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The Riddle of the French Renaissance

L’Art de la Renaissance en France: L’invention du classicisme

by Henri Zerner
Paris: Flammarion, 414 pp., 595 FF

The predominance of French art has been one of the longest-standing myths of Western civilization. It was only in the aftermath of World War II with the rise of the New York School that the belief in the superiority of the French genius in the visual arts began slowly to fade. The great works and traditions that gave shape to this myth included the Gothic cathedrals at Chartres, Paris, and Reims, the splendor of Versailles, and, not least, the predominant influence of the “École de Paris,” from Delacroix to Picasso and Braque, on nineteenth- and twentieth-century art. French Gothic was imitated everywhere in Europe; Versailles was the model for numberless castles and palaces from Spain to Russia; the Impressionists, the Fauves, and the Cubists were the models for nearly all modern painting up to the late 1940s. In 1939, just after the beginning of the war, Paul Valéry declared in a lecture on “Pensée et l’Art français“: “It is our particularity to consider ourselves as universal.”

The French Renaissance, the art created under the last Valois kings from Charles VIII (1483-1498) to Henri III (1574-1589), has never been really a part of this myth of French predominance in Western art. The Renaissance was an Italian, not a French, invention, and Italy remained during the whole Cinquecento the center of European art. Between Fouquet in the fifteenth century and Poussin in the seventeenth century—the Grand Siècle of Louis XIV—France produced no painter of really European stature. At least two Frenchmen, Jean Goujon and Germain Pilon, were, it is true, among the greatest European sculptors of the sixteenth century, but their fame was never comparable to that of Michelangelo, Cellini, or even Giambologna (who was trained in Flanders but worked in Italy); and what remains of their work is not as easily accessible in France as the Medici Chapel or the statues in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence.

Still, French architecture was without any doubt the most inventive and brilliant of any created during the Renaissance outside Italy. Whether in England or in the rather provincial Renaissance architecture of Germany, nothing is comparable to the Fontainebleau of Francis I, the Louvre of Pierre Lescot, or Diane de Poitiers’s extraordinary castle at Anet designed by Philibert De l’Orme. But most of the important buildings of the French Renaissance survive only in engravings. Fontainebleau is distorted by later changes and restorations, Les-cot’s wing at the Louvre has been submerged by the grandiloquent enlargement of the royal castle during the 1700s, and only a few parts of Anet remain.

But there are other reasons for the difficulty in appreciating the monumental legacy of the last century of the Valois kings. The intrinsic character of French Renaissance art—its sophistication, its eccentricities and ambiguousness—contradicts the simplistic idea that the genius of France is expressed through works that are clear, rational, with a unified structure. “They are charming in detail, dazzling, but they barely show any unity,” Michelet wrote about the first Renaissance buildings in France. For later French art theory, as conceived in the seventeenth century by the poet and writer Nicolas Boileau or his contemporary Charles Perrault, such a lack of unity could only be a defect. And there was still another problem. The origin of the new style was not French. Michelet, always a master in inventing poetic metaphors, said: “With Daphne a nymph is transformed into a tree. Here”—with the beginnings of the French Renaissance—“it is the contrary. The nymph grew out from the tree of Gothic” as an “efflorescence confuse.”

France had invented, elaborated, and propagated the Gothic style, and far into the sixteenth century it remained under the influence of Gothic architecture and sculpture. Philibert De l’Orme, the leading French architect in the latter part of the century, called the Gothic manner of building la mode française. Renaissance art and architecture was a foreign mode imported from Italy. Viollet-le-Duc, the great advocate of Gothic architecture during the Second Empire, complained: “The Renaissance has erased the last traces of the old national art.” The French Renaissance was denounced as a foreign language, a departure from the traditional forms which according to Valéry should be the sign of true French art. But if the French Renaissance does not fit into the myth of the predominance of French art, what is its place in the French national heritage?

Throughout L’Art de la Renaissance en France Henri Zerner addresses this fundamental question, and the subtitle of his book, L’invention du classicisme, suggests an answer to it. Classicism has often been regarded as one of the most distinct features of French art after the Dark Ages. Normally the rise of French classicism has been connected with the art of the Grand Siècle, with the paintings of Poussin and with the academic doctrines formulated in the circle around Charles Le Brun, the favored painter of Louis XIV. But Zerner reminds us that just as the “Art poétique” of Boileau, with its pedantic slogan “Aimez donc la raison” (in effect, “You have to love reason”), was preceded by the more sophisticated classicism of the odes and “amours” of Ronsard in the sixteenth century, so an earlier, more capricious classicism emerged in French art and architecture around 1550. The beautiful nymphs from Jean Goujon’s “Fontaine des Innocents” in Paris may be called the first classicist sculptures in France; in the painting Eva prima Pandora by the elder Jean Cousin, probably from the later 1540s, something of the classicism of Ingres or Poussin seems to be anticipated in the large panel showing a reclining female nude of rare elegance.

Lescot and De l’Orme transformed the rhetoric of Italian Renaissance architecture into a specific French idiom which was repeated and expanded in the great palaces of the seventeenth century. So Zerner argues that the Renaissance was the period of “le premier classicisme français,” a classicism more irregular, more unstable and eccentric than the orderly, doctrinaire forms of classicism that emerged in the Grand Siècle. He wants to reconsider the entire visual culture of the sixteenth century in France.

L’Art de la Renaissance en France must have been a difficult book to write, and it is not always easy to read. As part of a series intended to give a general survey of the history of French art, the book has to deal with all aspects and all the branches of art during a complex period of transitions, survivals, experiments, and ambivalent influences. The book includes splendid royal palaces as well as vernacular pottery; it discusses both the erotic art at the court of Francis I and the religious theater of the tombs in the churches of the provinces. Its illustrations, very intelligently selected, offer a visual guide through this labyrinth of different objects and forms.

But the text of L’Art de la Renaissance en France has been unavoidably affected by the difficulty of dealing with such a diversity of topics. It oscillates between a brilliant analysis of the art of the court of Francis I, discussion of minor problems of attribution, and the evaluation of rather cryptic archival material. The two chapters on the elder and the younger Cousin are nearly a book within the book and one learns from the introduction that they are drawn from a study of Jean Cousin which Zerner originally intended to write. So there is a certain lack of balance in the organization of his text.

What could have been a defect, however, proves finally to be a virtue. The digressions in the text reflect something of the unstable character of a period of constant experiment in disparate forms. We therefore get a vivid sense of the diverse character of French art before it became centralized during the Grand Siècle under the influence of such slogans as Boileau’s “Tout doit tendre au bon sens” (“Everything must strive toward being correct”). We find a fascinating coincidence between the caprices and the ambivalence of the art under the last Valois kings and the versatility with which Zerner deals with different styles. One would not expect from him a book devoted entirely to the gigantic architectural machine that was set up at Versailles: such a task would probably have bored him. In dealing with the castles of Fontainebleau and Anet, and with such artists as Cousin and Duvet, Goujon and Pilon, he has found his ideal subject. Notwithstanding the imperfections of his many-sided book, he has brilliantly mastered his subject.

Here it is worth recalling Michelet’s view that the French Renaissance was “the nymph” that “grew out from the tree of Gothic.” Zerner begins by discussing “The Gothic to the Renaissance,” and he can point to many Gothic survivals in the French sixteenth century. Illustrated calendars and Books of Hours continued for a long time to be printed in Gothic letters, while for classical texts the same printers used types à l’antique, on the Italian model. Ecclesiastical architecture remained particularly conservative. The prestigious Parisian parish church of Saint-Eustache, begun not earlier than 1532, is entirely Gothic in structure, although its decoration uses a classical vocabulary. The façades of Saint-Gervais in Paris and Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais at Gisors follow the model of medieval cathedrals, but just where we expect a traditional Gothic rose window, we find a Roman triumphal arch.

More astonishing still is the façade of the cathedral of Rodez in the south of France. The Gothic gable that traditionally crowned the center of the façade has been replaced by the faithfully imitated upper façade of a Roman sixteenth-century church. Such changes in stylistic vocabulary have disturbed some modern critics, but the century of Rabelais seems to have enjoyed such contrasts. In the case of Rodez, the image of a Roman church triumphantly rising over a Gothic rose window was probably a Catholic gesture against the Huguenots who were particularly active in that part of France. Such choices of style could well have had an ideological motive.

In particular the royal castles became the strongholds of the new classicism, and they are central to Zerner’s book, whether in their architecture or their décor. Religious art, for the most part, remained bound to the Gothic past. Some artists mastered both styles, and they coexisted in various forms. Jean Goujon worked at the Louvre and at the church at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois. Yet while Zerner’s book makes much of the difference between traditional ecclesiastical art and the modern fashions followed at the court, the separation between them is perhaps sharper than he allows. Even a church such as Saint-Etienne-du-Mont in Paris, which Zerner praises as a Renaissance building, remains fundamentally a Gothic structure in Renaissance clothing. The stained glass windows which survive both in high quality and great number in French churches from the sixteenth century are decorated with many Renaissance details, but they are clearly based on a tradition which goes back to the late Middle Ages and even to the cathedrals at Chartres and Bourges.

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