In this monthly series, we take a look around France’s many beautiful historical buildings under the care of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux. This month, the château de Villers-Cotterêts and its exciting new identity as the brand new Cité Internationale de la Langue Française.
The imposing Villers-Cotterêts royal palace is located in the heart of the Aisne département, a 45-minute train ride away from Paris. It was first built in 1532 as a hunting lodge for king François Ier who loved the sport. He chose the Retz forest, in Picardy, as it was the French kingdom’s largest at the time. The building is one of the only royal residences in the region and rivals with the most sumptuous castles of the time. Over the years, several renown architects worked on the property, including André Le Nôtre, who transformed the gardens for Philippe d’Orléans, brother of Louis XIV.
The palace is a true gem of the Renaissance era and it was much loved by the kings of France who spent a lot of time there, making important ruling decisions but also relaxing and…partying! François Ier allegedly called the palace Mon Plaisir and throughout the years, great balls and banquets were held within the walls of the castle.
After the Revolution however, it became the property of the state and under Napoleon it was used as an almshouse. Later, in 1889, the château was converted into a care home for the elderly, but gradually fell into disuse, before being completely abandoned in 2014.
A centre for the French language
The château is now being brought back to life and is set to become the Cité Internationale de la Langue Française, a centre celebrating the French language. The project was instigated by French President, Emmanuel Macron.
Villers-Cotterêts is, in fact, located in an area famous for its iconic links with French literary history. Birthplace of Alexandre Dumas, Villers-Cotterêts is also only 10km from La Ferté-Milon, where Jean Racine was born, 40km from Château-Thierry, Jean de La Fontaine’s birthplace, 35km from Villeneuve-sur-Fère, home to Paul and Camille Claudel, and 40km from Ermenonville, where Jean-Jacques Rousseau chose to spend his last days.
Following four years of works under the direction of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, the château de Villers-Cotterêts is now ready to open its doors to the public. As the very first cultural venue entirely dedicated to the French language, visitors will be able to share in its richness, vitality and diversity. The inaugural opening will take place on October 19th 2023.
A permanent visitor circuit will unveil the adventure of the French language: how it spread around the world, the changes resulting from contacts with other languages, its links with the political construction of the French nation, its relationship with regional languages, and how it is constantly reinventing itself.
Throughout the year, the Cité Internationale de la Langue Française will host temporary exhibitions, shows, concerts and debates in the auditorium, various other events under the glass roof with its “lexical sky”, along with learning sessions, workshops, educational activities, and artist and research residencies, as well as welcoming businesses specialising in language technologies.
Visitors to the château will also be able to enjoy a tasty treat in the café, browse the bookshop, or just take a walk through the grounds and perhaps on through the Retz Forest, which has been awarded France’s “forêt d’exception” label. The public has free access to all these outdoor areas, creating continuity between town, château, grounds and forest.
The first exhibition at the Cité Internationale de la Langue Française will be held in May and will focus on songs – or rather on how French popular songs make their way around the world. From La Vie en Rose, by Édith Piaf’s, to Pookie, by Aya Nakamura, to La Marseillaise, adopted by a thousand rebellions, to the worldwide craze for the zouk music of Kassav’, the values, sentiments, seductions and ideals embodied in French popular music sketch out a legend that is here explored for the first time by a French cultural institution.
For more information, visit www.cite-langue-francaise.fr
Lead photo credit : The interior courtyard of the Villers-Cotterêts château © Pierre Olivier Deschamps / Agence Vu - Centre des Monuments Nationaux
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