Published on August 15th, 2014 | by Maureen Youngblood3
A Short History of Château de Fontainebleau
Château de Fontainebleau ; when one hears the name, a sense of royalty and aristocratic history come to mind. This large, 1500 room Chateau was built miles from Paris with the first structure on the land appearing in the early 12th century. Similar to many historical residences, almost every inhabitant of Fontainebleau made some type of improvement or modernization to the Chateau, to arrive at the structure that stands today. Fontainebleau was established a few hundred years prior to the construction of Versailles and, similar to Versailles, both royalty and politics were housed at this grand estate. This is one of the few Chateaus that has been almost continuously inhabited since its creation.
The interior of the Chateau is richly adorned with art of every kind: gilded carvings, frescoes, tapestries, intricate wood carvings, paneling, and famous paintings. It is almost too much but it all seems to flow together to form a cohesive historical story. The earlier surviving structures are more utilitarian, the additions contain more decadence and whimsical caprice, the empire era improvements are more constrained by taste and beauty. Each time period is evident in the architecture and decoration.
There are seven eras that make up the history of Fontainebleau, starting with the Mediaeval Era. The central tower dates back to 1169 when the exiled Archbishop of Canterbury consecrated the Chateau chapel. In 1259 it became a monastery hospital overlooked by the Trinitarian, or Mathurian monks. Following this, the Chateau was inhabited by Phillip III and Isabella of Aragon. When Charles VII of France was in power, his extended stays at Chateau de Fontainebleau oversaw the growth of the residence.
During the Renaissance, many alterations took place such as the construction of new buildings and detailed decoration of the interior. From 1528 on, King Francis I spent winters at the Chateau where he hunted in the surrounding forests. History states that the gallery constructed under Francis I was a novel architectural creation; with stucco framed frescoes and art masterpieces adorning the walls, it is perhaps the initial introduction to the Renaissance of France. It is said that Frances I was extremely selective in who he allowed to visit the new additions. He wore the key to the new gallery around his neck in order to control access to the collection of artwork displayed inside. It was in this new gallery that he was said to have displayed Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and The Virgin of the Rocks, two centuries before they found their final home in the Louvre in 1797.
While Henry II resided at the Chateau, he installed his own personal imprints upon the structure that are most easily seen inside the Salle de Bal, or ballroom. One can find the initials HD, for Henri II, and his mistress, Diane De Poitiers, creatively hidden in the room’s decoration.
During the times between 1544 and 1556, Catherine de Medici gave birth to six of their ten children at Fontainebleau despite the fact that her husband’s mistress also lived at the Chateau. She was employed as the children’s tutor in order to keep her in close proximity to the king.
The 17th Century saw much activity at the Chateau, the new Cour des Offices, the grand entrance to the town, and many buildings were added to the estate, along with extensive gardens. Of the many births that took place during this century, one of the key events was the birth of Louis XIII on September 27, 1601. He and his sisters were baptized in the Chateau’s Cour Ovale on September 14, 1606.
The 18th Century, similar to the previous times, saw each inhabitant continue the improvement process, each attempting to outdo the previous tenant in lavishness and elegance. It was under Louis XIV that Andre Le Notre replanted the extensive gardens and in 1724 a new theatre was constructed in the Belle-Cheminee Wing. The wedding between Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska was held at Fontainebleau on September 5, 1725, and is considered the most important event of the century. Visitors during this timeframe included Czar Peter the Great, the king of Denmark, Moliere and Voltaire. The last visit by the Ancien Regime was in the fall of 1786.
The First Empire saw Napoleon restore the Chateau to its original grandeur; thanks to him it remains one of the best furnished public Chateau in Europe. During the Revolution the property itself had become a casualty of war; it had seen destruction, confiscation, and decay of the interior and exterior. Napoleon refurbished the entire Chateau completely; it was to become his second country residence and an imperial palace, it was also home to his Military Academy.
He preferred Fontainebleau over Versailles as the Palace of Versailles had a strong connection to the Ancien Regime; for Napoleon, living in the Sun King’s former residence would not be a consideration. A separate, distant location would better give the impression of modernization and progression to the people and would also differentiate the ruling styles.
Many decrees and treaties were signed while Napoleon resided here. Though the Chateau was his preferred residence, over the 10 years of the First Empire he only stayed at the Chateau for a total of 170 days. It was at Chateau de Fontainebleau that Napoleon announced his divorce from Josephine. It is also where he fled after Paris fell in the Campaign for France. The Treaty of Fontainebleau, which ended Napoleon’s rule as Emperor of France and stated his exile to Elba, was ratified by Napoleon on April 13th, 1814. He then attempted suicide after the realization that his empire had come to an end. It is on the grand staircase at the entrance of the Chateau where Napoleon bid farewell to his army in the Court Adieux on April 20, 1814.
During the Restoration, with the surge of visitors to the Chateau, extensive renovation was undertaken to again revive the grandeur of this magnificent structure. In 1858 the demolition of the old Chateau was completed in order to start construction of the new gallery and the private quarters. Similar to his uncle, Napoleon III preferred Chateau de Fontainebleau and quite often resided at the Chateau until 1869.
From the 1870’s on, the end of the empire saw the Chateau shuttered and closed to the outside world. It was actually an American, J.D. Rockefeller, Jr., who aspired to restore this abused property to another level of magnificence after World War I; his monetary donations brought life back into the property.
The Chateau was used as a German operations site during World War II. It was freed by the allied forces in 1944 and was used as NATO headquarters from 1945 until 1965.
On January 5, 1982, the palace and park of Chateau de Fontainebleau were approved to be listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Only countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention, pledging nature conservation and preservation of cultural properties, can be considered for inclusion on the World Heritage List. The forest of Fontainebleau is no longer a royal hunting ground but now it is a conservation area that is inhabited by several endangered species.
In 1998, the World Conservation Union held its 50th anniversary at Fontainebleau. Three hundred fifty attendees were witness to a perfect example of conservation efforts; the Chateau itself and the surrounding areas.
This is only a brief description of the events and history of Chateau de Fontainebleau. A complete detailed listing of occurrences would be a book in itself, of which I’m sure one is written somewhere. Having walked the same halls as Henry II, Francis I, Louis XII, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and many others, I truly appreciate the great events that transformed this once small chapel into a hunting lodge, and then with many creative minds and over hundreds of years, into one of France’s greatest jewels.