A touch of france : Écouen: from château to museum, or Beauty is in the detail

by S. Deprouw, France

The Château d’Écouen, a major Renaissance home built for one of the most important figures in 16th century France, Duke Anne de Montmorency, was converted into a museum at the behest of De Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, André Malraux, and opened to the public in 1977. It has since housed the prestigious Renaissance collections from the former Cluny Museum in Paris (now the French National Museum of the Middle Ages). Far from confining themselves to French art, these collections offer a rich panorama of works from Europe and parts of the world with which Europeans had forged regular contact—the Near East, Africa, and America—from the Age of Discovery until the early 17th century. Whether in the form of tapestries, paintings, ceramics, stained glass, furniture, or gold and silverware, the same culture was expressed through an infinite number of materials and colors, celebrating Nature and creations of the mind in equal measure. The principles of the Château’s design set the tone for what awaits inside: symmetry and geometry, set off by a skilled sense of decorative detail. Visitors who delve into the detail of the collections will marvel at the challenges that artists and craftsmen set themselves in competing with one another and with Nature. Quality of line and clarity of composition quickly became as crucial in identifying the best artists—the finest painters, sculptors, and architects—as they were in determining their best artisan counterparts—the top embroiderers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, and enamel workers.

Medicographia. 2011;33:344-352 (see French abstract on page 352)

ocated1 20 km north of Paris, the Château d’Écouen was built in several stages beginning in 1538 for the French soldier, statesman, and diplomat Anne de Montmorency (1493- 1567)—Anne being not uncommon at the time as a name for boys— shortly after his childhood friend, King François I, appointed him Constable of France, a post that combined the functions of First Officer of the Crown and Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Montmorency had the existing medieval structure demolished to make way for an unabashedly modern château on top of a hill overlooking the flat region just north of Paris, known as the Plain of France. A palace to host the Royal Court

A proponent of sustainable development centuries before the concept was coined, Montmorency installed a particularly sophisticated rainwater conveyance and harvesting system, much of it underground, to supply his vaulted bathrooms in the basement of the north wing: this suite dedicated to relaxation— after exertion following hunting or tennis, for example— is one of the last two remaining in France, the other being in the Château de Maulnes in the department of Yonne. It epitomizes the Château d’Écouen’s claim to refinement.

1Decorated initial from the Basel 1555 edition of Andreas Vesalius’s De
Humani Corporis Fabrica published by Johannes Oporinus
. Woodcut.
© Wellcome Images.

Stone sewer drain, Château d’Écouen, circa 1540.

© RMN Droits Réservés.

The Château d’Écouen in the fall.

Courtesy Musée de la Renaissance. All rights reserved.

In opting for an architectural style that was both sober and radical—originally a square bounded by projecting rectangular wings—the Château d’Écouen resembles the Château d’Ancy-le-Franc (Yonne) built by Sebastiano Serlio for Antoine de Clermont (1498-1578) during the same period (1542 to around 1550). There is no record of Écouen’s first architect or project manager. Jean Bullant, who was to become Anne de Montmorency’s favorite architect and who later built the Petit Château for him at Chantilly, appears only to have been involved at Écouen at a later stage (1552), when he redesigned the staircase and north front to accommodate the frequent visits of the King and his Court. The accounts of the château’s construction were unfortunately lost during the French Revolution, but we know that work continued on the château almost until Montmorency’s death in 1567. Although built primarily for gracious living, the château remained defensive in appearance at least, in particular because of its moats, which were dry from the outset. A distinctive feature of the building is the elaborate classical ornamentation of the windows set in the sloping roof. The Constable’s coat of arms (a sword with the motto “APLANOS”—“Unswerving”) is repeated all along the south wing, which housed his apartments and those of his wife, Madeleine de Savoie, on the second floor. Opposite these apartments were the royal apartments, with Catherine de Médicis on the first floor and Henri II on the second floor. Each set of apartments was identified by the occupant’s respective coats of arms, a rainbow and double K for Catherine and an H double D (for “deux,” ie, second) for Henri.

Michelangelo’s Slaves in the courtyard of the Château d’Écouen.

© Ferrante Ferranti. With kind permission.

As Constable, Montmorency was the second most important figure in the kingdom, as is borne out by the place of his name next to Henri II’s signature on some royal decrees. It was therefore entirely appropriate for him to have a palace fit to receive a king. Henri was particularly close to Anne de Montmorency, who returned to royal favor after losing the confidence of Henri’s father François I, following his failure to secure the Duchy of Milan, a state in northern Italy from 1395 to 1797, in his negotiations with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The château’s finest ornamental sculptures were the two slave statues that Michelangelo had designed for the tomb of Pope Julius II, but which he left unfinished. Two members of the Florentine Strozzi family had acquired them from Michelangelo and gifted them to the French king, Henri II, when requesting the protection of their cousin Catherine de Médicis. Gifted in turn to Montmorency by Henri II shortly after he acceded to the throne in 1547, they were set in the recesses of the south wing’s courtyard portico. The originals, now in the Louvre, have been replaced by casts. The columns flanking them, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, are the first recorded example in France of the colossal order (spanning two floors).

Moving between his home in Paris and his châteaux at Écouen, Chantilly, and Fère-en-Tardenois (Aisne)—the latter a wedding present from François I—Montmorency displayed the same remarkable curiosity in each, along with a deep appreciation of works of art. His collection included paintings by the Florentine master Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540), sculptures by Jean Goujon (circa 1510 – circa 1572), painted enamels by Léonard Limosin (circa 1505 – circa 1577), illuminated manuscripts and other sumptuously bound books, and items of the rare Saint-Porchaire pottery produced between the 1520s and 1540s, which were too Mannerist, light, and fragile to be of practical use.

Anne de Montmorency was also the first to discover the rustic potter, Bernard Palissy (circa 1510 – circa 1589), who found inspiration in Saint-Porchaire ware. He commissioned Palissy to create a make-believe ceramic grotto, perhaps for the gardens at Écouen, except that it appears that it was never completed. Partly as a result of his wide breadth of interest in art, Montmorency was one of the principal patrons of the French Renaissance. Not only could he spot young talent, but he seems on occasion to have been instrumental in guiding their choice of subject matter. Although a fervent Catholic, he displayed, like his Protestant rivals, a taste for the rarer Old Testament subjects. He had these painted on the château’s fireplaces by members of the family workshop, founded by Jean Cousin the Elder (born in 1500). One example, the story of Jacob and Esau, relates to his own story as a younger sibling on whom destiny had smiled. Similarly in the chapel he commissioned a relief, Abraham’s Sacrifice, from Goujon, which has since been removed to the Château de Chantilly. The Château of Écouen comprised a gallery connecting the apartments of Madeleine de Savoie to those of the King, running right the way along the west wing. The decoration of this gallery was sumptuously colorful: stained glass windows told the story of Psyche; under foot were ornamental tiled floors from the workshops of Masséot Abaquesne (circa 1500- 1564) in Rouen; while the walls would have been hung with tapestries, not to mention the painted ceilings. The stained glass and tiled floors are inscribed with the date “1542”. A contemporary portrait of the château has come down to us in Les Plus Excellents Bastiments de France (1576-1579), a priceless work by the engraver-architect Jacques I Androuet du Cerceau (circa 1515-1585) that depicts all the most daring architectural innovations of the French Renaissance. His engravings give us an idea of what the east wing must have looked like. It was demolished at the end of the Ancien Régime for esthetic reasons, and also no doubt because it had been heavily damaged. The wing is believed to have contained a gallery with frescos by Nicolo dell’Abbate (died 1571) and a multicolored tiled floor. Through the portico could be glimpsed a life-sized statue of Montmorency on horseback. There was also a tennis court built on sloping ground below the north wing, close to the bathing suite. Further below were the stables, which now house municipal offices.

Painted fireplace in Anne de Montmorency’s bedroom (oil, mid-16th century, detail).

© RMN/Gérard Blot.

The château remained in the family’s hands until the line was cut short in 1632 by the execution for lèse-majesté, treason, of Montmorency’s grandson, Henri. It then passed to the House of Joyeuse, ennobled by Henri III, and was subsequently inherited by the House of Condé. It underwent few modifications apart from the demolition of the east wing. The château escaped the Revolution relatively unscathed, although it was put to various characteristically novel uses, such as a patriots’ club, a prison, and finally a hospital. It embarked on a new chapter, however, when Napoleon, in a decree dated December 15, 1805, turned it into a school for educating the daughters of members of the Legion of Honor. He returned the Château to its original four-square design by building a new, but lower, east wing, which was designed by Antoine- François Peyre (1739-1823).

The building opened for the 1807 academic year. Except for the period between 1814 and 1850, when ownership reverted to the House of Condé and it became increasingly neglected, the château has remained the official property of the Legion of Honor to this day. The marble courtyard, which was no doubt in very poor condition, was repaved with the Legion’s arms at its center. Students were accommodated in new mezzanines and shielded from unhealthy thoughts by the whitewashing of the painted chimney-pieces and grottesche friezes, thereby mercifully preserving them for posterity, save for some damage to the fireplaces caused by the insertion of stove pipes into the flues. The last students left the château in 1962.

Detail of David and Bathsheba tapestry series, David’s adultery
(Brussels, circa 1520).

© RMN Droits Réservés.

Stained glass with angel holding a shield bearing Constable Anne de Montmorency’s

century. © RMN/ Gérard Blot.

The sharing of the Château’s fate between the Houses of Montmorency and Condé accounts for the presence at the Château de Chantilly of many artifacts and works of art from Écouen. Prince Henri, Duke of Aumale (1822-1897), who inherited the lands and colossal wealth of the House of Condé at the tender age of 8, may have lost possession of the Château d’Écouen, but he was driven by a passionate interest in art and history. He amassed a superb collection in an attempt to retrieve and recreate his ancestors’ heritage. The collection included books bound with the arms of Anne de Montmorency, including Anne’s Book of Hours, but also, more strikingly, the stained glass windows from the Psyche gallery, Goujon’s bas-reliefs, wall tiling by Masséot Abaquesne, and the altar and stained glass windows that had adorned the chapel at Écouen. In fact, the chapel at Chantilly sought to reproduce the dimensions and decorations of its counterpart at Écouen, which has fortunately been preserved and retains its fine ogival vaults, painted with the coats of arms of Anne de Montmorency and his wife. Écouen was inaccessible to researchers during the development of historical studies in French Renaissance architecture. As a result, its virtues were never extolled in a full monograph or promoted as much as it deserved. The first director of the museum, Alain Erlande-Brandenburg, produced a useful introductory work. The current director, Thierry Crépin-Leblond, is working on a weightier presentation that will assemble all the available documentation and give a clearer idea of the château’s interior design, which is still largely unknown.

Dish with intertwined flowers. Iznik, Turkey,
circa 1580.

© RMN/René-Gabriel Ojéda.

Ornamental ceramic floor from the Château de Polisy (Champagne,

© RMN/Stéphane Maréchalle/René-Gabriel Ojéda.

The Château d’Écouen as a showcase for national collections

The French National Museum of the Renaissance is a young museum, a contemporary of the Pompidou Center—both opened to the public in 1977. The idea of devoting the Château d’Écouen to Renaissance civilization was for André Malraux, De Gaulle’s minister for cultural affairs, a solution to two problems.

It found a use for the château, which had stood silent since the academy for young girls closed in 1962, and it was a place to display the Renaissance collections from the Museumof Cluny. The former Paris residence of the abbots of Cluny had, since the 19th century, housed the collection built up by the archeologist Alexandre Du Sommerard (1779-1842), which comprised essentially decorative art works ranging from Greco-Roman antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages. After the Second World War, when all the works put into safekeeping had to be put back on display, it was decided to devote the Hôtel de Cluny exclusively to the Middle Ages. As a result, collections of works from later periods remained in their crates for some 15 further years, while the State looked for a suitable setting in which to display them.

An initial proposal was the Château de Chambord, but Malraux rejected the idea as he wanted to keep the material closer to Paris. Eventually, in 1972, the State agreed to an ultralong lease on Écouen with the Legion of Honor, undertaking to upgrade the building. As a result, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs became its quasi-proprietor. Écouen had the advantage of possessing the Gallery of Psyche, which was ideally suited for displaying a 75-metermasterpiece, the Tapestry of David and Bathsheba (circa 1510- 1515). After extensive conversion, a part of the Château opened as amuseumin 1977.

Subsequent work resulted in the near-complete opening that we have today, with 36 rooms open to the public.

In addition to the tapestry alreadymentioned, the collections reflect the variety and complexity of Renaissance art, principally from Europe, but also from further afield. Striking examples include ivory carvings from Portuguese Africa, a feather mosaic triptych created by Aztecs under the Spanish occupation, and, above all, a set of 400 Ottoman ceramic pieces, the most important collection of Iznik ceramics in Europe.

The tastes of the Du Sommerard family were highly eclectic: painting, sculpture, tapestry and other textile work, weapons, precious metalwork, ceramics, glass, enamels, ironwork, furniture, marquetry, manuscripts, and scientific instruments. Only the graphic arts are truly underrepresented in the Museum’s collections. Bolstered by the many pieces acquired since 1977, the collections total some 11 000 works, on top of which there are some 14 000 fragments from Bernard Palissy’s ceramic workshop in the Tuileries that came to light during the archeological excavations of the Louvre in the 1980s. With no real place for them in the Louvre, they were transferred to the Museum of the Renaissance to be studied and displayed in a new set of rooms.

The Écouen collections range from the rarest of objects to pieces representative of a shared pan-European Renaissance taste. The rare objects are on a par with those in the great museums in Europe (the Victoria and Albert Museum and British Museum in London, the Dresden museums, and the Kunst-historisches Museum in Vienna) or the United States (theMetropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, or the Philadelphia Museum of Art). One such object is the famed silver-gilt mechanical galleon made for Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Nef de Charles Quint), an intricate clock cum automaton built by Hans Schlottheim (1545-1625), a German goldsmith and clockmaker, of which there are only three extant models in the world, the two others being at the British Museum in London and the Kunst-historisches Museum in Vienna. There is of course a clock—though quite small, which a keen eye will discover at the base of themiddlemast, with bells ringing the hours in the crow’s nests. But this was a mere excuse for the mechanical marvels displayed by the ship: set on a dinner table, with princely guests agog, it would roll on wheels, playing mechanical music and firing its cannon, amidst flares and smoke, the sailors on board moving and revolving to the beating of a drum and the blowing of trumpets.

Charles V’s mechanical galleon. Table ornament constructed by Hans Schlottheim, Augsburg, circa 1580.

© RMN/Gérard Blot.

The Judgment of Paris: reverse side of a painted
enamel dish by Léonard Limosin (1562,
Limoges, France).

© RMN/René-Gabriel Ojéda.

New York, Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, or the Philadelphia Museum of Art). One such object is the famed silver-gilt mechanical galleon made for Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Nef de Charles Quint), an intricate clock cum automaton built by Hans Schlottheim (1545-1625), a German goldsmith and clockmaker, of which there are only three extant models in the world, the two others being at the British Museum in London and the Kunst-historisches Museum in Vienna. There is of course a clock—though quite small, which a keen eye will discover at the base of themiddlemast, with bells ringing the hours in the crow’s nests. But this was a mere excuse for the mechanical marvels displayed by the ship: set on a dinner table, with princely guests agog, it would roll on wheels, playing mechanical music and firing its cannon, amidst flares and smoke, the sailors on board moving and revolving to the beating of a drum and the blowing of trumpets.

The fact that the Écouen collection complements other major French collections so well (those in the Departments of Painting, Sculpture, and Objets d’art in the Louvre, the Château de Fontainebleau Museum, the National Ceramics Museum in Sèvres, the Army Museum, the Arts et Métiers Museum, etc) probably explains Écouen’s inclusion in the network of French national museums.

In recent years, several major acquisitions have added to this core of masterpieces. In particular, two tapestries from the Tapestry of the Story of Diana produced for Diane de Poitiers around 1550, in a remarkable state of preservation that sets off their sharp colors to good effect. The second tapestry in the set represents the birth of Apollo—the nymph Latona gives birth to the god between a palm tree and olive tree with help from his elder twin Diana, a midwife already although just born!

Pair of spectacles and pear-shaped leather case. France,17th

© RMN/Stéphane Maréchalle.

Embroidered silk sheath with peacock. Venice, late 16th century.

© RMN/René-Gabriel Ojéda.

Marriage chest (cassone) depicting the story of Tiberius
Gracchus and Cornelia (circa 1470). Attributed to Giovanni di
Ser Giovanni (1406-1486), Masaccio’s younger brother, known as
Lo Scheggia (“the Splinter”).

© RMN/Gérard Blot.

We need to don a pair of spectacles if we’re to do justice to the quality of smaller works, such as a superb enameled dish by Léonard Limosin, bearing a discreet signature, “LL”, and the date “1562” on the back; the obverse reproduces Raphael’s Judgment of Paris. Decorated with a female upper body in profile serenaded by trumpeting putti, there is almost as much work on this side as on the other—a frequent characteristic of the Renaissance decorative arts, particularly in France. Smaller still is a sheath that typifies the extreme refinement of Renaissance textile work, often difficult to appreciate today as most such pieces are worn or destroyed.

Far from being anecdotal, the detail inscribed on everyday objects reflects a mentality preoccupied with the grandest of principles. A marriage chest from the 1470s brings together the moral lesson in Plutarch’s tale of Tiberius Gracchus—who sacrificed himself in order to save his much younger wife Cornelia—and the fashionable dress of the contemporary Florentine elite set against the backdrop of Santa Maria Novella just after its completion by Leone Battista Alberti (1404-1472), one of the first theoreticians of perspective.

It was in such decorative detail that Renaissance art so often staged an ongoing dialogue of opposites, between internal and external, sacred and profane, large and small, natural and artificial, typically recounted with wisdom and humor. Similarly, the essence of Écouen invites us to cross the multiple bridges leading to the tastes and skills of an era of cultural upheaval that remains our close and still recognizable forebear. _

Further reading

Androuet du Cerceau J. 1er. Les Plus Excellents Bastiments de France. 2 vol. Paris, France; Androuet du Cerceau J.; 1576 & 1579. Available online at http://www. richesheures.com to subscribers (€10/year).
– Arasse D. Le Détail. Pour une histoire rapprochée de la peinture. Paris, France: Flammarion; 1992.
– Béguin S, Délenda O, Oursel H. Cheminées et frises peintes du Château d’Écouen. Preface: Salet F. Paris, France: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Musée National de la Renaissance; 1995.
– Crépin-Leblond L, ed. Album du Musée d’Écouen, Musée National de la Renaissance. Paris, France: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Musée National de la Renaissance; 2010.
– Erlande-Brandenburg A. The Château of Ecouen: The National Museum of the Renaissance. Paris, France: Réunion des Musées Nationaux & Albin Michel; 1988.
– Ferranti F. Le château d’Écouen sous l’oeil du photographe. Paris, France: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Musée National de la Renaissance; 2010.