THE RESIDENCES of Mme de Pompadour


the Salon of the Council

A painted panel made by Carle Van Loo for the Salon of the Council

The statue of Diana in the gardens

The Fontainebleau Castle (map)

Fontainebleau by Charles Terrasse (La France illustréè)

The Fontainebleau Castle was conceived in the Bière forest. This immense and wild place, full of different meanings has always been good for hunting. The first Capetian went here quite frequently from the Melun fortress. One of the two, Louis le Gros (the Big) presumably built a tower by the small pond, which was the only one source of water in the forest. The existence of the castle is reported in a document written by Louis le Jeune (the Young), his son, dated 1137.

This castle, situated by a source called “the Fountain of Bliaud” from the name of its owner, or Ebalud Fountain, took the name of Fontainebleau. Louis VII in 1169 founded a chapel here dedicated to Saint Saturnine. Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, consecrated the place. In 1259 Saint Louis built a small Trinitarian, or Mathurins, community close to the castle in order to take care of the poor of those “deserted and dry places”.

The convent stayed here until the Revolution. Charles V moved here his “library”. Isabel of Bavaria planned a few restoring. At the end of the XV century, Fontainebleau included a few buildings put around an oval court and watched by a tower. The convent of the Mathurins was in the western part.

By 1526, Francis I, began the reconstruction of the castle, but maintained the original tower. The new buildings were made on the old foundation; the convent was placed in the northern part while a big court was built in the western one, known as the White Horse Court, and connected with his apartment in the tower through a gallery that had his name. The works began in 1528, directed by Gilles Le Breton a chief master in Paris. These buildings are externally very simple.

Gilles Le Breton used the sandstone, took directly from the soil, to make the bricks, the building material. Being a hard material to work, the sandstone couldn’t allow any refined decoration, like the tender stone of the Loire did. That’s why Fontainebleau has a rude aspect, so different from Chambord or Blois. In order to enrich his castle with sumptuous decorations, Francis I employed the best artists from Italy and the Flanders: sculptors, engravers, painters and plasterers. He took up again the project for Amboise made by Charles VII. Primaticcio from Bologna and Rosso from Florence leaded the construction.

All these artists formed the so-called “School of Fontainebleau”. A new technique along with a renewed inspiration made the walls shining with beautiful decorations. The biggest part of these works is unfortunately lost, only a few decorations are still visible in the Francis I gallery, which were made by Rosso (1532-41), and in the room of the Duchess of Etampes , made by Primaticcio. The king collected a considerable amount of richness here even his library, which was very appreciated by Guillaume Budé.

The king collected paintings made by Raffaello, Tiziano, Leonardo da Vinci, the “Gioconda” was among them: a wonderful group of works that started the Louvre collection. In 1540 he sent Primaticcio in Rome, who came back with pieces from the Lacoonte, from the river Tiber, from the Hercules Commode, the Venus of Cnide, the Apollo of Belvedere, from the Ariana. All these bronze pieces gave the material for a few new works, shown nowadays at the Louvre. Henry II and his sons lately followed this passion of Francis I for the arts. Henry II finished the decorations of the big salon of the castle, called “the Ballroom”. He also continued the building of the “the big gallery”, situated in south wing of the Basse Cour, which would be called “the Ulysses Gallery” as the history of the Greek hero was painted on the walls. Charles II enlarged the buildings (the central pavilion in the façade, the east wing of the Fountain court) and put a white horse in the middle of the court, a gesso-work, similar to the one of Marco Aurelio by the Campidoglio: the court took the name of “cour du Cheval Blanc” (the White Horse court).

Henry IV, who loved Fontainebleau as much as François I, almost redoubled the castle. Around the Diana garden he built the building that contains, one above the other, the Deer gallery, the Diana gallery and the lost Roe-deer gallery. He enlarged the castle towards the Oval court and rebuilt the pavilions around it, built the buildings in the Uffizi court in order to have another entrance to the castle. He called a few French and Flemish artists, like François I had done before; a second “School of Fontainebleau” was formed with the most famous masters: Fréminet, Ambroise, Dubois, Touissant and Dubreuil. Henry IV enlarged and built in the pond itself, the “Pond garden” and digged the long canal towards Avon. Then Fontainebleau was complete.

A considerable internal enrichment was made by Louis XII, he replaced the stairs built by Philippe Delorme in the White Horse court, with the majestic “horseshoe” (1634) and put two Hermes made by Gille Guerin in the Offices court, at the beginning of the Royal court (1640). Louis XIV made a few mutilations in Fontainebleau; the most serious was the destruction of the baths of Francis I in 1697, in order to build some apartments (called “the small apartments”) and the one of the pond garden. Some of the most monotonous buildings in the Princes court (1707) and the parterre drawn by Le Vau, belong to his period.

Louis XV destroyed the south wing of the White Horse court, which included the Ulysses gallery decorated by the Primaticcio, to build a few apartments. That destruction was openly criticized by his contemporaries and was made to erect new buildings, which are still visible nowadays; he replaced the Poeles pavilion, which included the apartments of Henry II, with the Big Pavilion made by Gabriel (1750). The Salon of the Council belongs to his period (1753).

Louis XVI in 1785, doubled the gallery of Francis I from the north side, facing the Diana garden. The new apartments were accurately decorated to be used only in 1786, during the last stay of the court.

At the end of the “ancien regime”, Fontainebleau was marvellous. The Revolution pillaged all its richness. Wall papers, furniture, paintings, everything was stolen to leave the walls only. As the revolutionary Jacquin Margerie said: “To preserve this castle means preserving the hopes of the enemies of the Republic, who believe in ghosts”. Peyre, who looked after the buildings, was among the saviours of Fontainebleau. A Central School was established in the castle.

In 1803 Napoleon the Prime Minister, established a Military School that moved in Saint-Cyr in 1808. He had a real passion for the place: “It is a house for the Kings, the house of the centuries”, he once said in Saint Helen. On restoring the castle he made a King of himself, the heir of all the past kings a sort of continuity. It was in Fontainebleau that Napoleon tried to establish even the royal court, with all its sumptuous entertainments, hunting, races, balls, concerts, theatrical performances, first with Josephine then with Marie-Louise.

In 1804 he had the Pope Pio VII as guest, who came from Rome to crown the new Charlemagne. It was there that the Pope was imprisoned and obliged to sign the concordat in 1813, to put the French church under control of the Emperor. In Fontainebleau Napoleon signed his abdication and said farewell to his guard.

Louis XVIII and Charles X didn’t use the castle for long periods. They finished the decoration in the Diana gallery. Louis-Philippe instead lived there and restored the castle, despite his sad historical mood. He built the Pillars Salon, on the Oval court, and the Chairs gallery on the White Horse court. Napoleon III moved the Diana gallery in the library and built a new theatre in the Louis XV wing.

The Empress Eugénie placed a Chinese museum at the ground floor of the Big Pavilion. Fontainebleau became a presidential residence and Sadi Carnot lived there. The apartments of the President were situated in the Louis XV wing.