What would you do if you had riches beyond measure? Would you live a life of hedonistic over-indulgence? Would you feel the need to prove that you had even more unimaginable riches than all the other lucky sods whose bank balances took them into the economic stratosphere?
It’s funny how all things are relative. Those of us of more modest means focus our aspirational one-man-up-manship on owning the latest iPhone or the must-have Mulberry handbag, but for the Renaissance princes of yesteryear the game of must-have ascended to a scale that most of us would have difficulty getting our heads around.
Imagine, just for a moment, that you are King Francis I of France. You’ve inherited your throne. You are twenty something years’ old, and you’ve just re-conquered the Province of Milan, carelessly lost by your ageing predecessor. The only fly in the ointment is that you’ve just missed your chance of being Holy Roman Emperor to your nemesis, a greasy Hapsburg who takes the title as Charles V. What would you do to prove your potency and credentials as a great Renaissance Prince?
Well let me put an end to this game of what-if, and cut to the chase. Here’s what Francis did. He built one of the greatest palaces in the Kingdom of France, and from it the full wonder of the French Renaissance unfolded. Feast your eyes on the wonderful folly that is the Château de Chambord.
Like many status symbols it was wholly impractical: freezing in winter and plagued by malaria-bearing mosquitoes in summer. But that really wasn’t the point, was it? The point was to have something decorative and delightful that really made no sense at all to those mere mortals constrained by a budget. The point was to have something so decadent that it flew above and beyond the imagination of your peers.
And so, by way of sharpening his crayons before he got to work on the blueprint, Francis probably got old Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest genius of the age, to do a spot of blue-sky thinking to come up with some wholly original stuff. Then he set about building his dream, all 77 staircases, 426 rooms and 282 fireplaces of it to confound the sceptics and the economists of the time, not to mention that greasy Hapsburg chap … .
Compare him to the Oligarchs and Hollywood Royalty of today, and you have to admit that the man had class. He took the footprint of a feudal castle and rebuilt it with no defensive function whatsoever, other than a regal nod to knightly tradition. At the centre, in a keep modelled on the geometry of a Greek cross, he placed his amazing double helix staircase.
And his staircase is a thing of wonder, a thing created with geometry and symmetry and ordered by mathematics, that most ordered of the sciences. It’s designed as a double helix with two flights of stairs radiating from a hollow central newel. And the wonderful thing about these two flights of stairs is that they never meet; they never intersect. It’s possible for one person to ascend and another to descend without ever meeting on their respective journeys. Of course there are decorative apertures aplenty so that they can wave to one another and doff their hats and flutter their fans.
You may well ask what the point in all this complicated engineering was. And you’d be right to wonder. It’s not as though they instigated a strict one-way traffic system with one flight allocated to ascents and the other to descents. No, in this world of princely splendour, erudition and good taste it was all about theatre. This was the ultimate staircase on which to strut your stuff, and I am confident that it served its theatrical purpose with aplomb.
And happily history records that when Francis I did finally get around to inviting Charles V over for a spot of boar-hunting, old Chuck, the Hapsburg, had the generosity of spirit to be truly impressed.
So if you’re in the Loire Valley and wondering what to do to pass the time, you could do worse than trot over to Chambord to shake a tail-feather on the most amazing staircase that I’ve ever seen.