Roughly 40km north of Paris, you’ll find Chantilly, a commune that was once part of the historic Valois region. In May, I took a trip up to Chantilly for a plant festival in the grounds of the château, combining it with a nosey into the building itself. What I didn’t realise at the time was that the castle is now the home of the Musée Condé, which has one of the best collections in France.
Its last ‘lord’, Henri d’Orléans, duc d’Aumale, upon his death in 1897, bequeathed the domaine to the Institut de France, with the strict condition that it be turned into a museum. It specialises in 15th-16th century French art, and houses many well-known works, such as Raphael’s ‘Three Graces’ (1505). The Musée Condé opened its doors to the public in 1898, and still looks almost exactly the same as it did nearly 200 years ago, as per another of Henri’s conditions.
One of my favourite rooms in the castle is ‘The Tribune’, an entirely red, octagonal room whose walls are covered in works from a variety of eras. It is reminiscent of ‘La Tribuna’ in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and I’m sure that’s where they drew inspiration! The paintings on the walls are arranged so that they flow chronologically from left to right; starting with the likes of Fra Angelico and Botticelli, to a French/Dutch blend of Poussin and Van Dyck in the centre, and ending with some 19th century Delacroix and Ingres. It is quite a sight!
Moving on from the Tribune, you come to the Psyche Gallery. Along one side of this gallery is a series of 44 stained glass windows, dating from c.1543, which tell the story of (surprise, surprise) Psyche, the Greek goddess. Originally they were housed at the Château d’Écouen which is the Musée National de la Renaissance. I’m still absolutely baffled by the level of detail that could: a) be created so many hundreds of years ago; and b) that still survives today. Sidebar: about two thirds of the way down this gallery is the ‘Santuario‘ which is where you’ll find the ‘Three Graces’.
Chantilly really blew me away with its opulence, especially considering it began life in the Middle Ages as a small fortified building built on a pile of rock in the middle of marshland. The Galerie des Batailles is covered in white and gold, reflecting the victories of the Grand Condé, Louis II of Bourbon-Condé. It’s not quite a match in size for that of Versailles, but it was, interestingly, created by the same architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, at one point the chief architect of Louis XIV.
Speaking of Louis XIV, the story goes that when he visited Chantilly in 1671, there were three whole days and nights of festivities to celebrate his stay, nearly all organised by François Vatel. Vatel was the steward to the Grand Condé (the owner at the time), and was charged with coordinating a huge banquet for around 2,000 courtiers. On the day of the banquet, the delivery of fish was late. So distraught and embarrassed was François that he committed suicide by running himself through with his own sword. His body was only discovered when someone came to tell him that the fish had arrived. Oh, the irony!
In 1719, Louis-Henri, the Prince de Bourbon-Condé, oversaw the addition of the extensive stables within the domaine. According to the story, he believed he would be reincarnated as a horse, and so he had to build stables in the domaine that were suitable of his rank. These stables are now the largest in Europe, and are also home to a museum: the Living Museum of the Horse, which displays the ever-changing relations between man and horse over the millennia. They also put on equestrian shows throughout the year.
Chantilly and equestrianism go hand in hand, and many racehorse owners have racing stables nearby; most notably, the Aga Khan. His racing estate ‘Aiglemont‘ is about 4km west of the domaine, and is home to the largest horse racing and breeding network in France. The Aga Khan, in 2002, donated €40 million of the €70 million needed to carry out desperately needed restoration work on the castle, which was quite nice of him!
There’s a lot more to say about it than I can feasibly get away with writing if I don’t want to bore everyone’s socks off, so I’ll leave it there. Thank you for reading, and if you want to find out more, here’s the link to the Domaine de Chantilly website. I’ve also uploaded my whole album onto Flickr so take a look there for the photos I haven’t got into this post.