Exhibition “Chambord 1519-2019, utopia at work”

"The most important exhibition in Chambord's history"
150 works from 33 international collections
3 original sheets of the Codex Atlanticus de Leonardo da Vinci
18 "Unfinished Chambord" projects from universities on 5 continents
2 discovery cabinets for young audiences

Codex Atlanticus : Studies of physics on counterweight and perpetual movement – Leonardo da Vinci – Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana -Pinacoteca (Milan) – Exhibition in a room entirely dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci’s manuscripts.

As part of the celebrations of its 500th anniversary, the Domaine national de Chambord is offering the public an exceptional exhibition, the most important in its history, on a new subject: Chambord in the past and in the future.

In September 1519, work began on what would become, under the impetus of François I, the most astonishing construction of the French Renaissance: the Château de Chambord. 2019 was the opportunity for the estate to reflect on this unique architecture by proposing a double exhibition, both retrospective and prospective, linking yesterday and tomorrow under the auspices of utopia and ideal architectures.

This exhibition, produced with the exceptional support of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, is curated by architect Dominique Perrault and philosopher Roland Schaer


The historical dimension: the genesis of Chambord

Under the direction of Roland Schaer, philosopher

Francis I, King of France,
Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian
Around 1539
Paris, Louvre Museum, Department
of Paintings

The Renaissance in France was a period of effervescence both politically – with the reign of Francis I – and intellectually – with the emergence of new artistic and philosophical concerns. The exhibition will aim to question the construction of the monument in the light of this unique context. The concerns and hopes of the Renaissance, the emblematic personality of Francis I and the square of Leonardo da Vinci, who died in Amboise a few months before the construction of Chambord began, will be put into perspective by nearly 150 remarkable works from the collections of 33 prestigious institutions, including the National Library of France, the Louvre Museum, the Uffizi Gallery, the British Museum, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale de Florence, the Army Museum and the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.

The presentation of illuminated manuscripts from the 9th to the 16th century, rare books, drawings, paintings, models and objets d’art, including three original pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, François I’s Armor with Lions and five original vellum drawings by the famous architect Jacques Androuet du Cerceau, will allow the public to truly enter the monument’s architecture and grasp its radical novelty.



The historical side of the exhibition seeks to give visitors a thorough understanding of the monument’s constituent elements, drawing on the most recent research, by immersing them in the intellectual, aesthetic and political context of the French Renaissance. Based on 150 works, many of them exceptional, but also on digital devices, spectacular scenographic elements (models, reconstructions, videos, sound showers) and a number of texts (quotations, cartels developed, chronologies, friezes and diagrams), the exhibition combines scientific precision, elegance of presentation and attractiveness of speech, far from the aridity of some heritage architecture presentations.

For the sake of clarity and pedagogy, it is divided into four sections that the visitor is invited to explore successively in order to simply grasp its purpose, along the way….

Ideal cities, ideal architectures

This first section reveals the intellectual, religious and historical context in which Chambord was conceived: the extraordinary artistic flowering that Italy witnessed in the Quattrocento, the emergence of architecture as the “art of disegno”, i. e. the power to represent and invent ideal forms, in accordance with the “divine proportions” inscribed in nature. The artist, scholar and creator, then competes with God. The “ideal city”,
long identified with the heavenly Jerusalem, whose architect was God, becomes the possible work of human inventive genius.

It was a time of utopias, manifested in the great treatises on architecture: Alberti inaugurated this new tradition in the middle of the century; it was followed by “Filarète” and Francesco di Giorgio, then by Serlio, Palladio and many others. The treatise on architecture, drawing and modeling are all ways in which architecture is conceived and represented before it is materialized: it is a “mental thing”. The architect who, unlike the painter, does not have to copy reality, is an inventor of forms.


Chest decorated with a perspective of an ideal city Marquetry 15th century Gallery degli Uffizi, Florence (Italy)

Figured Apocalypse (known as the Valenciennes Apocalypse): The angel shows Saint John the Messianic Jerusalem Otoltus (cop.) 9th century Illuminated manuscript on parchment Mediatheque of Valenciennes

All the great architects of the first Italian Renaissance, whose treatises will be presented in the exhibition, were court artists, close to men of power, princes, prelates and monarchs. Of course, their quest for recognition and protection has a lot to do with it. But more fundamentally, this collusion of the “scientist and the politician” is due to the fact that, in their eyes, the construction of the built environment is inseparable from the production of social harmony: to make a city is both to create a material habitat and to unite a human collective. Architecture and urban planning are part of “good government”. As a result, if the architect is in the service of the Prince, it is also because the Prince wants to be an architect: not only initiated into this art, but master in the art of creating society, of uniting a people around its power. Of this, too, Chambord is a luminous example: of a conversation between the Prince and the artist (Leonard and François in particular…) who build a castle as one builds a kingdom.

Even though Leonard has been consulted on several occasions on specific architectural or urban planning projects, no single project bears his signature. And yet, architecture is very present in his notebooks filled with exercises that are as many variations on “possible architecture”. These are drawings that are more a matter of research than of project management. Technical and scientific research, as when he was consulted on how to consolidate the transept of Milan Cathedral so that a dome and an arrow could be installed at its top. Formal research, as in these rich series of drawings where he declines the multiple possible variations of “centered plan” churches. Functional research, when he studies these “traffic organs” of cities and buildings such as streets, canals and stairs, where flow management is carried out. It is this propensity to always seek new solutions that makes Leonard an architect, both a realist and a visionary, a pragmatist and a precursor.

Picture below:
Photo (C) Archives Alinari, Florence, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Fratelli Alinari PDP – Alinari Archives, Florence

Francis I, building a kingdom

Negroli Giovanni Paolo (1513-1569) (attributed to). Paris, Musée de l’Armée. G 50.

Having deployed the historical context, the exhibition then turns its attention to the one who, in a way, fosters this favourable context: King Francis I, sacred in 1515. A new era began with it, which many people then heralded as a new Golden Age.

Marignan’s victory in September 1515 made him a “second Caesar”. Nourished by the chivalrous imagination that constitutes his intellectual and ideological referent, the young king sees himself as destined to restore Constantine’s or Charlemagne’s empire, and to relaunch the crusades for the reconquest of the Holy Places. Francis I’s ambition is above all to occupy the place of temporal – and military – leader of the Christian world: the place Constantine had given himself when he converted in 313, the place Charlemagne had occupied at the beginning of the 9th century, the one occupied by the Byzantine emperors. His election as emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire” could have officially given him this mission. The voters decided otherwise: it was Charles V who was responsible for rebuilding the Empire.

The dream was broken with this election (June 1519), then with the defeat of Pavia (February 1525). But it was during these flamboyant years that Chambord was conceived.

Francis I never ceased to appear as a king who protected the arts and letters, but also as a builder king, like the kings of France Philippe Auguste and Charles V or more recently, in Italy, the Montefeltre, Sforza and many others who had been “princes-architects”. With the Italian princes and prelates, he shares the idea that “magnificence” is measured by the quality of his architectural companies. And indeed, from the time of his reign, it was in royal projects that architectural innovation in France was concentrated. He made his mark on the eleven development or construction projects he launched, first in the Loire Valley (Blois, Amboise, Chambord), then in Île-de-France (Madrid, Fontainebleau, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Villers-Cotterêts, etc.). Master of work, but probably more so: Francis I took the pencil and drew appropriating the “art of the disegno”, he wanted to be a designer of buildings, capable of playing himself the role of the one who in Italy is already called “the architect”.


Titian (said), Vecellio Tiziano (circa 1489-1576). Paris, Louvre Museum. Inv753.

Limosin Leonard (circa 1505-1575) (attributed to). Paris, Louvre Museum. MRXIIIsuppl.211;N1245.


Build Chambord

This third section of the exhibition presents elements related to the site itself. If the documentation on the construction of Chambord is very incomplete, the 17th century historian André Félibien was nevertheless able to consult and summarize these archives in his Memoirs to serve as a basis for the history of the Royal and Bastimen houses of France.

A few other documents have since been found and, recently, archaeological excavations have provided valuable information.

When the king died in 1547, Chambord was not completed and the site was less active. But between 1519 and that date, with a break of more than two years from the summer of 1524 to the summer of 1526, Chambord was a huge construction site. The exhibition will feature several archaeological elements found in the excavations, lapidary elements preserved since the 19th century, as well as a spectacular reconstruction of the foundations of the castle, a structure 5.50m high by 1m wide showing the different “layers”. The visitor will thus enter the construction of the monument on the same level.


Set of 8 dice to play uncovered in the cesspits of the 16th century Anonymous Castle Bone, horn National Estate of Chambord

Door carved with a crowned salamander from the 16th century Château de Chambord Oak carved in Paris, Louvre Museum; Department of Works of Art

Crowned Fargett from Chambord Castle Wrought iron Early 16th century Ecouen, National Museum of the Renaissance – Château d’Écouen














Works of art, antique carpentry, fragments of architecture or drawings will then come to explain the emblematic of Francis I so present in the decor of Chambord, sown with monarchic insignia, crowns and fleurs-de-lis, but also emblems specific to this king: the salamander, the monogram in “F”, the cordelier in 8. The section ends with a series of references to Chambord that show that, very quickly, the castle was taken as the ideal palace model.

Chambord, allegory of the kingdom

And Leonard?.....

But the mystery of Chambord goes far beyond the mysterious figure found only on this one castle of King Francis: why did you build such an excessive splendour in the middle of nowhere, in what was an inhospitable “desert” surrounded by swamps?

We know that the king wanted a hunting residence, where the “small band” could spend short stays, and it is true that the place was gamey. But at the same time he wanted Chambord to be a wonder given to the admiration of the world. As a result, Chambord’s reasons are not to be found in the functions to which he could have responded, but in the meanings that architecture expresses in it. In these times when analogical thought reigns, Chambord is a sheaf of allegories where politics and religion are mixed. This castle is above all an exercise in monarchical rhetoric: a king’s dream.

Certainly, he was not “the architect of Chambord”, first because this castle is a collective work, in which King Francis I played a central role throughout its construction, and second because, unlike Romorantin, we do not know of any drawing by Leonardo that is directly related to Chambord. On the other hand, the conversations that the king probably had with the old artist had a profound impact on Chambord’s architectural project, leaving undeniable “signatures”. This has been said of the “centered plan” and the stairs. But there is more.


Codex Atlanticus: Distribution of the circle and squaring (Fol. 471) Leonardo da Vinci 1478-1519 Manuscript on paper Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Pinacoteca, Milan (Italy)

At the end of his life, given his state of health, Leonard was essentially concerned with speculative questions: the “scientist-philosopher” had taken over from the artist-engineer. He saw the world as a game of forces where fluid dynamics (water, air, blood) generated forms; he had meditated on the problem of “squaring the circle” and envisaged a dynamic geometry, where forms metamorphose into each other. His favourite object, at the centre of this meditation, was the swirling spiral: the form that arises from movement. The machine expert had become a theorist of the world’s great machinery. To understand how these themes were inscribed at the heart of Chambord’s architecture, we must now turn to what was, in 1519, the initial project. It is necessary to revive Chambord’s primitive utopia: a dungeon in “swastika”, planted in the middle of a “desert”.

At the end of the exhibition, after the final piece devoted to Leonardo da Vinci’s three original drawings, an exceptional film, created for the exhibition, will show the viewer the initial project of the castle, never realized, on which hangs the genius designer of the old Master, who died a few months before the beginning of the construction….



Sous le commissariat de Dominique Perrault

Unfinished edge

Chambord is an exemplary castle in the astonishing series of buildings that King Francis I had built throughout his life. However, Chambord’s initial project was never fully completed. The term “unfinished” is given to read in its immediate meaning, an unfinished architecture, but also in the light of utopias closely linked to the intellectual, political and artistic context of its time, one of the most fertile in French architecture. This reading of the site served as a basis for a reflection proposed by Dominique Perrault and supported by the Domaine national de Chambord, aimed at celebrating this anniversary year by soliciting the inventiveness of tomorrow’s architects. A call for projects to re-enchant Chambord in 2019 under the auspices of utopia.

18 universities to reinvent Chambord

Launched in 2018, the call for projects “Chambord Incomplete” led in March to the selection of 18 universities around the world. Based on the architecture of the castle, a series of projects proposing to revive Chambord’s architectural utopia have been developed by the chosen laboratories, based on very diverse cultural and geographical positions. So many visions for a “completed” or “reinvented” Chambord, aiming to open up reflection on reality through fictional representation. Based on photos, plans, 3D surveys, computer-generated images but also, for some, visits or even stays on site, the students imagined several Chambord adapted to the scenarios they have located in 2019 or in a more or less near future. The castle of Francis I even inspired several projects at certain universities, which will present a selection or all of them.

On this video, discover 3 of the 18 projects proposed by the architecture schools of “Chambord Incomplete”.

©SCI-ARC. Southern California Institute of Architecture.
©ENSA Nancy
Seoul National University

Patronages and partners of the exhibition