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.

Zerner gives telling examples of other survivals of the Gothic style. The reliefs from the choir screen at Chartres Cathedral can no longer be ascribed to the Gothic period but they are inspired by medieval-style choir screens such as those at Notre-Dame in Paris and at the cathedral at Amiens. The church had its ideological reasons to stick to the Catholic past.

Nor did the religious customs of the faithful change as quickly as fashion and style. This is nowhere more visible than in the monuments to the dead. I am not quite sure if it was a happy idea for Zerner to speak of such monuments as “la grande sculpture théâtrale.” The sculptures of the entombment of Christ which begin to appear in French churches after 1400 were mostly placed next to the tomb of an important donor; they are part of the setting for prayers for the salvation of his soul. Such devotional practices are not what we would usually call theatrical and they continue far into the sixteenth century. In the abbey at Solesmes or the church of Saint-Maclou at Pontoise the entombments of Christ are in the Renaissance style but their expression of pious sorrow remains bound to the late Middle Ages.

The case of tombs with monumen-tal figures is more complicated. The magnificent monuments to Louis XII, Francis I, and Henri II at the abbey of Saint-Denis in Paris are among the great achievements of the French Renaissance. But even here we find that some of the surrounding sculptures continue a macabre medieval tradition, and the recumbent figures of Catherine de Médicis and Henri II by Germain Pilon from 1583 impressively demonstrate a return to the models from the time of Saint Louis in the thirteenth century. Such work shows that the Catholic Counter-Reformation had arrived in France. And the very moving Virgin of Sorrow that Germain Pilon created for the Valois Chapel at Saint-Denis at about the same time also suggests a return to late medieval piety more than it does an interest in theatrical effect. These were not isolated cases. Around 1600, parts of the Netherlands and of Germany show many examples of such a Catholic neo-medievalism.

Zerner states as his central thesis that “the château symbolizes the French Renaissance,” and the most brilliant parts of his book are organized around the great royal palaces: Fontainebleau, the Louvre, and Anet. After a brief look at the château of Chambord in the Loire valley he deals at length with Fontainebleau. Francis I began enlarging a medieval castle there around 1530, a few years after his return from his captivity in Madrid. He felt at home at Fontainebleau and he liked the castle because it offered excellent hunting in the surrounding woods. He was lavish in transforming his new palace and he summoned artists from Italy to undertake its decoration. In 1530 Rosso Fiorentino—the “Maître Roux”—came from Florence; soon afterward Primaticcio followed from Mantua, and, in 1540, Benvenuto Cellini, preceded by a reputation for artistic daring. These were only the best known of the artists who came to Paris from the South. Fontainebleau became the most important center of the Renaissance in Northern Europe.

Rosso’s most important achievement at Fontainebleau was the so-called Galerie François Ier, a long corridor connecting the old Cour Ovale with the new wing facing the Cour du Cheval Blanc. The decoration of this gallery combines frescoes, three-dimensional figures, and ornaments in stucco, and nothing closely resembling it can be found in Italy. Zerner presents a brilliant analysis of the sophisticated interplay between the elaborate frames in the gallery and the images within them, and between the illusionistic paintings and the sensuous sculptures of historical and mythical figures. He traces the repetitions and inversions that Rosso used in creating a complex decorative system, whose overall effect is that of “un jeu d’esprit, un concetto,” or conceit.

Deciphering the iconographic program of this gallery has been a matter of debate since the seventeenth century and will probably continue to be so. Most of the mythical subjects and symbols of the marvelous fourteen paintings on the north and south walls have been identified. Zerner writes, for instance, that a picture on the south wall entitled The Unity of the State, with a central figure in armor resembling the king himself, has as a counterpart on the north side the image of an elephant, a beast which was often regarded as a symbol of rulership.

Everyone agrees that the overall program alludes in some cryptic way to the reign and the person of Francis I, but the key remains difficult to find. Zerner has two important suggestions. He thinks that the bust of the King in the center of the north wall—a bust that has disappeared—may have divided the gallery in two, happy events being represented on the right side of the ruler, unlucky ones to his left. This could be so. More intriguing is Zerner’s suggestion that the combination of large paintings with smaller images beneath them and figures alongside them function like the emblems discussed by the jurist and humanist Andrea Alciati in a book that first appeared in 1534. In Alciati’s work, the meaning of the image is not openly revealed, but only alluded to in the smaller images around it. The central paintings in the gallery similarly pose a riddle which only the initiated can decipher. In Zerner’s view it was the King alone who had the key to the riddle and he could decipher it, if he chose, before the eyes of his astonished visitors (who, if they did learn it, did not divulge it, so far as we know). This may not be the final word on what may be an unsolvable problem. But it is an ingenious suggestion that seems appropriate for the polymorphous structure of Rosso’s decoration.

Rosso died in 1540. Primaticcio then became the dominant court painter, and with the arrival of Cellini, and the presence of the architect Sebastiano Serlio, the art of Fontainebleau took on a new classical flavor. Primaticcio went to Rome in order to supervise the casting of the classical statues. Cellini created his famous nymph of Fontainebleau, which later became part of the decoration of Anet. Today we no longer speak of a distinct “School of Fontainebleau”; but it remains true that, through the circulation of engravings, the influence of Fontainebleau became widespread, reaching the Netherlands and large parts of Germany. No one knows this aspect of Fontainebleau’s influence better than Henri Zerner, and his pages on how Fontainebleau engravings were made and spread through Europe are among the most informative in his book.

Fontainebleau was unique in France because of the lavishness of its decoration, because of the genius of Italian artists who worked on it, and, in general, because of the King’s determination to bring classical art to France. The Louvre was a different case. It had been an important royal castle since the days of King Philippe Auguste (1180-1223) and important additions had been made under Charles V (1364-1380). The new construction of the sixteenth century took place under Henri II around 1550 and was largely carried out by the architect Pierre Lescot and the sculptor Jean Goujon. The most important surviving part of their work is the façade in the large Cour Carrée.

In a subtle description Zerner shows how the separate pavilions and towers of the traditional French castle were integrated by Lescot in a unified design with a rich interplay of recesses and projections. Lescot ornamented his façade with the classical orders, but the cornices separating the different floors are interrupted by a vertical axis running down the center of the projecting part of the façades. Behind the splendid Renaissance curtain the old style of Gothic building—la mode française—shines through and distinguishes Lescot’s architecture from any Italian model. Jean Goujon’s reliefs over the three entrances and in the space above the cornice are entirely part of the masonry and are masterpieces of stonecutting. They are closer to the practice of French medieval sculpture than to the statues of the Cinquecento in Florence or Rome.

Zerner follows Jean Goujon’s career from its somewhat obscure beginnings at Rouen through his astonishing reliefs for the choir screen at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois and his creation of the Fountain of the Innocents in Paris, with its six exquisitely carved reliefs of nymphs, as well as the caryatids in the ballroom of the Louvre. Goujon’s fame came late. His art has great charm but it is uneven, and we still do not fully understand how he formed his style.

The architecture of the château at Anet is certainly more original and inventive than that of Lescot’s Louvre and it is at Anet that the French Renaissance found a new independence from Italian models. Zerner is therefore right to deal with Anet at the end of a book on the invention of French classicism. The château was constructed around the middle of the sixteenth century for Diane de Poitiers, the famous mistress of Henry II. When the construction of Anet began, Diane was nearly fifty years old. (Michelet saw the château as symbolizing the eternal youth of the royal mistress.) Over the entrance of this seemingly magical palace the visitor was greeted by Cellini’s bronze relief showing Diana as the goddess of the hunt, which had been transferred from Fontainebleau. In the front of the main building was a statue of Diane de Poitiers’s late husband, the Sénéchal Louis de Brézé. The royal mistress thus stressed her position as the faithful widow.

A second statue of Diane embracing a man crowned a fountain in one of the courtyards. It survives heavily restored in the Louvre and could be called an allegorical portrait of Diane the mistress and her royal lover, unique in its frivolous poetic invention. Zerner draws our attention to the fact that the beautiful goddess rests on a sarcophagus, the symbol of death. He concludes that the enchanted castle of the royal mistress is a kind of mausoleum which the widow erected around the statue of her late husband. Rarely if ever have mythology, poetry, and architecture been combined in such an astonishing way.

The architect of Anet was Philibert De l’Orme. Under Henri II he was the surintendant of the royal buildings, the first artist to gain this high position. Not until Jules Hardouin-Mansart was appointed the architect of Versailles was an artist again entrusted with the same power and privileges. But Philibert De l’Orme was also the first French architect who wrote theoretical works, following the example of Vitruvius, Alberti, and Serlio. In 1561 he published his Nouvelles Inventions pour bien bastir and in 1567 the first volume of a treatise on architecture. Zerner draws an interesting parallel between De l’Orme’s arguments and the debate on the respective advantages of the French and the Italian languages, which began in 1549 with Joachim Du Bellay’s Defense and Illustration of the French Language. De l’Orme’s Architecture is one of the great texts of the French Renaissance. He takes credit for having introduced into France the art of good building—la façon de bien bastir—and for having done away with the façons barbares.

This is clearly an argument against the Gothic tradition and in favor of openness to Italian influences. But De l’Orme’s ideas on architecture differ from those in Italian treatises in his insistence on the practice of masonry, on craftsmanship, and above all on the art of geometry. Something of the spirit of the manuals produced by the members of medieval guilds of builders lingers on in his written work. In his remarkable chapters on vaulting and stonecutting he refers to the model of a Romanesque staircase at the abbey of Saint-Gilles in the south of France and he describes methods of stonecutting that were to remain characteristic of French architecture until the end of the ancien régime. “There is,” he writes, “no nation which has more beautiful material for building than the French. But most of them have the habit of finding nothing good… unless it comes from a foreign country and is very expensive.” This is, for architecture, the same kind of argument that Du Bellay used for the defense of the French language. The Renaissance, first imported from Italy, had become a French idiom. Zerner acutely observes that when we stand beneath the dome of the chapel at Anet we cannot decide if we look up at a classical coffer-work ceiling or a Gothic rib-vaulting.

Is De l’Orme, then, the inventor of classicism? This is a question of definition. The notion of classicisme, as it is currently understood, derives from the literary battles of the early nineteenth century and it implies a rigorous opposition to Romantic forms of expression; in Zerner’s last pages he himself seems not quite sure if the term is really suitable to the fascinating polymorphism of French Renaissance art. But Zerner has written a brilliant and imaginative book. He has shown that the myth of the predominance of French art would be reduced to classicist sterility if it didn’t include the legacy of the French Renaissance—a wonderfully complex legacy he has described with remarkable clarity and perceptiveness.

This Issue

October 9, 1997