We had been extremely lucky with the warm temperatures in April, but our weather- luck deserted us as we travelled the 34 miles from Paris to the Palace of Fontainebleau by train. It was, in a word, F*ing (Frigidly) Freezing. The day was sunny and bright, just finger-numbingly cold, which may explain why the Palace was practically deserted. Good for me and my trusty camera, though.
Right, then. We’ll get ourselves inside and perhaps leave the fountain and garden bits for another time! The peculiar staircase caught my attention immediately. Described as horseshoe-shaped, the stairway was originally built for Henry II by Philibert de l’Orme between 1547–59, then rebuilt for Louis XIII by Jean Androuet du Cerceau, sometime around 1634. It seems funny to think about that – why build it and then rebuild it? – until you realize that more than 100 years separated the two projects. I have to remind myself that the thousand years that these massive piles have been in existence telescopes in time. A hundred years between renovation projects is quite a stretch! How long does a kitchen or bathroom last in today’s world? In many cases, nowhere near 100 years.
In terms of notoriety, the stairs are the spot where Napoleon Bonaparte received the last salute from his guards on April 14, 1814, before his first exile to the island of Elba, from which he escaped. He was finally defeated by the Duke of Wellington in the Battle of Waterloo a little more than a year later and was exiled once and for all to another island, St. Helena. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves!
Fontainebleau is one of the largest French royal châteaux, the other two biggies being Versailles and The Louvre. It began as a medieval castle and was gradually transformed into a palace for French monarchs, from Louis VII to Napoleon III.
In once stood in the middle of forest lush with streams and heavily laden with game, thus was ideally suited for use as a hunting lodge, as were many of the massive French châteaux such as Chambord. It is now a national museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Let’s go in and get out of this wind. The first room we stepped into had a gorgeous urn glazed in cobalt blue and gold. Scrumptious.
Heavily carved doors set beneath the equally detailed stone frames gave a hint of what was to come.
We then stepped into this room; I was captivated by the plates mounted into panels on the walls.
This one is of Niagara Falls, in Canada. Nice to find a bit of home, away from home.
Here we have The Chapel of the Trinity, which was built at the end of the reign of Francis I. Like the staircase, it was a renovation project and replaced the old chapel of the convent of the Trinitaires. Francis I’s son, Henry II, finished the physical structure, but it wasn’t decorated until 1608 when the painter Martin Freminet was commissioned to design frescoes for the ceiling and walls. The sculptor Barthèlemy Tremblay created the vaults of the ceiling out of stucco and sculpture. This photo is taken from what would have been the Royal Family’s upper section, or tribute.
The plebs sat below in this area, which we saw at the very end of the tour, as it was located on the ground floor, very near the exit.
The Gallery of Francis I was originally built in 1528 to form a passageway from the King’s Apartments to the upper portion of the Chapel, but Francis folded it into his Royal Apartments in 1531, whereupon it was extensively decorated in the new Renaissance style, and today is one of the finest examples of Renaissance decoration in France.
The frescoes used mythological scenes to illustrate the virtues of the King. Note the Fs on the panelling below, for Francis I.
Of course, the frescoe that caught my eye is an elephant. I’m not sure what virtue an elephant is supposed to evoke. Perhaps patience and a good memory.
At the very far end of the gallery, a sculpture of the King sits in a niche surrounded with carvings of fruit.
Here we have the Guard’s room, which was always located near to the royal Bedchambers. It was built during the reign of Charles IX, so mid-sixteenth century. He was an interesting fellow, heavily under the influence of his mother, Catherine de’ Medici (now that’s a name to strike terror into one’s heart). Charles ordered his sister, Margaret of Valois to marry Henry of Navarre (the future King Henry IV of France). The reasoning was fairly straightforward: Henry was a major Protestant nobleman who was in the line of succession to the French throne. Things were extremely tense at the time between Catholics (including the Royal Family) and Protestants, so in a bid to downplay this gesture of appeasement, Charles turned a blind eye to the massacre of all Huguenot leaders who gathered in Paris for the royal wedding at the instigation of his mother Catherine de’ Medici. Talk about breaking every rule of hospitality. Makes the Massacre of Glencoe, another epic breach of hosting etiquette, look like a picnic.
The room didn’t always look this lush; it was transformed into a salon in the 19th century by Louis Philippe, who redecorated it with the mammoth fireplace and incorporated pieces from demolished rooms from 15th and early 16th century. And we think recycling is new! The parquet floor made of exotic woods was also from the 19th century and was designed to echo the ceiling.
All around the top of the room is a frieze of military trophies from the 1570s.
Louis Philippe also added the large vase decorated with Renaissance themes, made by the Sèvres porcelain manufactory in 1832. Isn’t it something? Napoleon III, (the defeated-and-exiled Napoleon’s nephew) used the hall as a dining room. Good use of space!
On to the ballroom. Can’t have a palace without a ballroom, can we? Similarly to the Gallery of Francis I, it started out life as a passageway, in this case, an open one. In about 1552, Henry II closed it with high windows and an ornate coffered ceiling.
The panelling shows recurring letter ‘H’s, King Henry’s initial. To me, it looks more like an M, but it could go either way. Could by an amalgamation of the two, as Henry (son of Francis I) was married to the aforementioned scary Catherine de Medici. As an aside, Henry’s mistress was Diane de Poitiers, with whom Catherine squabbled about reclaiming Chateau de Chenonceau after Henry’s death. Diane ultimately ended up with the far-from-shabby Chateau de Chaumont.
At one end of the ballroom is another monumental fireplace, decorated with bronze statues originally copied from classical statues in Rome.
Dig the hairy legs!
At the other end of the room is a gallery where the musicians played during balls and are decorated with a fresco of musicians of the time playing. Nice touch!
The frescoes on the walls and pillars are from the 16th century. They were surprisingly tough to photograph; it was hard to convey the sheer size and pick up the detail at the same time.
Teddy, Gustus and Penny rested for a while on one of the benches. They find all this chateau touring to be quite tiring.
At first, you’re so busy looking at all the decor at eye level, you don’t notice the ceiling.
But isn’t it something?
Here you can see the Hs and Ms quite clearly, so I suspect the previous initials were an amalgamation.
The room was refreshed and redecorated many times over the years, most recently by the seemingly energetic Louis-Philippe of the Guard Room redo, in the first half of the 19th century.
The Grand Salon Ante-Chamber to the Bedroom of the Queen Mother. None of the family seems to have had simple tastes!
This is perhaps a good thing, as this became the apartment of Pope Pius VII who stayed here in 1804 on his way to Paris to crown Napoleon I the Emperor of France. His visit was repeated and extended, involuntarily, under the close supervision of Napoleon from 1812 to 1814. Something had clearly gone awry in their relationship.
The Salon was the anteroom to the bedroom of Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII and mother of Louis XIV.
Entirely coated in tapestries, the room has a very oppressive air. But perhaps I’m just picking up on the incarceration of the Pope.
The Gallery of Diana, below, is a corridor over 240 feet long and now lined with bookcases. Henry IV created it at the beginning of the 17th century as a place for the Queen to promenade. One must get one’s exercise! You can get some fuzzy impressions of the paintings on the vaulted ceiling, representing scenes from the myth of Diana, goddess of the Hunt. The first lot was painted in the mid-seventeenth century, but the gallery has had a chequered career. By the beginning of the 19th century, it was in ruins. In 1810 Napoleon decided to turn it into a gallery devoted the achievements of his Empire. Happily, this did not come to pass. Although the architect Hurtault designed a new plan for the gallery which would have featured paintings on the ceiling illustrating the great events of Napoleon’s reign, the plan had not been carried out before Napoleon fell from power. Fortunately, by 1814 the corridor had been rebuilt and the decorative painted frames had been painted by the Moench and Redoute. For once, one can be thankful for the dilatory nature of architects.
Once the monarchy was restored, King Louis XVIII (who had been exiled in England, staying at Hartwell House, now a hotel) had the gallery completed in a neoclassical style. Diana blossomed forth once more in a new series by Merry-Joseph Blondel and Abel de Pujol, using the painted frames prepared for Napoleon’s cycle. The History of French Monarchy starred in a series of paintings along the corridor which was in the Troubador style of the 1820s and 1830s. The tribute to the French Monarchy did not find favour during the Second Empire under Napoleon III; the corridor was turned into a library and most of the paintings were removed. The large globe you can see above arrived in 1861 from the office of Napoleon in the Tuileries Palace, which seems to have contributed a lot of treasures to Fontainebleau.
Now we proceed to the Stairway of the King, installed in 1748 and 1749, in the former bedroom of Anne de Pisseleu, the Duchess of Étampes, a favourite (read mistress) of King Francis I (infidelity ran in the family, apparently). It was designed by the architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel, who retained many of the decorative elements from the earlier room.
The upper portion of the walls is divided into panels, oval and rectangular, with scenes representing the love life of Alexander the Great, which judging by the voluptuous nature of the carvings, must have been pretty lusty.
Now let’s visit the Queen’s Bedroom. It doesn’t refer to one in particular – all of the Queens and Empresses of France from Marie de Medici to the Empress Eugènie slept here. The furniture in the room all dates to the First Empire (Empires refer to the two periods when the Napoleons – confusingly Napoleon No Number and his nephew, Napoleon III, not II – were Emperors, as opposed to times when France was ruled by the Royal Family). The balustrade around the bed was originally made for the throne room of the Tuileries Palace in 1804. The armchairs with a sphinx pattern, the consoles and screen and the two chests of drawers arrived in 1806.
The highly ornate ceiling over the bed was made in 1644 by the furniture-maker Guillaume Noyers for the Dowager Queen Anne of Austria, the mother of Louis XIV.
Marie Leszczynska, the Queen of Louis XV in 1746–1747 put her stamp on the room, with the ceiling of the alcove, the decoration around the windows and the wood panelling by Jacques Vererckt and Antoine Magnonais in the rocaille style of the day. Now we move to the prominent piece of furniture in the room: The Bed! It was made especially for Marie-Antoinette (of “let them eat cake”) but regrettably, did not arrive until 1797, after the Revolution and her execution in 1793.
It was used instead by Napoleon’s wives, Empress Josephine and Marie-Louise of Austria. That fabric! Have you ever seen anything so vibrant?
The textile covering on the walls, with a design of flowers and birds, were installed in 1805 and restored in 1968–1986 using the original fabric as a model.
Speaking of Marie Antoinette, let’s move onto her boudoir. Oh, my word! It was decorated for her in 1786 so she had a few years to enjoy it. It’s apparently the best surviving example of the decorative style just before the French Revolution, and according to Wikipedia, “inspired by ancient Roman models, with delicately painted arabesques, cameos, vases, antique figures and garlands of flowers against a silver background, framed by gilded and sculpted woodwork.” What really jumps out is the contrast between the silver background painted panels and all the gilded work in between. It’s over-the-top ornate, yet quite delicate.
The furnishings were designed for the room by Jean-Henri Riesener, using only the best materials, including mother of pearl, gilded bronze, brass, satin and ebony. The desk and table you see below are original, made between 1784 and 1789.
The two armchairs are copies of the originals made by Georges Jacob which are now in the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon; the the footstool is original, They did an excellent job on the copies, don’t you think?,
Eight figures of the Muses were made in plaster by Roland. You can just glimpse the mahogany parquet floor, which is decorated with the emblems of the Queen. I should have got a close up of it, but dark wood is notoriously difficult to photograph without flash, See all the floral emblems in the areas just above the Muses’ heads? There are flowers in the deep and elaborate cove moulding of the ceiling. The detail is incredible. (apologies for the fuzzy picture)
Over to the King’s bedroom now, which became Napoleon’s Throne room in 1808. His throne sits under the canopy where the beds of former Kings of France, from Henry IV to Louis XVI, were located. Probably a deliberate, cock-a- snoot gesture, hmm? Under the Old Regime, the King’s bed was a symbol of royal authority and was saluted by courtiers who passed by it. (They also attended, with great ceremony, the Kings’ morning bowel movements – different times, different customs).
The majority of the carved wood ceiling along with the lower part of the wood panelling and doors are from the reign of Louis XIII, and the ceiling directly over the throne was added later, by Louis XIV. In a continuing stream of ornate-loving Louis, the XV added a new chimney, sculpted wooden medallions near the fireplace, the designs over the doors, and the finely carved woodwork facing the throne.
The ceiling seems to have had non-stop attention, as Louis XV also had it painted white, gilded and decorated with mosaics to match the ceiling of the bedroom of the Queen (competitive gilding).
Napoleon added the standards with his initial and the Imperial eagle (and you thought the eagle was only American, didn’t you?)
On to The Council Chamber, where the Kings and Emperors met their closest advisors. Close to the Throne Room, it was originally the office of Francis I. It brings a whole new meaning to man-cave.
It was originally decorated with painted wooden panels depicting the virtues and the heroes of antiquity. It was originally quite a bit smaller, but Louis XIV enlarged it and kept the same theme, but that was not to last. Entirely redecorated between 1751 and 1754, what you see now are with arcades and wooded panels showing the virtues, and allegories of the seasons and the elements, painted by Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre and Carle van Loo. It must have seemed too plain to someone (?!), so the painter Alexis Peyrotte added another series of medallions on the upper walls depicting floral themes, the sciences and arts.
Here we have what became Napoleon’s bedroom since he had converted the King’s bedroom into his Throne Room. In fact, he did one better: He got his own private suite of apartments within the Palace, separate from the old state apartments. He took over a suite of six rooms which had been created in 1786 for Louis XVI, next to the Gallery of Francis I, and had them redecorated in the Empire style. What do you think? Didn’t get any less ornate, did he? The carpet was specially commissioned by the Emperor in the shape of the cross of the Legion of Honor; the branches of the cross alternate with symbols of military and civilian attributes. The bed was also made especially for the Emperor and was the pinnacle of the Empire style.
It was crowned with an imperial eagle and decorated with allegorical sculptures representing Glory, Justice, and Abundance. Napoleon was not known for his modesty.
Napoleon’s new bedroom was the former dressing room of the King. He could go directly to his private library or to the offices on the ground floor using a door hidden behind the drapery to the right of the bed. Note the chairs near the fireplace. They were specially designed with one side higher than the other to contain the heat from the fire while allowing the occupants to see the decorations of the fireplace.
Through the door, he could reach the study, to which he added the camp bed, similar to the bed he used on his military campaigns, so he could rest briefly during a long night of work. (One wonders who hauled around the canopy whilst on campaign, but perhaps I’m being facetious).
Just beyond is the salon, described as “simply furnished and decorated”. Really.
The small table is where the Emperor signed his abdication in 1814, which unfortunately didn’t last. He rose again before being finally and soundly defeated at the Battle of Waterloo a year later.
And thus we end our tour. Back out into a large reception area…
… through the door leading outside.
It was still bloody cold, so we decided to eschew the fountains and gardens on this visit. What we saw was more than enough for one day.
We walked back through town towards the train station and were delighted to come across this carousel.
We didn’t stop for a ride, but if we had, definitely I would have picked the giraffe. How often do you get to ride a giraffe?
That’s a wrap. Hope you’ve enjoyed the tour of the wretched excesses of the Kings, Queens, Emperors and Empresses of La Belle France.
For anyone who has not had enough, I have more pictures below but cannot tell you what rooms they pertain to. Serves me right for waiting two years to get them processed and posted.
Have a great rest of the weekend, everyone! I’m sharing this post with Between Naps on the Porch.
I’m thrilled to find your post on Fountainebleau. I spent hours there capturing pics of the vast array of design elements. It was thrilling to find the source of so many classic designs still popular today. Sadly, I lost my catalogue in a computer tragedy. Seeing your entries made me smile. As fascinated as I was with the design motifs, I recall thinking that if I lived there, all those endless patterns would give me a horrible headache. I imagined that I would have to escape for extended horseback rides every single day! Thanks for the opportunity to revist the amazing little get away in the woods. Ah, the call of the simple country life. CherryKay
CherryKay, I’m with you on the design elements overload. It is dizzying. I suppose one would become numbed to it if surrounded by all the design overload all day long, but for those of us who merely visit, the eye hardly knows where to rest. And you’ve captured the spirit of the previous owners perfectly with the “simmple country life”. I remember reading that King Francis I visited Chambord for two weeks a year – along with an entourage of 2,000 people to manage this undertaking, including bringing all the furniture and linens, pots, pans, knives, etc. that were required for cooking and eating along with all the food and drink for the two week stay! Incredible.
No wonder the revolutionaries went ape. Of course, a modern monarch such as in Britain would be just as fascinating in France.
Absolutely. The more I look at these magnificent places and consider them in the context of the times, the more I see how the revolutions came to be. The 1%-ers today pale in comparison to some of the historical ones.
Oh my gosh what a place! Can you imagine actually living there? Thanks for the gorgeous pictures and the history – I love reading about your travels! ❤️