feminine and romantic. Chenonceau's southern gardens were designed for the brilliant and beautiful, Diane de Poitiers, lifelong mistress and power-behind-the-throne of King Henri II. The northern gardens belonged to Henri’s wife--the rather plain Italian noble, Catherine de Medici, who extracted her revenge on Diane upon her husband’s death.

The weekday morning I arrived at Chenonceau was cold, overcast, and deserted. In Diane’s garden my Amalfi loafers crunched over gravel paths and I breathed in air scented with roses, oranges, wisteria, and the cold mossy river. On entering the empty castle, flames crackled from the gallery’s massive fireplace and I could almost feel Diane greeting her guest--quite like Lana Turner who played her in the film ‘Diane.’ The most memorable point of my visit was in her small office-library overlooking the river--where I touched her desk!

Charming, vibrant, highly intelligent and politically astute, Diane de Poitiers was raised on the values of the humanistic Renaissance. Versed in music, languages, dancing, she read Latin and Greek, and was an avid sportswoman in magnificent form well into her 50s. Like her namesake the Goddess Diana, Diane was an avid ‘huntress goddess’ who rode her grey Stallion at sunrise through the forests, then swam naked in the icy River Cher, before her daily nap. Her nighttime salons, with the castle all aglow in torchlight, were prized among the intellectuals, artists, writers, and the elite of France.

At the age of 15, Diane was married to Louis de Brézé, 39 years her senior, a grandson of King Charles VII, and courtier to King Francis I. She had two daughters, Françoise and Louise. When her husband died, she adopted the mourning colors of black and white for life.

Shrewd in finance and law—she retained her late husband’s lands and income, and became lady-in-waiting to the then Queen. Later, at age 35 she became the mistress of the 16-year-old future King Henri II--who fulfilled his duties by marrying Catherine de Medici. But Diane de Poitiers was his lifelong true love, and closest confidant. He adored the woman who wrote much of his official correspondence and signed it--HenriDiane. Henri placed her in charge of his children’s education, the Crown Jewels of France--and Chenonceau that Catherine wanted for herself.

In 1559, after sustaining fatal wounds in a jousting match, Henri begged to see his beloved Diane once more. But his wife barred her from his deathbed, his funeral, and then from Chenonceau. She couldn’t, however, cast out her spirit that remains nearly palpable at the castle today--including within the roses named in her honor and pictured above.

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