Castle Month (1/4) – Recognizing Castles styles and construction time from the appearance and architecture is a bit of an acquired skill. While as a French it seems relatively easy for me, I realized that for my visiting friends without background on European history, it was not obvious at all.
So here is our little architectural guide, in chronological order, for you to look like the next History PhD during your France trip 🙂
This style is probably the easiest to spot: medieval constructions were literally war machines! They are easily recognizable thanks to their sturdy and massive appearance and though they were not made to look good, there is a certain feeling of magnificence to it.
A medieval Castle is typically composed of high walls equipped with a guard walk on top of it. The walls include crenels and “meurtriere” (or murder holes) for arrows shooting. The main door to the fortress is heavily protected with a system of heavy drawbridge and the entire place is surrounded by either a ditch or water.
The inside of the Castle is often barely furnished: stone floor, large chimneys for heating, huge watch tower (the keep) and weaponry rooms by the entrance, once again the military purpose of the place is evident. By contrast, Churches and Cathedrals from the same period are extremely sophisticated with their exquisite gothic decorations…but we are only covering Castles here.
Our favourite Medieval style examples in France include Carcassonne (Southwest) which actually is a mini-city inside the fortress, but also Haut-Koenigsbourg in Alsace or Pierrefonds not far from Paris and Loches in the Loire Valley!
Renaissance Style Castles
With the Renaissance period in France comes a certain sense of peace and daily habits start to change from wartime to more enjoyment and comfort. With this change comes a taste for beautiful decorations, a sophisticated lifestyle and a strong development of arts.
Renaissance is typical of renovated fortresses where outside decorations and sculptures are added to the façade, or new constructions are financed by wealthy nobles. Very easy to recognize features include the absence of protective walls, larger windows, some of them decorated with painted glass, very delicate ornaments on the outside and inside walls and above all, beautiful stairs. Domes and arches also appear more often in constructions as an embellishment but also stronger support of the structure.
Daily life is also made more comfortable with proper roofs on the buildings and better insulation, more private apartments and the development of washrooms and bathrooms!
Typical Renaissance architecture is found in the Loire Valley in France and Fontainebleau near Paris.
Classical Style Castles
The classical style also takes inspiration from the Antiquity but is heavily marked by its emphasis on proportion and balance. For example, symmetry plays a paramount role in the Classical style, which typically spreads in Europe during the 17th and 18th century. Shapes are geometrical, columns are also important internally and externally. Windows get larger and larger, some of them even round-shaped, and so do reception areas with the establishment of reception rooms, salons and big ballroom galleries.
In the gardens, it is the fashion of the “French Garden” with the development of symmetrical shapes, important fountain works and “Bosquets” or specific places for entertainment in gardens. Did you know? There are 13 Bosquets spread out in Versailles garden!
The best European example is for sure Versailles, the palace of Louis the XIVth. But other beautiful castles in France include the Louvre, Vaux le Vicomte or Cheverny in the Loire Valley.
The Empire Style and the 19th Century
Frankly speaking, it is hard to define one style only from the 19th century onwards: many new fashions and trends develop across Europe. Also, no one really builds palaces or castles anymore. Rich families or powerful ones rather re-decorate existing places or have mansions built. That being said, how to recognize the 19th-century style?
Well in France it is strongly marked by the Empire style which shows a heavy interior decoration notably using shiny metals such as bronze or dark woods like mahogany, very strict lines emphasized by columns and more generic use of metals for roofs, external decoration and accessories.
Best examples can be seen in France, in particular in Bordeaux or in Paris with the famous Haussman buildings, the Parliament, the Madeleine Church or the National Opera House which show detailed decoration, and many strict columns.
That was it for our rough Castles guide, which should help you select which monuments you want to visit based on which style you like. And also give you a better understanding whenever you catch a glimpse of a historical residence in France!
And if you find a dazzling 20th century Castle, please let us know! 🙂