"Dantes stood up and looked in the direction the boat was moving. Several hundred yards ahead rose the steep black rock on which stood the somber Chateau d'If. The unexpected appearance of this dreaded prison, with its ceturies-old tradition of terror, produced the same effect on Dantes as the sight of the gallows on a man condemned to death"
A. Dumas "The Count of Monte-Cristo"
The château is a square, three-story building 28 m long on each side, flanked by three towers with large gun embrasures. The remainder of the island, which only measures 30,000 square metres, is heavily fortified; high ramparts with gun platforms surmount the island's cliffs.
The castle's principal military value was as a deterrent; it never had to fight off an actual attack. The closest that it came to a genuine test of strength was in July 1531, when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V made preparations to attack Marseille. However, he abandoned the invasion plan, perhaps deterred by the presence of the castle.
This was perhaps fortunate, given the weaknesses identified by the military engineer Vauban in a scathing report in 1701: "The fortifications look like the rock, they are fully rendered, but very roughly and carelessly, with many imperfections. The whole having been very badly built and with little care... All the buildings, very crudely done, are ill made."
After his assassination in Cairo in 1800, the embalmed body of general Jean Baptiste Kléber was repatriated to France. Napoleon, fearing his tomb would become a symbol to Republicanism, ordered it to stay at the château. It remained there for 18 years until Louis XVIII granted a proper burial in his native Strasbourg.
The island became internationally famous in the 19th century when Alexandre Dumas used it as a setting for The Count of Monte Cristo, published to widespread acclaim in 1844. In the book, the main character Edmond Dantès (a commoner who later purchases the noble title of Count) and his mentor, Abbé Faria, were both imprisoned in it. After fourteen years, Dantès makes a daring escape from the castle, becoming the first person ever to do so and survive. In reality, no one is known to have done this. The modern Château d'If maintains adjacent cells named after Dantès and Faria as a tourist attraction.
As was common practice in those days, prisoners were treated differently according to their class and wealth. The poorest were literally placed at the bottom, being confined to a windowless dungeon under the castle. The wealthiest were much better off, living comparatively comfortably in their own private cells (or pistoles) higher up, with windows, a garderobe and a fireplace. However, they were expected to pay for this privilege, effectively forcing them to fund their own incarceration.
Mark Twain visited the château in July, 1867 during a months long pleasure excursion. He recounts his visit in his book, The Innocents Abroad. He says a guide took his party into the prison, inside cells, and showed him the cell in which housed the "Iron Mask." This was prior to the château opening to the public. There is a sign at the château that says "Prison dite de l'Homme au Masque de Fer." This is likely only legend since the Man in the Iron Mask was never held at the Chateau d'If.
The Château d'If is listed as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture.
In the "Tales of Old Dartmoor" episode (recorded in 1956) of The Goon Show radio comedy series, Grytpype-Thynne arranges for Dartmoor Prison to put to sea to visit the Château d'If as part of a plan to find the treasure of the Count of Monte Cristo hidden there.
The fortress is brought up in Peter Mayle's "The Vintage Caper"; in relation to Reboul's vast love for Marseille and France.
The fortress was used as the location where Alain Charnier a.k.a. Frog One (Fernando Rey) meets Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale) to finalise the drugs shipment to the United States in the 1971 crime film The French Connection.
However, other locations have been used for Château d'If in the retelling of Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. In the 2002 adaptation starring Jim Caviezel, the château was represented by St. Mary's Tower on Comino, the smallest Maltese island. The cliff-top watchtower can be seen from the ferry crossing between Malta and Gozo.
It is also used in the Clive Cussler book Spartan Gold as a hiding place for artifacts.