Architectural and Renovation History of Fontainebleau, Seine-et-Marne, France

The Domain of the Fontainebleau Palace is inscribed at the UNESCO Humanity World Heritage. One of the grandest castles in all of France, Fontainebleau is enormous and has a seemingly endless supply of galleries, apartments, chapels, gardens and more to visit. The Château de Fontainebleau in both classical and Renaissance style, not only famous for witnessing Napoleon’s imperial adventure, but also a big part of French history. From the royal charter of 1137 to the fall of the Second Empire in 1870, the Palace of Fontainebleau saw the lives of the greatest French sovereigns from day to day.

The historic Château de Fontainebleau was first built in the twelfth century as a hunting lodge for the French kings, but fell into disrepair by the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth century King Francois I orchestrated its restoration and it was transformed into the castle we know today. It is the only château in all of France to have been continuously inhabited by royalty for over seven hundred years, and each family has added elements of their own architectural flair while living there. To visit Fontainebleau in France, is to venture back in time and into one of the most famous, historic and luxurious French residences in the country.

The original medieval fortress was replaced by a Renaissance palace under the guiding hand of Francois I. At that time, two Italian artists, Primaticcio and Il Rosso vied in talent and founded the first School of Fontainebleau. The Galerie François I, which leads from the royal apartments to the chapel of the Convent of the Holy Trinity, is most original with its décor of frescoes, stucco and carved wood in praise of François I. The Ballroom was completed at the time of the last Valois kings, under Primaticcio’s direction.

With Henri IV, the new Bourbon dynasty took over the palace, and built new rooms with interior decoration placed in the hands of the artists of the second School of Fontainebleau. Louis XIII completed the work started by his father. Under the Sun King Fontainebleau continued to be the royal family home, and the Grand Dauphin was born there in 1661. The king’s nieces were married from Fontainebleau, and the Edict of Nantes was revoked there in 1685.

Louis XV and Louis XVI would spend the autumn there and initiated new, large scale building works and interior doing-ups. After the French Revolution, Napoleon I found the palace completely emptied of its furniture but intact. He undertook to refurnish the apartments and brought the palace back to its former glory as the home of the sovereign. Napoleon Bonaparte spent his last days there before his abdication in 1814 and departure for the Elba.

Louis-Philippe was the first sovereign to order a complete restoration of Fontainebleau. The restoration of the Empire in 1852 gave renewed importance to the palace, and Napoleon III became strongly attached to this home, staying there regularly with his court.

Housed in the Louis XV wing, the Napoleon I museum is dedicated to the Emperor and his family, with a large collection of objects from his everyday life, weapons used in military campaigns and gifts he received. The Chinese museum, created by Empress Eugenie, displays works of art from the Far East.

Le Nôtre’s French gardens, the Queen’s English garden with its Fountain of Diana, the hedge maze and the Cour des Adieux are open to the public all year round. Boat excursions on the Etang aux Carpes or horse-drawn carriage rides are available. There is a little train going around the gardens during the touristic season. The Jeu de Paume court, thought to be the oldest of the three surviving in France, is open to the public with demonstrations and introductory games.

Architectural and Renovation History
Fontainebleau is renowned for its large and scenic forest that surrounds one almighty château, once a hunting lodge beloved of the kings of France. Rich in a first-rate architectural setting, the Château de Fontainebleau also has one of the most important collections of ancient furniture in France, and preserves an exceptional collection of paintings, sculptures, and art objects, dating from the 6th century in the nineteenth century. A favourite weekend getaway for Parisians, which gives a remarkable quality of air and life in the Paris region.

Testimony to the life of the official and initimate courts of the monarchs across the centuries, Fontainebleau embodies better than anywhere else the French ‘art de vivre’. The most furnished chateau with the decor like Renaissance frescoes, precious porcelain, exceptional furniture through the Second Empire. The overall effect is awe as successive monarchs added their own personal touches. Fontainebleau is an inspiring place, full of rich details. Surrounded by a vast park and neighboring the Fontainebleau forest, the castle is made up of elements of medieval, Renaissance, and classical styles.

The earliest record of a fortified chateau at Fontainebleau dates to 1137. It became a favorite residence and hunting lodge of the kings of France because of the abundant game and many springs in the surrounding forest. “Fontainebleau” took its name from the “Fontaine Belle-Eau”, a natural fresh water spring located in the English garden not far from the chateau. The name means “Spring of beautiful water”. The Château de Fontainebleau enlarged in particular by François I, the residence of Fontainebleau is the only château that was lived in by every French monarch for more than eight centuries. With 1500 rooms, it is one of the biggest châteaux in France, and the most furnished in Europe.

It bears witness to the meeting between Italian art and French tradition expressed both in its architecture and in its interior decorations. This specificity is explained by the desire of François I to create in Fontainebleau a “new Rome ” in which Italian artists come to express their talent and influence French art. This is how the School of Fontainebleau was born, which represents the richest period of Renaissance art in France, and inspired French painting until the middle of the 17th century, and even beyond.

Middle Ages
A fortified castle is mentioned here for the first time in 1137 in a charter from the Frankish king Louis VII the Younger. In 1169, another charter from Louis VII established and endowed a chaplain to serve the chapel. At Christmas 1191, Philip II Augustus celebrated the return of the Third Crusade at Fontainebleau. The castle was enlarged by Louis IX, who called it “his deserts”where he liked to take the “ hunting deduction in the 13th century; he installed monks of the order of the Trinitarians there in 1259 in the very enclosure of the castle to serve the hospital-convent which he founded. From this original arrangement remain the foundations of the chapel of the Trinitarians and their convent buildings, then located near the current chapel of the Trinity.

Philip IV was the first king of France to be born at the castle in 1268 and had apartments built in 1286. He was also the first king to die there following a fall from a horse in 1314, after a long agony. In 1313, Joan of Burgundy, granddaughter of Saint Louis on her mother’s side and owner of the Fontainebleau estate, married Philippe de Valois, future king of France Philippe VI de Valois, who made frequent stays there. In 1325, the castle received a visit from Isabelle of France, who became Queen of England. In January 1332, the signing of the marriage contract between John II the Good and Bonne of Luxembourg took place in Fontainebleau. The king lived there from 1350.

Charles V the Wise installed a library there and Isabeau of Bavaria undertook work there, after having acquired the domains of the forest of Bière, Fontainebleau, Moret and the castellany of Melun in 1404. Charles VI stayed there from 1388. The castle was, however, abandoned due to the clashes of the Hundred Years’ War, when the court went into exile on the banks of the Loire and in Bourges. Charles VII returned there after the liberation of Île-de-France and Paris in 1436, favoring the place for its healthiness.

François I
François I decided to build a Renaissance -style dwelling on the site of the feudal castle, thus making it possible to modernize a pied-à-terre close to the Bière valley, the king himself claiming to choose this place for the hunts animals. He razed the previous construction, with the exception of the keep and part of the northern curtain wall, and called on Italian artists to ensure the construction and decoration of his palace. This is how a building was built forming the Oval courtyard and another located on the lower west courtyard, both connected by a gallery.

He commissioned the architect Gilles Le Breton to build a palace in the new Renaissance style, recently imported from Italy. Le Breton preserved the old medieval donjon, where the king’s apartments were located, but incorporated it into the new Renaissance-style Cour Ovale, or oval courtyard, built on the foundations of the old castle. It included the monumental Porte Dorée, as its southern entrance, as well as a monumental Renaissance stairway, the Portique de Serlio, to give access the royal apartments on the north side.

Beginning in about 1528, Francis constructed the Galerie François I, which allowed him to pass directly from his apartments to the chapel of the Trinitaires. He brought the architect Sebastiano Serlio from Italy, and the Florentine painter Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, known as Rosso Fiorentino, to decorate the new gallery. Between 1533 and 1539 Rosso Fiorentino filled the gallery with murals glorifying the king, framed in stucco ornament in high relief, and lambris sculpted by the furniture maker Francesco Scibec da Carpi. Another Italian painter, Francesco Primaticcio from Bologna (“Primatice” to the French), joined later in the decoration of the palace. Together their style of decoration became known as the first School of Fontainebleau. This was the first great decorated gallery built in France.

The king wanted to make Fontainebleau a center of Renaissance art: he collected art objects, commissioned works on mythology, and brought antiques from Italy. He received paintings from the Pope, collected works by Italian masters (The Mona Lisa and The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci, the Holy Family, Saint-Michel, and the Beautiful Gardener by Raphael ) and brought in molds of Roman statues (Laocoon, Apollo of the Belvedere, etc.) in order to cast bronzes.

For the decoration of the castle, he commissioned Rosso Fiorentino who designed the Pomona pavilion, the Poesles pavilion, the Lower gallery and especially the Francis I gallery (1534-1540 ). Giorgio Vasari designated Fontainebleau as the “New Rome”and his school was renowned throughout Western Europe. François I established an important library in the castle, the ancestor of the national library. The Château de Fontainebleau receives, between the 4th andDecember 27, 1536, the visit of James V of Scotland, future husband of Madeleine of France. It was in 1539 that François I received Charles V at Fontainebleau and showed him around his palace, between the 24th and December 30

In about 1540, Francis began another major addition to the chateau. Using land on the east side of the chateau purchased from the order of the Trinitaires, he began to build a new square of buildings around a large courtyard. It was enclosed on the north by the wing of the Ministers, on the east by the wing of Ferrare, and on the south by a wing containing the new gallery of Ulysses. The chateau was surrounded by a new park in the style of the Italian Renaissance garden, with pavilions and the first grotto in France. Primaticcio created more monumental murals for the gallery of Ulysses.

Henry II
The son of François I, Henri II completed the castle with a ballroom and a chapel, connected to the building by the famous François I gallery, which faces the Etang des Carpes. He appointed Philibert Delorme to check and visit the castle on April 3, 1548, date on which the rest of the work is entrusted to him. This is how a large part of the current castle was created, including the ballroom. They extended the east wing of the lower court and decorated it with the first notable horseshoe-shaped staircase.

In the oval court, they transformed the loggia planned by Francois into a Salle des Fêtes, or grand ballroom, with a coffered ceiling. Facing the courtyard of the fountain and the fish pond, they designed a new building, the Pavillon des Poeles (destroyed), to contain the new apartments of the king. The decoration of the new ballroom and the gallery of Ulysses with murals by Francesco Primaticcio and sculptured stucco continued, under the direction of the Mannerists painters Primaticcio and Niccolò dell’Abbate. At Henry’s orders the Nymphe de Fontainebleau by Benvenuto Cellini was installed at the gateway entrance of Château d’Anet.

Following the death of Henry II in a jousting accident, his widow, Catherine de’ Medici, continued the construction and decoration of the château. She named Primaticcio as the new superintendent of royal public works. He designed the section known today as the wing of the Belle Cheminée, noted for its elaborate chimneys and its two opposing stairways. In 1565, as a security measure due to the Wars of Religion, she also had a moat dug around the château to protect it against attack.

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Henry IV
King Henry IV made more additions to the château than any king since Francis I. He extended the oval court toward the west by building two pavilions, called Tiber and Luxembourg. Between 1601 and 1606, he remade all the façades around the courtyard, including that of the chapel of Saint-Saturnin, to give the architecture greater harmony. On the east side, he built a new monumental domed gateway, the Porte du Baptistère.

Later, Henry IV enlarged the residence with several wings and the Baptistery door: between 1593 and 1609 he spent nearly two and a half million pounds on the work. He arranged the courtyard of the Offices and straightened the Oval courtyard, which was then quite irregular. Now the palace can accommodate nearly a thousand people. Between 1606 and 1609, he built a new courtyard, the Cour des Offices or Quartier Henry IV, to provide a place for the kitchens and residences for court officials. Two new galleries, the Galerie de Diane de Poitiers and the Galerie des Cerfs, were built to enclose the old garden of Diane. He also added a large jeu de paume, or indoor tennis court, the largest such court existing in the world.

At this time, a new generation of artists, French and Flemish, decorated the interior of the castle. It is the second school in Fontainebleau, bringing together artists from Parisian backgrounds. A “second school of Fontainebleau” of painters and decorators went to work on the interiors. The architect Martin Fréminet created the ornate chapel of the Trinity, while the painters Ambroise Dubois and Toussaint Dubreuil created a series of heroic paintings for the salons. A new wing, named for its central building, La Belle Cheminée, was built next to the large fish pond.

Henry IV also devoted great attention to the park and gardens around the chateau. The garden of the Queen or garden of Diane, created by Catherine de’ Medici, with the fountain of Diane in the center, was located on the north side of the palace. Henry IV’s gardener, Claude Mollet, trained at Château d’Anet, created a large parterre of flower beds, decorated with ancient statues and separated by paths into large squares. The fountain of Diana and the grotto were made by Tommaso Francini, who may also have designed the Medici Fountain in the Luxembourg Garden for Marie de Medici. On the south side, Henry created a park, planted with pines, elms and fruit trees, and laid out a grand canal 1200 meters long, sixty years before Louis XIV built his own grand canal at Versailles.

Louis XIII
King Louis XIII was born and baptized in the Château, and continued the works begun by his father. He completed the decoration of the chapel of the Trinity, and assigned the court architect Jean Androuet du Cerceau to reconstruct the horseshoe stairway earlier designed by Philibert Delorme on the courtyard that had become known as the Cour de Cheval Blanc. After his death, his widow, Anne of Austria, redecorated the apartments within the Wing of the Queen Mothers (Aile des Reines Mères) next to the Court of the Fountain, designed by Primatrice.

Louis XIV
King Louis XIV spent more days at Fontainebleau than any other monarch; he liked to hunt there every year at the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. Louis XIV welcomed many foreign guests there, including the former Queen Christina of Sweden, who had just abdicated her crown. Fontainebleau remained a symbol of the heritage of the kings of France, the architectural modifications is limited. He made few changes to the exterior of the château, but did build a new apartment for his companion Madame de Maintenon, furnished it with some major works of André-Charles Boulle and demolished the old apartments of the baths under the Gallery of Francis I to create new apartments for the royal princes, and he made some modifications to the apartments of the King.

The architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart built a new wing alongside the Galerie des Cerfs and the Galerie de Diane to provide more living space for the Court. He did make major changes in the park and gardens; he commissioned André Le Nôtre and Louis Le Vau to redesign the large parterre into a French formal garden. He removed the hanging garden which Henry IV had built next to the large fish pond, and instead built a pavilion, designed by Le Vau, on a small island in the center of the pond.

Louis XV
The renovation projects of Louis XV were more ambitious than those of Louis XIV. To create more lodging for his enormous number of courtiers, in 1737–38 the King built a new courtyard, called the Cour de la Conciergerie or the Cour des Princes, to the east of the Galerie des Cerfs. On the Cour du Cheval Blanc, the wing of the Gallery of Ulysses was torn down and gradually replaced by a new brick and stone building, built in stages in 1738–1741 and 1773–74, extending west toward the Pavilion and grotto of the pines.

Between 1750 and 1754, the King commissioned the architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel to build a new wing along the Cour de la Fontaine and the fish pond. The old Pavilion des Poeles was demolished and replaced by the Gros Pavilion, built of cream-colored stone. Lavish new apartments were created inside this building for the King and the Queen. The new meeting room for the Royal Council was decorated by the leading painters of the day, including François Boucher, Carle Vanloo, Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre and Alexis Peyrotte. A magnificent small theater was created on the first floor of the wing of the Belle Cheminée.

Louis XVI
King Louis XVI also made additions to the château to create more space for his courtiers. A new building was constructed alongside the Gallery of Francis I; it created a large new apartment on the first floor, and a number of small apartments on the ground floor, but also blocked the windows on the north side of the Gallery of Francis I. The apartments of Queen Marie-Antoinette were redone, a Turkish-style salon was created for her in 1777, a room for games in 1786–1787, and a boudoir in the arabesque style.

Napoleon I
During the French Revolution, the Château de Fontainebleau was in poor condition. Stripped of its windows, mirrors and lead roofing (which was used to make weapons), it was also stripped of much of its furniture. The palace in which every king of France since the Middle-Ages had lived was spared during the Revolution, but the furniture was either destroyed or sold. Napoleon had the palace both restored and refurbished, thus making it once again a residence fit for royal guests.

Behind this decision lay a political ambition which was to legitimise his power by rehabilitating this historic palace, which had been abandoned and then damaged during the French Revolution. As he prepared to become emperor, Napoleon wanted to preserve as much as possible the palaces and protocol of the Old Regime. He chose Fontainebleau as the site of his historic 1804 meeting with Pope Pius VII, who had travelled from Rome to crown Napoleon emperor. Napoleon had a suite of rooms decorated for the Pope, and had the entire chateau refurnished and decorated.

In just nineteen days, the 40 master apartments and 200 suite apartments were refurbished in Empire style. Several changes were made to the layout of the rooms. For instance, the former king’s bedroom, from Henry III to Louis XVI, became the Emperor’s salon in 1804, and then the throne room four years later. The bedroom of the kings was transformed into a throne room for Napoleon. Apartments were refurnished and decorated for the emperor and empress in the new Empire style. The Cour du Cheval Blanc was renamed the Cour d’Honneur, or Courtyard of Honor. One wing facing the courtyard, the Aile de Ferrare, was torn down and replaced with an ornamental iron fence and gate, making the façade of the palace visible. The gardens of Diane and the gardens of the Pines were replanted and turned into an English landscape garden by the landscape designer Maximilien Joseph Hurtault.

During the restoration, the palace’s architecture underwent very few changes, as Napoleon was seeking to legitimise his coronation by settling in this historic place. Only the west wing of the Cour du Cheval-Blanc was demolished in 1808 and replaced by the ceremonial gate. However, the Emperor wanted to make the palace his own and make his mark in this kings’ palace. To give just one example, Francis I’s gallery was renamed the “Emperor’s Gallery” in March 1805. Previously decorated with Francis I’s initial and his symbol – the salamander – Napoleon decided to replace them with the letter “N” and the industrious bees, two imperial symbols. Furthermore, the gallery was decorated with the busts of aides-de-camp and generals, placed alongside drawings of Bonaparte’s victorious military campaigns.

Established in 1807 between the Etang des Carpes and the forest, the Sénarmont riding school is the main building erected at the request of Napoleon I within the grounds of the Fontainebleau Palace. It was built according to ambitious architectural arrangements, with a Philibert Delorme framework which allowed the covering of a volume of exceptional dimensions for the time, recalling the 2nd project of 1785 by Étienne-Louis Boullée for the King’s Library.

Marie-Antoinette and Josephine
Hidden in an entresol of the castle over the ceremonial room of the queen, the Turkish boudoir was the intimacy space of Marie-Antoinette in Fontainebleau. Fitted out in 1777 on plans of the architect Richard Mique and decorated by the brothers Rousseau, it shows the luxurious preferences of the old regime for the Oriental style. After the Revolution, all the furniture of the boudoir have been changed to establish the Empress Josephine’s private bedroom. The place have been decorated with Jacob-Desmalter’s creations adorned with precious fabrics.

Alcove, mirrors, curtains driven by pulleys… this exceptional ensemble has been restored thanks to the support of INSEAD and the generosity of the subscribers of the operation. They have been very helpful for Fontainebleau. The restoration work on the boudoir has focused on its painted decorations and its precious furniture made of fabrics woven with gold. Particularly fragile, the Turkish boudoir is now integrated into a new tour dedicated to the privacy of sovereigns in Fontainebleau.

Louis-Philippe I restored some rooms and redecorating others in the style of his period. The Hall of the Guards and Gallery of Plates were redecorated in a Neo-Renaissance style, while the Hall of Columns, under the ballroom, was remade in a neoclassical style. He added new stained glass windows, made by the Royal Manufactory of Sèvres.

Napoleon III
Under the Second Empire, Fontainebleau was one of the court’s vacation spots. Emperor Napoleon III, who had been baptized at Fontainebleau, resumed the custom of long stays at Fontainebleau. Many of the historic rooms, such as the Galerie des Cerfs, were restored to something like their original appearance, while the private apartments were redecorated to suit the tastes of the Emperor and Empress. Numerous guest apartments were squeezed into unused spaces of the buildings. The old theater of the palace, built in the 18th century, was destroyed by a fire in the wing of the Belle Cheminée 1856. Between 1854 and 1857 the architect Hector Lefuel built a new theater in the style of Louis XVI.

On the ground floor of the Gros Pavilion, the Empress Eugénie built a small but rich museum, containing gifts from the King of Siam in 1861, and works of art taken during the pillage of the Summer Palace in Beijing. It also featured paintings by contemporary artists, including Franz Xaver Winterhalter, and the sculptor Charles Henri Joseph Cordier. Close by, in the Louis XV wing, the Emperor established his office, and the Empress made her Salon of Lacquer. These were the last rooms created by the royal residents of Fontainebleau.

Empress Eugenie
The Chinese Museum and the salon of the empress Eugenie were meant for relaxation and for intimate evenings of the royal court. As famous as they are precious, these rooms, fitted out on Eugenie’s orders in 1863, contain exceptional Far Eastern collections put on display by the Empress. They come from the imperial furniture store, from acquisitions made by Napoleon III and Eugenie, and from the sacking of the Summer Palace in Peking by the Franco-British expeditionary force in 1860. To this unusual and curious abundance of porcelain, jade and Buddhist liturgical objects were added the diplomatic gifts of the Siamese embassy, received in 1861 by the Emperor and Empress in the Ballroom of Fontainebleau.

Adjacent to a salon in which Eugenie gathered an intimate society devoted to entertainment, the ensemble forms a unique and astonishing scenography, consecrating this “Chinese museum” as the last cabinet of curiosities in the history of the château. A guided tour will be offered on the theme “Splendors and backstage”, discover the spaces, from the most intimate to the most theatrical, which made the reputation of the great stays in Fontainebleau during the Second Empire.

Recent Restoration works
Between the wars the upper floors of the wing of the Belle Cheminée, burned in 1856, were rebuilt by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The general restoration of the château took place between 1964 and 1968 under President Charles de Gaulle and his Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux. It was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. In 2006, the Ministry of Culture purchased the royal stables, and began their restoration. Beginning in 2007, restoration began of the theater of the château, created by Napoleon III during the Second Empire. The project was funded by the government of Abu-Dhabi, and in exchange the theater was renamed for Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

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