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The Porte Dorée
In 1528 the Porte Dorée replaced a medieval gate that was in the same location. Its succession of loggias, with vaulted ceilings resting on corner columns, and its array of pilasters and pediments, make it one of the most innovative pieces of architecture from the early overhaul of Fontainebleau by Francis I. Somewhere between a French Medieval Châtelet and the residences of Italian princes, it reflected the king’s desire make the entrance to his renovated residence more impressive. Opening directly onto the Cour Ovale via an entrance porch adorned with frescoes by Primaticcio, this gate was, for centuries, the main entrance to the château.
The Cour Ovale
The historical heart of the château where the big square tower of the keep still stands, the Cour Ovale was the site of the first medieval castle. Lined with façades that were entirely rebuilt in 1528 by Francis I, reusing as much old stonework as possible, this courtyard was, for centuries, the main courtyard at the château, with direct access to the royal apartments. The portico featuring columns and triumphal arches, known as "Serlio's portico", led, via long gone a staircase, to the apartments on the first floor. It reflects the increasingly monumental ambitions that Francis I harboured for Fontainebleau. In a constant quest to make this courtyard more majestic, Henry IV tried to correct its asymmetry by making it U-shaped. The Cour Ovale opens in the south via the Porte Dorée and, in the east, into the Cour des Offices via the Baptistry Gate.
The Baptistry Gate
It was Henry IV, the great builder king, who had this triumphal gate topped with a dome built in 1606, giving the Cour Ovale an opening in the East. Like a modern triumphal arch, its base reuses the imposing gate with rustic masonry that Primaticcio had erected in 1565 for the drawbridge gate over the moat. The upper level, in the form of an arch, is topped by a faceted dome adorned with sculptures featuring Victories supporting the king’s arms. A commemorative monument to make the entrance to the Cour Ovale more impressive, the gate takes its name from the baptism of Louis XIII, the son of Henry IV, which was held in this same courtyard on 14 September 1606.
Cour des Offices/quartier Henri IV
A large complex formed of three wings in sandstone, bricks and rendered masonry, this front courtyard demonstrates Henry IV's ambition to create a new entrance to the château, via the town. Built between 1606 and 1609, the Cour des Offices or "Quartier Henri IV" (Henry IV quarter) housed outbuildings and kitchens in a monumental architectural style. Facing towards the town with a gate cut out of a large recess, it features a procession of architecturally impressive buildings and from it the Cour Ovale can be reached via the Hermes gate and the Baptistry Gate.
The Cour de la Fontaine
Closed on three sides and overlooking the Carp pond to the south, this courtyard takes its name from the monumental fountain which was built there in the 16th century, topped with Michelangelo’s Hercules. This courtyard was carved out of the space defined in the south by the banks of the pond, and in the north by the wing of the Francis I Gallery linking the royal apartments in the keep and the Trinity Chapel. The courtyard is enclosed, to the east by Primaticcio's Belle-Cheminée wing (circa 1565-1570), organised around two staircases to make the entrance to the king's new apartment more impressive. Facing it, to the west, the Queen-Mothers’ wing (1558-1565) ends in Gabriel's Great Pavilion (1750), part of Louis XV’s project to endow the château with the elegance and good taste of French classicism. On the ground floor of this Great Pavilion, the Chinese Foo dogs mark the entrance to the "Chinese Museum" that Empress Eugenie had built in the 1860s.
The carp pond and its pavilion
Facing south, the carp pond owes its name to the famous carp which have been at Fontainebleau since Henry IV. To the east, the water in the pond is held back by a dike that was called "Chaussée de l’étang" before it was renamed "Allée de Maintenon". In the 16th century, this 6 hectare expanse of water, created in the Middle Ages to drain water from the gardens, was the setting for sumptuous water-borne festivities at the Valois Court. The octagonal pavilion was built by Louis Le Vau under Louis XIV, in 1662, and restored in 1807, during the refurbishments prior to the creation of the English garden. It was built to line up with the Grand Canal and the Grand Parterre, opening up a wide vista to the east.
The Cour d'Honneur
Closed on three sides and facing west towards the town since the fourth wing was demolished and a gate was created in 1809-1810, this "vast courtyard" with a uniform layout from the 16th century gradually became the main courtyard at the château. Known as "White Horse Courtyard" since it was built, in the 16th century, after a horse statue at its centre, it is bordered to the east by the iconic Horseshoe staircase wing punctuated by five pavilions which were built between the 16th and 19th century. In the north, the Ministers’ wing, built in the 1530s bears the initials of Francis I and his salamander. Facing it, the Louis XV wing, which is taller and boasts brick and stone façades maintains the harmonious colour palette of the courtyard. Construction of the Louis XV wing started in 1739 on the ruins of the Ulysses gallery to house accommodation for the court, and it was only completed in 1773-1774. Since Napoleon I bid farewell to his Old Guard, on 20 April 1814, this courtyard which became the most famous view of the château de Fontainebleau, was also known as the "Cour des adieux".
The Horseshoe staircase
The construction of a grand ceremonial staircase, leading directly to the Francis I Gallery and the Royal Apartments, turned the "White Horse Courtyard" into a main courtyard in direct competition with the very old Cour Ovale. Replacing the first horseshoe staircase built in the 16th century by the French architect Philibert Delorme, the current staircase was built in 1632. It was one of the few building projects commissioned by Louis XIII at Fontainebleau, as can be seen from his emblem, the caduceus, punctuating his curved double staircase. This monumental sandstone staircase became the symbol of the castle and was copied time and again at other residences. It was at the foot of this symbol of royal pomp and ceremony, and following a memorable descent down its stairs, that Napoleon I made his famous farewell speech to the Imperial guard, on 20 April 1814.
Jeu de paume (real tennis)
The jeu de paume court, built under Henry IV and rebuilt almost identically in the 18th century, is an invaluable record of the recreational facilities provided for the kings at Fontainebleau. This "tripot" (as the court is called) is still the largest in the world today. Jeu de paume, the precursor to all racket sports, quickly became the favourite game of the kings. A target and strategy based game with sophisticated rules, it is played on a court known as a "carreau", where players stand on opposite sides of the net and try to win the game by "playing to the gallery". Extremely popular over the centuries, jeu de paume declined in popularity during the 19th century. The court at Fontainebleau is one of the rare courts in France where this sport continues to be practised. While this game has been more or less forgotten, a number of French phrases relating to the sport are still very much alive in the language: "if you leave your place, you lose it", "in the nick of time", "be left on the sidelines" or "it'll end in tears".
The grotte des pins
One of the earliest examples of an artificial grotto in France, the "grotte des pins" is at the end of the Louis XV wing built on the site of the Ulysses gallery wing. Built in the early 1540s to mark the entrance to Francis I’s Jardin des Pins, this Italian style mannerist grotto, undoubtedly designed by Primaticcio, features three arches hewn out of sandstone blocks in a rustic fashion. The columns consist of monumental Atlantes which, imprisoned in stone, represent the forces of surrounding nature, yielding "to the miracles of art" (Malherbe).
Extending beyond the stepped Bassin des Cascades, the park previously marked – to the east – the limits of the royal estate. From the village of Avon, it was crossed by the main access road to the château. Its current layout, arranged in a network of cascades and radiating pathways, dates from the creation of the canal (1,200 metres long and 40 metres wide) under Henry IV (1606-1609). Originally planted with over sixty thousand trees where rows of silver poplars, oak and fruit trees grew, this "enclosed park" and its canal were the pride and joy of the king, who followed its construction closely. In 1609, it took over a week to fill it with water and in the autumn, the king sailed on it.
The Grand Parterre
The creation of the Grand Parterre between 1660 and 1664 – the largest in Europe (14 hectares) – by André Le Nôtre and Louis Le Vau, reflects Louis XIV’s desire for open spaces at Fontainebleau. The box hedges in this French-style formal garden disappeared under Louis XV. All that remains is the general layout of the grass sections, the water features adorned with statues, including the Bassin des Cascades (17th and 19th centuries), facing east towards Henry IV’s Canal. In 1817, a square pool, known as the "pot bouillant" was added to its centre while to the south, on the forest side, a statue of the Tiber was added to the round pool. Since the time of Louis XIV, four sandstone sphinxes, goddesses with the bodies of lions sculpted by Lespagnandelle in 1664, have marked the boundary between the Parterre and the park.
The Diana Garden
Formerly the Queen's private garden, this garden is bordered by the monarchs’ most intimate spaces (the Empress’ Petits Appartements and Marie Antoinette's Turkish boudoir). Until the 19th century, this garden was enclosed by buildings. When they were demolished, and an adjoining strip of land was purchased, it was extended towards the town. Redesigned in the style of an English landscape garden and planted with remarkable trees such as a Catalpa and an American tulip tree, it takes its name from a fountain decorated with a statue of Diana the Huntress. The only surviving highly embellished fountain created under Henry IV, it stands in the centre of a circular tiered pond. On the bottom of the pedestal supporting the majestic goddess armed with her quiver, four bronze stag heads, by Pierre Biard, and four dogs, are a reminder that Fontainebleau was considered to be the "Temple of Diana", a hunting ground highly prized by the monarchs.
The English Garden
This English style landscape garden was designed by Hurtault, who also designed the Grille d’Honneur, in 1810-1812. While we know that Napoleon I did not particularly like this style of garden, it was however, very fashionable at the time. Planted with rare trees from around the world and featuring narrow, winding paths, it is traversed by an artificial river and still contains, in its secret nooks and crannies, the "fontaine Belle-Eau" after which the château is named, and whose spring was a constant source of pride for the monarchs. There follows a series of gardens created since the reign of Francis I in this western part of the estate on land claimed from monks, including the famous Jardin des Pins.