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. A monumental staircase and a portico and two superimposed chapels were added to the Oval Court after 1531. Though construction went swiftly, the chateau lacked architectural unity. The facades were not symmetrical, nor of any specific order and the attempt to amalgamate old and new buildings blurred the overall design. Le Breton failed where Jules Hardouin-Mansart was to succeed nearly two centuries later at Versailles.
But what made Francis I's palace remarkable was not its architecture. It was its. interior decoration. As early as 1531 the king hired the services of the Florentine artist Giovanni Battista Rosso and put him in charge of all the decoration works. At his death in 1540, he was succeeded in this capacity by the Bolognese Francesco Primaticcio who had arrived at Fontainebleau a year after Rosso. For the first time two great Italian artists were commissioned to work on a specific building project in France. Their contribution to Fontainebleau and to French art in general was to be paramount. Not only did they bring to the chateau the most contemporary Italian painting techniques, and fashions, they also invented a new manner which combined, in a sophisticated arrangement, frescoes and stucco sculptures in full relief and carved panels. The use of strap-work (decoration imitating plaited straps) in the stucco decorations and their more sensual and tormented art containing complex literary references were an enormous success and were soon copied all over Europe. Known today as the 'first ecole de Fontainebleau', Rosso's and Primatice's pre-1540 works represent the most perfect form of Early Mannerism. Ecouen may, quite rightly, be the national museum of French Renaissance, but Fontainebleau is its birthplace.
Unfortunately, very little of their work has survived the destructive improvements devised by successive well-meaning monarchs and presidents. In particular, all of Primaticcio's decoration has been destroyed, except for the fireplace in the Bedroom of the Duchesse d'Etampes and the much restored Ball Room.
Rosso's impressive masterpiece, the Francis I Gallery, remains, though what one sees today is not quite what had been intended. The windows on the north side were walled up when Louis XV added the parallel gallery, ruining the effects created by natural light flowing in on both sides of the gallery through facing windows. The two projecting cabinets in the middle bay on each side have also disappeared, considerable alterations were made to the east and west extremities and the ceiling has been slightly raised. In spite of this, the 1960-70 programme of restoration has revealed the richness and ingenuity of this earliest surviving example of what was to become a regular feature of French chateaux, the long gallery.
The Francis I gallery owes its originality to two unique features. First, it is a space that stands on its own, bearing no iconographical link to the rest of the palace and no part left undecorated. The lower half of the walls is covered in carved wood panelling, by the Italian joiner Francisco Scibec of Carpi, whilst the upper part is decorated with frescoes and stucco by Rosso. The coffered ceiling and the inlaid parquet pick up the warm tones of the carved panels, creating a framework which enshrines the vividly coloured mural decorations. Secondly, the iconography of the gallery is devised as a 'system' (the author of which is unknown - perhaps Francis himself?.) that is to say that the paintings and stucco decorations represent scenes that are meant to be read in a specific order. Thus, there are two interlaced lecture schemes, or programmes, in the gallery.
The first scheme or programme is monarchial and develops along the twelve panels, each consisting of a central fresco surrounded by volets alternately painted and sculpted, with a cartouche at the base and a salamander (Francis I's personal symbol) on the cyma, both stucco. Though the programme starts from the east side (today visitors enter from the west), the lecture is not linear. The gallery is divided into two equal sections on either side of the two central paintings, each with a complex system of diagonal correspondences and references. This first programme is a defence and illustration of the French monarchy.
It must be remembered that the gallery was constructed in the 1530s, at a time when Francis was attempting to reassert his authority at home and abroad. The king had been severely defeated at Pavia in February 1525 and had spent the following year in captivity in Madrid. From then on he endeavoured to undermine Charles V's power and regain what he had forsaken at the treaty of Madrid (January 1526) in return for his release. By 1534, he had largely succeeded. At home, he had to face a persistent challenge from the parliament of Paris and the Sorbonne, particularly regarding what was perceived as his support of the Reformist movement (which emerged as a result of the lecteurs royaux in 1530 and of the Placards in 1534). So the first programme comprises numerous allusions, more or less explicit, to Francis' authority. For example, the fleurdelise elephant refers to the king's claim to universal power; the painting of Francis driving Ignorance out of his kingdom is an allusion to his support of the humanists and to the Affair of the lecteurs royaux (the four regius professorships for the study of classical language).
The second programme is mythological, probably placed, as was the monarchial programme, under the auspices of Venus, the goddess greeting those entering the gallery. It was disposed in a lozenge, the four corners being the paintings at two extremities of the gallery and those in the two central projecting cabinets. The destruction of all but one of the four oval paintings (Primaticcio's Danaea on the middle panel of the south wall), one at each point of the lozenge, has rendered a more detailed reading of the programme impossible.
The complexity of the decoration of the gallery stems from the fact that no contemporary event is depicted, nor are any of the usual abstract figures representing the Virtues, etc. The key to the two programmes, therefore, is an understanding of the symbolism of the iconography. Coupled with the absence of any contemporary guide, this renders interpretation of the gallery difficult for historians today. It also astounded and puzzled contemporary visitors. Undoubtedly, this was international. Francis I kept the key of the door round his neck and he was probably one of the few persons - if not the only capable of explaining the gallery.
In 1540 the king showed the English ambassador, Sir John Wallop, round the gallery. The ambassador was so impressed that he urged Henry VIII to copy the decoration. One wonders what Charles V's impressions of it were when Francis received him at Fontainebleau in 1539, the gallery having been finished in haste for the Emperor's visit.
Nowadays, many a visitor comes to Fontainebleau for its political and romantic association with Napoleon I. Who could be allowed to forget that on April 20th, 1814, there took place,- at the foot of the horseshoe-shaped staircase, the ceremony of Napoleon's departure for the island of Elba? The White Horse Court has been renamed Court of Parting in commemoration: the evalasting legend of Napoleon. British visitors to Fontainebleau may like to know it was only a few miles away, in a well-known restaurant, that in June 1984 Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have softened towards Europe.
Charles Giry-Deloison is Deputy Director of the Institut Francais, London.
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|Title Annotation:||French palace in suburban Paris|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1993|
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