Located twenty kilometres north of Paris and overlooking the beautiful stretch of plains of the Pays de France rushing forward to meet the Forest of Chantilly, today the Château d'Écouen holds the exceptional collections of the National Museum of the Renaissance. It is a backdrop for the collections that is just as exceptional.
Property of a great lord of the Renaissance, Anne of Montmorency, who grew up close to François I, and later prospered under the protection of Henry II, Écouen is like no other dwelling: inscribed in its stones are the ambitions and the successes of a powerful man who was also a philanthropist and an aesthete passionate about art. Écouen incarnates the modern vision of a lord who would go on to make war against Italy and who promised himself to one day rediscover on his own lands the amazement he experienced when faced with the transalpine palaces.
This ardent collector, very often on the cutting edge of artistic tastes, also inherited a colossal fortune, which increased even more through a wise policy of acquisitions, through his marriage with Madeleine of Savoie and through royal favour. When he died in 1567, he owned some 130 castles scattered throughout France and two Parisian residences including his private mansion on the Rue Sainte-Avoye that he had embellished with a gallery painted by Nicolo dell'Abbate. All these places are the sites of reconstruction, modification, even true architectural projects, like the project for the small Château de Chantilly (1559) or the one for the stunning gallery bridge of Fère-en-Tardenois, both designed by Jean Bullant. But Écouen remained his masterpiece.
The Montmorency Family
The Bouchard of Montmorency family owned the land where a medieval castle was erected. Anne of Montmorency had it razed in 1538 and decided to build a dwelling suitable for the title of Constable that had just been given to him. The construction lasted until 1555 and all of France’s prestigious artisans – Jean Bullant, Bernard Palissy, Masséot Abaquesne, Jean Goujon, perhaps Nicolo dell’Abbate – came to Écouen one after the other. The castle was covered with mosaics, stained glass windows, panelling, friezes and painted landscapes, and with marble and cast iron. Decorative arts followed: shimmering enamels by Léonard Limosin, pottery from Saint-Porchaire, Italian Maiolica pottery, a profusion of tapestries, paintings by artists like Rosso, rare books and pieces of goldsmithery of stunning craftsmanship that piled up to create an ambiance of incredible luxury, well worthy of becoming the favourite vacation spot of Henry II.
The castle stayed in the Constable’s family by direct lineage until 1632, the date when his grandson Henry had his head cut off by order of Richelieu whose policies he did not agree with. A few months after being seized, Écouen was returned to the sister of the unfortunate victim of execution, Charlotte of Angoulême. In 1696 his granddaughter, the Duchess of Joyeuse, having no descendants gave the property to the Condé family who already owned Chantilly. Écouen remained part of their property until the Revolution and, in 1787, in order to better see the surrounding countryside, the Condés knocked down the entrance or ornamental wing that probably housed the frescoes by Nicolo dell’Abbate and the mosaics by Masséot Abaquesne.