Pierrefonds

This fairy-tale structure33 (Fig. 10) shows the designing hand of Viollet-le-Duc and is nearly as fanciful as Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria.34 The original castle was built in 1390-1407 by Louis d’Orléans, brother of Charles VI, King of France. It was grandiose with comfortable and luxurious apartments set within very high curtain walls that could be defended by a relatively small garrison. By this time a decorative element was beginning to relieve the stark defensive character of fortified castles and at Pierrefonds the Gothic taste for verticality, a reaching to the heavens, was much in evidence. During the Second Empire, Napoleon III decided that the substantial ruins of Pierrefonds (Fig. 11) should be restored and made into an imperial residence. In 1857 Viollet-le-Duc was put in charge of the mammoth project. In addition to restoring the castle, he was eventually to be responsible for the decoration and furnishing of its galleries and apartments. His approach was very individualistic and blended several styles. Thus the external structure retains the basic layout of the original structure and is nominally medieval (even though he did include some emplacements for cannon). The interiors are in a Renaissance style which manages to include heroic figures, plant forms and fabulous beasts. Some decorations foreshadow art nouveau. One of his many dicta was – ‘Restoration: the word and the thing are modern. To restore an edifice is not to upkeep it, to repair it, or to rebuild it, it is to re-establish it in a whole state which might never have existed at a given time‘. From this bold statement one sees why his work can arouse controversy.

Fig. 10 – Château of Pierrefonds, Picardie

Fig. 11 – Château of Pierrefonds in 1855 before restoration (by permission of Archives Photographiques, Paris).

Viollet-le-Duc laboured at Pierrefonds until the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, managing to complete the structural work. Much of the interior decoration that he designed would never be completed. After the deposed Napoleon III (1808-73) and his wife Eugénie departed to exile at Chislehurst in England, Viollet-le-Duc’s son-in-law, Maurice Ouradou, took charge at Pierrefonds and brought the project to a reasonable conclusion (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12 – Château of Pierrefonds in 1874 after restoration (by courtesy of Cornell University Library).

This great structure combines craftmanship with exuberance.35 Lawrence enjoyed his tour of the château and was impressed by the richness of its numerous carvings, telling his mother that he had seen ‘a series of the most grotesque gargoyles I ever came across‘ (Fig. 13). My favourite memory is the very large salamander-like reptile that clings to the wall of the enclosed courtyard, head downwards: an example of function before style, it is a conduit for rainwater (Fig. 14).

Fig. 13 – Gargoyle on courtyard staircase, Château of Pierrefonds.

Fig. 14 – Reptilian drainpipe in courtyard, Château of Pierrefonds.

  1. Gérard Dalmaz, The Château de Pierrefonds, English edition (Paris, Centre des Monuments Nationaux, 2010) ISBN 978-2-7577-0043-3. The château appears on TV in the BBC adventure series ‘Merlin‘. []
  2. Built by King Ludwig II between 1869 and 1896. []
  3. Photographic Walks, <www.all-free-photos.com/en/main-en.php>. provides fine photographs of the château. (Select ‘Castles in Picardie’ and then ‘Pierrefonds’) []