1. “A Malady of Building”

In French ecclesiastical architecture Gothic fought successfully for a reprieve. Some old cathedrals added fresh elements, necessarily Gothic; so Caen’s St.-Pierre completed its famous choir; Beauvais built its south transept; and Gothic made almost its expiring effort when Jean Vast raised above that transept crossing a spire 500 feet high (1553). When, on Ascension Day, 1573, that towering audacity collapsed into the ruined choir, the disaster symbolized the end of the noblest style in architectural history.

Lesser Gothic splendors rose in this period at Pontoise, Coutances, and a dozen other cities of France. In Paris, where every glance reveals some marvel from a believing past, two handsome Gothic churches took form: St.-Étienne-du-Mont (1492–1626) and St.-Eustache (1532–1654). But Renaissance features stole into them: in St.-Étienne the magnificent stone screen overarching the choir; in St.-Eustache the compound pilasters and quasi-Corinthian capitals.

The replacement of ecclesiastical Gothic with secular Renaissance architecture reflected the taste of Francis I, and the humanistic emphasis on terrestrial pleasure rather than celestial hope. All the economic fruition, the aristocratic patronage, the pagan hedonism, that had fed the fires of art in Renaissance Italy now nourished the devotion of architects, painters, sculptors, potters, and goldsmiths in France. Italian artists were brought in to mingle their skills and decorative motives with surviving Gothic forms. Not only in Paris, but at Fontainebleau, Moulins, Tours, Bourges, Angers, Lyons, Dijon, Avignon, and Aix-en-Provence the brilliance of Italian design, the realism of Flemish painting, and the taste and bisexual grace of the French aristocracy combined to produce in France an art that challenged and inherited the Italian supremacy.

At the head of the movement was a king who loved art with abandon and yet with discrimination. The lighthearted, smiling spirit of Francis I wrote itself into the architecture of the reign. Osez! he told his artists—“Dare!”4—and he let them experiment as even Italy had not allowed. He recognized the Flemish power in portraiture, kept Jean Clouet as his court painter, commissioned portraits of himself and his entourage by Joos van Cleve. But in all the arts of refinement and decoration it was Italy that inspired him. After his victory at Marignano (1515) he visited Milan, Pavia, Bologna, and other Italian cities, and enviously studied their architecture, painting, and minor arts. Cellini quotes him as saying: “I well remember to have inspected all the best works, and by the greatest masters, of all Italy”;5 probably the exaggeration is the ebullient Cellini’s. Vasari notes in a dozen instances the purchase of Italian art by Francis I through agents in Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan. Through these efforts Leonardo’s Mona Lisa,Michelangelo’s Leda,Bronzino’s Venus and Cupid, Titian’s Magdalen, and a thousand vases, medals, drawings, statuettes, paintings, and tapestries crossed the Alps to end their travels in the Louvre.

The enthusiastic monarch, if he could have had his way, would have imported all the best artists of Italy. Money was to be lavished temptingly. “I will choke you with gold,” he promised Cellini. Benvenuto came, and stayed intermittently (1541–45), long enough to confirm French goldsmithry in a tradition of exquisite design and technique. Domenico Bernabei “Boccadoro” had come to France under Charles VIII; Francis employed him to design a new Hôtel de Ville for Paris (1532); nearly a century passed before it was finished; the Commune of 1871 burned it down; it was rebuilt to Boccadoro’s plan. Leonardo came in his old age (1516); all the world of French art and pedigree worshiped him, but we know of no work done by him in France. Andrea del Sarto came (1518), and soon fled. Giovanni Battista “II Rosso” was lured from Florence (1530), and stayed in France till his suicide. Giulio Romano received urgent invitations, but was charmed by Mantua; however, he sent his most brilliant assistant, Francesco Primaticcio (1532). Francesco Pellegrino came, and Giacomo da Vignola, and Niccolo dell’Abbate, and Sebastiano Serlio, and perhaps a dozen more. At the same time French artists were encouraged to go to Italy and study the palaces of Florence, Ferrara, and Milan, and the new St. Peter’s rising in Rome. Not since the conquest of ancient Rome by Greek art and thought had there been so rich a transfusion of cultural blood.

Native and Flemish artists resented the Italian seduction; and for half a century (1498–1545) the history of French architecture was a royal battle between a Gothic style affectionately rooted in the soil, and Italian modes seeping into France in the wake of conquered conquerors. The struggle pictured itself in stone in the châteaux of the Loire. There Gothic still had the upper hand, and Gallic master-masons dominated the design: a feudal castle within a protective moat, with fortresslike towers rising at the corners in majestic verticality; spacious mullioned windows to invite the sun, and sloping roofs to shed the snow, and dormer windows peering out like monocles from the roofs. But the Italian invaders were allowed to depress the pointed arch back into the older rounded form; to arrange the façades in tiers of rectangular windows buttressed with pilasters and crowned with pediments; and to decorate the interiors with classic columns, capitals, friezes, moldings, roundels, arabesques, and sculptured cornucopias of plants, flowers, fruits animals, imperial busts, and mythical divinities. Theoretically the two styles, Gothic and classical, were incongruous; their fusion by French discrimination and taste into a harmonious beauty shared in making France the Hellas of the modern world.

A fever of building—une maladie de batir, a wondering general called it6—now seized upon France, or Francis. To the old château at Blois he added (1515–19) for Queen Claude a north wing whose architect was a Frenchman, Jacques Sourdeau, but whose style was quite Renaissance. Finding it inconvenient to build a stairway within the addition, Sourdeau designed one of the architectural cynosures of the age—an external spiral staircase rising in an octagonal tower through three stages to an elegant gallery projecting from the roof, each stage richly adorned with a sculptured balcony.

After the death of his burdened Queen, Francis turned his architectural passion to Chambord—three miles south of the Loire, ten northeast of Blois. There the dukes of Orléans had built a hunting lodge; Francis replaced this (1526–44) with a predominantly Gothic chateau, so vast—with its 440 rooms, and stables for 1,200 horses—that it required the labor of 1,800 workmen through twelve years. Its French designers made the north façade fascinating but confused with a maze of towers, “lanterns,” pinnacles, and sculptural ornament; and they distinguished the interior with a spiral staircase of great splendor, unique for a double passage that divided ascent from descent. Francis favored Chambord as a happy hunting ground; here his court loved to gather with all its trappings; and here he spent the declining years of his life. Most of the interior ornament was destroyed by revolutionists in 1793, in belated revenge on royal extravagance. Another Francis-can palace—the château of Madrid in the Bois de Boulogne, was adorned with a majolica façade by Girolamo della Robbia, and was completely demolished in the Revolution.

The extravagance was not confined to the King. Many of his aides treated themselves to palaces that still seem like importations from some fairy realm. One of the most perfect is Azay-le-Rideau, on an island in the Indre; Gilles Berthelot, who built it (1521), was not for nothing treasurer of France. Thomas Bohier, receiver-general of taxes in Normandy, built Chenonceaux (1513 f.); Jean Cottereau, finance minister, rebuilt the chateau of Maintenon; Guillaume de Montmorency raised a lordly palace at Chantilly (1530)—another casualty of the Revolution. His son Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France, erected the chateau of Ecouen (1531–40) near Saint-Denis. The chateau of Villandry was restored by Jean le Breton, secretary of state; Ussé was completed by Charles d’Espinay. Add to these the hôtels or palaces of Valençay, of Semblançay at Tours, of Escoville at Caen, of Bernuys at Toulouse, of Lallemont at Bourges, of Bourg-theroulde at Rouen, and a hundred others, all products of this reckless reign, and we may judge the prosperity of the lords and the poverty of the people.

Feeling inadequately housed, Francis decided to rebuild the chateau that Louis VII and Louis IX had erected at Fontainebleau, for this, said Cellini, was the spot In his kingdom that the King loved best.” The donjon and the chapel were restored, the rest was torn down; and on the site Gilles de Breton and Pierre Chambiges raised in Renaissance style a congeries of palaces connected by a graceful Galerie de François Premier. The exterior was not attractive; perhaps the King, like the merchant princes of Florence, thought a pretentious façade, so near the city, might draw an evil eye from the populace. He kept his esthetic flair for the interior; and there he relied upon Italians raised in the decorative tradition of Raphael and Giulio Romano.

For ten years (1531–41) II Rosso—so named from his ruddy face—worked on the adornment of the Gallery of Francis I. Vasari describes the artist, then thirty-seven, as a man “of fine presence, grave and gracious speech, an accomplished musician, a well-versed philosopher,” and “an excellent architect” as well as a sculptor and painter;7 such were the undivided men of that expansive age. Rosso arranged the walls into fifteen panels, each adorned in High Renaissance style: a base of carved and inlaid walnut wainscoting; a fresco of scenes from classical mythology or history; a rich surrounding of stucco decorations in statuary, shells, weapons, medallions, animal or human figures, garlands of fruit or flowers; and a ceiling of deeply coffered wood completed the effect of warm color, sensuous beauty, and careless delight. All this was quite to the King’s taste. He gave Rosso a house in Paris, and a pension of 1,400 livres ($35,000?) a year. The artist, says Vasari, “lived like a lord, with his servants and horses, giving banquets to his friends.” 8 He gathered to his service half a dozen Italian, and several French, painters and sculptors, who formed the origin and nucleus of the “School of Fontainebleau.” At the height of his success and splendor his Italian temper ended his career. He accused one of his aides, Francesco Pellegrino, of robbing him; Pellegrino, after suffering much torture, was found to be innocent; Rosso, in shame and remorse, swallowed poison and died in agony at the age of forty-six (1541).

Francis mourned him, but he had already found in Primaticcio an artist capable of continuing Rosso’s work in the same style of voluptuous imagination. Primaticcio was a handsome youth of twenty-seven when he reached France in 1532. The King soon recognized his versatile ability as architect, sculptor, and painter; he gave him a staff of assistants, a good salary, and, later, the revenues of an abbey; so the contributions of the faithful were transformed into art that would possibly have shocked the monks. Primaticcio made designs for the royal tapestry works; carved a masterly chimney piece for Queen Eleonora’s room at Fontainebleau, and repaid the Duchesse d’Etampes’ patronage and protection by adorning her room in the château with paintings and stucco statuary. The paintings have died repeated deaths under restorations, but the statues remain in their glory; one stucco lady, raising her hands to a cornice, is among the fairest figures in French art. How could a king enamored of such demure shamelessness accept stern Calvinism in place of a Church that smiled tolerantly upon these charming nudes?

The demise of the royal satyr, and the accession of the stern Henry II, did not injure Primaticcio’s status or bowdlerize his style. Now (1551–56), aided by Philibert Delorme and Niccolo dell’ Abbate, he designed, painted, carved, and otherwise decorated the Gallery of Henry II at Fontainebleau. Here too the paintings have been ruined, but the grace of the female statues is alluring, and the end wall is a stately splendor of classic elements. Still finer, we are told (for it was destroyed in 1738), was the Gallery of Ulysses, which Primaticcio and his company adorned with 161 subjects from the Odyssey.

The château of Fontainebleau marked the triumph of the classic style in France. Francis filled its halls with sculptures and objects of art bought for him in Italy and reinforcing the classic message by their excellence. Meanwhile Sebastiano Serlio, who worked for a while at Fontainebleau, published his Opere di architettura (1548), which preached the Vitruvian classicism of his master Baldassare Petruzzi; it was at once translated into French by Jean Martin, who also translated Vitruvius (1547). From the School of Fontainebleau French artists trained under Rosso or Primaticcio scattered the classic norms and ideals through France; and these remained dominant there for centuries, along with the corresponding classic literary forms inaugurated by the Pléiade. Excited by Serlio and Vitruvius, French artists like Jacques A. du Cerceau, Jean Bullant, and Delorme went to Italy to study the remains of Roman architecture, and, returning, wrote treatises formulating classic ideas. Like Ronsard and Du Bellay, they condemned medieval styles as barbarous, and resolved to chasten matter into form. Through these men, their work, and their books, the architect emerged as an artist distinct from the master-mason, and standing high in the social scale. Italian artists were no longer needed in French building, for France now went beyond Italy to ancient Rome itself for architectural inspiration, and effected a superb synthesis of the classic orders with the traditions and climate of France.

In this milieu of thought and art the noblest civic building in France took form. Viewing the Louvre today from the left bank of the Seine, or standing in its majestic courts, or wandering day after day through this treasure house of the world, the spirit shrinks with awe at the immensity of the monument. If, in some universal devastation, only one building might be spared, we should choose this. Philip Augustus had raised its first form about 1191 as a fortress castle to guard Paris against invasion along the Seine. Charles V had added two new wings (1357), an external staircase that may have suggested the gem at Blois. Finding this medieval structure, half palace and half prison, inadequate for his residence and entertaining, Francis had it torn down, and commissioned Pierre Lescot (1546) to raise in its place a chateau fit for a French Renaissance king. When, a year later, Francis died, Henry II bade the enterprise go on.

Lescot was a noble and a priest, Sieur de Clagny, Abbé of Clermont, canon of Notre Dame, painter, sculptor, architect. He it was who designed the rood loft in the church of St.-Germain l’Auxerrois (destroyed in 1745), and the palace that is now the Hôtel Carnavalet. In both of these tasks he enlisted the aid of his friend Jean Goujon for decorative sculpture; and when work on the new Louvre had made some progress he called upon Goujon to come and adorn it. In 1548 Lescot raised the western wing of the palaces that now enclose the Cour Carrée or Square Court of the Louvre. The style of the Italian Renaissance dictated the façade from ground to roof—exclusively, as Rabelais might say: three tiers of rectangular windows, the tiers separated by marble cornices, the windows separated by classic columns; three porches sustained by elegant classic pillars; only the sloping roof was French, and there too the moldings were of classic grace. The general aspect would have been too severe had not Goujon inserted statues in the niches of the porticoes, and carved exquisite reliefs in the pediments and beneath the cornices, and crowned the central projection with the emblem of Henry and Diana. Within this Lescot wing Goujon built the Salle des Cariatides—four stately females upholding a gallery for musicians; and it was again Goujon who decorated the vault of the great staircase that led to the royal chamber where slept the kings of France from Henry IV to Louis XIV. The work on the Louvre continued under Charles IX, Henry IV, Louis XIII and XIV, Napoleon I and III, always faithful to the style set by Lescot and Goujon, until today the spreading edifice is the congealed essence of 350 years of a civilization that ground the toil of the people into the splendors of art. Would the Louvre have been possible if the aristocracy had been just?

For Henry II and Diane de Poitiers Philibert Delorme created architectural Edens. As a youth Philibert studied and measured the remains of classic Rome; he loved them, but, back in France, he announced that henceforth French architecture must be French. His spirit of classic idolatry and French patriotism was precisely the program of the Pléiade. He designed the horseshoe stairway in the Cour des Adieux at Fontainebleau, and the fireplace and coffered ceiling in the Gallery of Henry II. For Diane he built at Anet (1548–53) a veritable city of palaces and formal gardens; there Cellini placed in a pediment his Nymph of Fontainebleau, and Goujon surpassed the Florentine with his group of Diana and her stag. Most of this costly paradise has gone to ruin; an unimpressive gateway remains in the court of the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. For the same triumphant mistress Delorme completed Chenonceaux—a little gift from her enamored King; it was Philip who conceived the idea of extending the palace across the Cher. When Catherine de Médicis took the chateau from Diane, Delorme continued to labor there till the masterpiece was complete. For a time his too-mathematical style fell from favor, and he retired to write an encyclopedic Treatise on Architecture. In his old age he was called back to work by Catherine, and designed for her a new palace, the Tuileries (1564–70), which the Commune of 1871 destroyed. From all his patrons he received rich rewards. He became a priest, and held several fruitful benefices. He died (1570) as a canon of Notre Dame, and provided in his will for two illegitimate children.9

Jean Bullant completed the brilliant trio of architects who adorned France in the reigns of Catherine’s husband and sons. In his thirties, at Ecouen, he made his reputation by designing for Anne de Montmorency a chateau quite perfect in its classic lines. In his sixties he succeeded Delorme in building the Tuileries, and continued working till his death—de jour en jour en apprenant mourant, as he said—“From day to day, while learning dying.”

It is the fashion to regret the importation of Italian styles into French building, and to suggest that the native Gothic, left undeflected by that influence, might have evolved into a civic architecture more congenial to French grace than the relatively rigorous lines of the classic orders. But Gothic was dying of old age, perhaps of senile excess and Flamboyant old lace; it had run its course. The Greek emphasis on restraint, simplicity, stability, and clear structural lines was well suited to temper French exuberance into disciplined maturity. Some medieval quaintness was sacrificed, but that too had had its day, and seems picturesque precisely because it died. As French Renaissance architecture developed its own national character, mingling dormer windows and sloping roofs with columns, capitals, and pediments, it gave France for three centuries a style of building that was the envy of Western Europe; and now that it too is passing away we perceive that it was beautiful.

2. The Ancillary Arts

A thousand artist-artisans adorned French life in this vivacious age of François Premier and Henri Deux. Woodworkers carved the choir stalls of Beauvais, Amiens, Auch, and Brou, and dared to decorate Gothic structures with a Renaissance play of fauns, sibyls, bacchants, satyrs, even, now and then, a Venus, a Cupid, a Ganymede. Or they made—for our mad pursuit—tables, chairs, frames, prie-dieu, bedsteads, and cabinets, carving them with perhaps a plethora of ornament, and sometimes inlaying them with metal, ivory, or precious stones. The metalworkers, now at the crest of their excellence, glorified utensils and weapons with damascening or engraving, and designed grilles—poems in iron tracery—for chapels, sanctuaries, gardens, and tombs, or made such hinges as those on the west doors of Notre Dame, so beautiful that piety ascribed them to angelic hands. Cellini, who had little praise left for others after meeting his own needs, confessed that in making church plate—or such domestic plate as Jean Duret engraved for Henry II the French goldsmiths had “attained a degree of perfection nowhere else to be found.”10 The stained glass in Margaret of Austria’s chapel at Brou, or in St.-Étienne’s at Beauvais, or in St.-Étienne-du-Mont at Paris, proclaimed a glory not yet departed. At Fontainebleau Francis established a factory in which tapestries were woven in one piece, instead of being made, as before, in separate sections, then sewn together; and gold and silver threads were mingled opulently with dyed silk and wool. After 1530 the patterns and subjects of French tapestry ceased to be Gothic and chivalric, and followed Renaissance designs and themes from Italy.

Renaissance motives dominated ceramics in the majolica of Lyons, the faïence of southern France, the enamels of Limoges. Léonard Limousin and others painted, with brilliant fused enamel colors, elegant forms of plants and animals, gods and men, on copper basins, vases, ewers, cups, saltcellars, and other lowly utensils raised to works of art. Here too Francis took a hand, made Léonard head of the royal manufactory of enamels at Limoges, and crowned him with the title of valet de chambre du roi. Léonard specialized in painting portraits in enamel on copper plates; an excellent sample—portraying Francis himself—is in the Metropolitan Museum at New York; many more are in the Apollo Gallery of the Louvre, quietly attesting a golden day.

Portraiture was a fully developed art in France before the Italians came. Which of the Italians in France could have bettered the portrait of Guillaume de Montmorency painted by an anonymous master about 1520, and now in the Lyons Museum? Voilà un homme!—this is no pictorial compliment, it is a man. Rosso, Primaticcio, dell’Abbate, and others in the School of Fontainebleau brought to France what they had learned from Raphael, Perino del Vaga, Giovanni da Udine, or Giulio Romano, in decorating pilasters, cornices, ceilings... with “grotesques” or playful figures of cherubs, children, spirals, arabesques, and plants. An unnamed member of the school painted the Diane de Poitiers now in the Worcester, Massachusetts, Museum—sitting at her toilette, dressed in a diadem. After 1545 many Flemish painters, including Brueghel the Elder, came to France to study the work at Fontainebleau. But their own style was too deeply rooted to yield to the Italian influence; the realistic vigor of their portraiture prevailed over the feminine grace of the heirs of Raphael.

One Flemish family in France almost constituted a school by itself. Jean (Jehan, Jehannet, Janet) Clouet was attached to the court of Francis at Tours and Paris; all the world knows the portrait he painted of the King about 1525, now in the Louvre: proud, conceited, happy royalty just before a fall. Jean’s son François Clouet succeeded him as court painter, and recorded the dignitaries of four reigns in chalk or oil. His Henry II surpasses his father’s Francis I: we are astonished to see the chasm between the gay gallant and the somber son; we can understand how this man could sanction the chambre ardente for the persecution of heresy, though we do not see in the almost Borgian face any hint of his lasting devotion to Diane. For a time Corneille de Lyon, operating a rival atelier, challenged the Clouets in such portraits as that of Maréchal Bonnivet, lover of Marguerite. But no contemporary in France could equal the gallery of portraits that François Clouet made of Catherine de Médicis, Francis II, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth of Valois, Philip II, Marguerite, future wife of Henry IV, and Charles IX as a youth—too lovely to forecast the frightened King of the Massacre. Flemish realism and veracity are in these portraits tempered with French delicacy, precision, and vivacity; the tone is subdued, the line is accurate and confident, the elements of a complex character are caught and unified; only Holbein’s England would enjoy such a colorful historian.

Sculpture was a handmaiden to architecture, and yet it was the sculptors who made the architecture brilliant. Now, indeed, French sculpture poured forth masterpieces only second to those that Michelangelo and others were then cutting out of Carrara. Lordly tombs were modeled: of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany by Giovanni di Giusto Betti (Saint-Denis); of two Cardinals of Amboise by Roland Leroux and Jean Goujon (Rouen); and of Louis de Brézé, Diane’s husband, in the same cathedral, of uncertain authorship. The Rouen tombs seem too ornate to befit mortality, but the cardinals are almost revived as unidealized strong administrators to whom religion was an incident in statesmanship. Francis I, his wife Claude, and his daughter Charlotte were buried in Saint-Denis in a tomb of Renaissance style designed by Delorme, with superb sculptures by Pierre Bontemps. Near by is a little chef-d’oeuvre by Bontemps—a funerary urn for the heart of the King. French sculptors no longer needed Italian tutelage to inherit the classic art of Rome.

Jean Goujon inherited at least the classic grace. We hear of him first in 1540, listed as a “stonecutter and mason” in Rouen. There he cut the columns supporting the organ in the church of St.-Maclou, and carved statues for the tombs of the Cardinals, and perhaps for that of Brézé. He adorned the rood screen in the church of St.-Germain l’Auxerrois with sculptures now partially preserved in the Louvre, and recalling Hellenistic reliefs in the rhythmic elegance of their lines. Goujon’s characteristic quality of feminine grace approached perfection in the Nymphs that he contributed to the “Fountain of the Innocents” designed by Lescot (1547); Bernini thought these figures the most beautiful works of art in Paris. We have noted Goujon’s Diana and the Stag at Anet, and his sculptures on the Louvre. His pagan deities and his idealization of the female form suggest, for France, the triumph of the Renaissance over the Reformation, of classical over Gothic ideas, of woman over her medieval detractors. However, tradition describes Goujon as a Huguenot. About 1542, as penance for attending a Lutheran sermon, he was condemned to walk through the streets of Paris in his shirt, and to witness the burning of a Protestant preacher.11 Toward 1562 he left France for Italy. He died at Bologna before 1568, in obscurity hardly merited by the man who had brought to its culmination the art of the Renaissance in France.

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