The Fontainebleau castle, symbol of French royalty

The Fontainebleau castle is a famous French castle located in the Ile de France, in the department of Seine-et-Marne, 55 kilometers southeast of Paris. Of medieval, renaissance and classical style, the castle of Fontainebleau is also known to have been the favorite residence of the king François 1st until Napoleon III. Classified as a historical monument since 1862 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981, the castle of Fontainebleau welcomes more than 500,000 visitors each year and has one of the largest collections of antique furniture in France, as well as sculptures, paintings and objets d’art. In this article, we will look at the history of the Fontainebleau castle, while focusing on the architecture of this historical monument that testifies to the meeting between Italian art and French tradition.

Le château et son escalier en forme de fer à cheval
The castle and its horseshoe-shaped staircase

The history of the Fontainebleau castle

To this day, the date of the foundations of the castle of Fontainebleau remains unknown, but a first building was probably constructed during the reign of Louis VII’s father, Louis VI Le Gros, or even during that of his grandfather, Philip I. Louis IX enlarged the castle of Fontainebleau at the beginning of the 13th century and installed nuns of the Trinitarian order in 1259. In 1268, Philippe IV Le Bel was the first king of France to be born in the castle of Fontainebleau and to have apartments built there as early as 1286. In 1325, Fontainebleau was visited by Isabella of France and Charles VI stayed there from 1388. During the Hundred Years’ War, the castle of Fontainebleau was abandoned and it was not until 1436 and the liberation of the Ile de France and Paris that Charles VII returned. During his reign, François I decided to build a Renaissance-style house on the site of the feudal castle. The old castle is razed, except for its keep and part of the northern curtain wall. Francis I called upon Italian artists to build and decorate the castle of Fontainebleau. A building outlining the oval courtyard and another located on the low western courtyard are connected by a gallery. The 3 wings of the White Horse Court were built between 1540 and 1542. Francis I, a great lover of art, also wished to make Fontainebleau a Mecca of Renaissance art: important collections from Italy were brought to the Fontainebleau estate, as well as works by Italian painters and artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Mona Lisa, which is now on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris. The decoration of the castle of Fontainebleau was entrusted to an Italian painter and decorator, Rosso Fiorentino, who designed the Pomona Pavilion, the Poesles Pavilion, and the François 1er Gallery. Giorgio Vasari, a Tuscan painter and architect, referred to the Fontainebleau estate as the new Rome. A few years later, Henri II, son of François I and new king of France, completed the Fontainebleau estate by adding a ballroom and a chapel, both connected to the building by the famous François I gallery. Most of the children of Henri II and Catherine de Medici were born at the castle of Fontainebleau. The three sons of Henry II, heirs to the estate, deserted the castle of Fontainebleau, the monarchs preferring the Louvre Palace.

Under the reign of Henry IV, the castle of Fontainebleau was enlarged, notably with the addition of several wings and the Baptistery Gate. The oval courtyard was straightened and the courtyard of the offices was fitted out, allowing Fontainebleau to welcome up to 1000 guests. Louis XIII was born in Fontainebleau on September 27, 1601 and Elisabeth de France, daughter of Henri IV, was born there on November 22, 1602. In 1631, Louis XIII and the Elector of Bavaria signed a secret alliance at the castle of Fontainebleau. During his reign, Louis XIV, who sits at the Palace of Versailles, likes to go to Fontainebleau. This is why Anne of Austria, his mother, had the gardens of Fontainebleau redesigned and landscaped by André-Le-Nôtre and Louis Le Vau. A rock fountain was added and the apartments of the castle were redecorated. Louis XVI stayed only a short time at the castle, but kept the tradition of an annual stay by making Fontainebleau the autumn palace. During the French Revolution, the castle of Fontainebleau was emptied of its furniture and in 1804, Napoleon I decided to revive Fontainebleau by refurbishing it, while fitting out 40 master apartments. The future Napoleon III was baptized there on November 4, 1810. During the Second Empire, Fontainebleau was one of the court’s vacation spots, and Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, was particularly fond of the Chinese salon, which was decorated with objects and gifts offered by ambassadors from Siam. During the Second World War, Fontainebleau was taken over by the Germans between 1940 and 1941. In 1986, the Napoleon I Museum in the Louis XV wing was inaugurated.

The architecture of the castle

Of the feudal castle, only the keep and traces of curtain walls remain. The two towers that formed the gate, as well as the buildings that formed the square have disappeared. Today, the castle of Fontainebleau is built around the following elements

  • The chapel of the Trinity: attached to the castle under the reign of François 1st, the chapel of the Trinity received its current vault only under the reign of Henri IV. Its magnificent baroque decoration was entrusted to the painter Martin Freminet and was not completed until 1633, under the reign of Louis XIII. The wedding of Louis XV and the baptism of Napoleon III were celebrated here.
  • The High Royal Chapel of Saturnin: located in the oval courtyard, it is also the oldest chapel in the Fontainebleau estate. The High Royal Chapel of Saturnin is a double chapel built on two superimposed levels during the reign of François I. The lower chapel is dedicated to the servants and the upper chapel, reserved for the king and his family, is accessible via the royal apartments.
  • The royal apartments: they consist of the king’s apartments and the queen’s apartments. The king’s apartments, accessible from the oval courtyard, consist of the guards’ room, the Saint-Louis rooms, the Louis XIII salon and the king’s bedroom. The queen’s apartment consists of the tapestry room, the Francois I room, the Empress’s room and the queen’s silver boudoir.
  • The pope’s apartment: composed of eleven rooms, this apartment, intended for the guests of the palace, is also the most sumptuous in the castle of Fontainebleau. It was named after Pope Pius VII who came to stay in 1804.
  • The Renaissance rooms: created during the reign of François I by Italian artists, the Renaissance rooms are composed of the François I gallery, the room of the Duchess of Etampes and the ballroom.
  • Napoleon’s apartment: installed on the second floor of the castle after the French Revolution, Napoleon’s apartment is located in the place of the former apartment of Louis XVI. Composed of 7 rooms, it includes the abdication room, the small bedroom of the emperor and Napoleon’s bedroom.
  • The 19th century galleries: after the fall of the Empire in 1815, successive restoration campaigns created inventive galleries in the large apartments of the castle of Fontainebleau. The gallery of Diana is the longest with its 80 meters long and its width of 6 meters. The Gallery of Plates was created under the reign of Louis Philippe I in 1840 and houses 128 porcelain plates from Sèvres set in wooden panelling. Finally, the Galerie des Fastes houses a collection of paintings evoking historical events related to the castle of Fontainebleau.
  • The Napoleon I museum: located near the main courtyard, this museum is entirely dedicated to the First Empire. With more than 500 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, objets d’art, weapons and costumes, the Napoleon I Museum was set up in 1986 in the Louis XV wing of the castle, in the former premises of the Fontainebleau military school.
  • The Chinese museum: installed on the first floor of the castle’s large pavilion in 1863 by Empress Eugenie, the Chinese museum was mainly built up thanks to the spoils of the Franco-English expedition against China in 1860, but also thanks to the arrival, in 1861, of a delegation of ambassadors from Siam.
The gardens of the castle of Fontainebleau seen from the sky
The gardens of the castle of Fontainebleau seen from the sky

The courtyards and gardens of the castle of Fontainebleau

The Fontainebleau estate covers nearly 130 hectares and the castle spreads its various buildings among 4 main courtyards, as well as 3 gardens and a park.

  • The courtyard of honor: also known as the “courtyard of the white horse” or the “courtyard of farewells”, the courtyard of honor is a former low courtyard of rectangular shape, which became over the years a parade ground. Built over 5 centuries, the courtyard of honor is initially closed by 4 wings of the castle then closed on 3 sides, during the 17th century, following the destruction of a wing of the building replaced by a gate. The main courtyard also houses the monumental horseshoe-shaped staircase, which has become a symbol of Fontainebleau, and which allowed the king to access his apartments.
  • The oval courtyard: located in the center of the castle, the oval courtyard owes its shape to the location of the previous medieval castle. For several centuries, the oval courtyard was the real courtyard of honor of the castle of Fontainebleau, also offering direct access to the royal apartments.
  • The courtyard of the offices : built by Henri IV to create a new access to the castle by the city, the courtyard of the offices, closed by 3 wings of buildings, sheltered at the time the common and the kitchens. It also allows access to the oval courtyard via the Baptist door.
  • The courtyard of the fountain: closed on 3 sides, the courtyard of the fountain owes its name to the monumental fountain built during the 16th century. It gives access to the Chinese museum created by Empress Eugenie.

The park of the castle of Fontainebleau is embellished with 3 gardens whose general conception was entirely revised during the 19th century. The 3 English and French style gardens are :

  • Diane’s Garden: located north of the castle of Fontainebleau and created by Catherine de Medici, Diane’s Garden is a landscaped garden, laid out in the English style. Reserved for the queen, it owes its name to the imposing fountain decorated with a statue of Diana placed in its center. It is decorated with spruce trees, bald cypresses, tulip trees and groves.
  • The English Garden: located to the east of the castle, this landscaped garden has been planted with rare species from around the world and laid out with narrow and winding paths. The English garden is also home to an artificial river and a fountain called “belle-eau”.
  • The grand parterre: extending over nearly 14 hectares, the grand parterre is a French garden designed by André-le-Nôtre. It is composed of walkways, grassy areas and 2 huge water basins.
  • The park: created under Henry IV, the park of the castle of Fontainebleau covers nearly 80 hectares. A large canal, 1200 meters long and 40 meters wide, was dug and more than 60,000 trees of various species were planted.

The castle in figures

  • 5 hectares of buildings
  • 1530 pieces listed
  • 2,600 linear meters of facades
  • 45,000m² of floor space spread over 11 levels
  • 2 hectares of roofing
  • 25 000m² of outbuildings
  • 30,000 works and collections
  • 4 main courses
  • 130 hectares of park and gardens
  • 40,000 items of furniture, including a hundred or so clocks set each day!

The Fontainebleau castle is also the 4th most visited castle in France, after the Versailles castle, the Chambord castle and the Chenonceau castle. More information on the website


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