A fortress of king Francis 1 on the open sea
To hear the expression "castle in Provence" our imagination begins to frolic but "castle on an island" there, it takes off to land a stone's throw from Marseille, in the Mediterranean, in front of the creeks of Marseille.
Sparkling, white and massive, the fortress on the island rises in the Mediterranean azure, under the sun of Provence presenting us its wobbly wall of three towers; the island of If is part of a small archipelago whose geological history is that of the famous creeks of Marseilles; it consists of a stratified white limestone that falls apic to the sea.
Covering an area of 3 hectares over 300 meters in length, the island of If, windswept and deficient in rain, offers rare and stunted vegetation, composed mainly of wild figs and rare Aleppo pines. It is now part of the National Park of Calanques of Marseille.
CHATEAU D IF, ROYAL FORTRESS
It was the first to appear under the sky of Marseille, the second being, in 1536, the Fort Notre-Dame, at the current location of Notre Dame de La Garde, in Marseille.
The castle of If was indeed for Marseille an advanced defense on the Mediterranean sea.
Let's continue our investigations; a Roman emperor passing through Provence, Caesar himself, mentions it for having installed his fleet in the vicinity; he was in conflict with Marseilles, a conflict of which he emerged victorious.
In the following centuries the island near Marseilles was a home for pirates and smugglers of all kinds who ransomed Provence.
In 1481, one year after the death of King René whose statue adorns the Cours Mirabeau in Aix en Provence, all Provence was definitely attached to France kingdom, Marseille and its archipelago was no exception, despite the ancestral tendencies of Marseille regarding his desire for independence.
Then come the wars of Italy: Provence, including Marseille and Aix en Provence, will be the theater of passage and ironing of French, Spanish or Italian troops, in one direction one day, the next the next day.
Under Francis I (1515-1547) the coasts of Provence are also victims of constant incursions and raids of the Barbarians and Genoese; in the 17th century it is the Spaniards and Anglo-Dutch who represent the greatest dangers.
The defense of the Mediterranean coast has always been a priority for royal power well before Louis XIV and his ministers.
Early 16th century, in 1516, an episode remained famous in Marseille; Francis I, passing through Marseilles, asked to see a distinguished guest, leaving for the Pope's court; this host, stopping in Provence, was resting on the island of If. It was an unfortunate rhinoceros, arrived from Portugal; the king of this country, tired of his pet, wanted to offer it to Pope Leo X. The pachyderm had been decorated with a green collar, velvet, roses and carnations around his neck and sailed on the Mediterranean.
Disconcerting vision that of a rhinoceros browsing the rare grass of the island of If.
The presence on the island of If of this exotic animal aroused a popular curiosity that exceeded the limits of Provence: Dürer, German painter and engraver, made a drawing of the animal in 1515. The rhinoceros, left the Provence and continued his journey in the Mediterranean but, victim of a storm, arrived stuffed at the papal court.
The story of the rhinoceros's stay on the island of If remained forever in the history of Marseille.
In 1524, François 1st decided to build a castle on this white rock, naked like a worm: it will be the castle of If. Plans and construction will be the work of artisans in Marseille.The poor quality of their work will be highlighted a few years later by Vauban who, a great connoisseur in the field, will criticize the defensive. His report states that "all the buildings are small, crushed, poorly constructed and carelessly constructed, which makes me think, in spite of myself, that those who took part in the conduct of these works had been either perfect ignorant or lazy" ...
In 1531, the fort being completed, a complete armament was brought to the arms of François 1st.
The construction of the castle of If did not please the inhabitants of Marseilles; they suspected that his garrison might one day return his guns to them.
In 1533, Francis I returned to Provence, to Marseilles, to meet his future beautiful daughter, an Italian named Catherine de Medici; On this occasion, he tested the effectiveness of his military apparatus by firing a few salvos.
Marseilles understood well that day that this royal stronghold, lodged in the territory of Provence, escaped its control.
Later, at the time of the wars of religion which raged in Provence like in all the kingdom of France with ferocity, the island and its fortified castle were a strategic positioning of first order in the armed struggles which opposed the Protestants to the Holy League; Nicolas de Bausset de Roquefort was the first governor of the castle of If and did not demerit in the accomplishment of his task.
The second governor of the island and viguier of Marseilles was Paul de Fortia de Pilles: this charge remained in his family until 1771. Marseille had to assure his own defense and consequently had to contribute financially to the maintenance of the castle of If.
Under Louis XIV, Vauban, minister in charge of the French fortifications, came to Marseilles to inspect the defense of the largest French port of the Mediterranean coasts. He received a warm welcome from the people of Marseilles but was very critical, as we have seen, with regard to the fortifications of Château d'If, one of the most strategic places for the protection of Provence. Indeed, if the island falls into the hands of possible attackers, Marseille is within range of guns; Marseille taken is the gateway to Aix en Provence, then throughout Provence.
According to Vauban, everything is poorly designed on the island of If and it treats "of ignorant or perfect lazy" the Marseilles who built the castle of If which, it is true, is closer to a fortress medieval than a modern stronghold in Vauban. In any case, none of the arrangements he proposed came to life; the fourth tower is still missing, the lighthouse dates from the 19th century and the landing stages were only built in the 20th century.
One thing is certain: the military and strategic vocation of the castle of If will never be revealed because no battle took place there.
And it is indeed as prison that this fortress of Marseilles acquired, if one can say, its letters of nobility. A real state prison off Marseille.
From the cornice, from the Old Port or from the top of the villages clinging to the hills, the Marseillais have it in front of you. It is part of their daily landscape and their history.