One of the most common and yet most contestable pieces of conventional wisdom is that the greatness of france is uniquely expressed in logic and clarity. To refute this, we need only evoke the palace of Fontainebleau. The beauty of this royal château and its extraordinary art collection, constantly associated with the Louvre and Versailles, is not derived from precision and harmony, but rather from the delightful surprises of incongruity.
Fontainebleau - on the map
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We search in vain for the majesty imposed by a grand architectural design. The accidents of history and the whims of the various sovereigns caused the dissimilar buildings to multiply without any guiding geometry or logic. When we approach the château today. two long wings connected by a crop de logis with an impressive central staircase seem to announce an architectural organization of the most traditional order. However, this is only an illusion achieved following the original construction of the château by the replacement of the Francis I wing by an iron grillwork. The staircase, the famous "horseshoe", does not lead to an symmetrically organized structure, but rather to a perpendicular central building which presents on each side two architectural units so complete, that each could easily be taken for an independent château. The staircase leads to another courtyard, an oval formed by irregular buildings, itself surrounded by other courtyards, each of which seems to belong to a different edifice and which lead the eye towards diverse horizons, lake, park, lawns... It takes a few moments to recognize this oval courtyard as the remnants of a fortified medieval castle.
Another relic of the Middle Ages is the powerful square tower, recognizable because of its proportions, but disguised by the decorative additions of subsequent centuries - a gallery here, a wing there - on the one facing the countryside. The eye loses itself in this maze of facades, courtyards, and gardens, all of different proportions and styles, and of a complexity which rivals that of the Hofburg in Vienna. Because of an allure which is both noble and pleasing to the eye, this disorder never offends. The poetry that belongs uniquely to Fontainebleau i born of this confusion.
This incongruity was not artificially created by a taste for the picturesque, but rather by a eventful history which is tied to the history of France itself. The château's origins are lost in the distant past: Fontainebleau, situated on the edge of a great forest, was probably an early location for a fortified residence. The first written document concerning Fontainebleau is from 1137, and it was already a royal comminiqué. Saint Louis ordered the founding of a convent nearby for the Trinitaires. We know that Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of King Charles VI (1380-1422), ordered important construction to Fontainebleau; at that time a powerful fortress with a square donjon and four towers would have stood there. Francis I, upon his return from exile in Spain, was much taken with the site and began, particularly after 1527, to replace the old medieval structures by buildings more appropriate to his brilliant Renaissance court. At first he respected the original foundations, but soon rooms. galleries, canals, courtyards, and gardens multiplied. On the eve of the Wars of Religion, Fontainebleau was already a vast and unusual assemblage of surprises and luxury, celebrated throughout Europe.
The period of religious wars was naturally hardly favorable for this sumptuous palace, where the most profane art glittered. But Henri IV made it his favorite residence.
France is a changeable country, and each generation seems to turn its back on the previous generation's enthusiasms. Louis XIII preferred to reside at Saint-Germain, and if Anne of Austria rediscovered Fontainebleau and commissioned Simon Vouet to create decorations their, Louis XIV returned to Saint-Germain before devoting all his energies to Versailles and later to Marly. It was not until Louis XV's time that Fontainebleau again found royal favor, and during his reign architects like Gabriel and painters like Boucher and Van Loo worked there. The Revolution at Fontainebleau removed rather than destroyed. Napoleon took possession of the château, where the presence of the Valouis persisted more than that of the recent Bourbons, and he made it a liveable residence. Louis-Philippe devoted himself to the return of Versailles to its former glory, but also restored Fontainebleau. During the Second Empire, the imperial court's preferred residence was the château of Compiègne, but the restorations at Fontainebleau continued and the charming theatre was added. This was the final important addition: with the fall of Napoleon III, the era of royal courts and ceremonial decoration ended, and the age of the Museum began.