When François I decided to transform what was still a medieval fortress, he made the Château de Fontainebleau one of the cultural centers of the Renaissance. Its ballroom with magnificent frescoes is a brilliant symbol of this.
After the death of the monarch, the works were carried out during the reign of Henry II by Italian Mannerist artists. Later, a 19th century influence is superimposed on the original paintings when Jean Alaux undertakes the renovation of the room from 1834. He brings the decorations back to life: it is the “Renaissance of the Renaissance”, explained in an exhibition designed by Oriane Beaufils, curator and curator.
Primatice and the Renaissance
“Since 1528, François Ier ordered work to the castle and there was only one room missing to celebrate”, says Oriane Beaufils. After his death in 1547, the embellishments continued and Henry II called on the Primatice to draw frescoes, carried out under the responsibility of Nicolo dell’Abate between 1552 and 1556. “The two painters form a tandem and their styles are intertwined” assures the curator. The decorations are necessarily festive and the mythological references, very popular during the Renaissance, multiple.
Here is Bacchus, god of wine and in front of him, a scene showing the preparation of bread. Venus, she is seated and at her feet the young man Love looks us in the eyes. Apollo surrounds himself with muses while, not far away, women dance. The goddess Eris, forgotten by the guests, throws her golden apple of discord in the center of the table of a feast …
“You have to paint fresh as indicated by the word fresco” resumes Oriane Beaufils. “We cover the wall with plaster and paint on it, before it dries. The whole is one “. Influenced by Raphael or Michelangelo, the decor is “Full of references, quotes. But Primatice detaches himself from the masters and reinvents himself in a dazzling synthesis of the Renaissance which also introduces Mannerist elements ”. Such as the unbalanced positions – impossible to adopt in real life – of the characters, the exacerbated contrast of colors or the sensual bodies of women, “Absolute queens”.
Jean Alaux and the rebirth of the Renaissance
Strongly exposed to humidity, the room sees its stones damaged over time and frescoes that crack. Under the reign of Louis-Philippe, the ballroom underwent its first real restoration under the rule of the French painter Jean Alaux between 1834 and 1837. The artist used the drawings of the Primatice. “He tries his hand at the Renaissance style but his time” stands out “, decrypts Oriane Beaufils, even if he tries, in a touching way, to blend into the codes of mannerism, leaving aside his identity as a painter for that of a restorer ”. The 19th century is expressed through more opulent female silhouettes or “Movements accentuated by light effects”.
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The painter uses wax to cover the walls and ceilings. “It was then an experimental technique” specifies Oriane Beaufils. “But, alas, a bad idea. When we do restoration, we try to do something reversible. This is not the case with wax ”. As the surface of the frescoes is not smooth, due to damage caused by humidity, the wax fills the “holes” compromising access to certain parts of the drawings …
A new rebirth?
In the 20th and 21st centuries, more sustainable solutions will be provided such as… double glazing or heating. The objective is to “Control the climate” sums up Oriane Beaufils. A large study has been carried out in recent months: “Measurement of the humidity level of each wall, observation of each current of hot and cold air …” Without forgetting, argues the curator, “Taking into account all environmental factors”. A new restoration would now require more than 7 million euros. Fontainebleau is awaiting aid and sponsorship.
1545. Reign of François Ier, work on the ballroom begins.
1547. Death of Francis 1is, the room is not yet finished. Work continued under the reign of Henri II but took a different direction.
1552-1556. Realization of the frescoes, from drawings by Primatice, under the direction of Nicolo dell’Abate.
1834 to 1837. Reign of Louis-Philippe, restoration in wax by Jean Alaux. Inauguration of the room in 1837 with the marriage of Louis Philippe’s son.
XXth century. Double glazing, heating… we are trying to find solutions to preserve the Ballroom as best as possible.
1960s. “Dérestauration” of Jean Alaux’s Ballroom.
2021. Exhibition, until August 31 of the “renaissance of the Renaissance”, Jean Alaux and the restoration of the ballroom, at the Fontainebleau castle.