The main entrance of the courtyard was used to welcome French monarchs starting in the Renaissance period, when it was built by Francois I in the 16th century. About 200 years later, the 17th century horseshoe shaped staircase in front of the palace acted as the site of Napoleon’s formal farewell when he was exiled from France in 1814. When we first saw this grand staircase with its curvy, snakelike balconies, Jen and I couldn’t resist sprinting up the stone steps while Midori and Mackenzie took out their cameras.
In addition to the main courtyard, Francois I also was able to enjoy his spectacular art gallery, filled with frescos, wood carvings, and sculptures. Inspired by the early Renaissance art in Italy where he was being held captive, he later commissioned Italian artists Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio to paint frescos and create sculptures for his gallery. Religious scenes and Greek mythology are featured in the paintings, which are all displayed in glistening gold frames. Between the pictures, there are extremely life- like sculptures of various Greek gods. Walnut wood panels rest underneath the frescos and sculptures along the length of the gallery. After observing them more carefully, I could see symbols made of gold protruding from the wooden carvings. The three primary ones were the French royal symbol of the fleur de lis, the letter F for Francois, and a salamander. Legend has it that there was a devastating fire in France while King Francois’ was alive, and he saw that the salamanders were the only animals to survive the fire. Their ability to resist fire is the reason Francois chose the salamander as his symbol. I became increasingly aware of the importance of symbols like these during the course of my visit. Three interlaced crescent moons was the emblem of Henry II and later his daughter Diane. The meaning of this symbol: “until the king fills the world with his glory.” These symbols proudly illustrate the mighty presence of the monarchy royal all throughout the castle.
The grand salon was used by Napoleon I and Louis XVIII as a reception room for their royal guests. Designed in the neoclassical style, the walls of the salon were lined from floor to ceiling in colorful elaborate tapestries. The ceiling was covered in gold decorations, and included 7 sculptures of figures that each represented one of the known planets at the time. (This was before the discovery of Neptune and before Pluto became the 9th planet and then sadly got demoted as an official planet two years ago). The gold engravings on the ceiling were illuminated by an exquisite chandelier that hung in the middle of the room. The table and chairs under the chandelier were a sapphire blue color that provided a perfect contrast with their gold decorations.
When Napoleon I was the emperor of France, his signature spot in the castle was the spectacular throne room. Originally the bedroom of the kings who lived there, Napoleon transformed it into the location of his throne. He had the room completely redecorated in order to incorporate his personal imperial symbols. There was a shiny gold eagle with its wings outstretched above the letter N resting on each of the two golden poles supporting the canopy. The throne’s chair had an unbelievably bright gold frame, with a navy blue cushion and back rest. I can almost picture Napoleon issuing orders to the royal court members from his small yet marvelous chair. As we admired Napoleon’s throne in awe, we felt a strong temptation to go and sit in it ourselves. The ceiling was virtually solid gold, adored with elegant designs and figures symbolizing war, peace and the seasons. In the middle of the ceiling, there was a painting of Apollo being pulled by white horses in his chariot across the sky. He represents the sun that is shining on Napoleon during his reign, bringing him glory.
The kings were not the only ones who enjoyed the multiple splendid rooms of Fontainebleau. Queen Diane was given an 80 meter long art gallery that has paintings both on the walls and the ceiling. Diane also had her own garden, which included a statue of the goddess of hunting with her four bronze dogs. Our favorite part of the garden was the stunning peacocks that we encountered en route to the castle. We saw a pure white peacock spread out its feathers, and one whose bright blue color rivaled the royal blues that I had seen inside the castle. An ornate bedroom was furnished for Marie-Antoinette; there were delicate flower designs on the walls, canopy, seat cushions, rugs, and bed. I felt like I was walking through a garden in the spring, where everything is in bloom. Unfortunately, she did not get a chance to sleep in her pretty floral themed room due to a minor incident involving the removal of her head during the French Revolution.
For Pope Pius VII, Fontainebleau ironically served as both a place of celebration and a prison. He was invited to the castle in 1804 to crown Napoleon as the first Emperor of France. This was a monumental moment in the history of France and Fontainebleau, because he was to restore the prestige and magnificence of Fontainebleau after it had lost many of its furnishings during the French Revolution. Pope Pius VII was forced to return to Fontainebleau in 1812, where he was held as a prisoner for two years. We passed the entrance of the dungeon where the pope was kept at the end of our tour. I immediately thought of the prison gate in the Pirates of the Carribean ride at Disneyland when I saw the black gate and door with multiple key holes.
When I first decided to go to Fontainebleau last week, I was worried that the castle would be a letdown after seeing the breathtaking, lavish décor of Versailles. Yet I realized during my visit inside the Fontainebleau castle that the legends of the many kings that have lived there for nearly 8 centuries and the artistic masterpieces that we marvel at today make this place truly unique.