I was surprised to learn recently that Greek and Roman notions of public bathing enjoyed a serious revival among the moneyed classes during the sixteenth century. Even as public baths in French cities were devolving into dens of vice and prostitution, nobles were building suites of bathing chambers in their châteaux. Like their Roman and Greek counterparts, these baths were intended to function as gathering places for learned men to discuss literature, art and politics.
François I constructed a sumptuous appartement des bains at Fontainebleau. Though the baths themselves have not survived subsequent centuries’ renovations, descriptions of the appartement abound in contemporary sources. Six rooms composed the suite: the bath proper (étuves), the steam bath (étuves sèches), the barber’s room, and three rooms for resting or sleeping.
The bath itself was square and five feet deep; spouts provided hot and cold water. A wooden balustrade painted to look like bronze, around which people could walk two abreast, surrounded the pool. The vaulted ceiling of the bath chamber, decorated with frescoes and stuccoed relief by the artist Primaticcio, depicted the story of Callisto. [R.J. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron, p. 412]
The three resting rooms housed the jewels of the king’s art collection: Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Andrea del Sarto’s Charity, Titian’s Magdalen, Rosso’s copy of Michelangelo’s Leda, Raphael’s Saint Michael. The twenty or so paintings were fixed to the walls at the center of elaborate stuccoed relief. [Louis Dimier, Fontainebleau, p. 96-97]
Always eager to impress, François would take favored guests and courtiers to the baths to relax, converse, and marvel at the paintings. Modern art historians shudder to think of these masterpieces housed in the damp atmosphere of the baths, but as Knecht points out, “a cultivated Renaissance gentleman would have seen nothing incongruous in the dedication of a building simultaneously to the care of the body and the pleasures of the mind” [p. 416]. Other noblemen followed the king’s example; the Constable of France, Anne de Montmorency, built a similar suite at his nearby château, Ecouen.
Can you imagine a better setting for a scene of intrigue? The naked limbs of painted goddesses and lounging statesmen peeking through wisps of steam; the smell of damp wood and wet plaster mingling with the sweat of over-perfumed bodies; the murmur of conversation rising and falling amid the plucking of lute strings and splashing of water. Just reading the description of place set my mind racing. Rest assured, my readers and I will spend time aplenty in François’s luxurious appartement des bains.