The Château De Pierrefonds, A Romantic 19th Century Medieval Castle
- by William Thomas
- Mar 16,2018
- 122 Views
The Château de Pierrefonds is an impressive French treasure. It looks like a medieval castle but it was actually built during the 19th century. Wonder why? Let’s dig…
Legal disclaimer: I found books, about the Château de Pierrefonds, that you may like to read so this post includes some affiliated links down below. If you decide to buy, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you.
OK, first some historical background…
Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808 – 1873) or Napoleon III is not to be confused with his famous uncle Napoléon Bonaparte ( 1769 – 1821). Napoleon III was President from 1848 to 1852 and back to the Emperor of the French business thing, from 1852 to 1870.
We’re not going to go into details into what wars he went to, but solely what he influenced most.
You see, Napoleon III transformed Paris.
He began by launching a series of enormous public works projects: sanitation, water supply and traffic circulation.
He encouraged the first department stores, le Bon Marché (opened in 1852) and later the Printemps (opened in 1865). And we are so thankful for that!
Napoleon III also initiated the building of two new railway stations: the Gare de Lyon and the Gare du Nord. He got many Paris landmarks built or completed like Les Halles, the Hôtel-Dieu or the Opera Garnier.
Inspired by his travel, he transformed the Bois de Boulogne, the Bois de Vincennes, the Parc Monceau and the Jardin du Luxembourg and created the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. He created numerous smaller parks as he wanted every Parisian to be no more than a ten-minute’s walk from a park.
Napoleon III didn’t do this alone! He appointed Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the Baron Haussmann to lead the transformation of Paris.
The Baron Haussmann
Haussmann? Yes Haussmann the guy who gave his name to a whole construction style: the Haussmann building! Haussmann was granted enormous powers to rebuild the city, to create new avenues and to embellish Paris.
Love or hate his style but today, around 60% of all Parisians’ buildings are from this period and participate to the romantic feeling you get when visiting Paris.
Haussmann’s plan for Paris inspired the urban planning and creation of similar boulevards, squares and parks in many other European cities.
We’ll talk about Haussmann a lot more very soon… For now if you’re feeling a bit lost, you can always check my Paris map.
Viollet le Duc
There was another man of great influence, during these time and such man was Eugène Viollet-le Duc. We talked about him a tiny bit when visiting Carcassonne but let me tell you a bit more.
Viollet-le Duc was an architect, a Gothic Revival architect to be more exact, which put him in a complete different box than the most renown architects of the time, who were champions to the Beaux-Arts architectural trend.
But in the early 19th, there was in Europe a renewed interest for older buildings and restoration of medieval castles or churches was becoming popular.
So Viollet-le-Duc, became the go-to architect, in the niche market of Gothic revival and Gothic restorations! That is despite the fact that his style was more of a free interpretation of what medieval aesthetic was, than faithful reconstructions.
Viollet-le-Duc handled numerous restoration projects, of which the most famous are the spire of the Cathedral Notre Dame de paris, the Château de Vincennes, the Abbey of Mont Saint Michel, Carcassonne and of course the Château de Pierrefonds.
The Romantic period
At the beginning of the 19th century, an important trend was romanticism and Viollet-le-Duc (1814 – 1879) was raised during such time.
Romanticism was an artistic movement which encompassed all Art forms from painting to literature, music and of course architecture. Romanticism was also a broad intellectual movement which glorified things of the past with a preference for medieval times rather than classicism. As a reaction to the industrial revolution, it included a strong link to all things ‘nature’.
During such time, it was fashionable to look at medieval ruins as something picturesque. Artistic representation of ruins were appreciated. Tourism grew from there, as people wanted to appreciate such beauty for themselves. The development of modern transport helped people get to those places! Oh, the irony of such contradictions isn’t new and isn’t lost…
Romanticism was a European movement (well not only European but it did originate there). In terms of architecture, we’ve already seen examples of it in Sintra in Portugal or with the Lichtenstein castle and the Hohenzollern castle in Germany.
Now let’s see what it looks like at Pierrefonds.
The Château de Pierrefonds
The Château de Pierrefonds you get to admire today is laid on the remains of a first castle built in the 8-10th century and a fortress built in the 14th century by the Duke Louis of Orléans (a Vallois).
Royal family feuds, numerous wars, England, Joan of Arc… all leads to the destruction of Pierrefonds in the 17th century. In 1617, Richelieu, Louis XIII’s minister, commanded the destruction of Pierrefonds. The task was actually enormous and never performed entirely!
Thereafter the remains of the fortress were left abandoned, until the 19th century, when Napoleon III asked Viollet-le-Duc to restore Pierrefonds, to its formal beauty.
When first assigned with such projet in 1857, Viollet-le-Duc was supposed to only restore some of the habitable parts. But in 1861, Napoleon III decided he wanted Pierrefonds to become an imperial residence, so the castle was to be entirely rebuilt.
But Napoleon’s reign didn’t last, Viollet-le-Duc died and money run out… Pierrefonds was rebuilt but decoration was never completed.
A word on the architecture of Pierrefonds
Outside, Viollet-le-Duc respected many of the Medieval architecture features, although he added quite a few decorative accessories.
Inside, it is considered that his vision was mostly a work of invention as he choose to represent Pierrefonds as it should have been.
Overall, Pierrefonds is a château with a medieval look but make no mistake, it was built with the construction methods of the 19th century.
A combination of history and modernity, if you wish!
Let’s visit the Château!
First you will get to walk around the castle…
The walk around the castle enables you to see details of the construction that are usually hard to see. Take your time!
You will then arrived at the drawbridge.
Do admire the first Saint George slaying the dragon statue above your head. You will find more Saint George representations later.
As you pass the drawbridge, don’t miss the Salamander shape drain. The Salamander was on the coat of arms of François I (the first king of the Valois branch) as it was considered a mystical beast capable of bathing in fire. Not sure if this is the reason why it is in Pierrefonds but I would imagine so.
You’re now in the courtyard and you have the main building on your left but the access is behind you.
Do notice how such building seems to have 4 distinctive floors. As you continue your visit, you will notice that inside, there are only 2.
As you enter the keep by the tower abutting such keep, look at the 4 women statues on such tower. They represent the four cardinal virtues: Justice, Temperance, Prudence and Force.
The State Room
You will first arrive in the state room, pictured above and below which was a room designed for Napoleon III to receive guests.
Napoleon III study
Next you enter the study. Viollet-le-Duc had designed furniture for this room but it was never made. Imperial eagle motif on the walls, bees on the fireplace, detailed carving…
Napoleon III bedroom and the Empress’ bedroom
More Royal eagles adorn Napoleon III’s bedroom, but as seen from a profile this time. The bed designed by Viollet-le-Duc was never built, yet the room is still gorgeous. The frieze depicts the ideal education of a knight. Start from the right of the fireplace and go around.
The Salle des Preuses
From the Empress’s bedroom as you follow a narrow passageway, you will arrive at in the Arms room which builds the excitement for Viollet-le-Duc grandiose salle des Preuses!
The Valiant knights adorn the 8 tours of the castle, but the Valiant ladies adorn this incredible room.
The Salle des Preuses was to be a ballroom so a whole orchestra could fit in the gallery above the Arms room (pictured below).
Who were the Valiant Ladies? I’m not sure I want to spoil it for you. if you really want to know, you can click here. You’ll have to dig into the Medieval legends, imaginary and traditions to fully understand.
If the statues do represent the Valiant ladies, their features were based on the Empress and her ladies-in-waiting.
The Salle des Gardes
Beneath the Salle des Preuses, lies the Salle des Gardes. Remember we said that there were only 2 floors in the main building. As with the Salle des Preuses, this is again obvious here.
The Guard Room hosts a portion of the archeological remains found during the reconstruction of the castle.
The model of the Pierrefonds castle below is like no others. It will build in the late 19th century from tiny carved stones. It took 10 years to build.
Here again, Viollet-le-duc took great liberties with the Medieval style.
But before you enter, notice the statues on the portal. The central one is Viollet-le-Duc himself, shown as Saint James of Compostella.
So what is so special inside? Well, Viollet-le-Duc create a gallery above the choir! This enabled him to get even more light into the Chapel and more height. This is the only church in existence with such a gallery!
Another Saint George slaying the dragon statue!
The Guest Wing
As you stand in the courtyard again, the statue of Louis d’Orleans greats you at the bottom of the stairs.
The staircase is decorated with 4 squatting monsters which to me felt adorable!
If you decide to go up, you will be greeted by another mystical creature.
Such creature, like the rest of the exhibition you will admire here, comes from the Monduit collection, a lead casting firm which creations can be admired on the roofs of Pierrefonds but also on the roof of Notre Dame de Paris and many other places.
The Plaster Model room
In this simple room, you will get to come close to the plaster models used to create the various statues of the castle.
There is many more things to see, especially if you pay attention to details and if you explore all the castle. I hope I gave you enough to make you want to visit asap!!
Do not miss the ‘secret’ passage between the guest wing and the chapel!
The Château de Pierrefonds is a history lesson on its own and a great place to escape Paris!
The technical Bits
The official website including opening times: www.chateau-pierrefonds.fr
A website of great interest for French lovers: https://frenchmoments.eu/pierrefonds/
You may have recognized Pierrefonds as it was used in various movies like The Man in the Iron Mask and TV shows like Merlin, the BBC TV show about the legend of Arthur.
The Pierrefonds city is perfectly charming, don’t forget to have a stroll after your visit.
If you wish to learn more about the Pierrefonds Castle history, I have found 3 books for you.
- The first one is the one I have. Small but full of information
- The second one is actually a three-dimensional paper model! How cool is that!?!
- The third one seems really nice! Like coffee table nice!
Click on the picture above and you will be redirected to Amazon. Those are Amazon affiliated links. If you purchase one of these, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you.
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