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French Renaissance - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1921 )

The architectural character of the Renaissance in Europe has already been described as regards features common to it in all countries (p. 542). The style in France may be divided into three periods :

(a) The Early Period (A.D. 14611589 or sixteenth century), comprising the reigns of Louis XI (A.D. 146183), Charles VIII (A.D. 148398), Louis XII (A.D. 14981515), Francis I (A.D. 151547), Henry II (A.D. 154759), Francis II (A.D. 155960), Charles IX (A.D. 156074), and Henry III (A.D. 1574-89). The special character of this transitional period lies in the combination of Gothic and Renaissance features to form a picturesque ensemble, and is best understood by noting how it differs from Italian Renaissance. Thus in Italy a return to Classic forms took place, though there was variety in the disposition of revived architectural features (p. 542) ; whereas in France there was a period of transition, during which Renaissance details were grafted on to such Gothic features as flying buttresses and pinnacles (p. 633 A). In Italy the principal buildings were erected in towns, such as Florence, Rome, Venice, and Genoa, as palaces for Popes, prelates, and nobles (pp. 562, 568, 578, 592) ; while the principal buildings in France were castles in the country round Paris and on the Loire for the king and his courtiers (pp. 618, 621, 622, 6.25). In Italy, moreover, the influence of ancient Rome is apparent in the Classical treatment of detail and ornament, while the influence of Rome was naturally less manifest in France than in Italy, and the influence of traditional Gothic craftsmanship was pronounced. Then, too, in Italy the predominant characteristics are stateliness and a tendency to Classical horizontality (p. 568 A), but in France the salient features are picturesqueness and a tendency to Gothic verticality (p. 622 A). Early buildings of the period in Italy were principally churches, in consequence of the comparatively small number erected in the Middle Ages, although there are also many Italian palaces of this epoch. Early buildings in France were principally chateaux for the nobility, as sufficient churches of the Middle Ages already existed. French Renaissance architecture approximated more and more, after the early period, to Italian models, although even to the present day there is always displayed that daring originality which is inseparable from all artistic productions of the French people.

(b) The Classical Period (A.D. 15891715 or seventeenth century), comprising the reigns of Henry IV (A.D. 15891610), Louis XIII (A.D. 161043), and Louis XIV (A.D. 16431715). The reign of Louis XIV was a period of remarkable artistic activity which, in external design, developed a correct and dignified style of architecture with a free use of the Orders ; while internally it manifested itself in fanciful scrolls, nymphs, wreaths, shells, and cupids, carried out in stucco and papier-mache, which did not stop at the ornamentation of walls and ceilings but was consistently applied to furniture and fittings.

(c) The Late Period (A.D. 171593 or eighteenth century), comprising the reigns of Louis XV (A.D. 171574) and Louis XVI (A.D. 177493). This, as well as the latter part of the previous period, was signalised by sporadic outbreaks of the Baroque style, which began chiefly in the new churches built by the Order of Jesuits, but its spirit was soon seized upon and incorporated in many other buildings. In France the Baroque development was favoured, but in a much less degree, by some of the same factors that contributed to its success in Italy ; for in France the Reformation had suffered much the same fate as in Italy. In the seventeenth century the Jesuits swept across the country from Spain and even from Flanders, and built churches in the new style in which to preach against the hated heresy, and thus the churches of Val de Grace (A.D. 1645) and of the Sorbonne (A.D. 1653) testify to the new movement, both in religion and architecture. The rococo decoration, which so often accompanied the style, was beloved of the artists of Louis XIV and his successors. The Baroque in France is a sumptuous style, boastful in expression and triumphant in scale, and specially remarkable for skilful and original planning. Thus, starting in the reign of Louis XIV, the style, with its freedom of treatment, established itself, especially in internal design, in a country which has always been ready for anything new in artistic expression. The movement is probably best seen in the planning and design of the gardens (executed A.D. 166288) at the Palace of Versailles by Le Notre (A.D. 1613-1700), and in other wellknown gardens in the neighbourhood of Paris. In the provinces, the city of Nancy is an interesting example of town-planning of the period.

A note on Modern French architecture is appended.

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