Behold the “Double Helix” Staircase Often Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: It Features Two Intertwined Spiral Staircases That Let People Ascend & Descend Without Obstructing Each Other

Image by Zairon, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Among the non-wine-relat­ed points of inter­est in the Loire Val­ley, the Château de Cham­bord stands tall — or rather, both tall and wide, being eas­i­ly the largest château in the region. “A Unesco World Her­itage site with more than 400 rooms, includ­ing recep­tion halls, kitchens, lap­idary rooms and roy­al apart­ments,” writes Adri­enne Bern­hard at BBC Trav­el, it “boasts a fire­place for every day of the year.” No less vast and elab­o­rate a hunt­ing lodge would do for King Fran­cis I, who had it built between 1519 and 1547, though the iden­ti­ty of the archi­tect from whom he com­mis­sioned the plans has been lost to his­to­ry. But the unusu­al design of its cen­tral stair­case — and cen­tral tourist attrac­tion — sug­gests an intrigu­ing name indeed: Leonar­do da Vin­ci.

“In 1516, Leonar­do left his stu­dio in Rome to join the court of King Fran­cis I as ‘pre­mier pein­tre et ingénieur et archi­tecte du Roi,’ ” Bern­hard writes. “Fran­cis I enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly embraced the cul­tur­al Renais­sance that had swept Italy, eager to put his impri­matur on the arts, and in 1516 com­mis­sioned plans for his dream cas­tle at the site of Romoran­tin. For Leonar­do, it was an ide­al assign­ment – the cul­mi­na­tion of an illus­tri­ous career, allow­ing the artist to express many of his pas­sions: archi­tec­ture, urban plan­ning, hydraulics and engi­neer­ing.” But not long after its con­struc­tion began, the Romoran­tin project was aban­doned, and by the time Fran­cis got start­ed on what would become Château de Cham­bord, Leonar­do was already dead.

Leonar­do’s influ­ence nev­er­the­less seems present in the fin­ished cas­tle: in its Greek cross-shaped floor plan, in its large cop­u­la, and most of all in its “dou­ble helix” stair­case, which resem­bles cer­tain designs con­tained in his Codex Atlanti­cus. “The cel­e­brat­ed stair­case con­sists in a hol­lowed cen­tral core and, twist­ing and turn­ing one above the oth­er, twinned heli­cal ramps ser­vic­ing the main floors of the build­ing,” says the Château de Cham­bor­d’s offi­cial site. “Mag­i­cal­ly enough, when two per­sons use the dif­fer­ent sets of stair­cas­es at the same time, they can see each oth­er going up or down, yet nev­er meet.” (Blog­ger Gretchen M. Greer writes that “one woman I trav­eled with found the stair­case so strik­ing­ly sym­bol­ic of the mar­i­tal dishar­mo­ny and dis­con­nect that result­ed in her divorce that she declared the beau­ti­ful archi­tec­tur­al fea­ture the ugli­est place in the Loire.”)

Some schol­ars, like Hidemichi Tana­ka, iden­ti­fy the hand of Leonar­do in prac­ti­cal­ly every detail of the château. “Seen from afar, the roof ter­race, with its mul­ti­tude of archi­tec­tur­al embell­ish­ments, is sug­ges­tive of a soar­ing city sky­line,” he writes in a 1992 arti­cle in the jour­nal Art­ibus et His­to­ri­ae. “It may be worth com­par­ing the ‘city in stone’ with the town­scape in the back­ground of Leonar­do’s Annun­ci­a­tion in the Uffizi Gallery, Flo­rence, as well as with the struc­tures in the draw­ings of floods which the artist made in his lat­er years.” Though per­haps a chrono­log­i­cal­ly implau­si­ble achieve­ment, the design of the Château de Cham­bord would have been nei­ther tech­ni­cal­ly nor aes­thet­i­cal­ly beyond him. And indeed, who would­n’t be pleased to see medieval cas­tle archi­tec­ture paid such extrav­a­gant and still-impres­sive trib­ute by the quin­tes­sen­tial Renais­sance man?

Relat­ed con­tent:

Leonar­do da Vin­ci Designs the Ide­al City: See 3D Mod­els of His Rad­i­cal Design

Explore the Largest Online Archive Explor­ing the Genius of Leonar­do da Vin­ci

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Ele­gant Design for a Per­pet­u­al Motion Machine

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Note­books Get Dig­i­tized: Where to Read the Renais­sance Man’s Man­u­scripts Online

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Ver­sailles: Six Min­utes of Ani­ma­tion Show the Con­struc­tion of the Grand Palace Over 400 Years

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • G Shute says:

    Stair­cas­es aren’t spi­ral. They’re heli­cal. The term spi­ral does not apply here or any­where else. Nev­er mind that it’s com­mon­ly used. Par­tic­u­lar­ly in an archi­tec­tur­al dis­cus­sion.

  • G Shute says:

    Stair­cas­es aren’t spi­ral. They’re heli­cal. The term spi­ral does not apply here or any­where else. Nev­er mind that it’s com­mon­ly used.

  • B Howard says:

    If we’re going to wax that pedan­tic, your state­ment is cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly false. The spi­ral stair­case includes a cen­tral col­umn and a heli­cal (which are some­times free-stand­ing) does not. If you require a cita­tion, please refer to any entry-lev­el text­book on the sub­ject of archi­tec­ture of your choos­ing.

    I’d sub­mit that this arti­cle achieves it’s pur­pos­es to it’s intend­ed audi­ence with­out fault; leave the pedan­tics to the aca­d­e­mics.

  • Pam says:

    Now I don’t know if this stair­case is a cir­cle.

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