For centuries shutters have adorned everything from small pied-à-terres in Paris to the Maison Bourgeois of local villages. Opened or closed, solid or louvered, these colorful painted shutters known as volets or volets battants (to distinguish them from roll down shutters called volets roulants) remain a defining feature of French architecture — adding beauty and charming details to the windows (and doors) of homes and buildings in villages and cities from the North to the South of France.
Rue de l'Abreuvoir, one of the oldest and most historic streets located in the Grandes-Carrières district of the 18th arrondissement of Paris
But as decorative and attractive as these traditional wooden shutters are, their sole purpose has never been to just add to the character of the architecture. Shutters have always served many practical purposes. They provide privacy and air circulation, control the amount of light let in, and most importantly, they shield or protect homes from the elements. Since many French houses don't have air conditioning and are only insulated against the summer heat by their thick stone walls, having the windows open and the shutters closed really helps to cool the inside when it's sweltering hot outside. And similarly, on those cold winter days when le Mistral (the wind of Provence) is blowing hard and rattling the shutters, keeping them closed will help keep the chill away.
Place du Forum, Arles, France , where Vincent Van Gogh painted The Cafe Terrace at Night
The first use of window shutters is said to have been in ancient Greece between 800 BC and 500 BC. Made of marble with fixed louvers, these original Grecian window shutters sheltered homes from the scorching Mediterranean sun while still allowing a breeze to blow through. As trading and commerce spread throughout the area, the practice of using interior window shutters in homes spread from Greece abroad, and with this came changes in the design. The heavy marble shutters were replaced with wood during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and designers eventually developed louvers that provided both privacy and ventilation in the mid-18th century. Adjustable louvers that let the shutter slats move upward and downward arrived in the mid-19th century. And voilà! These movable louvers provided better control over ventilation and privacy, as well as the amount of light let in, leading to an increased demand for shutters. Finally women had some control over the sunlight heating up their kitchen and fading the furniture, and ladies could nap without shutting both the light and air flow from a room!
Colorful shutters along rue de l'Abadie in the old part of Marseille
Before these developments, though, shutters hung on the inside instead of the outside. During medieval times in France, houses did have windows, but for most people the windows were nothing more than a small hole to let in some light. Early French shutters were pierced with small holes and covered with translucent oiled parchment to let in a bit of light while still keeping out the elements. As French glaziers learned how to cast glass in the late 17th century, they began making flatter, more clear, glass window panes. These glass windows were so expensive that only the wealthy aristocrats could afford them. They were quite small and used only on the top half of window openings, with solid wood shutters that opened against the inside wall covering the bottom half. When opened, the shutters let in air and light, and when closed, they offered privacy, security, and insulation against extreme temperatures.
Interior shutters in a Medieval castle in the Loire Valley
History, however, would like us to believe that shutters were first used in France during the 17th century by King Louis XIV when he moved his court from the Louvre in Paris to the Palace of Versailles. It's rumored that le Roi Soleil loved watching the beautiful ladies of his court as they bathed and frolicked in the ponds of his gardens. His guards did also. This created a terrible distraction for them since they were suppose to be protecting the large royal residence and His Highness. To resolve this problem, it's rumored that King Louis had movable louvered shutters installed into the garden walls that only he could open, permitting him to gaze unseen at the bathing nymphs. Mon Dieu! I'm sure his guards were jealous! The French term jalousie (literally, "jealousy") was coined for windows with shutters that permitted a person inside to look out without being seen... perhaps there was some truth to the shenanigans of the Sun King!
By the 18th century, glass producing technology was superior, and windows were larger and more elaborate. Casement windows that opened into rooms became popular, and double hung windows were developed. The window openings became more recessed, with handy built-in pockets for embrasured shutters to slide into when open. Carpenters were given the opportunity to be creative and began designing shutter panels that were fashionable as well as functional. The shutters could be single hung or double hung, and those that were double hung could open separately to let the light in and keep the nosy neighbors out!
It was during Louis XV's reign that fanciful window curtains with beautiful trimmings and passementerie designed to match the bed curtains became en vogue. These drapes, laden with ribbons, cords, tassels, and bows, were in such demand that they began replacing interior shutters, and exterior shutters became commonplace. Homes were being built with thinner walls made of timber that was not as heavy as the thicker stone materials used in the 1700s, making it easier to reach out through the window to open and close the shutters. Early exterior shutters were either solid raised panels or louvered shutters called contravents or persiennes. Usually painted white, these exterior shutters led to the decline of the balcony since opening the shutters was too difficult with a balcony!
Beautiful Breton stone house with solid panel shutters on the lower floor for privacy and louver shutters on the top floor to let light in and air flow
Typical white louvered contravents or persiennes along rue Reaumur in Paris
These persiennes allow the lower part of the shutter to be opened vertically to let in extra light, Nice, France
It's hard to imagine France, especially Provence without shutters. One of our favorite hotels in Avignon, the Hôtel Cloître Saint-Louis, was originally a 16th century Jesuit monastery and still has its interior shutters. I love waking up and opening the shutters to look at and listen to the beautiful fountain in the center of the cloistered courtyard that's lined with grand old plane trees. It's a perfect way to start the day!
Interior shutters in the Hôtel Cloître Saint-Louis in Avignon
It got me when you talked about waking up and opening your home's shutters to listen and see the beautiful fountain in the center of your courtyard. I would love that experience as well, because I feel like an old soul trapped in a young body. This is why I am inclined to get a plantation shutters and other vintage looking stuff that are of good quality when I have my dream house built in 2024.
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When this self-described Francophile is not reading or writing about all things French, she's dreaming up charming new ways to showcase Lolo French Antiques et More or traveling to France with Lolo to buy delightful treasures for their store. Mimi, Lolo, and their new French Bulldog, Duke, live in Birmingham, AL.