For centuries, the Forest of Fontainebleau has delighted visitors and inspired artists (like those affiliated with the nineteenth-century Barbizon School). At the heart of the forest is a spectacular palace—the Château de Fontainebleau—built initially under the King of France, Francis I (r. 1515–47). About 40 miles outside of Paris, the impressive renaissance space had been a modest hunting lodge until Francis reimagined it as a glorious palace to dazzle visitors with his power and magnificence.
Francis had great reason to emphasize his wealth and magnanimity. For years he had been at war with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, a gamble that continued to go poorly for the French king. The rulers battled over control of lands such as Flanders and northern Italy. Francis was even held captive for two years after a defeat, and when he was released he was forced to give Charles his two sons as hostages. When Francis returned to France to rule in 1527, he needed to find a way to reestablish himself as a powerful leader, even claiming that he was heir to the Roman empire. The creation of the Château de Fontainebleau was one way in which Francis made his power visible. In 1528, Francis hired Gilles Le Breton to construct the château’s buildings (finished in 1540). Fontainebleau was not Francis’s only large architectural project (he also had palaces and hunting lodges at Chambord, in the Bois du Boulogne, and Saint-German-en-Laye), but it is one of the most spectacular.
At first glance, the exterior of the château is relatively simple. Although it is surrounded by the forest, glorious gardens, and a moat, it is an inviting place. Once inside, it is a feast for the eyes. In particular, the Gallery of Francis I encapsulates the abundant ornamental style that became famously associated with Fontainebleau and French renaissance art.
Among the artists most important for the development of the palace’s interior decoration are the Italian Mannerist artists Rosso Fiorentino (who arrived in 1530) and Francesco Primaticcio (who arrived in 1532). They and many other artists transformed Fontainebleau into a resplendent palace, whose interior still overwhelms visitors with its ornamentation.
Francis attracted many artists to work at his various palaces. He was an avid collector of art, and had in his possession works by some of the most famous artists of the era—Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Perugino, Cellini, Andrea del Sarto, Giulio Romano, Michelangelo, Bronzino, Rosso, and Primaticcio. These works are at the Louvre today.
Similar to his collecting impulses, Francis also invited artists from the Italian peninsula and northern Europe to work for him. After his conquest of Milan in 1515, Francis hired Leonardo da Vinci who died in France in the employ of the French king. Apparently the Mona Lisa used to hang above Francis’s bathtub (at another palace), eventually being moved to the Palace of Versailles by Louis XIV. Sebastian Serlio (famous for his Greco-Roman, classicizing architectural treatises) came to consult on the construction of Fontainebleau, where he remained until his death.
Under Francis and his successors, Fontainebleau became a magnet for artists around Europe, like Rosso and Primaticcio. This was especially true after the Sack of Rome in 1527. Artists fled the city and found work elsewhere. This dispersal of artists allowed prominent European courtiers and rulers to attract artists.
The iconography of the Gallery of Francis I
Between 1533 and 1540, Rosso directed work on the Gallery of Francis I, which was at the time the most important part of the château. The space was created in 1528 to connect the royal apartments to a Trinitarian monastery (destroyed soon thereafter), and Rosso was hired—along with his sizeable team of French, Italian, and Flemish artists—to decorate the space. It is filled with frescoes, elaborate stucco decorations, woodwork, and gilding. The figures and ornamentation are considered some of the best expressions of a style called “mannerism,” or better yet a “classicizing ‘modern’ Italian renaissance style.” 
Twelve rectangular frescoes, surrounded by stucco frames (inquadrature), line the gallery walls. The short ends of the gallery also had frescoes, although only one remains (of Danae). The frames are a riot of ornament, with nymphs, putti, herms, garlands, scrolls, baskets, fruit, bucrania, masks, Michelangelesque nudes, hieroglyphic emblems, and strapwork. They also have narrative medallions and friezes in bas relief. Elongated, graceful bodies appear in paint and stucco. The impression is one of abundance and excess. All the stucco work curves and bends off the wall, as if alive.
Centered above the frescoes are golden, enflamed salamanders, which were the royal emblem of Francis I. It signified his Latin motto “I feed and I extinguish” (nutrisco et extinguo). Salamanders were thought to be able to walk through fire, here they suggest Francis’s strength.
As if the frescoes and stucco work weren’t enough, there is also decorative wood paneling (or boiserie). Similar to the stucco work, the lambris (the boiserie on the bottom portion of the wall) displays decorative strapwork and cartouches, along with the “F” for Francis and other emblems of the king.
It is truly a space fit for royalty.
What does it all mean?
The gallery’s meanings have been debated since their creation. The overall subject matter of the frescoes is odd—or at least oddly specific—and art historians don’t really know or agree on what the overall program is supposed to convey. The subjects are drawn from history, allegory, and myth. Some of the scenes were rarely depicted at the time. It is believed that Francis played a large role in determining the subjects and symbolism of the frescoes, and likely chose them because they helped to craft his persona. While some, such as Venus, the Death of Adonis, or the Lapiths and Centaurs, were more commonly depicted in the renaissance, others like the Education of Achilles and the Revenge of Nauplius were not.
The sources for the imagery included Homer, Ovid, and other classical authors popular among learned humanists of the time. Moreover, some of the imagery derives from Andrea Alciati’s famous emblems, and Rosso knew Alciati during his time in Venice. The humanist themes would have delighted learned visitors and showcased Francis’s erudition and imperial aspirations. Clearly, the entire process was collaborative, with Francis heavily involved in planning the iconography along with other humanists, Rosso, other artists like Primaticcio, and courtiers. Likewise, the physical transformation of the Gallery was a collaboration between painters, stucco workers, woodworkers, and more.
The Royal Elephant
One compelling fresco is the Royal Elephant, which presents a likely allusion to the king and patron himself. Elephants were symbols of power, wisdom, and royalty. Here, the large animal stretches from top to bottom of the composition. It wears feathers on its head and fleur-de-lis decorate it. A stork also rests at its feet. The elephant stands on Greco-Roman gods, including Neptune (with a dolphin and trident), Jupiter (with a lightning bolt), and Pluto (with a three-headed dog), all of whom are dressed all’antica (or in an antique, classicizing manner). They represent three of the elements: fire, water, and earth. A crowd gathers on a rooftop in the upper left, almost unaware of the large animal down below, although one little boy looks at the sizable animal. The red-headed man on the left is thought to possibly be Rosso, the painter himself.
Flanking the central fresco are scenes of Jupiter (as a bull) abducting Europa and Saturn (as a horse) approaching Philyra. These scenes of lust and rape offer a contrast to the central scene, especially because elephants were also symbols of chastity. It has been suggested that this scene of the Royal Elephant symbolizes Francis’s ability to control his emotions and the elements, and to act wisely, thereby making him a fitting ruler of France. This theory is supported by the small stucco scene underneath the fresco, which seems to show Francis as a new Alexander the Great (the famous Macedonian ruler who built a vast empire).
The French renaissance and the Fontainebleau School
Characteristics of French renaissance art include the abundance of decorative fruits and vegetables, paired with grotteschi (or grotesques, which are motifs inspired by ancient Roman frescoes such as those found in Nero’s Domus Aurea), such as we see in the stucco work. Some scholars do not believe this was just ornamentation, but communicated a deeper meaning. Art historian Rebecca Zorach, for instance, notes that Mannerism was aligned with the rebirth of Rome in the Renaissance and was considered a new form of classicizing and antiquarianism. The incorporation of the grotesques and the elongated, graceful bodies would have transformed the Gallery into a new Rome.
Rosso Fiorentino and Primaticcio were the two artists most closely identified with what became known as the School of Fontainebleau, and the Gallery of Francis I embodied this new French renaissance style. Their mannerist artistic tendencies transformed further during their time in France, lending a particular stamp to this style. Rosso’s earlier mannerist works, from his time in Florence when he worked with Andrea del Sarto and Pontormo, reveal how his visual strategies developed by the time he came to Fontainebleau. Rosso had started to include influences from Michelangelo during his time in Rome starting in 1524, which we see also in the Gallery. His visual strategies, in particular those in the stucco frames, would continue to be influential after his early death, especially on French artists. Engravings and etchings made of his works and designs were created in abundance and circulated widely. Francis supported the printed reproductions of Rosso’s work, in part because it made this space more widely available to a larger audience—thereby emphasizing Francis’s own magnificence.
Notes: Rebecca Zorach, Blood, Milk, Ink, Gold: Abundance and Excess in the French Renaissance (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 36.
Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlof, Fate, Glory, and Love in Early Modern Gallery Decoration: Visualizing Supreme Power (London: Ashgate, 2013)