September 26, 2011

Château de Fontainebleau

The last time we were in France, we attempted to visit this château, but some last-minute shuffling of our schedule resulted in me "re-scheduling" our visit for a day that the château was closed. Imagine our surprise having arrived and commenting "wow, it doesn't look crowded at all" only to get close enough to the ticket window and see the dreaded "fermé le mardi" (closed on Tuesdays). This time, we triple-checked their open days/hours just to make sure! It's a quick train ride from Paris, taking only about 35 minutes from Gare de Lyon.

The first recorded reference to the Château de Fontainebleau in a royal charter dates back to 1137, the year of the accession of Louis VII, known as Louis the Younger. The huge keep (or central tower) dates from this period. In 1259, Saint Louis, who was very fond of his fortified castle in Fontainebleau, established a monastery hospital there, presided over by the Trinitarian or Mathurin monks. The foundations of their chapel and other monastery buildings are all that remain from this original configuration, now located near to the current Chapel of the Trinity.

It was the Renaissance which saw the first major changes to the Château de Fontainebleau. In addition to the major building extension works, followed by extensive decoration works by Italian artists, there were court visits. Francis I (1494-1547) often came to stay at Fontainebleau, where he liked it so much that when he spoke of going there, he referred to it as “going home”. From 1528 onwards, the date of his first commissioned works there, the king particularly liked to spend the winter at Fontainebleau, to hunt boar and other quarry in the forests. In December 1536, his future son-in-law James V, King of Scotland, came to visit him there. This King had this passage built for his personal use, which only he had a key to. The passage led from his sleeping quarters to the main part of the château.

The Château de Fontainebleau was also where Catherine de Medici gave birth to six of their children. Francis II was born on 19 January 1544; Elizabeth (the future queen of Spain) on 2 April 1546; Claude (the future Duchess of Lorraine) on 12 November 1547; Edouard-Alexandre (the future Henry III of France) on 19 September 1551; Hercule (the future Duke of Anjou) on 18 March 1555; and Jeanne and Victoire, Princesses of France, on 24 June 1556. Apparently women of the court were required to give birth in public to "legitimize" the future heirs. Not sure how giving birth in public was proof that those children were actually fathered by who they were supposed to be fathered by . . . just sayin'.

The last major building expansion works at the château were carried out during the reign of Henry IV of France (17th century), whose favourite residence it was after the Louvre. In the 18th century, hunting parties continued to be held at Fontainebleau during the autumn. The French kings made the most of the fact that etiquette here was a little more relaxed than at Versailles, coming here to receive visiting diplomats from foreign rulers or even, before marriage, taking advantage of a trip to Fontainebleau to meet visiting princesses.

Someone had an obvious obsession with breasts (photo above).

By the late 18th century, the château had fallen into disrepair; during the French Revolution many of the original furnishings were sold, in the long Revolutionary sales of the contents of all the royal châteaux, intended as a way of raising money for the nation and ensuring that the Bourbons could not return to their comforts. Nevertheless, within a decade Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte began to transform the Château de Fontainebleau into a symbol of his grandeur, as an alternative to the empty Palace of Versailles.

The throne room (pictured above) is the only only such suite in France still in its original state.

The library (image above) holds more than 16,000 volumes.

Today part of the château is home to the Écoles d'Art Américaines, a school of art, architecture, and music for students from the United States. The school was founded by General Pershing when his men were stationed there during the First World War.

It's hard to capture in photos just how beautiful the furnishings and decor are. Most of the rooms were very dark as to not cause further damage to tapestries and paintings from the sunlight, and one could envision just how lovely some of the rooms would be when bathed in sunlight. I wish part of the tour would have included the kitchens. I'd love to see what a working kitchen looked like in the 15th century (and beyond).

You can view more pictures of Fontainebleau here.

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