Foolish to condense five hundred years of history into one post. However, fools rush in, so here goes.
The Renaissance arrived in France via Amboise in 1495 when King Charles VIII, came home from Italy.
The fact he went there at all was something of a fluke.
In 1489, to punish Ferdinand, the King of Naples, for refusing to pay his papal dues, the Pope (Innocent VIII) had him deposed and offered Naples to Charles who had a slight claim to it via his grandmother and his father.
Charles, who inherited the Crown when he was thirteen, did not reach his majority until 1491 so nothing came of it. Then Pope Innocent died. When Ferdinand died in 1494, his son Alfonso became King of Naples and that might have been that. Charles might never have taken up the Pope’s offer had it not been for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, son of a friend of his father.
Ludovico, who had claimed Milan by the back door by dubious means, was challenged for the dukedom by Alfonso so to see him off, Ludovico urged Charles to take up the late Pope’s offer and claim Naples. Charles was also encouraged by pope in waiting, Julius, in order to settle an old score against the incumbent, Pope Alexander VI.
And so it came about that Charles, age twenty-four, invaded Italy in 1494 virtually unopposed. When he took Naples, Alfonso left for Sicily. Charles, King of France, was now also King of Naples.
When Charles saw Alfonso’s deserted home, La Poggio Reale (royal hill), he was speechless. In modern parlance, blown away. Alfonso, a cultured man of impeccable taste, a devotee of the Renaissance, had created a beautiful palazzo. It had arcaded courtyards, shaded avenues, splendid fishponds and fountains, a sunken centre that was flooded for astonishing water spectacles powered by sophisticated hydraulics.
One side of the beautiful gardens opened onto a spectacular, uninterrupted, view of Mount Vesuvius. Charles, born into royalty, used to the splendour of Court, born and brought up in Château Amboise, had never seen anything like them. He was so enthralled, he managed to persuade the garden designer, Dom Pacello Mazzarotta to come home with him. Charles had his heart set on an Italian garden. At that time, French art and architecture could not hold a candle to that of Florence, Milan and Naples. Compared with Italy, France was, culturally speaking, backward.
When Charles came home, he brought with him eighteen men and two women, gifted in their own fields. Among them were artists, sculptors, architects, carpenters, stained glass workers, potters, stonemasons, a parrot keeper and Europe’s most famous landscape gardener, forty-two year old Dom Pacello.
Pacello, a secular cleric of the Benedictine Order, born in Mercogliano forty miles from Naples was inspired by the great Florentine, Leon Battista Alberti, who formalized the rules of landscaping.
As soon as he got home, Charles got to work beautifying Château Amboise. Needing somewhere prestigious to house Europe’s most famous landscape gardener, he rebuilt the nearby, mediaeval, Château Gaillard. The massive stone spiral staircase serving the three floors of the main building, built to protect the southern entrance of Amboise, is still there.
Charles gave Dom Pacello permission to adapt the Château to his own taste and to design the gardens as he wished. He wanted them to be an experimental horticultural laboratory to see if what he had seen growing in Naples could be grown in Amboise. South-facing, built against a sixty-five foot high cliff which sheltered it from the wind, its microclimate was not dis-similar to that of the Mediterranean.
And so it was, that here in Amboise, France saw its first Italian garden. Quickly dubbed The King’s Gardens, Dom Pacello created France’s first Renaissance garden for Château Gaillard, France’s first Renaissance château, for Charles, France’s first Renaissance King. They supplied Chateau Amboise with everything it needed, a sort of Royal Allotment, a very prestigious kitchen garden indeed. The original 1496 arch which led into the gardens is still there.
Here Dom Pacello and his son Edme, with what must have been a very large team, planted the first orange, lemon, greengage and peach trees seen outside the Mediterranean. France saw its first tomatoes, melons, orangery, greenhouses, garden pots and boxes for horticulture.
The King’s Gardener could not reproduce the sophisticated water features Charles admired in Naples but did his best. He diverted the river Amasse which ran (still runs) through the gardens to build the fountain (still there). Charles said all this Garden of Eden lacked, was Adam and Eve.
Sadly, Charles, a pleasant young man, nicknamed Charles the Affable, did not live to see his Italian dream come to fruition. He died tragically, in the true sense of the word, long before his time. He was twenty-eight. Many Royals were tennis fans. Charles was no exception. On his way to see a match at Château Amboise he, as so many of us do, misjudged the height of an arch and struck his head a mighty blow on the lintel. He managed to watch the match but died hours later from a massive brain haemorrhage. Dom Pacello must have been heart broken.
Although Charles and his wife Anne of Brittany had seven children, none survived so the throne passed to his father’s second cousin who reigned as Louis XII. He was also King of Naples from 1501 to 1504. A popular king, Louis was called Father of the People for reducing taxes and for maintaining peace.
Louis, who was with Charles during his (peaceful) invasion of Italy in 1494, must have known Dom Pacello well. He was as fond of him as Charles was, so much so, he gave him Chateau Gaillard in exchange for an annual bouquet of orange blossom and put him in charge of all the royal gardens.
Louis, who also married Anne of Brittany, like Charles, died without a male heir. He was succeeded by his cousin who reigned as François I.
Louis died before his gift to Dom Pacello was legally formalised so it was left to François to honour the promise. In 1515, he handed over the estate to his ‘dear and beloved Pacello’. Pacello named the greengage Reine Claude (Queen Claude) in honour of his consort. In France greengages are also called La Bonne Reine (the good Queen).
It’s warming to think that when, a year later, François gave nearby Clos Lucé to Leonardo da Vinci, the old man had an Italian neighbour.
Dom Pacello died in 1534.
The next owner was Cardinal de Lorraine-Guise. In 1560, he held secret meetings here to thwart the Huguenots (Protestants) who planned to abduct the young king, Francois II. Also at the meetings were his brother, the Duke of Guise, the Dowager Queen Catherine de Medici, the King and his young wife Mary Queen of Scots.
The next owner of any historical interest seems to have been Jean Théodore Coupier, a chemical engineer who somehow morphed into the Curator of the Louvre who retired to Château Gaillard, a place he loved. It was he who planted the splendid avenue (still there). He died in 1908 and is buried in Amboise Cemetery.
Then what happened? Did Jean Théodore’s estate fall victim to Napoleonic Law? The one which says when you die (still in force) your estate is divided among all blood relatives? Did his children fight, as they do today over estates all over France, whether Château Gaillard should be sold, rented out, lived in or left to rot? Did the State which declared it a historic monument in 1963 acquire it? Whatever. It was forgotten and nature took over for over until, talk about a Labour of Love, a handsome man fought his way through the jungle and kissed it back to life.
In 2010, businessman Marc Lelandais bought Château Gaillard. His Wikipedia entry says he is committed to the preservation of buildings of the Renaissance built between 1480 and 1515 in the Loire Valley. He needed to be.
Three hundred artisans from fifty different trades were brought in (probably more than King Charles employed) to recreate it. Six thousand stained glass windows, made in situ, following original drawings mark its history. Charles VIII, Anne of Brittany, the orangery of Dom Pacello, Louis XII, Francis I, Francis II and Mary Stuart are all commemorated in them. After many years of (to quote Sir Winston Churchill) ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’, the Château, for the first time in its history, is open to the public.