4 Mars 2005
One of France's most stunning chateaux, which houses the country's second most important art collection, is to be rescued from falling into disrepair thanks to a helping hand from its neighbour, the Aga Khan.
Annick Benoist reports.
The Chantilly chateau: once playground of French kings, now for kings of footie The magnificent chateau houses 6,000 works of art including three Raphael works
The billionaire spiritual leader of the world's 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, the Aga Khan, has stepped in to set up a foundation to help restore the 17th century chateau at Chantilly, some 50 kilometres north of Paris.
The chateau, which in February played host to celebrities from the world of football with a sumptuous Valentine's Day party thrown by Brazilian superstar Ronaldo, was donated to the Institute of France on the death of its last owner the Duc d'Aumale in 1886.
It was here that the great French playwright Molière once acted out Tartuffe and where the kings of France were guests of honour at lavish stag hunting parties in the nearby woods, in which deer and wild boar still roam today.
The Aga Khan, who grew up near Chantilly, has given EUR 40 million for repairs
But in the 21st century, with its soaring towers, moat and intricate canals, magnificent stables and its parkland which spreads over 7,800 hectares (19,000 acres), the institute has struggled to meet a growing repair bill.
And even though the chateau houses more than 6,000 works of art, is the only museum outside of the Louvre to have three paintings by the Italian Renaissance master Raphael, and lies just one hour away by car or train from Paris, it only manages to attract around 300,000 visitors a year.
According to Hubert Monzat, in charge of the development of Chantilly in the Aga Khan's office, the shortfall is between EUR 500,000 euros and EUR 1.5 million per year.
"The institute, which runs some 20 foundations, cannot with an annual budget of seven to eight million euros and even with the occasional sponsorship, maintain by itself a property which is being subjected to the ravages of time.
"Even by selling off some of the lands on the edges of the property," he added.
The chateau houses 6,000 works of art including three Raphael works
Now the Aga Khan, who lives just down the road in the town of Gouvieux and who spent his childhood in a neighbouring property, the Green Lodge, has stepped in with the launch of a foundation to protect and develop the chateau and its grounds.
He has pledged some EUR 40 million towards the EUR 70 million fund, which will first concentrate on the most pressing works, shoring up the buildings, repairing the windows in the grand stables, restoring the fountains and clearing the canals as well as updating the fire alarm system.
"We need EUR 25 million to restore the Grand Stables, EUR 20 million for the chateau and EUR 47 million for the park and its waterways. The ideal programme would be around EUR 100 million," said Monzat.
The chateau was for centuries the home of one of France's most powerful and connected families, having been built up since the Middle Ages. From 1358 to 1897, it passed to different branches of the family without ever being sold.
In the 17th and 18th centuries it was inherited by the Bourbon Condé family, cousins of the kings of France, under whom the original chateau was enlarged and its vast grounds were laid out.
But during the French Revolution, the main chateau was razed to the ground and only restored to its original state in the 19th century by its last owner Henri d'Orléans, known as the Duc d'Aumale, and the son of King Louis Philippe of France.
The chateau's parkland spreads across 7,800 hectares
The Duc d'Aumale, who lost both his sons, bequeathed the castle to the institute on his death, on condition that it was opened to the public.
He stipulated that the collection of paintings along with some 30,000 books, hundreds of them rare illustrated manuscripts, were always to be displayed in the same way and never loaned outside the chateau.
He also decreed that income from the estate - next to which is now the magnificent Chantilly race-course where the Aga Khan often races his horses - should be used to maintain the castle and its grounds.
Unfortunately 120 years later there is not much income from the woods, where families now come at weekends to stroll along paths once used by kings in hot pursuit of their prey.
Château de Chantilly – Musée Condé
Tel: 03 44 62 62 62
The Château de Chantilly is open every day except Tuesdays, from 10am until 6pm, entry EUR 8.
Subject: France, Chantilly chateau, Aga Khan