Magazine article History Today

Fontainebleau

Magazine article History Today

Fontainebleau

Article excerpt

In May 1527, Francis I announced to the not so thrilled municipal authorities of his 'good city' that he intended henceforth to reside in Paris. The king's decision was political. Its implications for the arts were to be considerable. For in Paris, the old Louvre, hardly changed since the time of Charles V, was too small and impracticable to accommodate the large and sophisticated court which accompanied Francis. So, though the chateaux of the Loire were not abandoned, the king embarked on a major programme of prestige building in the Ile-de-France which lasted until his death.

Of all those major architectural undertakings, Fontainebleau was his favourite. Its purpose was to glorify the king's supremacy and magnificence and to surpass the new royal palaces of Henry VIII and Charles V. And so it did. Situated some fifty miles south of Paris in the midst of the forest of Blare, a hunter's paradise, Fontainebleau was in 1527 a decadent medieval chateau which dated back to the twelfth century. About seventy yards to the west was a monastery founded by St Louis. The accounts show that the works started in 1528 under the supervision of a Parisian master mason, Gilles Le Breton. The keep and the outline of the buildings around the original Oval Court were to be preserved, the court facade of the buildings renovated, the old gateway replaced by a new entrance (Gilded Gate) and two short blocks built to link it to the keep. On the site of the monastery a vast court (White Horse Court) bordered by four wings, the east one formed of five pavilions, was planned. To link these two sets of buildings a long gallery (Francis I Gallery) was to be erected between the keep and the east wing of the White Horse Court.

Today, little is left of Francis' palace. Of the four wings of the White Horse Court, only the north one (Minister's wing) still stands more or less in its original state, though it was shortened in 1565 when a moat was dug in a frantic attempt to fortify the palace. The south wing was rebuilt by Louis XV in 1738 and the west wing was destroyed by Napoleon I to give way to a gate which replaced the Gilded Gate as the main entrance to the palace. The east wing underwent various changes, the most remarkable being the creation in 1632-34 of the horseshoe-shaped staircase by the architect Jean Androuet du Cerceau.

' The wing linking the old and new parts of the palace was first modified by Henri IV in 1594 with the transformation of the terrace on the south facade. Then in 1786, Louis XVI had it doubled in length and width on its north side by a new building.

The older part of the chateau has also been considerably transformed, mainly during the reign of Henri IV. In 1601-05 the Oval Court lost its original shape. The court was widened and extended, its facades made regular and its eastern side replaced by a low wall in the middle of which a monumental gate surmounted by a dome (Dauphine Gate) was opened. To the north-east, Henri IV added in 1600-01 two wings and an aviary to enclose the queen's garden (Garden of Diane), of which only the wing of the Galleries of the Deers and of the Queen remain. To the east, in the prolongation of the Oval Court, the king built in 1606-09 the Court of Pantry.

As Stendhal once remarked, the chateau of Fontainebleau looks nowadays like 'an architectural dictionary'. Though one may regret these radical modifications, it must be remembered that even during Francis I's reign many additions were made to the original plans and that the palace was unfinished at his death. About 1537 a floor was added to the south wing of the Court of the White Horse to contain the Gallery of Ulysses. The east wing was still incomplete in 1547, only two of the five pavilions having been built. The wing containing the Francis I Gallery was also modified. In 1534, kitchens surmounted by a terrace were erected along the southern facade and the ground floor was transformed into baths where Francis I displayed his collection of paintings. …

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