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…

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