A recreated past: Pierrefonds

A recreated past: Pierrefonds

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  • Pierrefonds, the castle.

    VIOLLET-LE-DUC Eugène (1814 - 1879)

  • Napoleon III and François-Ferdinand visiting the castle of Pierrefonds.

    VIOLLET-LE-DUC Eugène (1814 - 1879)

  • Pierrefonds.

    VIOLLET-LE-DUC Eugène (1814 - 1879)

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

To close

Title: Napoleon III and François-Ferdinand visiting the castle of Pierrefonds.

Author : VIOLLET-LE-DUC Eugène (1814 - 1879)

Creation date : 1867

Date shown: 02 September 1862

Dimensions: Height 18.1 - Width 23.5

Technique and other indications: lead pencil

Storage location: National Museum of the Château de Compiègne website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet web site

Picture reference: 94DE55395 / IMP. 542

Napoleon III and François-Ferdinand visiting the castle of Pierrefonds.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: March 2008

Historical context

From a fortress to an architectural madness

Built at the end of the XIVe century for Louis de Valois, brother of Charles VI, Pierrefonds suffered his first devastating siege at the beginning of the 17th centurye century. For two centuries, he presented a toothless figure, the result of the meticulous destruction of his defensive system.

At the beginning of the XIXe century, romanticism found there the charm of ruins and the memory of Gothic splendor. Napoleon III, a neighbor from Compiegne, became infatuated with the place and ordered Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) to restore it in 1857. Nevertheless, it was as a young man that he approached this site where he led a final demonstration of modern architecture.

Image Analysis

An architectural pleasure

While it reflects an early state that was not preserved, the design of the restored keep in the heart of a landscaped garden surrounded by ruined walls illustrates the success of Pierrefonds in the 19th century.e century and the persistence of the taste for the picturesque born in the Age of Enlightenment. Only, it is now to the Middle Ages that we turn. It also makes it possible to measure the importance of the reconstructions subsequently carried out by way of restoration, the transformation of the castle into an official residence leading to a larger program and the construction of a complete residence.

Entirely invented by Viollet-le-Duc, the staircase of the keep is grafted onto restored walls. Its departure on a covered porch escapes any medieval model but provides a majestic entrance to the imperial apartments, the first to be built and today the only ones to retain an interior decor. François-Joseph’s visit indicates the pride that Napoleon III could derive from this building and also recalls the internationality of the neo-Gothic. If the general appearance of this staircase is unmistakably medieval, the discerning eye will detail an abundant decorative repertoire of very original inspiration and a certain freedom in the mixture of medieval and Renaissance reminiscences.

The facades facing the courtyard are all designed as screens or theater sets, the design of which is intended for the convenience of the visitor located in the center. They do not reflect the interior layout in any way, unlike the medieval system. The roofs of the guest wing (whose interior decoration has not been done) are therefore split in order to give a gable on the courtyard and, on the other side, a high double-pitched roof. The cross-section on this building also shows the variety of arrangement of partitions and vaults from one storey to another, a freedom made possible only by the use of a metal structure concealed in the traditional-looking masonry.

The chapel has been completely rebuilt. Nestling its apse in the Judas-Maccabee tower, it is not visible from the outside. Its courtyard facade recalls the holy chapels of the Middle Ages (Château de Vincennes). Adorned with a figure of a pilgrim from Santiago de Compostela (to which Viollet-le-Duc lent his features), it conceals an astonishing architecture, far from the old models since, in a unique and very iconoclastic way, a tribune intended for the castle guards was installed above the choir. A purely architectural gesture or an assumed political provocation? By combining neo-Gothic and modernity, Viollet-le-Duc has consolidated the place of honor of the style of cathedrals in national memory while affirming the driving role that history can have in artistic creation.


Modernity and historicism

The iconographic documentation on the castle of Pierrefonds is abundant. It testifies to the multiple interests aroused by this building. Ruin first, it allowed artists, familiar with those of Rome, to celebrate a national past, a French antiquity. A reconstructed castle, it was a benchmark for young architects who saw it as the source of modernity: reconciling historical inspiration with contemporary means.

For Viollet-le-Duc, the neo-Gothic used in Pierrefonds was not that of the restoration of cathedrals, but a new style, particularly conducive to adapting to rationalism. The decor and the imagery it conveys then allow us to salute the history of France and the genius of medieval artists. For the neo-Gothic is above all a "revolutionary" style, a model chosen to break with the empire of neoclassicism which is not fundamentally linked to France.

  • architecture
  • Napoleon III
  • Middle Ages
  • patrimony
  • romanticism
  • Second Empire
  • historicism
  • Viollet-le-Duc (Eugene)
  • picturesque


Robert DULAU, The Château de Pierrefonds, Paris, Éditions du Patrimoine, 1997.

Bruno FOUCART, Viollet-le-Duc, Paris, Meeting of National Museums, 1980.

Bruno FOUCART, “Viollet-le-Duc and the Restoration”, t. 2, The nation, in Pierre NORA (dir.), Memorial place, Paris, Gallimard, 1988, reed., Coll. "Quarto", 1997.

To cite this article

Nicolas COURTIN, "A recreated past: Pierrefonds"

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