Move over Versailles!
The Chateau de Chantilly art collection and fairy tale turrets are worthy competition for the oohs and ahhs you elicit.
River cruises are a delightful way to visit sites and attractions you might not otherwise see if touring independently. We’re glad that on our recent Seine River cruise with Scenic Cruises, the Normandy itinerary included a guided tour of the chateau’s palatial rooms and art – the chateau is every bit as impressive as Versailles, but without the elbow-jabbing hordes of tourists.
Chateau de Chantilly
Dating back to the 14th century, the estate (Domaine de Chantilly) last belonged privately to Henri d’Orleans, the Duke of Aumale and hugely wealthy son of the last king of France, Louise-Philippe. It’s made up of two attached buildings, one a smaller 17th century chateau in Renaissance style, with a second larger 19th century building behind.
The whole edifice is surrounded by a moat – look down and you can see large black carp swimming in the water.
Chantilly lace and…
You’ve probably heard the rock-and-roll song Chantilly Lace?
France’s Chantilly district is indeed famous for its delicate Chantilly lace, along with its sweet Chantilly cream as well as horse racing (it’s home to the largest horse stables in the country, a boarding school for jockeys and even a private hospital to treat jockey-specific conditions).
The Musee Conde art collection
Less well-known – at least perhaps to visitors from outside France – is the Chateau de Chantilly.
Yet it houses marvelous artworks; the collection of art is the second finest collection of classical paintings in France after the Louvre.
Visitors are often surprised to discover that the chateau’s art gallery (Musee Conde) is home to works by the famous Italian Renaissance artists Botticelli and Titian, as well as three original Rafael paintings.
Other names you might recognize, whose paintings are also displayed in the art museum, include Flemish painter Van Dyck, French landscape painter Corot and Ingres (who painted one of the best known images of Napolean Bonaparte).
The Gallery of Paintings is the largest room in the chateau.
It’s absolutely splendid, with 85 paintings hung at different heights on Pompeii red walls. The canvasses are lit by natural light streaming through the soaring glass ceiling.
Several Italian Renaissance masterpieces – including Raphael’s “The Madonna of Loreto” and “Simonetta Vespucci” by Piero di Cosimo – are displayed in the Rotunda at the end of this gallery.
Other smaller rooms in the Conde Museum contain lots more art, including many portraits of princes, kings, princesses and so on. (Without Facebook and email, sending out portraits was important when arranging royal marriages centuries ago, so the prospective spouse could get an idea of who they were marrying!)
And is that Marie Antoinette? Yes, there’s a large portrait of her here too.
The Duke of Aumale designed the arrangement of his paintings himself.
He apparently liked showing his guests his art collection after a banquet in the chateau’s Gallery of Stags. No doubt they were impressed!
The reading room
As well as having a passion for art, the Duke of Aumale loved to read, confessing in a letter to a friend: “I think I’m suffering from bibliomania!”
The library or “reading room” is filled with almost 19,000 books (some 3,000 are books in German and Italian on math, botany and other scientific subjects).
There are also 1,500 beautiful medieval manuscripts; several are displayed in glass showcases. (Before the printing press was invented in Europe in the mid-1400s, books were handwritten; they were often colorfully decorated and illuminated with real gold and silver.)
The oldest illuminated manuscript in the Chantilly castle collection dates back to the 11th century.
The Duke’s legacy lives on
Sadly, the Duke of Aumale’s two sons died of yellow fever in Africa at the ages of 18 and 21.
With no other living descendents, he bequeathed the Chateau de Chantilly to the learned society Institut de France on the condition that it be opened to the public and the layout of the art remain unchanged.
What you see today is how it was at the time of the Duke’s death in 1897.
More photos of Chantilly Castle
Here are a few more photos of the wonderful art and architecture…
All photos are © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase (except lead photo and where noted)
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We recently cruised with Scenic Cruises on assignment for various publications. Views expressed and words written are always our own.