In the Middle Ages, the great houses of France had been decorated with tapestries, which served the dual purpose of providing visual interest and, a far more practical consideration, of keeping out at least some of the draughts. Also, tapestries were wealth. They were handed down from generation to generation, and were moved from castle to castle by people like the magnificent Dukes of Burgundy, who even had tapestries hung in their tents while on campaign.
Meanwhile the Italians were painting the walls of their palaces and villas with pictures in which fantasy and exaggeration were given free rein. Great families like the Medici, the Este and the Farnese celebrated their glory in terms of Greek and Latin mythology, and murals recorded the love affairs of princes who thought themselves worthy of comparison with Aeneas and even Jupiter himself. The French saw Raphael's wall-paintings in the Vatican, Giulio Romano's frescoes in Mantua, Vasari's historical paintings in Florence, and returned to France profoundly impressed.
And so it came about that the knights and ladies, woven in the workshops of Tournai or the Loire, were exiled from French walls, to be replaced by painted scenes from the Aeneid and the Iliad, and episodes from the love life of Jupiter. The gods had returned to France, and there, in the vast spaces between chateau windows, against a decor which owed more and more to the Italian manner, they blissfully pursued their ancient games of love, courtly intrigue and battle.
Francois I himself, ostentatious, full of fantasy, always in love, wanted to imitate the Italian princes against whom he had fought and whom he had never ceased to admire, by making the French court a setting worthy of his power.
This setting was another import from Italy, the gallery, whose regularly spaced windows opened on to a garden. The effect could not have been more different from that of a large Gothic room. The gallery served as throne room, ballroom, a stage for the dazzling comings and goings of the king's retinue, and as an art museum. Silverware was piled up on sideboards; there were antiques from Italy, bronzes cast at Fontainebleau, but no pictures. A few small pictures were reserved for the apartments. There was no question of hanging old tapestries in such galleries, and there was neither time nor money to have new ones made from cartoons by Giulio Romano or Raphael. Besides, the great weaving centres lay in enemy territory: Flanders belonged to the Emperor Charles V.
The walls had to be painted. And so Italians were invited to Fontainebleau, where they trained teams of French artists and craftsmen. They were painters and stuccadors, expert founders and engravers of bronze, jewellers in the manner of Benvenuto Cellini; some were architects and designers of gardens. The most famous of them were Primaticcio and Niccolo Abati, both Florentines from the court of the Medici, both adept at decorating a chapel or designing costumes for a ballet. During the reigns of Francois I and his son, Henri II, Italian artists introduced a completely new style of decoration to France.
Among the courtiers closest to Henri II was his Master of Horse, Claude Gouffier. He was a great collector of works of art, like his father, who had brought many paintings back from the Italian wars. The Gouffier family owned the great Chateau d'Giron in Poitou and it had been opened up by a gallery 180 feet long, thirty feet shorter than the gallery at Fontainebleau. In 1546 Gouffier decided to decorate his gallery in the same style as Fontainebleau and attracted a number of painters to Giron for this task; sculptors were a great deal more difficult to find. The gallery was finished in 1549, and in the following year it was visited by the young King Charles IX. But it is the cipher of his father, Henri II, and of Diane de Poitiers which is found everywhere, alongside the symbolic sword of the Master of Horse.
After Fontainebleau, the Giron gallery is the most important in France. It has needed extensive restoration, since Giron was virtually derelict when the French government bought it in 1943. The half obliterated paintings had somehow penetrated the plaster which backed them. They were not frescoes in the Italian sense of the word, but painting using water as a medium, executed on plaster which was attached to the main structure by wooden laths, thus permitting the air to circulate between the walls and avoiding moisture blemishes. There is no stucco at Oiron, but there are several kinds of trompe-l'oeil: allegories, satyrs, cherubs, sculpture-like borders and drapes suspended from baroque picture frames as if they had been carelessly thrown there. At Oiron one is in the middle of a vast unified decorative scheme like those being created in Italy at the same time, in the Vatican, in the Caprarola palace and in Venetian villas.
However, even though the style was Italian and the subjects were Roman, there are several reminders at Oiron even more than at Fontainebleau-that unknown French artists, not Italians, were responsible for the decoration. Amid the grotesque ornamentation are heads of satyrs and masks like those on the carved oak furniture made at Lyons.
The balance between the figures and their background owes nothing to Italian influence. With Giulio Romano, and even in the great battle-piece painted by Leonardo da Vinci for the City of Florence, only the human element was of importance. Expressive figures covered almost all the foreground, against a conventional architectural background, thus producing a claustrophobic effect unknown in the harmonious compositions of Botticelli and Ghirlandaio.
Northern artists, on the other hand, allowed the surrounding decoration to play a major part in their mythological scenes, and for a painter like Antoine Caron the pictures themselves were only a pretext for painting architecture. There were many scenes of ruins, reminiscent of those paintings which the Flemish masters had brought back from Rome, and there were landscapes, hills, beaches, with none of the accompanying conventional details which made most of the great Italian compositions look so theatrical.
There were details, admittedly, but these were around the edges of the paintings, connected to the trompe-l'oeil frames. They took the form of objects which could have been seen at a costume ball-masks, like those worn by Italian comedians, allegorical figures in bizarre costumes of the kind which Niccolo Abati or Primaticcio designed for the court ballets in which the king took part.
After the French government completed the restoration the castle was turned into a contemporary art museum. To say that it is a beautiful house would be an understatement. The painted murals inside are sufficient to warrant a visit but the combination of old world architecture and modern art make it a must see if you ever travel near the Loire valley.