Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Perrault Brothers and the Fate of Classicism

During the polemical ferment of France in the 1660s, Louis XIV's minister-factotum Colbert and the Perrault brothers, Charles and Claude, laid the intellectual foundations undergirding France’s political and cultural ascendancy. The Perraults played a central role in the adoption of classicism as the French state's de facto official architecture, and in turn classicism's transplantation from Italy to France had a decisive effect on the evolution of Western architecture, as a newly unhobbled France—with a population of over 20 million (greater than that of the rest of Europe combined) and an administration of rare ambition and matching competence—overtook Italy to finally claim its proper place as the first power of Europe.

Architecture had long been understood as the most tangible manifestation of the power and taste of princes, and so it is no surprise that it became intimately integrated with politics in a court where everything was considered to have political utility and a propagandistic dimension. However, the profession—long-neglected due to decades of civil unrest and the dearth of commissions during Louis XIV's long regency—had fallen into a state of disarray which demanded urgent, remedial attention.

This crisis was quickly redressed; in fact, it lasted less than a decade, and by the mid-1670s the negative impact of several initial architectural missteps (most notably Versailles itself) was effectively erased by the extraordinary efficacy and reach of the propaganda machine installed by Colbert and the cultural élite functioning under his direction, with Charles Perrault (above), also author of the Mother Goose nursery rhymes, acting as his chief architectural assitant. Architecture became so thoroughly enmeshed with the fabrication of the glory of the Sun King, and he in turn with the glory of France, that even today a halo of magnificence serves to protect this closed circle of eternal verities by its blinding influence.

One of the main elements of this hermetic structure is the doctor and architect Claude Perrault’s myth of a French classical tradition stretching back to the late fifteenth century, elaborated in the introduction to his translation of Vitruvius. Perrault's work was on the most basic level an attempt to appropriate Vitruvius—the personification of the Roman roots of the classical tradition—for France, as well as a means to create a classical pre-history to legitimize the adoption of Italian classicism as France's official state architecture.

Scouring France’s architectural history for native classicists and constructing an architectural Pantheon from them became a preoccupation of the Académie, as its members attempted to build a stair—however fragile—between French vernacular architecture and the state-sponsored classicism of the reign of Louis XIV. Tellingly, Perrault (below) whined in his introduction to Vitruvius that generations of Italian architects had conspiratorially hoarded their knowledge of classicism, and as proof he cited the dearth of Italian architectural treatises (frankly one has to laugh at his shamelessness).

All this was simply a desperate attempt to backfill an irreducible historical void, for there is a sharp break in French architecture between the hybrid classical/vernacular as practiced at mid-seventeenth century and the state-sponsored classicism that resulted from Bernini’s voyage to Paris in 1665. Indigenous French architecture, which Colbert took for granted as the most tangible symbol of royal power and authority save for exploits of war, could not be implicated as being unworthy of the role the royal administration had defined for it, and thus history had to be manipulated to bring the past into alignment with the needs of the present.

Classicism, that noble enterprise reborn with the Italian Renaissance, was adopted wholesale by France in the wake of Bernini’s passage. (The great Roman sculptor and architect had remarked while viewing Paris from the heights of Meudon that the city was like a carding comb: a forest of chimney pots unrelieved by any monument worthy of notice, ancient or modern, excepting its great gothic churches.) The cultural bureaucracy under Colbert's direction—which may as well be called the Perrault brothers' cabal—undertook a two-pronged effort to first efface Bernini's influence, primarily by vicious slanders directed by Charles, and secondly to erase any trace that France had ever known a time before classicism at all by Claude's fabrication of a made-to-order classical pre-history, anchored by a false legitimacy based on patently ridiculous claims to France’s inheritance of the legacy of Imperial Rome. It thus comes as no surprise that early in his reign, Louis XIV was more often represented as Caesar Augustus, Rome's great emperor, than he was as Apollo, god of illumination and the arts.

Perrault’s classical canon was simply pure propaganda (even the Spanish Habsburg's Escorial somehow got on the list) and served to obscure the Italian parentage of French classicism and thus held an important political dimension at the onset of an era of aggressive French adventurism in Europe. With the appropriation of Renaissance classicism by the cultural bureaucracy, absolutism supplanted humanism as the ideology underpinning architectural expression, and architecture became inextricably enmeshed with state policy and the manipulation of history to promote Louis XIV’s gloire—that is, the myth of the young, untried king’s power and omniscience, his generative force and semi-divine status.

Claude Perrault's Vitruvian project was instrumental in defining the theoretical boundaries and concerns ruling French classicism, but he also played a crucial role in facilitating its adoption by architects by devising a system for the practical application of classical principles, which he published as The Ordinance of the Five Columnar Orders According to the Methods of the Ancients in 1683. The work was an extraordinarily important manifesto couched as a practical “how-to“ guide to architectural composition, and its widespread adoption and numerous translations had a profound impact upon the course of classical architecture.

The treatise reflects Perrault’s dismissal of humanist principles and his promulgation of Descartian rationalism, with its view of a mechanistic universe. Perrault dismissed the quasi-mystical theoretical trappings which had enveloped the five columnar orders, but in so doing destroyed the fusion between meaning and proportion that imbued Renaissance classicism.

His underlying thesis was crucially incomplete, for Perrault concentrated solely upon codifying a single set of “perfect“ proportions for each of the five columnar orders (Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite) while ignoring the larger, determinant question of the proportions of the building being ordered. Specifically, Perrault attempted to deduce a single formula for the internal relationships between the constituent elements of each of the orders, which he deduced by measuring a range of Ancient precedents and establishing a mathematical mean from them. To put it quite bluntly, Perrault invented cookie-cutter classicism, one size fits all.

In classicism, the building’s proportions were paramount and were ruled by the application of geometrical precepts derived from Greek harmonics and mathematics—namely, the Pythagorean geometrical progression of prime numbers and their relation to musical chords, elucidated in Plato’s Timaeus and encapsulated by the Harmonia mundi, the Music of the spheres (below). The proportions a classically trained architect selected to guide his design were comparable to the tonal key chosen by the composer of a musical work, and they in turn determined the choice and treatment of the columnar order that regulated and imposed hierarchy upon the composition.

The orders themselves, far from being static entities whose proportions could be scientifically deduced and quantified, were rather a kind of Platonic ideal, universal in theory but infinitely adaptable in their particulars. Thus they were a closed but elastic system that remained internally coherent, even though their constituent measures (the length of a column in relation to its diameter, for example) were logically varied in response to an architect’s intent and the proportional “key“ he employed.

Unaware or uninterested that a higher level of ordering principles was inextricably enmeshed in the humanist philosophy he dismissed, Perrault never properly addressed the question of the proportions of buildings. Though the French Académie pondered the question and several members also likened proportion to musical composition, these deliberations offered little more than vague platitudes—a feeble echo of the intellectual coherence and direct applicability of humanist principles.

The translation of classicism into a French idiom and its subsequent dissemination had far-reaching historical impact. The wide dissemination of Perrault’s treatise on the orders—which became a massive bestseller throughout Europe for over a century—was instrumental in pushing these principles into obscurity and depriving classicism of the greater part of its creative potential, an impoverishment compounded by the pedantic regimentation of the Académie. (One would be quite interested to know what these savants must have thought about Michelangelo's elongated yet massive, unfluted and volute-less Ionic/Doric columns—in pairs, no less—at the Laurentian Library in Florence, for example.)

Claude Perrault's conception was fully at odds with his subject, for classicism was an art whose fundamental aim was to transcribe Platonic ideals into stone and to express the poetry of the spheres with captured space. In essence, Perrault reduced a complex and nuanced art to the simplistic application of formula—a process of deracination that led to increasingly formulaic designs and that doubtless hastened classicism’s demise.

So shorn, apparently quite in ignorance, of its living, humanist roots, French classicism quickly devolved to the formulas employed by Jules-Hardouin-Mansart, the first and most successful student of Perrault's precepts. The compositional ease Perrault’s ideas afforded him found their ultimate fruit in the remarkable lack of scholarly interest in Hardouin-Mansart (the first monograph of his work was only published some five years ago), even though he was one of the most prolific architects in history and almost single-handedly defined (and designed) the architecture of the Age of Louis XIV. And this is because Hardouin-Mansart's designs are a simulacrum of classicism, a projection of gloire simplified and aggrandized to serve the needs of a monarch who in his maturity was less the leader of a kingdom than he was the figurehead of a vast state bureaucracy.

(Below, Hardouin-Mansart in action: the right-hand wing is the original Enveloppe of Versailles, at left his massive palace-by-the-yard northern addition; a nearly identical pendant was built to the south)

In turn, Hardouin-Mansart's stylistic hegemony and its limited repertoire would crowd out the experiments of the pioneering generations of French classicists and impose itself upon France, and Europe, for well over a century. Add to this the fundamental difference between the French and Italian conception of building—the Italian sculpts a cubic mass, while the Frenchman aligns rectilinear blocks in an accretive fashion—and the end result is Haussman’s Paris, its endless boulevards lined with uniformly handsome and nearly indistinguishable limestone apartment blocks. (Every Parisian has at least once left the Métro distracted and stood, hopelessly disoriented, wondering if he got off at the right stop.)

In the face of increasingly numbing standardization, architects abandoned the search for meaningful form and were seduced by the glittering attractions of novelty, engendering successive waves of historical pastiche in both the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (below, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton). Toward the end of both periods, committed classicists sought a corrective, reinvigorating classical vocabulary with new forms and a return to clarity and purified volumetrics.

Ultimately Perrault’s legacy is ambiguous. Turning to Italy in the seventeenth century, classicism also suffered decline as humanist culture waned, and Perrault’s principles, riding a swelling wave of French political, military and cultural influence, seem simply to have accelerated the inevitable. Perrault undoubtedly banalized classicism, but in so doing offered the key to its widespread adoption and thus played a critical role in fostering the extraordinary flowering of neoclassicism in eighteenth-century Europe.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this eye-opening essay. When one studies classicism, one feels at times stuck in a mold. It's freeing to realize that one can take something as seemingly rigid as classicism and make it one's own. I feel invigorated....let's see what I can do with this newly found energy. Thanks again!