The ancient royal hunting lodge of Fontainebleau, located in the center of a great forest in the Ile-de-France and used by the French kings since the 12th century, was altered, enlarged, and decorated in the 16th century by François I, who aspired to turn it into a “New Rome.” The Italianate palace, surrounded by a sizable park, mixes French and Renaissance artistic traditions.
The history of Château de Fontainebleau
Medieval palace: Fontainebleau’s walled fortress was mentioned in writing as early as 1137. Because of the plentiful animals and several springs in the nearby forest, it became a favorite house and hunting lodge of the Kings of France. It was named after the fountain de Bliaud, one of the springs currently found in the English garden opposite Louis XV’s wing. King Louis VII, for whom Thomas Becket dedicated the chapel in 1169, Philip II, Louis IX (later canonized as Saint Louis), who constructed the Couvent des Trinitaires, a hospital and monastery next to the castle, and Philip IV, who was born and died there, all made use of it.
Renaissance Château of Francis I: The castle had modest repairs and embellishments in the 15th century by Isabeau of Bavaria, the wife of King Charles VI. Still, the medieval building remained mostly unaltered until Francis I ruled (1494–1547). He hired the architect Gilles Le Breton to construct a palace in the new Italian Renaissance design that had just been introduced. Le Breton kept the original medieval donjon, where the King’s chambers were situated, but merged it into the new Cour Ovale, or oval courtyard, designed in the Renaissance era and constructed on the ruins of the last castle. It had a massive southern entrance called the Porte Dorée, and a massive Renaissance stairway called the Portique de Serlio that led to the royal apartments on the north side.
Château of Henry II & Catherine de’ Medici: King Henry II decided to continue and develop the château after Francis I’s passing. The King and his wife assigned the work to the architects Philibert de l’Orme and Jean Bullant. They widened the lower court’s east wing and added the first iconic horseshoe-shaped stairway to beautify it. They converted the loggia Francois had designed into a large ballroom with a coffered ceiling in the oval court. They created a new structure, the Pavillon des Poeles (destroyed), to house the new royal apartments, facing the courtyard of the fountain and the fish pond.
Amazing Architect of the Château de Fontainebleau
Spend some time admiring the double-horseshoe staircase in the Cour d’Honneur, popularly known as the Farewell Courtyard since that is where Napoléon said goodbye on April 20, 1814, before departing for the Island of Elba. The Renaissance apartments and the opulent Galerie de François Ier, which were richly decorated by Rosso Florentino, a master of the School of Fontainebleau, are located in the west wing. Admire Napoléon’s opulent Throne Room, the historic Saint-Saturnin Chapel, and the Guard Room’s striking chimney.
Don’t miss the Chinese Museum, which Empress Eugénie built and has priceless artifacts from China and Thailand. Inside this cabinet of mysteries, tactile Histopad tablets in multiple languages are also accessible for an educational dose of augmented reality and 3D enjoyment for the whole family.
10 Different parts of the Château de Fontainebleau
There are some rooms in this palace that you can visit, and here is some of the best ones:
- Gallery of Francis I
- St. Saturnin’s Chapels
- Room of the Guards
- Stairway of the King
- Queen’s bedroom
- Throne Room of Napoleon
- Council Chamber
- Apartment of the Pope
- Gallery of Diana
Gallery of Francis I
The Gallery of Francis I is among France’s earliest and best displays of Renaissance ornamentation. Francis I constructed it a part of his royal apartments in 1531. Between 1533 and 1539, Italian artists and artisans decorated it in the new Renaissance style by painter Rosso Fiorentino, also known as Primatice.
Francis I originally designed the ballroom as an outdoor corridor, or loggia. King Henry II converted it into a space for celebrations and balls in 1552 by closing it with tall windows and an elaborate coffered ceiling. The design features the King’s initial, “H,” and crescent moon figures, representing Diane de Poitiers, Henry’s mistress.
St. Saturnin’s Chapels
There is a chapel called St. Saturnin’s behind the ballroom. Initially constructed in the 12th century, the lower chapel was entirely demolished and rebuilt during Francis I’s reign. The Louis Philippe era saw the installation of Sèvres-made windows that his daughter Marie, a talented artist, had created. Philibert de l’Orme designed the royal chapel in the upper chapel. A dome marks the conclusion of the ballroom-inspired ceiling.
Room of the Guards
Next to the royal bed chambers was always a space for the guards. During Charles IX’s rule, the Salle des Gardes was constructed. A frieze of military honors and the vaulted ceiling credited to Ruggiero d’Ruggieri are two examples of the original decor from the 1570s that still has some remnants. The space was transformed into a salon in the 19th century by Louis Philippe, who also redecorated it. He installed a new parquet floor made of exotic woods that echoed the pattern on the ceiling and a massive fireplace (1836) that features decorations from earlier, now-demolished rooms from the 15th and early 16th centuries. Both figures on either side of the fireplace and the bust of Henry IV, credited to Mathieu Jacquet, are from that time.
Stairway of the King
In the location where Anne de Pisseleu, the Duchess of Étampes, a favorite of the King, had her bedroom during the reign of Francis I, the King’s staircase was built in 1748 and 1749. Many of the decorative elements employed in its design, created by architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel, were taken from a previous room that Primatice had previously adorned. Scenes from Alexander the Great’s love life are depicted in oval and rectangular panels that make up the upper half of the walls. Large Primatice statues of ladies surround the paintings. The room’s eastern wall was demolished during the renovation and rebuilt with artwork by Abel de Pujol during the reign of Louis Philippe in the 19th century.
From Marie de Medici until Empress Eugènie, France’s queens and empresses slept in the queen’s bedroom. The Dowager Queen Anne of Austria, the mother of Louis XIV, commissioned Guillaume Noyers, a furniture manufacturer, to create the elaborate ceiling over the bed in 1644. It carries her initials. Marie Leszczynska, the Queen of Louis XV, redecorated the room in 1746–1747. Jacques Vererckt and Antoine Magnonais created the rocaille-style ceiling of the alcove, the ornamentation surrounding the windows, and the wood paneling. The fireplace’s decoration is from the same era.
Throne Room of Napoleon
Napoleon decided to place his throne in 1808 on the spot where the royal bed had once been in the former bedroom of the French Kings from Henry IV to Louis XVI. The King’s bed represented regal authority in France during the Old Regime, and courtiers who passed by it saluted it. Napoleon wished to demonstrate the continuity of his Empire with earlier French dynasties.  The doors, the bottom portion of the wood paneling, and most of the carved wood ceiling originate from Louis XIII’s reign.
The Throne Room was not far from the Council Chamber, where the Kings and Emperors gathered with their closest advisors. It was once Francis I’s office and was ornamented with painted wooden panels depicting ancient heroes, the virtues, and designs modeled after the Primatice. Under Louis XIV, the space was expanded, while Claude Audran’s furnishings stayed true to the original design. Ange-Jacques Gabriel, an architect, completely redecorated the space between 1751 and 1754, adding arcades, wooden panels depicting virtues, and Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre and Carle van Loo paintings depicting allegories of the seasons and the elements.
Apartment of the Pope
The Pope’s Apartment, on the first floor of the Queen Mothers and Gros Pavillon wings, was named after Pope Pius VII, who stopped there in 1804 while traveling to Paris to proclaim Napoleon I as Emperor of France. From 1812 until 1814, he returned there against his will and was closely supervised by Napoleon. Before that, it served as the home of the Queen Mothers Marie de’ Medici and Anne of Austria starting in the 17th century. The Grand Dauphin, Louis XIV’s eldest son, also called it home. The daughters of Louis XV used it in the 18th century, and afterward, the Count of Provence, the brother of Louis XVI.
Gallery of Diana
King Henry II decided to continue and develop the château after Francis I’s passing. The King and his wife assigned the work to the architects Philibert de l’Orme and Jean Bullant. They widened the lower court’s east wing and added the first iconic horseshoe-shaped stairway to beautify it. They converted the loggia Francois had designed into a large ballroom with a coffered ceiling in the oval court. They created a new structure, the Pavillon des Poeles (destroyed), to house the new royal apartments, facing the courtyard of the fountain and the fish pond.
How to get to the Château de Fontainebleau
- The Fontainebleau-Avon station is about 50 minutes by train from the Gare de Lyon (mainline train); from there, take bus line 1 and get off at La Poste-Château.
- From the Porte d’Orleans or the Porte d’Italie, it takes 45 minutes by vehicle or bus. Take the Fontainebleau exit off of the A6 (Porte d’Orleans or Porte d’Italie) in the direction of Paris. Follow the signs for Fontainebleau, then the ‘château’ signs.