Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Pavilion San Rafael, Pasadena

For those of you living in the Los Angeles area, do not miss the opportunity to visit the Pavilion San Rafael and its lush gardens on Sunday, the 29th of April. This exceptional open house is organized through the Garden Conservancy; use the link to learn more and to acquire tickets, which will then give you complete directions to the property.

Above is our watercolor elevation of the pavilion, which today is a private residence but was originally built as a music pavilion in 1922 in a pure Italian High-Renaissance style for Raymond Gould, who made his fortune as the premier antiques dealer in Southern California in the teens and Roaring Twenties.

In 1914, Gould purchased 10 acres in Garvanza, also known as Highland Park, from the Campbell-Johnson family, the last owners of the 2500 acre Rancho San Rafael, which stretched from Pasadena and Highland Park to Glendale. The Campbell-Johnsons had built the Church of the Angels in 1899 just over the hill from the pavilion, modeled on a chapel in Dorking, Surrey. The church has wonderful Pre-Raphaelite stained-glass windows (below) and should not be missed if you do head off to San Rafael for the afternoon.

Gould had planned to build a Louis XIII-style château on the property but in the end lived in a neighboring Italianate villa designed by Reginald Johnson. The estate and its gardens soon became celebrated and were published in the influential and best-selling Gardens in America (1932) (below) and California Gardens (1928).

A founding member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gould used the pavilion extensively, hosting cotillions, tea dances, concerts and debutante balls well into the Great Depression, when finally the financial burdens caught up with him and he retired from society. He and his sister lived on quietly at San Rafael until his death in 1945; his wake was held in the pavilion.

A Dupont heiress purchased the property from Gould's estate and lived there until her passing in 1957, when the estate was purchased by a developer who subdivided the grounds and drained the artificial lake that fronted the pavilion. The present owners have restored the pavilion and its surrounding gardens to their original glory. It is well worth the visit to see the only pure garden pavilion in the Pasadena area.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Porcelain Trianon

With war and building and his own gloire, flowers were one of Louis XIV’s abiding passions, and he indulged in them with characteristic immoderation. Year in and year out, the royal accounts note stupendous payments for flowering bulbs and plants, purchased by the millions from the world over. Colbert bore the brunt of this obsession, receiving notes like the following, sent before a visit to Trianon in the fall of 1673: “I expect to find many flowers, late or forced. My brother said that the garden isn’t as full as usual and that Le Bouteux (the head gardener) was holding things in reserve; I hope this is the reason. Look into it.“

Missives from the Sun King's glorious battlefronts invariably open with his most pressing concerns, orange trees and gardens. “Madame de Montespan has informed me that you have given an order to buy orange trees,“ begins a letter to Colbert from the camp at Gembloux during the spring campaign of 1675. Le Nôtre, who disliked flower gardens, nevertheless designed a flower parterre for Versailles at the royal behest—it was in fact among the first work undertaken there—and Saint-Simon tells of the court fleeing Trianon one fine spring day, overcome by the perfume of tuberose hanging in the still air.

(At top: our watercolor elevation of the main pavilion, and below: an engraving of the garden elevation, with the Château of Versailles seen distant in the upper left corner.)

As the sober neoclassical Enveloppe finally rose about the king’s gilded house of cards at Versailles, a little Orientalist fantasy also rose at Trianon, a village of such inconsequence that to raze it required less than a tenth of the sum subsequently spent for the compound’s entrance grille. The Porcelain Trianon stood a mere sixteen years and has been cloaked in legend since 1687, when renovation work began that eventually led to the compound’s destruction and replacement by the Marble, or Grand Trianon. The small compound was conceived as a royal pleasure ground, a retreat dedicated to indulging the senses: to tasting delicacies, smelling rare flowers, listening to the songs of exotic birds, savoring privacy, and of course to making love.

Its enduring renown is surely warranted: Trianon’s five pavilions, profusely decorated in a fantastic, Chinoiserie style and arranged about two oval forecourts paved with faience tile, stood amid parterres set out with flowering plants grown in clay pots—by the early 1690s over a million pots were in constant use—allowing gardeners to change the beds while the king dined, offering the surprise of a fresh color scheme for his afternoon promenade.

The original name of the Porcelain Trianon was "le pavillon de Flore," indicating that the impetus for the compound sprang from this passion, perhaps even more so than the king’s passion for the Marquise de Montespan, and the king's love of flowers would endure long after Olympe, the ingratiating name given her by La Fontaine, had in her turn taken up exile, piety and expiatory good works. The reasons that impelled the Porcelain Trianon into being are simple to surmise and follow a familiar pattern, driven as always by the king’s desire to recycle beloved elements of the early Versailles, amplifying them until they were distorted beyond recognition.

Construction of the Enveloppe entrained the loss of the king’s favorite spot in the park of Versailles, the Parterre des Fleurs, a flower garden on the south terrace of the Old Château. The Parterre was enclosed by a gilded balustrade lined by cypress and other evergreens, with tole vases holding orange trees, painted to resemble porcelain, set out at intervals against them, the intricate tracery of beds within “filled with a thousand sorts of flowers.“ (Below, our watercolor recreation of one of the painted-tole Chinoiserie vases at Trianon.)

The site for the new compound was fore-ordained: the vast Latin Cross of the Grand Canal was in the midst of being excavated and the Ménagerie, sited at the end of the Canal’s southern cross-arm, begged for a northern pendant. (In the twilight of the reign, Madame de Maintenon once blurted out, for no apparent reason, “Symmetry! I’ll die from symmetry!“) And finally the prospect of the greatly enlarged château, brimming with indolent courtiers, was undoubtedly judged by both participants as a looming impediment to the king's deepening involvement with Madame de Montespan (below).

In stylistic terms, the Trianon de Porcelaine, like the king's earliest campaign of gilded embellishments at Versailles, ultimately reflects the influence of the opulent interiors in which Louis XIV spent his youth. It was a crammed, intimate splendor, defined by the taste of his mother and Mazarin—a style that confounded the regal taste of the Spanish Habsburgs with the Cardinal’s fondness for the Italianate baroque. (Below: the family of Louis XIV by Jean Nocret. Few images exist of the interiors of the king's youth, but this painting gives us a good idea of what they would have been like.)

Likewise, this same touchstone of displaced parental affection, transmuted by the alchemy of the Sun King’s insatiable appetites—in 1670 a note from the king exhorted Colbert to “Press (the gardener) Le Bouteux and don’t let him lose a single moment“—engendered horticultural feats at Trianon repealing the natural law and that even today appear wantonly extravagant: jasmine and orange trees grown directly in the earth, protected in winter by demountable greenhouse structures, and parterres that were daily replanted with potted, greenhouse-forced flowers, even through the winter months.

As it was Europe’s first chinoiserie building, predating its earliest successor by well over a half-century, the Porcelain Trianon has gathered something of the miraculous about it—as if, as the court chronicler Félibien phrased it, the buildings had sprung up overnight after a spring rain. Built in a few months in the spring of 1671, the compound did indeed seem miraculous, though its remarkable, densely ornamented roofs were created by a large team of sculptors and ornamental painters in a second campaign that began two years later. One of the enduring myths concerning the compound is that its roofs were covered in porcelain tiles; however, our research shows that they were actually sculpted lead sheets painted to represent porcelain.

Scholars, faced with the horror vaccui of no clearly discernible precedent for a building manifestly without precedent, have long attempted to identify influences and tendencies that informed its design, the majority of them perfectly justified. However, what is most intriguing about the Porcelain Trianon is not so much that it was the first building of its kind, but that it was so thoroughly naïve. As architecture Trianon is nearly pure ornament, the embodiment and the proof of the idea that the fêtes in Versailles’ park inspired the bosquets and structures later erected there.

The compound’s architecture is pure scenography, a dazzling tour-de-force of baroque excess. Its Orientalist ornament, on close inspection, is purely French, executed with unlimited resources but without the rigor imparted by knowledge or the fire of inspired invention. As the president of the Société des Amis de Versailles remarked upon first viewing our watercolor reconstruction, "Oh la la! Ça c'est du kitsch!" One hears the voice of Madame de Montespan, inventor of the garden bosquet with the literally weeping willow, behind it all. (Below: an engraved view the courtyard side of the compound.)

Mostly this flatness was the fault of ignorance; in 1670, one simply had no idea what Chinese buildings looked like, let alone their materials, detailing and planning. Partly it was due to the terrible time constraints imposed by the relentlessly impatient king and his haughty, spoiled mistress, who saw to it that the pavilions flew up in a moment; and partly it was due to the architect Louis Le Vau’s health: he died in the midst of construction and while alive could not possibly have devoted the time and energy necessary to create anything more than a piece of stage decor, if indeed he was architect at all. (We believe the compound was a collective work and that the First Architect Le Vau, the First Painter Charles Le Brun and the royal gardener André Le Nôtre each had a hand in aspects of the design.)

Bizarrely, though the compound is traditionally attributed to him, Le Vau is mentioned but once in the relevant royal accounts, having supervised the destruction of the village of Trianon in 1663. Otherwise, like all the other royal buildings of the period, the Porcelain Trianon's architect is undocumented, which is an absurd state of affairs for France in the 1670s and indicates that a policy was in place demanding anonymity of royal architects, the better to propagate the freshly formed construct of the omnipotent and omniscient Sun King. The only contemporary attribution is that of the royal chronicler, Félibien, who claimed that Trianon’s architects were actually cupids and sprites; how utterly charming.

The Porcelain Trianon’s exoticism nonetheless had deeper referents, most importantly its intimation of the king’s boundless dominion over even the most distant empires, as well as his ability to suspend the seasons, but assessing Trianon as a serious piece of architecture is ultimately misleading and it should rather be judged on its own terms, as an amusing bauble of a building that pretended to little more. (Below: a table conserved at the Getty Center in Malibu almost certainly created for the compound.)

On this account, it was an unparalleled success, the first true folly of Louis XIV’s reign and the spiritual prototype for all chinoiserie pavilions that followed, just as the estate itself was a precursor of the English-inspired folly parks of the late eighteenth century, in which the world and its cultures were abstracted to furnish a nobleman’s amusement.

Félibien captured the charmed essence of Trianon, the ineffable atmosphere of indulgence that erased all criticism, when he called it “a little palace in an extraordinary style, and the perfect place to pass the time on a summer’s day.“ This is the very definition of a folly, encompassing pleasure, idleness, fantasy and amusement, and judging by these criteria the Trianon was a resounding triumph.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Louis XIV: patron, but no saint

[This is the first of an occasional series of posts considering aspects of the remarkable personality of Louis XIV, France's Sun King]

The king wants to go Saturday to Versailles, but God appears unwilling, because of the impossibility of readying the buildings to receive him, due to the prodigious mortality among the workmen. Cartloads of corpses are carried off nightly, as if from a charity hospital. The grim convoys are hidden so as not to terrify the worksite, and not to besmirch that “meritless favorite“—you know that quip about Versailles.

Madame de Sévigné, 12 October 1678

A disturbing undercurrent of obsession runs through the history of Louis XIV’s patronage of building. Madame de Sévigné’s clever chatter chillingly encapsulates the bemused disregard with which the court surveyed the Sun King’s building campaigns.

Cosseted in gilded salons, courtiers viewed schemes such as the tragic folly of attempting to divert the river Eure to Versailles—which killed thousands of military conscripts, squandered millions of livres upon a stillborn aqueduct to nowhere, and had as its only goal assuring that the fountains at Versailles could play at full force all the day long—as nothing more than an amusing diversion, a great gift of a joke that provided endless fodder for bons mots.

(Above, the failed Aqueduct of Maintenon, which today makes an undeniably picturesque landscape ornament.)

The court—composed of the ancient Nobility of the Sword and once a proud warrior class—had, by the midpoint of Louis XIV's reign, paled to snobbism, frivolity and pointlessness, emasculated by the king’s imperiousness and the glittering diversions he so cleverly dangled before it.

(Below, Louis XIV and the Dauphin before the shortlived Thetys Grotto at Versailles.)

When he wished to exercise it, Louis XIV held enormous power. To be brutally concise, the king—faced with splintered, ineffectual opposition—had almost free rein to act as he wished and was held in check mostly by his own conscience. This is the reason why his mother, Queen Anne of Austria, placed so much emphasis upon inculcating into the child-king the precepts of an honnêtte homme, a "good man," for without an ingrained moral compass the temptations of unchecked power could quickly bring a ruler and his nation to ruin.

This is also the reason why devout, intellectual clerics such as Bousseut and Fénelon (above) loomed so large in late 17th century French society: their topical sermons and the moral guidance they offered were effectively the only public criticism permitted of the monarch, the press being under complete governmental control. If anything was to be aired openly by a Frenchman not also a man of God, it was published, anonymously, in the Netherlands.

“This idol, gloire

By far the most amazing and damning indictment of the king came from the cleric Fénelon, and his open letter, addressed directly to Louis XIV, is all the more remarkable because he was also preceptor to the Dauphin—the king's eldest son and heir to the throne.

...while the people lack bread, you yourself lack solvency, and you refuse to acknowledge the extremity to which you are reduced. Since you have always been happy, you cannot conceive that you would ever cease to be so. You are afraid to open your eyes, afraid to be forced to relinquish a portion of your gloire. That gloire, which hardens your heart, is more dear to you than justice, than your own peace of mind, than the survival of your people, who daily perish from diseases borne of famine. And finally, it is more dear to you than your own eternal salvation, which is irreconcilable with this idol, gloire.

Fénelon's scorn was unprecedented, and it is amazing both he and his missive survived the king's reading. And he was absolutely right: the letters and memoires of ancien régime France are dotted with a leitmotif of anecdote as successive generations of aristocrats and ministers survey a desolate countryside from their carriages and remark upon starved peasants reduced to eating tree bark and grass.

The obsession with gloire—the king's radiant reputation—held by the king and the government, and in large part condoned by the court and society, was the end that permitted every means. Gloire was a throbbing, omnipresent concern at court; the distress of peasants was a distant, easily forgotten abstraction. And this was because gloire was the absract embodiment of the king and the object to which he ensured that the French state directed its energies. Its overriding importance drove Louis XIV to harness the government and in turn the French nation to supply every means to burnish and extend this charged symbol of greatness.

(Below, a detail of our watercolor of ironwork at Marly with the Sun King's cipher of Apollo in radiant glory.)

Louis XIV believed himself both monarch and first guardian of the monarchy, a concept formulated as "the double body of the king." Simply stated, the two kings were the living king and his eternal, inherited position of kingship. For Louis XIV, his gloire was more than a projection of his own prestige; it was the embodiment of the great history and traditions of the French monarchy, of which he was the personification and instrument.

The king worked ceaselessly to burnish and augment his gloire; it was the intellectual prism through which he considered his every policy move and in many ways it was the sum of his existence. Upon the incorporation of the Petite Académie, later the Académie des Inscriptions, in February 1663, the young king stated, “You may judge, gentlemen, the esteem in which I hold you, for I am entrusting you with the thing most precious in the world—my gloire. I am sure that you will produce marvels; for my part, I will attempt to furnish you with subject matter worthy to be dealt with by men as capable as yourselves.“

By strange paradox, for being so self-absorbed the king did not act from egotism. He was universally considered the most polite person that any of his contemporaries had ever encountered. This is borne out in the private letters and diaries of courtiers, in moments when they could drop their masks and recount the truth. It is a well-known fact that the king lost his temper in public but three times in his 72-year reign, and each occasion was incited by the insupportable boorishness or cowardice of his interlocuter. For his part, the king was usually aware when a line had been crossed; he once commented to Racine, “I would praise you more if you praised me less.“

To the king and the aristocracy, the overtaxed peasantry remained an abstraction, the childlike peuple for whom the monarch was their shepherd and benevolent ruler. Custom and situation fostered this remove; caught in the thrilling vortex of great affairs and inured by the theatrical display of vast wealth at court, the king and his entourage could easily justify the next great expense, since the last had done no appreciable harm, and so it was that an utterly superfluous château such as Clagny—estimated to have cost over three million livres, a sum equivalent to a third of the budget for the French navy—could be blithely commanded into being, then razed and rebuilt, for a mistress who herself was heiress to one of the richest noble families in the kingdom.

If Clagny (above, our watercolor elevation), for which even the king remarked "the expense is excessive," had been transmuted into a fleet, it likely would have turned the tide of the War of the League of Augsburg, forestalling or even reversing France’s decline during the second half of the king's reign, and thus forever altering European history. Granted, such historical shell games could be endlessly replayed, but as Madame de Montespan, the mistress in question, rightly observed when reproached for not showing remorse for having accidentally killed a man while riding in her carriage, it was only because her companions had happened to witness the death that they wept; men were run over constantly but they did not grieve for them.

Louis XIV was essentially a man of common sense and he well knew that we, posterity, ultimately would be more attracted to a good show—to grandiose, gilded monuments—than to "recompenses and good deeds."

Suffering is a constant of the human condition and so the human cost of the Sun King's obsessons has been long forgotten, and creations such as Versailles offer a glittering respite from the world as it is. Versailles endures. It will never lose its power to enchant, to transport us into forgetfulness.