Francis I's salamander, a permanent fixture at Chambord
If you visit the Château de Chambord, you will undoubtedly come upon a sculpture or molding of a salamander.
The building contains more than 300 depictions of this animal, which was the symbol of King Francis I. But what does it mean? Why was this small amphibian measuring just eight inches long chosen to symbolize royalty?
The salamander's place in the medieval fantastic bestiary
During the Middle Ages, the devout population lived in a world where unknown lands were very real and it was easy to mix the real and the fantastical. The salamander had a place in the bestiary of magical animals. According to legend, this animal that could survive on land and in water could also withstand fire.
This notion arose from the fact that salamanders hibernate in tree stumps and if the stumps were gathered for burning, the creatures would sometimes find themselves in the fireplace by accident. Because their moist skin protected them from the flames for a few seconds, they could escape unscathed from the hearth under the amazed gaze of witnesses!
The salamander and Francis I, master of Chambord
It is easy to understand why this fabled animal, whose reputation fueled fantasies, was chosen by a victorious, venerated king like Francis I. Adopting the salamander as his mascot, he had it carved into his chateaus at Fontainebleau and – most significantly – at the Château de Chambord.
The Chambord salamander is topped with a crown that bears the motto: Nutrisco et Extinguo, which translates loosely as "I feed on the good fire and extinguish the bad". The salamander is shown either spitting water to put out the bad fire or swallowing flames to feed itself with good fire.
It is the perfect symbol for a king who wants both to protect his people, to extinguish the evil fire and withstand – even feed on – a force as destructive as flames.
If you are planning to visit the Château de Chambord, be sure to look out for the stone salamanders hidden all about!