Chateau de Montal – Repaire Saint-Pierre
High perched on the cliffs overlooking the Dordogne Valley, the Chateau de Montal boasts breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside.
Montal is an unusual castle, a castle with a dual-aspect; it indeed started as a medieval fortress but was transformed into an elegant Renaissance building.
The austere facade devoid of decoration, on the northern side, is all that left of the Repaire Saint-Pierre, the fortress of the lords of Balsac.
Defended by three massive round towers with pointed roofs, it contrasts with the elegant Renaissance facades that overlook the south-facing formal garden.
Chateau de Montal, a masterpiece of the Early French Renaissance
The ‘new’ castle is not only a masterpiece of the Early French Renaissance, but is also the only castle built by a woman in Quercy!
Jeanne de Balsac, Lady of Montal started its construction in 1520; however, only two of the four planned wings were completed in 1534 when she died.
A grand staircase encased in a square pavilion serves the Renaissance wings that overlook the courtyard and formal garden; known for the sculpted back of its steps, it leads to the Great Hall. The interior decoration, worthy of a royal palace, reflects an incontestable feminine touch combining refinement, elegance and harmony’.
It indeed boasts a wealth of cherubs, allegorical sculptures, war trophies, an extensive collection of carpets, 16th and 17th centuries furniture and paintings…
Renaissance facades, a decoration full of symbolism
The L-shaped Renaissance facades are adorned with mullioned windows and sculpted tower cornices, however, its decoration is full of symbolism.
Their upper section boasts a superb frieze representing mythological and allegorical figures representing Virtue; Hermes riding a unicorn, Hercules and Antaeus, Mars and Victory.
It also include countless cherubs, fantastic animals, coats of arms and the omnipresent initials of Jeanne and Amaury de Balsac, and their sons Robert and Dordet.
Renaissance facades’ funerary sculptures
However, this decoration also reflects the despair of a woman who never recovered from the death of her beloved ones.
Indeed, her parents, her husband Amaury, lord of Montal and Governor of Upper Auvergne and her cousin all died during the construction of the castle.
Tragically her eldest son died in 1523, during the military campaigns of Italy; only her youngest son Dordet survived.
These deaths had a major influence on the decoration she chose, which she wanted to be a tribute to the memory of her dead.
The themes of the sculptures revolve around death, despair, pain, anger and austerity, but also resilience and moral force.
Jeanne de Balsac commissioned seven sculpted busts of her relatives and the cardinal virtues, Fortitude and Providence; these are funerary monuments!
Each bust sits in a triangular pediment adorned with mythological animals and is placed between the mullions windows.
The allegorical sculptures of the skylights contain the sad motto she chose “plus d’espoir – no more hope”.
A castle left to fall in ruins
Jeanne’s descendants showed little interest in Montal, which eventually passed to the family Perusse d’Escars in the late 16th century.
The Plas de Tanes acquired it a century later and embellished it with Baroque features such as the lavish fireplaces.
Sadly, the castle was converted into a farm at the French Revolution.
A ruthless merchant bought it in the late 19th century.
He dismantled and sold its superb art collections including the funerary sculptures, doors and windows and skylights, leaving just an empty shell that slowly fell to ruins.
Maurice Fenaille, the saviour of the Chateau de Montal
The industrialist and art lover Maurice Fenaille bought the ruined Chateau de Montal in 1908 and spent a fortune returning it to its former grandeur.
He indeed bought back the sculptures and extensive art collections scattered around the world. He also commissioned the sculptor Rodin’s disciples to reproduce the sculptures he couldn’t recover.
He eventually restored the Renaissance facades to their original state, and refurnished the castle ground floor with a rich collection of furniture, paintings and carpets.
On September 13, 1913 President Raymond Poincarré headed the official ceremony where Maurice Fenaille bequeathed Montal and its art collections to the French State.
The Fenaille family, however, retained the usufruct of the castle until 2006, when it passed under the direction of the Historical Monuments.
Maurice Fenaille, a pioneer of the oil industry and patron of the arts, largely funded the safeguarding of French heritage.
Another of his good deeds was the acquisition of the 13th century Hôtel de Jouéry in Rodez to found a museum (Musée Fenaille) dedicated to the archaeology and history of Rouergue.
A little anecdote to finish: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was removed from the Louvre Museum and stored at Montal when the Germans occupied Paris between 1943 to 1945.
Department of Lot – Saint-Jean-Lespinasse
Coordinates: Lat 44.860759 – Long 1.868356