Diary of the Cavaliere Bernini’s Visit to France
Bernini in France: An Episode in Seventeenth-Century History
The old castle-fortress of the Louvre was originally built by a restless, truculent monarch, Philip II Augustus, starting in 1204; it stood outside the walls of Paris as a military redoubt while the French kings occupied that structure on the Ile de la Cité known today as the Palais de Justice. As a fortress, the Louvre was steadily enlarged by a succession of monarchs until in the sixteenth century François I resolved to tear down the medieval castle and raise in its place a château in the then new “Italian” style. But converting a fort to a royal residence was a tremendous project, progress was slow because of wars both foreign and domestic, and from monarch to monarch the plans kept changing. After successive revisions and additions by Henri II, his widow Catherine de Médicis, Henri IV, and Louis XIII, the still expanding structure was left in a considerable muddle.
Different parts of the building were not always on the same scale or in comparable styles; some were not even aligned with one another. Louis XIV as he grew into his young manhood (born in 1638, he had been king since the age of five) resolved to complete the palace in a manner worthy of the king he was determined to become. Having dismissed several French architects and expressed impatience with others, he caused his chief minister Colbert to let it be known in Italy that an architect was wanted who would lead the great work to a triumphant conclusion. There was the semblance of a public competition, but the choice fell inevitably on the Cavaliere Gianlorenzo Bernini; and after many submissions, revisions, and contractual negotiations he actually came to France in the summer of 1665.
Bernini was no small catch for the French monarchy. Born in 1598, he achieved early fame as a prodigiously talented sculptor. He had created, in addition to virtuoso statues like the Apollo and Daphne and the Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, spectacular public structures like the Fountain of the Rivers in Piazza Navona. He had built palazzi and churches throughout Rome; he had devised and erected the noble colonnade which so effectively frames the façade of Saint Peter’s Cathedral, and erected the unforgettable baldacchino that stands proudly, almost insolently, in the crossing of that church. In 1665 he was hard at work on the cathedra Petri, the throne of Saint Peter, in the rear of the basilica. Alexander VII was most reluctant to part with his favorite architect, even for a summer; but the French monarchy was too powerful to trifle with, so in June of 1665 Bernini and his entourage appeared near Paris and were met on the road by the king’s special ambassador, Paul Fréart de Chantelou, one of the many maîtres d’hôtel at King Louis’s court.
Chantelou came from a family of the lesser nobility in the province of Maine; an experienced civil servant and a supple courtier, he was just fifty-six years old during the fateful summer of 1665. The king was twenty-seven, Bernini was sixty-seven; but both, in their different ways, were formidable authorities. Though still young, Louis had accumulated from two immensely skilled and aggressive ministers, Richelieu and Mazarin, royal powers of almost unlimited extent, and matching imperial ambitions. In about the same way, and for a much longer period of time, Bernini had been the unchallenged ruler of the artistic world in Italy. Chantelou, who had to mediate between them, was not only a polished diplomat and capable of some Italian in addition to his native French; he possessed a genuine understanding of the arts, and a deep feeling for them. He had visited Rome, had conversed with the great Poussin, and accumulated a major collection of his paintings; he and his brother were well established in the royal favor.
From the day of his first encounter with Bernini, Chantelou kept a minute running diary of his dealings with the architect and his assistants, with the king and his ministers, with the courtiers and grandes dames of the royal entourage. This diary, which has been known and used by historians for more than a century now, has at last been translated into English and published. It is a remarkable combination of high comedy, sharp social commentary, important artistic history—the whole seasoned with a sense of dramatic adventure and open possibility that makes it enthralling to read. In dramatic and cultural interest, I don’t know of an equivalent document in the history of European art.
The mission was of course a monumental failure. Bernini did his best to maintain cordial relations with his employers, but he had an explosive temper and a monumental sense of his own value. Chantelou helped him devotedly and with the immense resources of his flexible intelligence. He was not a mere flatterer; he genuinely liked and admired Bernini, and the feelings were reciprocated, sincerely. But all would not do. Colbert began with ideas for the Louvre entirely different from Bernini’s, and with a set of practical considerations in the front of his mind that Bernini did not consider architectural at all. Though they compromised on some details, at heart neither the minister nor the Cavaliere ever changed. Even had their cooperation been better, the buildings already in existence imposed severe limitations on the designer’s exuberant invention; and, to cap the climax, all the French architects who had been passed over in favor of the Cavaliere banded together to criticize his projects and to spread malicious rumors behind his back.
Baited and badgered, Bernini on a couple of crucial occasions lost his temper. The appearances were salvaged, and until the end of his stay a polite pretense was maintained that the Louvre would be built according to his plans. But this was just face-saving. After Bernini returned to Rome, his ideas were allowed to remain on paper, and the real architects of the east façade (facing Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, at the opposite end of the great structure from that where the modern tourist usually approaches it) were a committee of Frenchmen. Prominent among them was Claude Perrault; he was a doctor of medicine when Bernini came to Paris, but one with architectural ambitions and with a designing, clever brother, Charles (later to gain fame as Boileau’s opponent in the Ancientsversus-Moderns controversy and as the collector of the Mother Goose stories). The Perrault boys conspired to do Bernini in, and he went home, if not in a huff—for his pride was well salved with flattery and money—at least disappointed.
Not that the Cavaliere’s time in France was passed in idle intrigue; Chantelou’s record of his daily activities leaves one astounded at the fertility of his invention, the power of his artistic energies. He drew plans and redrew them—no fewer than four complete designs for the Louvre, plus an appendant chapel and a gigantic amphitheater for the production of plays. (Given the slightest encouragement, he would doubtless have written and produced a play there, with spectacular special effects—for this too was within the range of his talents.) He had constantly to answer various and sometimes contradictory demands from the king’s ministers—that the royal apartments should be bigger, less noisy, more accessible to the important people and less accessible to riffraff, that the entire project be carried out with maximum magnificence and minimum expense. All the practical details of building had to be submitted to Bernini for his judgment—which was rarely accepted without dispute. He had to measure the existing buildings of the Louvre, and adjust his plans to their eccentricities; he had to take part in disputes over what buildings outside the Louvre itself must be taken down, and how soon. He surveyed the terrain, pegged out lines for foundations, argued over the quality of the available river sand, the size and hardness of foundation stones, the composition of the mortar to be used, and the question whether the mortar wouldn’t bind better if the stones were wet in advance. Colbert wanted to deal with contractors, each of whom would be responsible for one part of the job; Bernini wanted workmen hired directly and paid by the day, so the work could be overseen more closely.
And then there were the incidental jobs—the high altar at the Val de Grâce church and convent, the sepulchers of the French kings at Saint-Denis, alterations to Mme. de Lionne’s townhouse, staircases, tombs, cascades, bridges, endless opinions to be delivered on pictures, drawings, statues, tapestries; plus, the only one of these innumerable projects that achieved a notable result, the heroic bust of Louis XIV himself, still to be seen at Versailles.
Bernini had his own positive ideas of portrait sculpture. He aimed to produce, not a literal copy of the king’s actual features, but the idea of royal majesty, the impression of imperial command. This was not at all disagreeable to the ruler who would become the Sun King; and it very soon became the courtly thing to murmur that Bernini’s portrait bust suggested the features and carriage of Alexander the Great. But getting the recalcitrant marble to suggest both Louis (with his splendid head of hair and his lace jabot) and the warlike Alexander was a difficult task, made no easier by the fact that it was hard to get the king to pose. He had the usual flurry of appointments; he was often late; and when he arrived, he brought with him crowds of obsequious yet self-important courtiers, who had to be flattered, indulged, circumvented and—when they offered critiques of the developing statue—ignored. Was the king’s nose going to come out a little crooked or not? Hadn’t the sculptor better make sure that his eyes were both turned in the same direction? And while these deep critical points were being discussed, His Majesty’s attention was likely to be captured by Mme, de la Baume, with whom he would withdraw for a while, and so be lost to the Cavaliere.
August 21 was a day not much more frantic than the average. It began with work on a diplomatic response to a memorandum from Colbert proposing various practical adjustments to the Louvre plans; Chantelou was at work with Bernini’s assistant on a polite reply, while the Cavaliere, obviously considering the whole matter beneath his dignity, sulked.
While we were thus occupied, the abbé Le Tellier and the abbé de Saint Pouange came into the studio without saying anything. As soon as I noticed them I told the Cavaliere who they were. The Cavaliere greeted them, saying that he had a high opinion of M. Le Tellier, not so much for his position as minister, but because his face showed that he was a great thinker. After working a little while in front of them he went to scold the man in charge of the door for letting anyone come in without announcing them beforehand. When they had gone, Signor Mattia [the assistant] told the Cavaliere that he had settled the placing of some of the apartments according to the instructions given in M. Colbert’s memorandum. He replied that this work was quite useless, and that the distribution lay with the maréchal des logis, who would not bother with any of their plans. Then he went to dine and I accompanied him. The abbé Buti followed us and handed me ten or twelve printed copies of his sonnet, asking me to be so kind as to present one to the King.
After dinner, the duc de Créqui came and with him the maréchal de La Ferté who told the Cavaliere that they were neighbors and that he must come to dine with him and see his house. At this very moment the King arrived, accompanied by thirty or forty people. Immediately, the King remarked that it was too warm and the windows should be opened. The Cavaliere once more repeated what he had said before, that these gentlemen had the King the whole time, yet would not leave him for one half-hour to the sculptor. This time he worked at the eyes. Earlier that morning he had said that this was his intention and there was one thing that would cause him great difficulty—the length of the King’s eyelashes, which could not be represented in marble. He said the setting of the eyes was very deep, though the eyes themselves were not large; great attention must be given to that kind of thing. Sometimes, while he was working, he came up to the King and looked at him from the front and from one side and the other, from head to foot every way possible, and then returned to the marble. The maréchal de Gramont was present with his eyeglass, watching very closely. M. Colbert stayed for a while and then withdrew. His Majesty talked a great deal with the maréchal de La Ferté. The Cavaliere never stopped working all this time, sometimes at one eye and sometimes at the other, and a little bit at the cheeks. Then Mattia read the sonnet that he had written on the subject of the bust, which I mentioned above, and afterwards he presented it to His Majesty.
More hassles follow, over other verses. The abbé Buti cannot read his own verses because he does not have his glasses with him. Chantelou reads them. Other verses are sent for, and the Cavaliere is inveigled into reading them. They are admired; important people make copies of them.
While the Cavaliere was still working, Mignard d’Avignon came in and told His Majesty that M. Colbert had sent him to take his measurement for a full-length portrait which was to be sent abroad. He measured him with a blue ribbon, M. Biscarat holding one end and he the other. Immediately afterward the King left, saying he would not be able to come on the following day, but if he could, he would send word. Before the King left the Cavaliere showed him the finished drawing for the amphitheatre, saying that besides the magnificent apartments it would provide, it would hold ten thousand spectators on either side.
When the King had gone, the Cavaliere threw himself on a chair saying as usual that he was absolutely exhausted and his mind and energy were used up.
All these contretemps Chantelou describes with touches of ironic humor that only highlight his serious commitment to Bernini and his work. Though he does not use the word, he clearly thought this was the closest he would ever come to a man of genius. So, to the best of his ability, he sheltered the irritable old man from important impertinents, and when they were alone together, he drew out Bernini, not only on the principles of his own artistic work, but on his opinions of other artists, art works, art patrons, and art trends. Some of these comments tread over all too familiar ground; nothing much new could be expected from a renewal of the old comparison between painting and sculpture. Much of the gossip, too, though highly privileged gossip (dealing with people like Veronese, Borromini, Michelangelo, Urban VIII, and Annibale Carracci), amounts to no more than tittle-tattle. But there are striking judgments here and there, such as high praise for the battered old statue of Pasquino, which he thought to be the work of Phidias or Praxiteles. He strongly praises as well the Column of Trajan and the fragment known as the Belvedere Torso; he thinks if the “Lombards” (among whom he includes the Venetian painters) had only learned to draw correctly, they would have been superhuman artists. He would recommend that the apprentice artist divide his time equally between drawing from the antique and drawing from nature—always with the proviso that the highest reaches of art are attained when the artist draws from ideas created within his own mind.
A recurrent theme in Bernini’s conversations with Chantelou is the insufficiency of mere nature and mere copying. The artist must often falsify literal nature in order to give a correct impression of it, and he must carefully calculate the optical illusions that are created when a piece of sculpture or architecture seems to be modified or distorted by its surroundings. Not infrequently Chantelou is rather shocked by Bernini’s audacious ideas on these matters; it provides a pretty touch in the diaries, not unlike Doctor Watson being set right by Sherlock Holmes.
As all this suggests, the Cavaliere was a crackling, opinionated, tart conversationalist, somewhat too much so for a few of his French interlocutors, but not for Chantelou, who records their conversations in gratifying detail. About French architecture and painting, Bernini had, as one would expect, a low opinion; he found it fussy and higgling. And, like a lot of people with waspish tongues, he thought he was being very tactful when, instead of voicing a poisonous thought, he simply said nothing at all. But he made a major exception for the work of Poussin; and a climactic moment of the diaries occurs when, after viewing Chantelou’s collection of Poussin paintings, the crusty Bernini says simply, “Today you have caused me great distress by showing me the talent of a man who makes me realize I know nothing.”
The present edition is a thoroughly composite job. Chantelou’s diary was lost for many years, then published from a copy of the vanished manuscript by Ludovic Lalanne in the Gazette des Beaux Arts from 1877 to 1884. The translation projected by Rudolf Wittkower with the help of Margery Corbett was laid aside for some years; it has been completed by Ms. Corbett and edited by the late Anthony Blunt, who also contributed an appendix on the history of the Louvre. Annotation, a couple of extra appendices, and an index are the work of Professor George C. Bauer of the University of California, Irvine. Anthony Blunt says, a bit deprecatingly, that the diary “from the literary point of view is not a masterpiece” because Chantelou in his eagerness to get everything down right away “did not waste time on turning an elegant phrase.” One could quibble indefinitely over the word “masterpiece,” but the lack of elegant phrases is exactly the reason for the diary’s success as a piece of action writing. Behind the façades of polite palaver and protocol, one feels the tensions building; it is only a matter of time till they explode; one follows the comedy tremulously. If the diary is not literature, the reason is that it is something better.
But the episode of Bernini’s visit to Paris, as it took place in the full glare of seventeenth-century publicity, was reported by a great many writers other than Chantelou; and the republication of this diary, fascinating as it is, hardly gives us the full story. The negotiations that preceded Bernini’s arrival in France fall outside the period of the diary; so do the many significant developments that followed the great architect’s departure. Even while Bernini was in Paris, and Chantelou was seeing him every day, a good deal went on that he did not see and could not suspect. And sometimes the instincts of a diplomat were just too much for the diarist, and he suppressed details that cast one or other of the principals—Bernini or Louis—in an embarrassing light. All this extra insight into the story can be gained from a book published four years ago, precisely on the topic of Bernini in France. Its author is Cecil Gould.
Gould’s is an agreeable account, smoothly written, informed and entertaining. It makes free use of Chantelou’s diary, generally paraphrasing it, but quoting just enough to make clear that the translation used was not Ms. Corbett’s. Apart from the diary, it makes use of letters from Bernini’s assistants, a description of the summer’s events written by that clever villain Charles Perrault, and other materials from archives in Italy and France. I do not know the circumstances that led the same press to publish two such closely overlapping books—which rather ostentatiously pay no attention to each other—within such a short space of time. The fact is that if one wants the full story of what happened between June and November of 1665, both books are indispensable. Chantelou’s diary is intimate and immediate in its perspectives; Gould tells a more bland and fluent story; with the wisdom of hindsight, he can look before and after. For example, one can learn from the diaries that two trial vaults were built, one Italian, the other French, to test construction methods. They were still standing when Bernini left, but we must learn from Gould’s book that during the winter that followed, the Italian vault collapsed. Perrault is the authority for this fact; and he tells the story with such malicious relish that one is tempted to imagine him creeping up to the Italian vault on dark winter nights with a bottle of acid in his hand. He certainly had plenty of acid in his disposition.
More significant and just as amusing is Gould’s explanation of an important but unanticipated result of Bernini’s visit which came about years after all the comedians of 1665, except Louis, were dead. After his return to Rome, Bernini undertook to help with establishing a French Academy to which young French artists could be sent early in their careers, and where they could learn the standards of classical taste by studying the antique. This project worked out very successfully; and one result was that in the early eighteenth century a generation of youthful French artists was able to profit from studying, not only the antique, but also the greatest works of the Cavaliere Bernini. Through this indirect channel the chapel at Versailles (completed in 1710, and decorated mainly by Antoine Coypel) counts as a major accomplishment of that distant, and on the whole unhappy, summer. For the chapel is ultra-Berninesque, Coypel having been trained in the French Academy at Rome; and one is glad to know that King Louis found it an admirable piece of work.
There had been a real chance at the beginning that Bernini himself would get along tolerably well with Louis XIV. Even when Colbert was expressing the gravest doubts about the plans for the Louvre, the king was still enthusiastic; and no false modesty kept him from warmly appreciating the bust of himself—he wanted to be as grand as even Bernini could think of making him. But Bernini got into trouble with his jokes, which were rougher and more pointed than obsequious courtiers could possibly think proper. He got into trouble, too, with his prodigious talents, which he could not swathe decently in protocol and polite palaver. The story of Val de Grâce was symptomatic. The queen mother had sentimental feelings about this convent and its church; Bernini had several times been taken to inspect it before the queen mother asked him to come and discuss a new baldacchino for the high altar. Ever inventive (he produced designs at the drop of a suggestion), Bernini drew a plan for the baldacchino, and brought it within a day or two to the royal patronness—who was mortally offended that he had gone ahead without her important architectural advice. What the poor lady wanted was, as we say now, to have “input”; she had never had it before, and she did not get it this time, either. So Bernini fell from grace even in this minor appointment.
When the east façade of the Louvre did get built by that committee with Claude Perrault, the amateur architect, at its head, there is no doubt that Bernini’s designs exercised a great, though covert, influence. But the importance of the whole project has been vastly diminished by history. Before work on the Louvre was complete, Louis had transferred his building interests to Versailles and begun expanding that original hunting lodge into the enormous complex that survives today. There was a major housecleaning of the old Louvre early in the nineteenth century, under Napoleon I; Napoleon III then altered the balance of the entire palace by adding to it about a third of the present structure; and its whole appearance was altered during the Commune of 1871 by the destruction of the Tuileries complex just off the Grande Galerie to the west. Compared with all these seismic disturbances in the history of the old building, and those taking place even today, the contretemps of 1665 seem minor indeed. But the story of Bernini’s Paris visit, which promised so much and produced, in a direct way, so little, remains a fascinating episode in the turbulent history of architects and their dealings with patrons.