Villers-Cotterêts (Aisne). “In Villers-Cotterêts, heritage is not only preserved, it is reinvented” : it is in these terms that Paul Rondin, director of the International City of the French Language, presents the major heritage project allowing today to breathe new life into one of Francis I’s castles. “Reinvented”, because within the walls of this Renaissance building, everything remained to be done, and many things were possible. The various occupations of the premises have largely reworked the distribution of the rooms, destroyed the original decorations, making the interior a veritable blank slate for the City’s program devoted to the French language: the temporary exhibition space like the auditorium take good advantage of these vast bare interiors.
This reinvention required an investment of 211 million euros, for a project carried out quickly, in the space of just three years. Associated with the Projectiles agency, the chief architect of Historical Monuments Olivier Weets chose to set a reference state for the exterior treatment of the castle (in this case the 18th century, when the Orléans family remodeled in part of the decorations of the facade), while admitting that the interior could be largely adapted to the copious program of the International City, as traces of royal history were so tenuous.
A chapel, two staircases: this is what remains in Villers-Cotterêts of the Renaissance elements which decorated the castle built by François I from 1532 to 1540. Three elements particularly highlighted in the restoration of the premises. The chapel thus closes the permanent tour of the City, but it is deliberately left empty in order to give the visitor the opportunity to appreciate this masterpiece of Italianate decor in France. The king’s staircase also opens this tour route, and the visitor will probably climb it with his chin in the air, to admire the abundance of this stone decoration, rather simple in its iconography (royal insignia and leafy heads), but which fascinates with the animation and variation of the bas-reliefs. The more complex mythological subjects of the queen’s staircase, however, may escape tourists: the route only passes in front of the first flight of stairs, before reaching the chapel.
A listed building, decommissioned, protected again…
All housed in the south wing of the royal residence, these testimonies of sumptuous decor reveal the history of a place which was, until recently, abandoned. The heritage history of the castle is eventful, because if in 1860 it was one of the very first buildings granted historic monument protection, it was also one of the first to be declassified in 1887. A measure of retaliation due to the destruction carried out by the begging depot (a place of seclusion for beggars, prostitutes, etc.) which then occupies the site. It was not until 1997 that the castle was once again protected by heritage legislation, then twenty more years for the Aisne deputy Jacques Krabal to finally find an attentive ear to the fate of this dilapidated castle that he was trying to save: this ear is that of candidate Emmanuel Macron, not yet elected but who is already foreseeing his major presidential project.
For history, the castle is not only a hunting lodge and a place of leisure intended for the court of François I: it is the place of the signing, in 1539, of the ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts , the text which imposes the use of French in official acts and court decisions. A historical depth that will be fully exploited by now President Macron, by projecting in these places a city of the French-speaking world, which has since become the “International City of the French Language”. Today, this new assignment is written in full under the glass roof of the central courtyard of the royal residence, with the “Lexical Sky”, are words suspended in the sky forming a heterogeneous lexicon. An intervention which elegantly establishes this new chapter in the history of the place.
A castle under the castle
The heritage site also made it possible to rediscover the medieval history of the castle, thanks to the archaeological service of the Aisne department and the excavations of Inrap (National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research), which brought to light the plan of a 13th century castle on which François I built his own. At the heart of the castle, excavations revealed traces of the tennis court which gives its name to the central courtyard: well known from textual sources, this area materialized thanks to the discovery of the side galleries. This first tennis court was abandoned in the 17th century, then replaced in the 18th century by that of the Orléans family, who built a side building housing a new court. One of the very rare additions to the original plan of this castle between courtyard and forest, a plan that has remained unchanged.
If the renovation made it possible to highlight the testimonies of the Renaissance, and to delve into the medieval origins of the castle, the 19th and 20th centuries, with the transformation of the premises into a begging depot then into a retirement home of the Prefecture of Paris in 1888 (until 2014), appear to have been erased. Except at the entrance to the premises, where the inscription “Retirement home of the Seine department” welcomes visitors to the City. This part of the life of the castle is however important, for local history (the retirement home was one of the town’s first employers), as well as for the history of state social action in France. “It’s extraordinary to think that a place built by the kings of France welcomed the poor old Parisians for more than a century! “, underlines Mathilde Rossigneux-Méheust, historian working on the archives of the retirement home, and who would like to see this history included more in the City’s program. The rich archives, as well as some objects preserved by the Center of National Monuments, now make it possible to initiate this discussion on the least visible, but most recent piece of the tumultuous history of the castle.