It’s a little known castle that you would hardly notice if you were driving by. It’s recessed far from the road, not close to any major roads, and requires trekking through country roads some distance. People happen on to it accidentally. Few people go out of their way to see it, which is a shame. Inside the walls of Château Gizeux are some precious and very unique works of art.
In 1334 the chateau was acquired by the Du Bellay family, related to the acclaimed Renaissance poet Joachim du Bellay. One of my favorite poems of his is “A Sonnet to Heavenly Beauty” (translated from French):
If this our little life is but a day
In the Eternal, — if the years in vain
Toil after hours that never come again, —
If everything that hath been must decay,
Why dreamiest thou of joys that pass away,
My soul, that my sad body doth restrain?
Why of the moment’s pleasure art thou fain?
Nay, thou hast wings, — nay, seek another stay.
There is the joy whereto each soul aspires,
And there the rest that all the world desires,
And there is love, and peace, and gracious mirth,
And there in the most highest heavens shalt thou
Behold the Very Beauty, whereof now
Thou worshipped the shadow upon earth.
A descendant of the du Bellay family, (René du Bellay) became a Prince in 1585 when he married Marie d’Yvetôt, whose family owned a small kingdom in Burgundy. The chateau was then sold to the Countess of Roche-Millay in the late seventeenth-century. A hundred years later it was acquired through marriage by marquises of the Contade family, where it has remained to the present day. During the French revolution, villagers protected the gallery paintings by covering the walls with a wattle and daub mixture, completely concealing the royal symbols from revolutionaries.
Our Visit to Château Gizeux
The chateau is a short distance from our summer home in the Loire Valley—just a twelve-minute bike ride. We often pass by the chateau (usually on bike), but have only entered inside twice—the first time sixteen years ago, and the second time, a few days ago.
Last week, on a lovely sunny day in the Loire Valley (which most are in the summer), we left our idyllic retreat at 11:30 a.m. with a packed lunch, on route to visit the nearby chateau which we pass by often when traveling to the west. We weren’t sure it was open to the public, but found three or four cars in the parking area outside the chateau gates. We were allowed to continue on bikes the 150 remaining yards to the interior gates where we purchased a ticket for ten euros each. We were surprised to receive an audio headset; I don’t believe they had them on our previous visit.
We entered the chateau through the winding stone staircase and proceeded to walk up to the third floor. The chateau sports medieval towers, although much of the buildings date to the Renaissance era. After walking through a couple of furnished rooms, we entered a large art gallery. This was the part of the visit we were waiting for.
The Countess of Roche-Millay had an only son with an avid interest in art. To help educate her son, she invited an art colony to reside in the chateau in the 1680’s. Over the succeeding years, the art students (which we can assume included the Countess’s son) began painting the walls in one of the large chateau galleries. Amazingly enough, these paintings have been preserved for 330 years. We were delighted to see that professional restorers have been hired to clean and preserve this art since our last visit years ago.
If we were able to travel back in time to the late 17th century and peer inside the walls, we would see art students hard at work, painting on the hallway walls of the expansive gallery. For me, these paintings are the real gems in this historic building. Some of the paintings depict country scenes. Others were painted from contemporary engravings of the time, with the art students drawing various chateaus as they appeared more than three hundred years ago, including wall murals of Versailles, Chambord and Fontainebleau. These are not paintings of beginner art students; these are detailed and, in most cases, three-dimensional drawings of some of the grand chateaus of the Loire—as they appeared in the late 1600’s. It is like traveling back in time viewing the artwork. It is also interesting to see the progression of talent for some of the art students. Some pieces lack artistic maturity; others show advanced techniques.
In the painting at right, you can see my wife putting the finishing touches on a country scene (no, she is not actually touching the painting with the brush!).
A Delightful Afternoon
Of course, there is more to the chateau than just the art school paintings. There is another art gallery containing paintings from Italian artists of the sixteenth century. One painting contains a crowned salamander, the emblem of King Francis the First, who twice visited Gizeux. The owners have also created fun activities for families. There is a treasure hunt in the “Mysterious Forest,” where children hope to find the clues that will lead to the treasure. In the Grand Terrace, there is a life-size chess table, other games such as Dutch billiards and Möllky bowling along with thematic workshops for families.
After our visit to the chateau, we found a peaceful park near the chateau in the small village of Gizeux and enjoyed a baguette of ham and cheese. We then continued on to the small village of Continvoir where we visited an ancient church, then returned home.
A very delightful and memorable afternoon traveling back in time to the seventeenth-century in the Loire Valley.