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History of the château d'If

Vue aérienne du château d'If

No, really – both! Obviously, the château d'If is inextricably linked with The Count of Monte Cristo. That’s the main reason why most people come to visit. But before becoming the iconic setting for Alexandre Dumas’ novel, Marseille’s fortress already had a history.

The castle's origins

Guardian of the western entrance to the kingdom of France

The little island of If was known in ancient times, but was rarely mentioned before the 16th century. In the 14th century, Queen Joanna of Naples, countess of Provence, granted it to Arnaud de Montolieu in fief, at which point it was found to be teeming with game! 

During one of the less glorious periods in the history of Marseille, the island served the Aragonese as a site for festivities and celebrations when they sacked the city in 1423. 

But in 1481 all that was to change. Having no direct heirs, the House of Anjou ceded Marseille and Provence to the French king, which was a godsend for the French monarchy, as Marseille was the biggest Mediterranean port for ships sailing to the Levant. A strategy to defend the coast was quickly put in place, and, in 1516, Francis I of France decided to build the château d'If.

la façade principale du château d'If
Château d'If

© Antoinette Gorioux / CMN

Once a fortress, now a prison

But the people of Marseille, who were not ready to give up the rights they had held since the Middle Ages, had to be called to task. They were unwilling to build this fortress, calling it “la Malvoisine”, or “bad neighbour”: for them, clearly, the authority and presence of French kings were of far less importance than those of long gone counts. 1531: nevertheless, the castle was finally finished. 

In 1536, Francis I’s great enemy, Charles V, who was both Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, prepared to take Marseille. The Château d’If did exactly what it was supposed to do and even acted as a deterrent: the maritime attack was promptly rebuffed and Charles V tried to mount a land-based attack instead. In vain. The Château soon started being used as an “occasional” prison. It was like Marseille’s answer to Alcatraz, ahead of its time!

Fenêtre d'une des cellules avec des barreaux. Vue sur le phare et la ville de Marseille.
Le château d'If, ancienne prison

© Antoinette Gorioux / CMN

From reality to fiction

Highly variable conditions of detention

Château d’If was an “occasional” prison, that is, it was only used to detain prisoners in special circumstances, such as during a revolution or quite simply when all the prisons in Marseille were splitting at the seams. The image that we have of this prison was created once and for all by The Count of Monte Cristo. But stay with us and you can find out more !

The harshest conditions reigned in the windowless dungeons under the castle. They were filthy, dark, damp and teeming with vermin: prisoners rarely survived more than a few weeks. The ground floor was allocated to collective prisons, where the conditions were slightly better: there was more light and a water-tank in the yard meant that prisoners could drink and wash. But this didn’t stop them being overcrowded. Lastly, on the first floor, were the “pistoles”, or private cells, which were a far cry from the picture drawn by Edmond Dantès. Formerly the lodgings of officers stationed at the garrison, these individual cells meant that the richest prisoners could make their conditions much more pleasant – in exchange for hard cash.

installation illustrant la cellule d'Edmond Dantés
Installation Dantès, château d'If


Famous and not so famous prisoners!

From the Chevalier Anselme, a knight who was incarcerated in 1580 for plotting against the monarchy, to German prisoners during the First World War, this is a whole period of French history playing out before your very eyes. You’ll see what happened to Huguenots when protestant worship was made illegal, and to the revolutionaries of 1848, who left numerous traces of their incarceration in the form of graffiti in the yard. 

You’ll discover why Mirabeau was imprisoned here for a few months and why Napoleon wanted Général Kléber’s body to be kept there. And it goes without saying that you’ll find out all about the genesis and finer details of one of the greatest literary successes the world has ever known, The Count of Monte Cristo. You’ll know all there is to know about Edmond Dantes and that other famous prisoner, Abbé Faria!

Blason situé au dessus des portes des cellules qui indique à qui est la cellule.
Les blasons du château

© Juliette Ripart / CMN

From the late 19th century to the present day

Although it was not officially opened to the public until 1880, the Château had its first unofficial visitors some 40 years earlier, when Alexandre Dumas’ novel was published. A few facilities were provided for visitors, including a refreshments stall above the quay and a cafe-restaurant in the former barracks. Despite its new status as a historic monument since 1926 and the addition of a new landing stage, access to the château is still a problem during rough seas. 

In 1994, the French Ministry of Defence finally gave the site to the Ministry of Culture, who entrusted its management to the Centre des Monuments Nationaux. The whole island of If became part of the Parc National des Calanques national park when it was first created.

Carte postale montrant des visiteurs sur l'île d'If au début du 20ème siècle.
Carte postale du château d'If


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