Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Royal Habitrail®

Where did a Renaissance king go to escape from it all? He'd take a hike--or rather a stroll. But not through the wilds of nature--the woods, after all, were for hunting. He'd walk in his own private gallery, one of the few places in the palace where he could dodge the crowds and think.

Galleries, in Renaissance châteaux, were long, hall-like structures attached to the monarch's private suite. While later in the century and beyond galleries were used as public waiting rooms or the setting for lavish receptions (think Hall of Mirrors--Galerie des Glaces--at Versailles), in the first half of the century they were intended for the king's private use and accessible only from his most secluded chamber.


Fontainebleau provides a prime example of this arrangement. The grande galerie, as it came to be known, jutted out at a perpendicular angle to the château proper. Before the renovations that began in 1528, the gallery served as a passage between the royal apartments and the neighboring abbey. When François I decided to build a bathing suite on the ground floor beneath the gallery, he moved the doorway to the upper passageway so that it communicated directly with his chamber. Since the staircase stood at the far end of the passageway, he had to traverse the gallery whenever he wished to access the baths or the garden below. He kept the gallery locked and the key on his person. Only those he expressly invited to accompany him ever saw the gallery's lavish frescoes and stucco work, executed by the Italian artist Rosso Fiorentino. An exterior terrace ran alongside the second-story gallery to facilitate the courtiers' passage from one area of the château to the other (the abbey was eventually replaced by new wings).

Other châteaux which featured private galleries included Bury, Écouen, Villers-Cotterêts, and the Louvre.

The purpose of these galleries was primarily exercise, as numerous contemporary references demonstrate. An architectural treatise dating from 1620 defined the gallery as the place where the lord could walk and converse with the visitors who came to discuss business with him. Henri IV was said to have constructed the grande galerie at the Louvre so that he could "stroll and watch what was going on on the Seine." La Grande Mademoiselle, his granddaughter, wrote that she walked by torchlight in her gallery at Saint-Fargeau for a half hour in the evening, and then again after supper with friends. Montaigne, the essayist, claimed that if it weren't for the cost, he would build galleries off each side of his library, each one hundred paces long by twelve wide, so that he could walk and think, for it was only while moving his legs that his thoughts took flight.

For a social class accustomed to the hard physical exertions of hunting and warfare, indoor galleries permitted uninterrupted exercise during times of darkness and inclement weather. Attached as they were to the private apartments, galleries provided members of the royal family a place where they could, quite literally, walk off the stress of being constantly in the public eye.

[Source: Jean Guillaume, "La galerie dans le chateau français: place et fonction," Revue de l'Art 1993, 102(1): 32-42. Photograph of Francis I Gallery, Fontainebleau, courtesy of Wikimedia.]

1 comment:

Lynn Irwin Stewart said...

I could use one of those!!