Château de Fontainebleau

“A Fontainebleau, le plaisir est roi.”/”At Fontainebleau, pleasure is king.” Popular proverb

Legend says that in the 12th century a natural spring of water (fontaine) was found by royal hunting dog named Bleau. These two words were combined into the name Fontainebleau.

Fontainebleau is of unique historical importance because French monarchs built around rather than upon what previous French leaders had built. Fontainebleau, thus, preserves eight centuries of French history, from Louis IX to Napoleon.



The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. This is embodied in an international treaty called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO in 1972. What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.

UNESCO World Heritage Site description are available for use under CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0 The UNESCO text has edited to focus on the Palau de Musica.

Used by the kings of France from the 12th century, the hunting lodge of Fontainebleau, standing in the heart of the vast forest of the Ile-de-France in the Seine-et-Marne region, was transformed, enlarged and embellished in the 16th century by King François Iwho wanted to make it a “new Rome”. Surrounded by an immense park, the palace, to which notable Italian artists contributed, combines Renaissance and French artistic traditions. The need to expand and decorate this immense palace created the conditions for the survival of a true artistic centre.

The construction of the palace began in 1528. The modifications undertaken later by François I’s successors and carried out on different scales until the 19th century have left their imprint on the physionomy of the present complex, which today comprises five courtyards placed in an irregular manner and surrounded by an ensemble of buildings and gardens.

The first building was constructed between 1528 and 1540 under the direction of Gilles Le Breton, the architect of the Oval Courtyard in the eastern wing of the palace. From 1533 to 1540, Rosso Fiorentino worked on the painted decor and the stucco in the François I gallery, achieving an ambitious iconographic programme where themes illustrating monarchy through Greco-Roman fables and myths. Francesco Primaticcio casted the most famous bronzes of antique Rome for decoration. He consecrated the most productive phase of his career to Fontainebleau, where he worked on the frescoes of the Salle de Bal, the room of the Duchesse d’Etampes and the Galerie d’Ulysse. Very few of the rooms that he decorated have survived, but his creations are remembered thanks to drawings and engravings that considerably influenced his time. Nicolo dell’Abbate collaborated with him.

Fontainebleau is associated with other artists: a Hercules of Michelangelo was raised on a plinth in the Cour de la Fontaine; Benvenuto Cellini created his Nymphe of Fontainebleau for the Porte Dorée; Serlio drew up the plans for the different parts of the palace and conceived the entrance to the Fontaine Belle-Eau with its rustic grotto and telamons.

Through this contact with the Italian architects, painters and sculptors, French artists were influenced to transform their own practices. Although Gilles Le Breton appears to have escaped their influence at the beginning, Fontainebleau was a revelation for Philibert de l’Orme, and then for Androuet de Cerceau. The lesson of the Italian painters inspired yet another generation of artists, those of the second school of Fontainebleau, with Toussaint Dubreuilh, Ambroise Dubois and Martin Fréminet. The need to enlarge and decorate this immense palace created the ideal conditions for the existence of an active artistic milieu during the 17th century. The Italian artists called upon by the king, painters, sculptors and architects, decisively and lastingly oriented French Renaissance art, to which they have given their most prestigious and precious examples.

The gardens of Fontainebleau have also undergone important transformations over the centuries. To the east, the Grand Jardin, originally comprising a series of square flowerbeds separated by a canal, were redesigned by Le Nôtre and simplified little by little before adopting its present design, with its four flowerbeds and lawn bordered by flowers.

The Palace of Fontainebleau, a royal residence of the French sovereigns until the 19th century, was constantly maintained and enriched with artistic additions and is also associated with important historical events that occurred there, such as the repeal of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, and the abdication of Napoleon I in 1814.

Criterion (ii) The architecture and decor of the Palace of Fontainebleau strongly influenced the evolution of art in France and Europe. The Italian artists called upon by the king, painters, sculptors and architects, decisively and lastingly oriented French Renaissance art, to which they gave its most prestigious and precious examples.

Criterion (vi) The Palace and the Park of Fontainebleau, a major royal residence for four centuries, are associated with events in French history of exceptional universal importance such as the repeal of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685 and the abdication of the Emperor Napoleon I in 1814.

Until the 19th century, the Palace and the Park of Fontainebleau was the residence of the French sovereigns, who constantly maintained and enriched the palace with artistic additions.

Fontainebleau has conserved the mark of each reign and each style: François I, Henri IV, Louis XIII, Louis XV and Louis XVI, sovereigns who devoted their efforts to embellish this royal palace, which Napoleon I preferred above all others.


The Château de Fontainebleau is of great importance because it captures eight centuries of French history. The Chateau was home to 34 kings and two emperors.

“The first king whose presence in Fontainebleau we can attest to is Louis VII, the sixth sovereign of the Capetian dynasty. In 1137, the same year he ascended the throne, the young 17-year-old king issued a royal charter from his ‘palace’ of Fontainebleau. During his reign, Louis VII stayed many times in Fontainebleau. It is to him, in 1169, that the castle owes the foundation of a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Saturnin.” Château de Fontainebleau

Although parts of the Medieval Chateau survive with the keep, it is Francois I that greatly develops the structure in the Renaissance. Francois I efforts are then expanded by Henri IV and Marie de Medici. They add 600 rooms in less than eight years. Every successive ruler of France adds new components, up until Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie and their exile in 1870.

The following is a selection of structures.

The square building in the courtyard is the keep. Louis IX stayed here and founded a religious order. It is in Fontainebleau that Louis IX made the religious vow that if he survived the plague, he would leave on the crusade.

The Donjon is the oldest existing structure from Medieval Fontainebleau. The guide Kevin Daenens describes the Donjon as an architectural tree trunk and all other structures later branches that grew out of it.


Renaissance galerie decorated by Italian artists that Francois I brought from Italia. “The Royal Elephant” (c. 1533) painting by Rosso Fiorentino is the most compelling artwork in the Galerie. Francois I is the elephant, strong and wise, surrounded by three young men that perhaps symbolize “Neptune, Jupiter and Pluto, representing the three elements over which reigns François I, as a new Alexander the Great.”

“The style of the School of Fontainebleau goes back to the presence in France of the Italian artists Rosso Fiorentino, Primaticcio and Nicolò dell’Abbate who, invited by François I, participated in the decoration of the Château of Fontainebleau from 1530. They introduced a Mannerist, Renaissance elegance, where mythological and allegorical subjects replaced religious iconography, bringing the freedom to introduce sensual female nudes.” Delia Gray-Durant

The Galerie François I at Fontainebleau inspires the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles. The absence of religious iconography in the artwork shocked at the time. The first female nudes in France since antiquity are in this Galerie.


This staircase used to be the bedroom of the Duchess of Etampes, the lover of Francois I. It has since been converted into a staircase. The original sculptures of the sensual female nudes were actually covered up in the time of Louis XV, as they were considered too explicit. It was only in the 1960s that the figures were uncovered again.

“Decorated in the 16th century in the reign of Henri II, it gave the palace an all-weather, resplendent hall that was dedicated to the festivities of the Valois court. The rich coffered ceiling is covered with moon emblems and the king’s motto. As for the myths in the paintings, they were frescoed by Nicolo dell’Abbate under the direction of Primatice. Its gilded bronze lamps and chandeliers were made to illuminate its rare interior that Ingres described as “The French Vatican” in 1837 in the reign of Louis-Philippe.” Château de Fontainebleau

Napoleon converted Louis XVI’s old bedroom into his Throne Room. It is from this throne that Napoleon abdicated on 06 April 1814.

After the Grands Appartements of the Sovereigns, this eleven-room guest apartment is the most sumptuous living space in the palace. It was created in 1804 by combining two apartments built in adjoining buildings into a single row. Although it retains the name of the Pope’s Apartment since Pope Pius VII’s two stays there in 1804 as a guest and in 1812-1814 as a prisoner of Napoleon I, it is in fact presented today as a double princely apartment from the Second French Empire.

“Soldiers of my Old Guard, I bid you farewell. For twenty years, you have constantly been by my side on the road to honour and glory. You have always behaved with courage and fidelity…Receive my thanks. I cannot embrace you all, I will embrace your leader, I will also embrace your flag. Come, General, bring forward the flag…” Napoleon, 20 April 1814 quoted from Fondation Napoleon Napoleon then kissed a flag and departed to exile…only to return less than a year later for his final act.

Napoleon III, ordered the construction of an opulent theatre.

In 1867, the Empress Eugenie, created a Chinese Museum. Eugenie’s initiative was unique in that the space was an actual museum, the objects were authentic Asian artifacts, and Eugenie actually curated the space herself.

Napoleon III and Eugenie brought an actual gondola and gondolier from Venezia to Fontainebleau.


Claude-François Denecourt was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. He was eventually discharged from the army for his Republican views. He took solace in creating hiking trails in the Forest of Fontainebleau.


Château de Fontainebleau

Khan Academy

UNESCO World Heritage Foundation

Deutsch, Lorant. Métronome : L’histoire de France au rythme du métro parisien. Michel Lafon, 2014.

Gray-Durant, Delia. Blue Guide Paris . Blue Guides, 2015.

Horne, Alistair. Seven Ages of Paris . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2004.

King, Ross. The Judgment of Paris. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006.

Norwich, John Julius. A History of France. Grove Atlantic, 2018.

Price, Roger. A Concise History of France (Cambridge Concise Histories). Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Steves, Rick; Smith, Steve; Openshaw, Gene. Rick Steves’ Paris 2014 . Avalon Travel, 2014.

John William Bailly 30 June 2022

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