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The Palace of Fontainebleau is France's "second" royal residence, exceeded only by Versailles. The differences from Versailles are:

  1. it is farther out from the city, with more of the original woods left;
  2. it was built, not by one king, but by several;
  3. the palace is more intimate, each king building his own special wing and leaving his own imprint on the whole;
  4. Fontainebleau was a favorite place for kings to bring their mistresses, and they lived in partial seclusion compared to the life-in-public ceremony of Louis XIV at Versailles;
  5. Fontainebleau has been the center of various schools of artists, brought here by French kings; the building is adorned by their works today. The art works inside the Fontainebleau are as important as the palace itself.

The Name  Fontainebleau means "beautiful fountain." The residents of the local town are called "les Bellifontains." The name goes back to a spring in the center of the forest. The combination of fresh water and woods teeming with game was enough to ensure royal interest. The earliest palace was built before 1137 on the site, but the present one came much later.

The Chase  Hunting was the "sport of kings," and most royal palaces in Europe were built in or near forests with good game. Fontainebleau was no exception. Royal hunting lodges — primitive at first — stood in these woods. Half a dozen medieval French kings were either born here, or died here. Many a French king's fondest memories were of a childhood spent in these woods.

Francis I  The pleasure-loving Francis I started work on the present building. Francis was France's first "modern" king. He was impressed by Renaissance art from Italy, and was determined to bring as much of it to France as he could. He became a master builder: the Chambord on the Loire, and Fontainebleau, nearer to Paris. Francis brought mainly Italian artists to work on Fontainebleau, chiefly Primaticcio. The style was Renaissance, with "decorative" arts as important as architecture: stucco work, mosaics, tapestries, painted panels, etc. Francis wanted to make Fontainebleau a "new Rome." Balls, masques, and other festivities were held on a grand scale. Francis' mistress, the Duchess d'Etampes, would act out the leading role.

The great Italian goldsmith, Benvenuto Cellini, was given a studio while he worked for the king. The Mona Lisa of da Vinci was bought by the king so that he could put it in one of his rooms at Fontainebleau. (It is now, of course, in the Louvre.)

Henry II  Francis I's successor, Henry II, continued ornamenting the palace. He put up the designs you'll see on many of the walls: "H" and "C" interlaced. "C" was for Catherine de Medicis, his wife, but the "C's" are often put up backwards so that they look like "D's" — for Diane de Poitiers, Henry's mistress. (The tradition of bringing royal mistresses to Fontainebleau was thus well established.)

Louis XIV  Louis needed a place to stay while Versailles was being built, and Fontainebleau served him well. Louis had the first formal gardens laid out by the great landscape artist Le Notre (who designed the gardens at Versailles). The tradition of the royal mistress continued as Louis brought Madame de Maintenon (whom he later married) to Fontainebleau.

Napoleon  During the French Revolution, the palace was spared destruction, although the furniture was looted. Napoleon was attracted to Fontainebleau rather than to Versailles. Why? The most common explanation is that Napoleon knew he couldn't overshadow the memory of Louis XIV (his great rival in French history), who had singlehandedly built Versailles. But Fontainebleau was built by many kings, thus it was not so closely connected with Louis XIV. (Napoleon even planned to tear down Versailles, but never got around to it.) Napoleon spent 12 million francs on a restoration of the palace: he added new apartments and courtyards, including small-scale, intimate apartments for himself and Josephine (continuing the tradition of a hideaway for lovers, in this case married ones).

Napoleon's leavetaking: As you approach the palace, the first thing you'll notice is the horseshoe-shaped staircase in front. The courtyard in front of this staircase used to be called "Cour du Cheval-Blanc" for the statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback. But after 1814 it was called "Cour des Adieux" (Court of Farewells) because of Napoleon's leavetaking. It was April 20, 1814. Napoleon had lost his army in Russia, and was about to depart for exile on the island of Elba. He stood at the top of the staircase and bade farewell to his guard. He walked down the right-hand branch of the staircase (as you face it from the courtyard), his hand on the stone balustrade. He said to the guard: "Continue to serve France; its happiness has been my only thought." And finally, speaking to the guard: "For twenty years you have conducted yourselves with bravery and fidelity." Then he mounted the coach sent for him, and drove off to exile. However, he was to return less than a year later, hastily forming an army on his march from the south of France to Paris. At Fontainebleau, he reviewed his guardsmen before leading them into Paris. At this final defeat, at Waterloo, his leavetaking was less grandiose: he was escorted onto a British warship and put down on the Isle of St. Helena, in the Atlantic, where he died of cancer in 1820. (His body was returned to Paris with much fanfare in 1840 and placed in Les Invalides.)

Features of the Palace  Generally, the building is fairly plain on the outside, devoid of sculpture and statuary. The reason for this is that the building is made of sandstone from local quarries, and doesn't sculpt easily. All the sumptuous decoration is on the inside.

The Court of Farewells, with the horseshoe staircase, will be your first view of the palace. Inside is a labyrinth of different buildings (built at different times), courtyards (e.g. the Oval Court — site of the original medieval hunting lodge, long since gone), wings, and galleries. The Oval Court was the setting for a medieval hunting ceremony, the curee: the recently-killed stag, still warm and steaming, would be thrown to the dogs who helped catch it; the dogs would tear it to pieces as the hunters blew calls on their hunting horns.

Inside Napoleon's apartments is Napoleon's hat (worn on his return from Elba), a lock of his hair, a little table on which Napoleon signed his abdication in 1814, and Napoleon's camp bed.

There are Marie Antoinette's apartments, and the famous Gobelins tapestries on the walls. The Galerie of Diane was built by Henry IV, and there are grand staircases, ballrooms, hideaway apartments and grand apartments — and outside, formal gardens, fountains, canals, and garden pavilions.

Forest of Fontainebleau  The forest is almost as famous as the palace. It is one of the finest (and few remaining) primeval forests in France. There is an abundance of trees of all kinds — mainly oaks, beeches, birches, hornbeam, and Scots pine. Some of the oak trees are famous and have their own names: Jupiter, Washington, La Fayette. Sandstone soil. Another feature of the forest is stone gorges here and there, with rock piles poking up from the ground. Some of the larger rocks are named: Plutus, Gargantua, etc. These stone gorges are used for practice training by the French Alpine Club.

From the earliest times, the forest has been used for military training: there have never been less than 5 army barracks in the woods. In the 17th century, the King's Bodyguard was stationed here. The French Military Academy was based here in 1803-1808 before it was moved to the present site at St. Cyr, the French "West Point." Between 1947 and 1967, the allied Control Commission (later, the NATO command) was based in the forest — continuing the military tradition.

Barbizon  This town in the forest is famous as a gathering place for artists during the 19th century. The group was known as the "Barbizon" school which favored a return to realism, as against romanticism of Delacroix and others. The Barbizon artists painted natural scenes, many inspired by the surrounding forest. Theodore Rousseau, Millet, Corot, Daubigny were the most famous members. The town is still popular for painters; it retains its small-village look. (One Barbizon painting you may have seen: Millet's Angelus; which shows a peasant farmer and his wife standing in the field with a wheelbarrow and tools, their heads bowed in prayer.)


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