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France’s Fontainebleau, Palace of Divine Monarchs and Napoleon


A massive mix of Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical styles, the palace of Fontainebleau shows the sweep of French history through its architecture — and how Napoleon added his “imperial” twist to royal luxury.

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Shifting from medieval piety back to royal excess, it’s time for one last palace. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Paris’ booming elite class made this area Europe’s château heartland. Most of these luxurious getaways began small — as hunting lodges — and then grew.

One of the most fascinating is Fontainebleau. When it comes to showing the sweep of French history, this château is unrivaled among French palaces.

While home to many kings though the ages, today, with its iconic and sweeping staircase, it’s the domain of tourists. The palace is richly decorated in royal and imperial symbolism, and its walls are hung with exquisite tapestries.

As you stroll, you can enjoy the artistic shift in styles. There is stately Renaissance, such as this fine hall, which dates from 1528. Overseen by King Francis I, it inspired other royal galleries, including the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The opulent ballroom, which hosted many royal parties, is Baroque. In the royal apartments, these ceilings come with the giddy extravagance of Rococo. And finally there’s the more sober post-Revolutionary Neoclassical. The decor of this stately library dates from the 19th century.

It seems every king, queen, and emperor since has loved this palace. Louis XIII was born here, Louis XV was married here, and after the anti-monarchy chaos of the French Revolution, Napoleon reigned as emperor right here.

Fontainebleau has more Napoleon Bonaparte connections than any other palace, with his personal apartments and an adjacent museum. Napoleon’s throne room is the only French throne room that survives with its original furniture. You’ll see where the emperor slept, the oversize desk where he worked, and the little table where he abdicated.

Grand paintings portray the emperor and his first wife, Josephine, after their coronation. Rooms are decorated in the Empire style of the Napoleonic age. A tent-like room is dedicated to Napoleon at war, with his small but iconic battle coat and hat, field-cot, and first-class camp gear. Napoleon aspired to create his own family dynasty. To turn his Corsican blood blue, he married a Habsburg. His second wife, Empress Marie-Louise, provided what he called “a royal womb.”

The hallway is lined with busts and portraits of the sprawling imperial family Napoleon created — relatives he put on various thrones all across his empire. It’s fascinating to consider the mix of ideals, charisma, and megalomania that shaped the emperor. This revolutionary hero came out of a movement that killed off the Old Regime — only to create a new Old Regime.

All this royal, noble, and imperial extravagance, and the resulting political upheaval is not necessarily a bad thing. I see it as the growing pains of democracy. It’s instructive to ponder these symbols of excess, once so out of reach and today the playground of the public. Why are today’s French so hell-bent on defending their civil liberties? Perhaps it has something to do with their heritage of overcoming abuse of power to earn their freedom.