Friday, August 19, 2011

Versailles, off the beaten track

We've published two books dealing with Versailles (links here) and have always approached the château as an architectural and historical enigma—what was Louis XIV really up to when he turned the obscure hunting pavilion of his father into the seat of the French state, and who really built the "Envelope" that is the basis of that vast palace?

These are questions not easily answered —after all, they required two books—and though they go to the heart of "why" Versailles exists, they are certainly too involved for a blog post in mid-August. Especially when it finally feels like mid-August, even in Paris, and so we wanted to share a much more approachable side of Versailles—some views of the château that the public never sees: places off the beaten track that we photographed some years ago now. But then Versailles is eternal; what are a few years when confronted with a few centuries?

Above are some views taken from the apartment of Madame de Pompadour, the lover of Louis XV and "mistress of the arts." As you can see, her rooms were beneath the eaves of the château, overlooking the Marble Court, and were (unsurprisingly) directly above the king's own. Needless to say, the views outside were infinitely more interesting than the apartment itself.

Louis XV, "the gracefully bored," was the inverse of all that his predecessor stood for. Intensely private, he suffered mightily inhabiting the monstrous propaganda machine that Louis XIV had fashioned for himself. After his official coucher, where he carried out the semi-public pretense of going to sleep in the Sun King's bedroom, he then took a little lift to Madame de Pompadour's rooms, where he dined and entertained into the wee hours.

The Mercure de France (the Ancien Régime's Pravda), daily reported the hour of king's levée (awakening), which was also (in the ridiculously hermetic pretense of absolutism) the time at which the sun officially rose. Under Louis XV, the sun rarely rose in France before noon, and often after 1:00 in the afternoon. He was renowned at court for preparing his own morning coffee and for unerringly decapitating his soft-boiled egg with a single, deft knife-stroke.

This is also the same view, under more threatening skies, that Louis XV had from his own apartments when he watched Madame de Pompadour's coffin leave Versailles for a funeral that he could not, as king, attend.

In 2009, the leadwork ornaments on these roofs were regilded for the first time since the Revolution. Believe it or not, the question of whether to regild the Marble Court's roof ornaments was one which ultimately concerned the highest levels of the French state and which took generations to resolve. We first heard of the debate in the 1980s; the work was finally carried out in 2009, with enormous trepidation.

For the French political class, spending money (even private donations) to gild the roofs of Versailles was akin to the US Congress authorizing a museum of the Confederacy on the Washington Mall: i.e., political suicide. The project was finally justified as part of renovations necessitated by a massive storm that occurred in 2000, nine years before the actual work began, and in the end the roofs of gold caused none of the leftist backlash the right so dreaded. Of course, this is now cited to invoke carte blanche by those who wish to return the château to its state at the death of Louis XIV in 1715, and who frankly would just as well clone the Sun King from strands of hair found in his wigs and place him on (a contemporary, though nonetheless faithful restitution of) the royal throne—if only for the sake of historical accuracy.

However, even history cannot excuse bad taste. Sir Christopehr Wren visited Versailles in the mid-1660s, when Louis XIV, then in his early twenties, had renovated the obscure hunting lodge of his father, turning it into a cosseted weekend retreat for lovers and select friends, long before he thought to aggrandize it so unexpectedly. Today, Wren's judgment of that early Versailles would be summed up as "effiminate bling." As he wrote to a friend, "The Palace, or if you please, Cabinet of Versailles call'd me twice to view it. The mixture of brick, stone, blue tile and gold make it look like a rich livery; not an inch within but is crowded with little curiosities of ornamanents... Works of filigrand, and little knacks are in great vogue, but building certainly ought to have the attribute of the eternal..."

Wren was not alone among world-famous architects in holding this opinion; in 1666 Bernini also visited France and remarked that young Louis XIV was inordinately fond of gaudy knick-knacks (besides Versailles, he cited jonquils massed in crystal vases at the Tuileries) that would horrify Roman matrons.

Here we are looking at one of the interior courtyards, the cour des cerfs or "courtyard of the deer," which is named after its deer-head sculptures (and is not to be confused with the infamous bordello of the same name run for Louis XV's pleasure in the town of Versailles). Madame du Barry (the last mistress of Louis XV, and by all accounts the most beautiful and agile) had her apartments here, and was discovered there.

These empty, beautifully gilded, and low-ceilinged rooms on the same floor once belonged to Marie Antoinette and were also where she began her famous, panicked flight from the château to the grotto in the gardens of Trianon, when she learned that the people of Paris were marching to Versailles on 5 October 1789, inciting the French Revolution. They are in the pure Louis XVI style, named after her husband, who had nothing to do with anything involving taste, preferring instead to tinker with clockworks in his private rooms, which in its way does indeed explain much about his reign and particularly its end.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Noli me tangere:
Building Michelangelo's Façade for San Lorenzo, Florence

I am deeply torn by this news: the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, has proposed that the city erect Michelangelo's design for the main façade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, completing it in 2015, 500 years exactly after Pope Leo X's initial, stillborn commission.

On the one hand I say, "Go for it!" San Lorenzo's missing façade is the ugliest and longest-enduring urban blot of all time. For over five centuries, the bare brick wall has disfigured a uniquely important church that holds Michelangelo's Laurentian Library and Medici Chapel—among the greatest interiors ever created. (Below, the tomb of Lorenzo di Medici in the Medici Chapel, 1531.)

It is better not to put into words the feelings Florence engenders, viewing its masterpieces and experiencing its unique atmosphere for the first time. It is quite heady stuff and left an indelible mark, and I must admit that I was so bowled over after visiting San Lorenzo that I went to lay a rose on Michelangelo's tomb in the Basilica of Santa Croce (a church which unfortunately he had no hand in designing).

Upon first encountering San Lorenzo, I was shocked by this hoary wound and infuriated, centuries later, by the pope's monumental pettiness in rejecting Michelangelo's scheme due to cost. I admit, I wanted it built, quite adamantly. But today I hesitate to endorse this plan and actually lean against the project.

Why? First and foremost, because Michelangelo is quite obviously not here to oversee the work. The plans he left are developmental and incomplete. The famous wooden model appears impressive and extremely detailed to the layman but, having studied the surviving elements with an eye to rendering the elevation, I must say I find it daunting to well neigh impossible to faithfully interpret the design. True, the grand lines are there; the design is coherent and legible. But it is schematic and we know for a certainty (from period practice in general and from Michelangelo's working methods in particular) that had it been executed it would have changed markedly, but in ways we can only hazard to guess at.

Fools rush in and I will hazard a guess myself. The fundamental flaw of Michelangelo's design (yes, this can happen, even with Michelangelo) is how he laid out the façade horizontally, layering an upper story of Corinthian pilasters upon a base ordered by engaged Composite columns, and using a vertically stretched infill band between them to absorb the leftover space thus generated (the area is indicated by red brackets on the photo of the wooden model above). This band shares the height and position of the first setback of the nave from the aisles (seen in the photo below), but in fact Michelangelo's rectangular façade would have entirely obscured this area from view and so there is no reason why it should have played such a crucial role in ordering its architecture. And truth be told, the entire façade, as depicted by the model, is stretched vertically—uncomfortably, even awkwardly so.

The basic (and intractable) problem confronting Michelangelo was that he was attempting to fit a two-story, classically ordered façade onto a structure whose proportions demanded an extra half-story or more, and for which the level of the ground-floor cornice was pre-ordained by the existing built fabric. That meant that all the vertical fudging and stretching had to occur in the upper zone, though the simplest move would have been to enlarge the scale of the ground-floor order and so raise its cornice—a move denied him.

A glance at this early sketch for the façade reveals that initially things were even worse and that the zone in question was a sort of three-tiered transitional ziggurat that had no independent aesthetic value or positive purpose. It was a necessary evil, serving simply to absorb leftover space. Moreover, it sat smack in the middle of the façade and was nearly as tall as the main stories themselves and so had taken on a life of its own as a design element, essentially dividing the façade into three bands, though this was clearly not Michelangelo's intention.

In fact, you are forced to conclude that for once in his life the great master had drawn a blank. The model shows that Michelangelo stretched the upper story to its aesthetic limits to reduce this intermediate band (and developed the lower story to harmonize with the upper), but still the result is top-heavy and the fundamental obviousness of the distortion and the awkward moments it caused have not been resolved, and in no way can the result be excused as one of the master's inspired Mannerist flourishes. Indeed, his one Mannerist gesture, those enormous bull's-eyes, were a clever way to accentuate the importance of the upper story—and draw the eye away from the unfortunate no-man's-land below.

Some 60 years later, Palladio, himself no architectural slouch, faced much the same problem with the façade of Il Redentore in Venice. His celebrated solution was a series of justly proportioned but overlapping flat "façades" all applied to the same plane: a tour-de-force of composition, compression and suggestion. Michelangelo, in contrast, was clearly struggling and had not yet achieved a comparable breakthrough; he was still trapped by the prison of the church's existing, infelicitous proportions.

So the scheme recorded in the presentation model is an intractable proportional muddle, clearly unresolved, that I highly doubt Michelangelo himself was satisfied with, and that certainly would have further evolved—perhaps drastically so—if the Pope had gone forward with the project. I suspect that, rather than trying to make it go away to awkward results, Michelangelo instead would have eventually acknowledged the reality of this intermediate half-story and would have developed it in a positive fashion—essentially making lemonade from lemons.

And just as importantly, even if you believe the above analysis is wrong: What of the details, those that define the quality (in all senses of that word) of the structure? Leaving aside entirely the question of the figural sculpture that was integral to the scheme, what about the profiles of the moldings, the detailing of the orders, the inevitable—and uniquely personal and deeply idiosyncratic—Mannerist flourishes that are the hallmarks of Michelangelo's architecture? We have none of that, and no one, today or even half a millennium ago, is or was capable of divining Michelangelo's unique genius but the master himself.

Consider these remarkable details from the Laurentian Library in the photo above (click on the image to enlarge it in a new browser window): at the lower left, the sides of the blind windows are detailed as Doric pilasters whose capitals are overlain by Doric consoles supporting the cornice above (A). Consider also the wildly unorthodox treatment of the pilaster/frames seen in the upper half of the photo (B): bare at the top, then finely fluted in the middle, then even more finely reverse-grooved at bottom, and supported beneath by triglyph-consoles that turn the design screw yet again with triglyphs that become a series of finely grooved, positive, projecting ribs applied to a bare, cubic mass (C). It is a dizzyingly bravura performance of entirely unexpected and idiosyncratic inventiveness. One architectural element transforms into another, figure becomes ground, and ornament is abstracted and juxtaposed, deconstructed and reconceived with effortless elegance. Simply spectacular.

And we haven't even begun to consider the outlandish spatial games being played with the inset-and-engaged Doric columns and the shared corner pilaster between them (D), turning a corner with an unparalleled brilliance that surely Mies van der Rohe must have envied—he who spent his entire career pondering the question of turning the corner. Note the lower cornice band as well, and how the two projecting cornices crowning the framed niches nearly meet at the corner, creating a cubic void of great visual power (E). And finally, consider also the voluptuous sinuosity of the great volute consoles that support the Doric columns: the virtuosity of their sculpted bandwork and the off-handed way they touch (F).

No one can recreate such genius, certainly not today with the classical tradition itself dead for a century, and we had better not even try.

We have examples of remarkable modern restorations—the exemplary reconstruction of Pavlovsk and the czarist palaces after WWII come first to mind, as well as the Frauenkirche in Dresden and the promise of the Berliner Stadtschloss. But all these buildings existed into modern times and a wealth of documentary and photographic details were used to guide their reconstruction.

In this case we should heed a cautionary example from Versailles in the mid 1980s. In the late 18th century, Louis XV's fist architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, had designed a monumental stair hall to give access to the enfilade of parade rooms on the first floor, replacing the Ambassadors' Staircase which the king had ordered destroyed. The scheme went unrealized some two centuries and the château seemed none the worse for it, until Versailles' architectes-fonctionnaires attempted to channel the spirit of Gabriel with CAD-drawn stereotomy, and built the design from computer-guided, precision-cut limestone blocks. Traditionally, the architect worked in concert with a team of master masons and sculptors to design and execute the program of ornamental detailing that would enliven the bare stonework, but in this case both architect and stonecarvers were deemed obsolete. The result is an aesthetic catastrophe—a schematic, clumsily detailed, awkwardly ornamented and entirely unconvincing volume—and now, a generation later, Versailles' custodians, gênés, are at a loss what to do with it. (Don't be wowed or cowed by all those columns and all that cut limestone; click to enlarge and examine carefully the deep ceiling cove, then trace the tragic, leaden descent of the farther balustrade and its ignominious, lumpen end as it collides into the inner stairwell.)

Imagine then, the banality of the disaster (or the disaster of the banality—sadly, Hanna Arendt is no longer with us to offer guidance) that awaits Florence; at least the stair hall at Versailles is an interior space and so can simply be locked off. I wish it would be otherwise, but wishes are not ponies and the world is not what we wished it would be in our youth, and so I can confidently predict that building an unfinished design by Michelangelo in the 21st century will end badly, at least judged in aesthetic terms, though in commercial and propagandistic terms it may well be an enormous success.

All this brings to mind another saying, this one from Ancient Rome: Quod licit Jovis non licit bovis. The feats of Jove should not be attempted by bovines.