Music and (renaissance) History – La Salle de Bal, Château de Fontainebleau


The palace of Fontainebleau  is not quite in Paris, but it is a great place to take a quick and dirty lesson in French history.

It bears the footprints of epochs from the middle ages to the mid 19th century. A few of the pre-visit readings also seemed to say that the history covers at least 900 years, one of the large coffee table books in the Château’s bookshop simply rounds off these numbers and s talks about the 1,000 years of history of the Palace.

Whatever the case,  it is clear, there is a lot to take in. This is a great thing – one can increase their history literacy pretty quickly. But, it can also be overwhelming. The Chateau is rich in detail and demands attention to details from several time periods, a constant agility to jump through time in just one visit.  It is a rich concentration of history and demands several revisits.  This blogger will  certainly rerun. Many times, starting off with an exploration of its many gardens that could not be fitted into the first visit.

Overkill is always the way to go…

The Château is delightfully over the top

La Salle de bal

Among the hundreds of things to appreciate at the Chateau, is the famous ‘Salle de bal’, i.e. ballroom.

A significant amount of the construction of the palace took place during the Renaissance. And, the ballroom is the fruit of the hands of renaissance royals, Francis I and his son Henri II. It testifies to the power and inspiration of the music of their age – from the mid 1500s to the early 1600 – upon space.

The renaissance seemed to have produced a sense of,  and a craving for ,liberation in art, architecture, literature, music.  Humanist thought experienced a major comeback. Where the middle ages had produced beautiful, rich  – and  largely biblical  art and philosophy, the renaissance  seemed to have inspired a hunger for more than the orthodoxy of its time. Both sacred and secular music sought to be more expressive and attentive to the affective experience inspired by musical forms.

There was also a renewed appreciation of music as entertainment, as  people became wealthier, new worlds opened up, and  as music became more complex, deliberate, and delightful.

This attention to human experience, greek mythology, detail, and pleasure  in music are clear in the ballroom that reflects the kind of music that was to be played within it.

One of the most delightful scenes (and this is saying a lot, given that each inch of wall is covered in beautiful detail) is a homage to the pleasures of music. The ballroom reflects an era that relished music as a complex product not only to be consumed but to be attended to, carefully registered, and internalized enough to provoke an intense emotional response.

I guess the lesson to learn from the chateau and this stunning homage to music is that one way of reading the history of places is through the music that people listened to, the sense of hearing and how it produced the places that people lived in.

Paris, I suppose, within this period, would have been undergoing the liberation of ideas  that one can see increased into the walls and ceilings of the Salle de bal.  It is clear that a growing bourgeoise in Paris was becoming  as complex and as expressive as the music of its age.  In 1588, for example, we see an increasingly powerful, catholic, bourgeoisie mobilizing against a lax monarch in the context of religion wars. There was a new liberation reflected as much in this Salle as on the barricades of 1588 in Paris.

In Fontainebleau, the ‘School of Fontainebleau’ was deliberately indoctrinating new renaissance converts and bringing the  renaissance to France.

Music and art were producing an increasing appreciation of complexity, detail, beauty and was spreading rapidly thanks to the invention of printing .

As one explores the history of Paris, it is clear that  the music people listened  to – and the sense of hearing – may be a productive way of discovering this city’s fascinating history.