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The Renaissance In France

( Originally Published 1910 )



THE story of the introduction of classcism into France is not one of scientific discovery, but rather of political ambition. Charles VIII., last of the Valois kings, sighed for a new world empire to include Constantinople, Jerusalem, and the East, as others had sighed before him. He revived some old claims of inheritance to the kingdom of Naples, which he entered in triumph in 1495, proclaiming himself King of Naples, Emperor of the East, and King of Jerusalem, and then folded his tents and marched back again with his standing army of fifty thousand men. This is the beginning of the Italian wars which gave to France sovereignty over the intellect and arts of the East.

The precipitate return of King Charles to France was much more beneficial and therefore important than the political control of the East could possibly have been. He brought back knowledge of men, and beautiful things in literature and in the fine arts, such as his people had not known. It was these Italian wars, carried on by Charles and his successor Francis, that gave France the knowledge of the Renaissance of Italy and supplied her fagged brain with new stimulus.

France was then, as we have seen, in its artistic decadence following the Age of Love and decayed chivalry, while Italy was rising on the tide of its new inspiration. Charles took back Italian craftsmen and sent his own people south to study the new movement, and from this time on there begins a gradual infusion of classic detail into the flamboyant or fifteenth-century Gothic until it becomes the French Renaissance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This style in its several variations dominates architecture in the Occidental world to-day. In this, France, with her nervous energy, an inheritance from her Nor-man blood which the age of chivalry had not sufficed to destroy entirely, became more Italian than Italy herself, outdoing all her neighbors in the daring, originality, and excellence of her creative achievements.

The scientists (by whom I mean in this case the architects), encouraged by the interest of the rulers in the new idea, began with characteristic French energy to study the old laws and traditions, gradually discarding their own as the new and strange ones were assimilated and adapted to their new environment.

How well the architects learned their lesson and how successfully they played with the old forms we shall see. They were, in fact, so successful that to-day the classic is ours, a thing of familiar knowledge and use, while the use and study of the Gothic is not only not encouraged by the schools, but is often considered only an interesting survival. It is accepted by the laity as for church-building only, and is often actually regarded as belonging exclusively to times long past.

The classic, on the other hand, has been studied and restudied and drilled into the modern practitioner till he knows its multitudinous subclassifications at a glance. This has not prevented him, however, from numerous attempts to create; that have resulted in architectural monstrosities which a fair acceptance of classic tradition would have saved us from.

The historian also has bothered us with impossible hair-splitting in the matter of classifications. We find in many text-books this period so divided and subdivided into styles, transitions, and subtransitions as to confuse the most painstaking student. There is no need at all, as far as I can see, for any such pedantic and tiresome picking of dry bones, but there is need that we should see and feel the vital and immensely human conditions that caused this fascinating evolution of a style, and stamped them-selves on its varying forms, so that we may read and in turn express with aptness and directness.

As a matter of fact, the various substyles merge almost imperceptibly from one to the other, overlapping in most bewildering fashion. During the early part of the Renaissance period the architects were absorbing from their immediate predecessors, and at the same time were constantly borrowing anew from the original classics and drawing from the varied developments in Italy. For this reason there is not the consecutive growth that would be found in an entirely new style such as the Gothic was.

There are, however, four well-defined periods in the French Renaissance, the characteristics of which are determined by the life of the court, and, in lesser degree, by the wars, by trade, and by the political and religious conditions of the times. It is interesting to note, in this connection, that architecture, from being broadly national in type, becomes specific and official, so that now for the first time we find it classified by the names of the successive rulers.

The history of the race is a sort of fever chart of its moral temperature. Period after period divides itself into a steady rise by strenuous endeavor fired by lofty enthusiasm, then a climax of power, a relaxation, and with it a dip into licentiousness, then decadence, until a new force comes in with a new ideal to start another climb. Side by side with the line that marks this rise and fall is the line of architectural expression. You may trace either line to any point, and be sure that the other will be close at hand. We therefore return again to the axiom that architecture is an accurate historical gauge for the political and moral conditions of its time, and, conversely, that these human conditions are the fundamental causes for the variations and growth of style.

France went through one of these cycles—albeit a rather irregular one—during the years of the Renaissance.

The period, as we have seen, begins in 1495 with the visit of Charles VIII. to Italy. Then followed, until the end of the reign of Francis I. in 1547, a subperiod of fifty - two years, which may fairly be called an age of discovery. You remember that it was during this time that whole new worlds of commercial activity, of scientific knowledge and religious thought, were opened up. The progress thus made revitalized the earth. France, with her keen, receptive,

and creative temperament, wearied though she was with excesses, felt it intensely, and the results are in many ways apparent. Her own discoveries were, however, chiefly intellectual, and she was much occupied with this most interesting find of a new mode of expression in architecture.

The period includes the reigns of Charles VIII., Louis XII., and Francis I. At first the use of classic forms was tentative. We find classic pilasters used sparingly on buildings otherwise flamboyant in style. Greater boldness followed. Soon classic moldings appeared interspersed with the Gothic forms, and during the reign t of Francis the classic decorations, cleverly adapted and greatly enriched, dominated the new buildings, which retained only just sufficient of the old flamboyant characteristics to recall the union. It was not until after the death of Francis that these characteristics practically disappeared, thus marking the end of the discovery or transition period and the beginning of a new.

The most important example of the transition in architecture during this period is the Château Blois. This was begun in the reign of Louis XII. and finished under Francis I. So rapid was the infusion of the new idea that there is a distinct difference in the work during the two latter reigns. The early parts are very largely fifteenth-century Gothic. There are balustrades in pure Gothic, the pediments have the curious double curve, and the flattened arches are decorated with drops, making a series of little round arches within the large arch. There are finials on the piers, with their pointed tops and curious crockets, or bunches of leaf forms, climbing the coping stones of the gables at regular intervals.

The interesting Gothic moldings, with their thin, nervous profile and heavy undercutting, giving keenness to the high light of the almost metal-like edge, were still used. The classic influence is shown in the horizontal lines of the belts and in the cornice, which is not only without entablature, but has moldings showing the classic motifs.

As the Gothic influence was slowly merged into the classic, or what was then understood as the classic, under the influence of Francis's encouragement of the art, the building changed materially. On the latter part are the pilasters, with the Italian panels of relief, foliage and figures delicately designed, and suggesting somewhat the mural decorations of Pompeii or the Raphael Loggia in Rome.

The characteristic diamond form, set in the molded panels of the pilaster, is present, and is generally indicative of the subperiod of Francis I. Now, too, the keenness of the Gothic molding began to dull to the gentler curves of the classic. An odd reversion to the Romanesque is found at Blois in the series of small arches with blocks supporting the birth of the arches. Here, as in those earlier churches of southern France, this form took the place of the old Roman frieze and architrave. The arches enclose molded shells, the symbol of the pilgrim, a very beautiful form frequently used to this day, and are molded on the edges. The block or corbel, which in the Romanesque showed geometric design, becomes a carved flower and loses itself in the rejuvenated group of ornamented classic moldings, a familiar form of which was the egg-and-dart, still much used, and, in its various modifications, a sure index of the period of Renaissance to which it belonged. Another Romanesque feature employed at Blois is the use of round columns or half-columns in corners. Here they were ingeniously bonded into the brick walls with the stone of the column.

The roofs remained steep, as in the Gothic, for this was a country of gray skies and much rain and snow, and they were embellished with ornately decorated chimneys. It is evident that the architects were not limited as to time or expenditure, and they seem to have taken keen enjoyment from the elaboration of beautiful detail in obscure places. The manner in which they mixed the forms of ancient Rome with those of the late Roman, or Romanesque, is a matter of some astonishment to us to-day, but it is not as odd as the fact that in all their delving, into the classic they did not seem to have discovered the inspiration of the original Greek work. They show neither the exquisite fineness and aristocracy of line of the Greek moldings nor the splendid nervous vigor of the thirteenth-century Gothic, and their work, however beautiful, is the weaker therefor.

Decoration began to be carried to extremes in this period. Not contented with their richly panelled pilasters, they must add to the face of the pilaster a richly turned and highly ornate post or column of three-fourths projection, the capital of which was partly incorporated with that of the pilasters. The simple volutes, or scrolls, of the old Greek caps become child figures, flowers, or fanciful animal forms, united with the softened Roman interpretation of the acanthus leaf. These forms are missing from Blois, but are used in the so-called shooting-box of Francis I, which has been removed from Fontainebleau to Paris, and which inspired the Fine Arts Building on West Fifty-seventh Street, New York.

Château Chambord, the masterpiece of this period, was built by Francis I. for his lady-love in 1523, and is a most marvellous expression of the times (Fig. 85). Here we find the steep Gothic roofs and the round towers of the military Gothic, covered, however, with the motifs or parts, and the details of the new Renaissance.

Azay le Rideau and Chenonceaux are fine examples of' the same time and spirit, expressed in the same manner, Gothic in form, with the applied horizontal treatment and decoration of the new mode.

This architecture was freely copied by other European nations, and as they did not take into account even the slender stock of traditions existing around it, the results are generally bizarre in the extreme. The tiresome and ornate Spanish Renaissance, with its lavish and vulgar piling of ornament upon ornament, is a typical example.

In comparison with the work of other countries at this time, the French show subtility of analysis and a fine feeling for the incomparable refinement and delicacy of the classic. The German principalities, however, did not compete with France at this time, for they were coming strongly under the influence of the new Protestantism of Luther, which ordained a rigid simplicity and purity of life that was in direct conflict with the romantic life of the French court that had called this new art into being.

With the style known as Francis I., we begin to reach that architecture which we in America have made especially our own. You remember that the Gothic has come to be disregarded by the modern schools as a sort of non-essential, or professional specialty, and its use confined to a very limited field. Translations of the French Renaissance styles from Francis I. to Louis XVI. have first place in our entire architectural production, and, in fact, dominate it. Our interior work comes from this period, and it supplies the type for nearly all monumental buildings of the cities to-day. Francis I. was the transitional style from the Gothic to the pure Renaissance, though its lavishness has prevented its frequent use in expression of our cooler sentiment. It has, however, found a place in the ornate facades of many of the modern apartments, though strangely enough the finer parts of this short transition from one mode of expression to another have been overlooked by the rapid-fire methods of modern in-vestment work.

The Château Schwab, on Riverside Drive in New York City (Fig. 88), is an example of the careful use of the style under the inspiration of Chenonceaux in the Loire Valley, while the country-house of George Vanderbilt, in Biltmore, has not only Blois but the entire valley of the Loire for its book (Fig. 89). With a student owner and the Dean of the profession as translators, the result is by far the best of the Louis XII. in these modern times. The style is, however, only one of the many transitions, and is evolutionary only in the sense of holding to the old forms, however badly they may have been sorted, until such time as a more stable acceptance of basic principles could be developed.

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