FONTAINEBLEAU, FRANCE

   The castle of Fontainebleau, called a château, was built in France in the 12th century and renovated during the reign of François I, who ruled from 1515 to 1547. It became the largest château in all of France, as well as the first to demonstrate the Renaissance style as imported into France from Italy. The French monarchy had proven its military might over northern Italy, but did not, during the Renaissance, cultivate an artistic revival on the same scale as could be found in Italy. François I therefore sought to rejuvenate French artistic culture with not only the reconstruction of this rural palace, but also with the creation of a large court of artists made up mostly of Italian and Flemish expatriates and including, most famously, Leonardo da Vinci, as well as the Italian Mannerist painters Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio.
   While these châteaux were very often traditional French late medieval rural castles, fortifications were often quite minimal by the time of the Renaissance. Instead, these royal country homes were transformed by the aristocracy into country seats, and they very often did not settle into one palace permanently but moved from one to another as they cemented political alliances, cultivated elite social discourse, and confirmed their authority outside the urban centers. François I was from the Valois Dynasty, yet unlike his predecessors, he sought to join the classically inspired humanistic discourse popular across Europe during this time; he is in fact credited with creating the largest royal library in France, originally at Blois, then at Fontainebleau, and finally in Paris, as the basis for the current National Library of France. François I's original home outside of Paris was the Château d'Amboise, which he also renovated, as well as the châteaux at Chambord and Blois. In Paris, he was instrumental in transforming the Louvre Palace from a late medieval structure to a Renaissance complex.
   At Fontainebleau, a mixture of late Gothic through Neo-Classical styles is evident, as the building was used as a royal palace for almost five centuries. It began as a modest hunting lodge set next to the royal hunting forest in the small town of Fontainebleau, about 30 miles outside of Paris. From that, it became first, a classically inspired palace in keeping with the Renaissance interest in Ancient Roman architecture and its dissemination across Europe during the 1400s and 1500s, then a Baroque, and finally a Neo-Classical monument to French rule. In the 1520s, François I hired the French architect Gilles le Breton, together with the Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio, to enlarge the château and update its style to reflect his humanistic interests. He wanted to bring into France a more sophisticated courtly culture by moving away from feudal ideals and embracing the ideals of the Renaissance. Therefore, only one tower remains from the original 12th-century structure. The entire building grew to consist of a series of wings and towers linked by courtyards and galleries. The Gallery of François I is the most elaborate and historically important, as the first gallery in all of France. With frescoes and painted stucco molding designed by Rosso Fiorentino, it demonstrates the highly stylized, elongated, and elegant features of Mannerism. Primaticcio's main commission involved the renovation of the apartments of François' mistress, Anne, the Duchess of Étampes. Here Primaticcio combines classically inspired images with a light-hearted Mannerist style to create some of the first Mannerist works in all of France. François' son Henry II, who ruled from 1547 to his death in 1559, continued the renovations to Fontainebleau, hiring Primaticcio again and another Italian Mannerist artist, Benvenuto Cellini, to continue the work of transforming the interior into one vast program of painting, sculpture, and architecture.
   Henri IV, who ruled until his death in 1610, continued the transformation of Fontainebleau, but by the later Baroque era, the royal artistic focus had shifted to Versailles Palace, which was also located outside of Paris and which was subsequently transformed by Louis XIV into a vast palace complex and administrative center. Later, when Napoleon I visited Fontainebleau and found all the rooms stripped of their furnishings, he replenished the interior and used the castle for his coronation in 1804. The pope was housed in a suite of newly restored apartments, and a Neo-Classical throne room was constructed for the occasion. Fontainebleau was the favored home of Napoleon, and since that time, the château has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular museum destination.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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