Fontainebleau




Fontainebleau at Seine-et-Marne, France is 50km south of Paris.

Named after a fresh water spring that gave rise to the town. The royal castle existed as early as the twelfth century as a hunting lodge. Eight hundred years of architectural history can be read at Fontainebleau.

The chateau of Fontainebleau was Francois I's (1515-1547) preferred residence. Located not to far from the capital at the heart of a vast forest, it was the perfect place for the King to carry on his lifestyle of hunting and tournaments, interspersed with festivals, and formal balls.

After campaigning in Italy, Francois I brought home the Renaissance style he saw there which he combined with French Gothic to create a new style. Francois I reconstructed the chateau. He invited Italian artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Benvenuto Cellini to improve his palace. A bronze foundry was created in which sculptures ordered from the Florentine artist Benvenuto Cellini were cast, in particular of the statues of Diane, Venus and the Jupiter effigy. Italian painters Rosso Fiorentino and Primatice (1504-1570) came to France to direct the works and to decorate the rooms of the castle. The walls around the monumental staircase were decorated with mythological figures. The gallery of the Castle, Gallery of Francois I, decorated with frescos by Rosso Fiorentino portray the gods of Olympus with the features of the sovereign. The stuccos in low-relief and sculptures executed by Primatice and Rosso Fiorentino constitute true masterpieces. Hangings and tapestries and carpet designed by Primatice were also commissioned and installed in Fontainebleau. The artists gave birth to the School of Fontainebleau, that deeply influenced French painting in the following centuries. A kind of international mannerism was developed, which tried to synthesize the Italian, French and Nordic traditions.

Stucco in Galerie François I at Fontainebleau, created 1534-36 by Rosso Fiorentino.
Stucco in Galerie François I at Fontainebleau, created 1534-36 by Rosso Fiorentino.


King Francois I had gardens laid out during the period 1528-1547 to rival the great courts he had seen in Italy. At the center of the new layout was a nearly square courtyard surrounded on three sides by a gallery. On the fourth side of the courtyard there was a fountain which included Michelangelo's white marble sculpture of Hercules (purchased in 1529). The lake was the central piece to the overall organization and the focus of the courtyard. The approach was an elm lined causeway on the East Side of the lake leading to the southwest corner of the chateau. The Grand Jardin east of the causeway was probably meant for outdoor games and exercise, and created a transitional space to the forest. A canal bisects the Grand Jardin making two large areas - one with 12 separate island compartments and the second with two primary spaces.


To the north of the original structure was a private garden accessed from the royal living quarters. The western portion of Fontainebleau acted as a separation between the garden and the town. It was irregularly shaped, lined with walkways and canals, and in 1538 about 2000 willows were planted to augment the ones already growing near the water.

The large court to the west was another gallery built with a first floor grotto around 1540.

Niccolo dell'Abate (1509-1572) appeared at the French court in 1552 during the reign of Henry II. He worked at Fontainebleau and is considered part of the second school of Fontainebleau. Henry II's wife Catherine de Medici continued work at Fontainebleau.

Garden view of Fontainebleau showing some of André Le Nôtre's work.
Garden view of Fontainebleau showing some of André Le Nôtre's work.

Later, the chateau was beloved by Louis XIV who added his own touches to the chateau and had his chief landscape designer André Le Nôtre (1613-1700) make changes to the gardens.

Throne room designed by Percier and Fontaine
Throne room designed by Percier and Fontaine

Fontainebleau was a favorite retreat for Napoleon. The furniture had been either destroyed or sold during the Revolution. Napoleon had the palace restored and refurbished. The furniture for the 600 rooms was either taken out of storage or ordered from cabinet-makers such as Jacob-Desmalter. In 1808, the king's bedroom was altered into the throne room designed by Percier and Fontaine. The "Grand salon" and the Empress's bedroom were also decorated in the Empire style. Napoleon's suite was entirely remodelled and is the most spectacular Empire room. Pope Pius VII was held prisoner at Fontainebleau between 1812 and 1814. Napoleon spent his last days in the château before abdicating on April 6, 1814. Granted sovereignty over the island of Elba and a pension from the French government, Napoleon Bonaparte left Fontainebleau after his famous farewell speach on April 20th, 1814.

Empress Josephine's bedroom
Empress Josephine's bedroom






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© S.W. This site last updated March 2003 by Iris