Character of Renaissance Architecture/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI

ARCHITECTURE OF THE EARLY RENAISSANCE IN FRANCE

On the north of the Alps the Renaissance had not the same meaning that it had in Italy, and in France, where its influence was first felt, the art naturally assumed a different character. The term "Renaissance" is not, in fact, properly applicable here, for the French people had not had a classic past, and the adoption of architectural forms derived from classic antiquity was not at all natural for them. Through the developments of a noble history they had acquired and perfected a peculiar genius which had found expression in forms of art that were radically different from those of ancient times; and in now departing from the principles of this art they did violence to their own native traditions and ideals.

It has been often affirmed that French architecture was but superficially changed by the Renaissance influence, and that its essential character survived beneath the Italian dress.[1] This is not wholly true. The Italian influence did effect a fundamental change in this architecture by giving it, as we shall presently see, a factitious, in place of a natural, character. This point has been overlooked by those writers who have maintained that the French artistic genius suffered no loss of integrity while yielding to the Renaissance movement.

But it must not be forgotten that the native art had lost its best character long before the Italian influence supervened. The finest Gothic impulse was spent before the close of the thirteenth century, and the feeble spirit and florid extravagance of the Flamboyant style which now prevailed betrayed a weakened condition of the national artistic mind which made it an easy prey to the foreign innovations.

Until the sixteenth century the Gothic style survived in its decadent forms. Yet in some quarters before this time an interest in the arts of antiquity was gaining foothold, and a few Italian artists had come into France and wrought some small architectural works in the neo-classic manner. But the way appears to have been opened for a more general movement in the new direction when the French upper classes began to construct fine houses adapted to the requirements of luxurious life. This movement was favoured by the changed conditions of the times. Concomitant with the cessation of feudal turmoil and the need for fortified castles was a great increase of material wealth, far exceeding that which France had enjoyed at any former time in its history. Life and property were now secure, population grew, the towns enlarged their borders, and the resources of the king and the nobles were correspondingly enlarged.[2] These conditions had found expression in architecture during the fifteenth century in such palatial houses as that of Jacques Cœur at Bourges, and the Hôtel Cluny in Paris. These houses, though retaining the irregular character of mediæval French castles, have no defences, and are abundantly lighted on all sides by large window openings. They are the forerunners of the Renaissance châteaux.

To understand the early French Renaissance château it is necessary to recall the character of the feudal castle of the Middle Ages out of which it was evolved. The plan of the feudal castle was generally irregular and its outline picturesquely broken. But its irregularity and picturesqueness were not the result of any purpose on the part of its builders to produce a picturesque effect. It was a consequence of the natural conformation of the rugged site to which the building had to shape itself, of the need for defensive towers, and of the conditions of climate calling for high-pitched roofs, more or less broken by dormers and chimney-stacks.

The earlier palatial residences of the open country were in many cases the older castles remodelled or enlarged, and opened, by great windows cut through their massive walls, to the light and air.[3] And although there was no longer need for such defences as would withstand the siege of a feudal army, it was still for some time necessary to provide for security against roving bands of marauders which continued to move about, and thus the surrounding fosse and the drawbridge were retained for a considerable time after the loopholes and embattled towers of the Middle Ages had become unnecessary.


Fig. 110.—Cornice of Blois.

In cases where the château was a wholly new building, it was generally placed on even ground, and the plan became symmetrical. Yet still the outline remained broken with the steep gables, chimneys, and dormers that are proper to a northern climate; and even the towers, turrets, and other features of feudal architecture were largely retained. The French château, as has been often remarked, was never transformed into any likeness to the Italian villa; but it was, nevertheless, so radically changed as to lose that admirable logic of design which distinguishes the French architecture of the Middle Ages. The composition of the Renaissance château is factitious in the sense of being artificially made up; it is not, like the mediæval castle, an outgrowth and expression of natural conditions and actual needs. Thus while it is still peculiarly French in character, it is not an expression of the French genius in its integrity. The French genius in its integrity has not been manifested in architecture since the Middle Ages.

The earliest palatial houses of the Renaissance in France are ornamented with debased Gothic details almost exclusively. The neo-classic elements are introduced sparingly, and are hardly noticeable in the general effect. An illustration of this is afforded in those parts of the château of Blois which were built under Louis XII. Here the egg and dart scheme is worked on the lower members of the cornice, while elsewhere the mediæval details are retained. This cornice (Fig. 110) is a curious medley, though of no exceptional kind. Against a flat lower member is a corbel-table (a Romanesque feature) treated in a Flamboyant way, the small arches being splayed and having the three-centred form. The crowning mouldings have approximately true Gothic profiling, while a Flamboyant parapet of elaborate design surmounts the whole.


Fig. 111.—Azay le Rideau.

Of the distinctive early French Renaissance architecture, which took form during the reign of Francis I, a fine example is the château of Azay le Rideau (Fig. 111). This building was an entirely new structure, not a mediæval one remodelled. It is of moderate dimensions, and, although it has considerable
Fig.—Portal of Azay le Rideau.
beauty; it well illustrates the hybrid and factitious character of early French Renaissance design. There was no need of defences, yet round towers are set on the angles simulating those of feudal times, and each one of these is crowned with a low overhanging story supported on corbels, and having a superficial resemblance to the mediæval machicolated gallery. This overhanging attic is carried along each side of the building, and its numerous small square windows are so spaced as to give the intervening wall solids somewhat the appearance of battlements, while steep gables, crowned with spiky pinnacles, and high dormers and chimneys make up a total composition of great picturesqueness. The larger features are all of mediæval form, but the windows are flanked with classic pilasters and crowned with entablatures. The most elaborate, and least admirable, feature of this building is an ornamental bay (Fig. 112), not seen in the general view here shown (Fig. 111), which embraces the main portal. This bay is worthy of analysis because it is a highly characteristic example of French Renaissance design in which distorted neo-classic details are worked into a pseudo-Gothic scheme. The composition is plainly derived from the neighbouring castle of Chateâudun, which was built at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and ornamented in the Flamboyant Gothic style. In Chateâudun (Fig. 113) a staircase tower rises over the main portal of the south façade in four stories. The front of this tower, which is flush with the wall of the façade, is treated as an enriched bay, the upper two stories of it reaching above the main cornice, and being flanked by round turrets overhanging the wall, which is corbelled out to support them. The portal is double, and each upper story of the bay has a pair of large openings. All of these openings have the Flamboyant depressed arches, and the whole bay is flanked by buttresses, while a smaller buttress is set against a middle pier that rises through the composition. All of these parts have the characteristic Flamboyant forms and ornamental details. The openings are splayed, and their profilings have the sharp Flamboyant arrises. The buttresses have the multiplicity of angular members set obliquely, with the simulated interpenetrations, and the niches and canopies, of the latest Gothic style.

Returning now to the portal of Azay le Rideau (Fig. 112), we find this scheme substantially reproduced, but with greatly
Character of Renaissance Architecture 0227.jpg

Fig. 113.—Châteaudun.

altered details. In place of the buttresses we have a remarkable combination of columns, pilasters, and other neo-classic ornaments put together so as to produce a pseudo-Flamboyant Gothic effect. The portals and windows are flanked with pilasters and crowned with entablatures, and the whole is bounded right and left by superimposed columns broken by highly ornamented niches, and banded by the string courses and entablatures. On the first floor over the portal the window pilasters are made to appear as hidden behind tall ornamental niches, composed of many neo-classic and nondescript elements, arranged in the manner of the details on Flamboyant buttresses. Only small portions of the base mouldings of the pilasters appear beneath this filigree overlay. In the story next above, the central pilaster only is hidden in this way, but here a part of the capital, instead of the base, comes into view. The manner in which the pseudo-Gothic features are adjusted to the neo-classic elements of the composition is curious in other ways. The pilasters of the several superimposed orders are, of course, of equal length in each story, and their entablatures make strongly marked horizontal lines. But the nondescript ornaments laid over these orders are carried up to unequal heights, all of them crossing the middle entablature, and the finial of the central one reaching above the architrave of the top entablature, while the lateral pilasters of this upper order are wholly exposed to view, except that the finials of the canopies over the niches below cover parts of their bases. The mixture of neo-classic and pseudo-Gothic forms is carried out in the details of these superimposed ornaments. Under the base of each niche are two diminutive pilasters, set obliquely so as to present an arris in front, like the angular members in Flamboyant buttresses, as in Châteaudun, and between these is a small shaft supporting a corbel which forms the base of the niche. The niche is flanked by slender pilasters set obliquely in conformity with those below, but these pilasters are almost entirely hidden from view by very salient nondescript ornaments worked on the face of each. The mouldings of the grouped bases, which are of different magnitudes, interpenetrate in Flamboyant fashion, and the canopies over the niches are made up of miniature entablatures on curved plans ornamented with filigree, and each of them is surmounted by a group of minute niches with statuettes, and crowned by a finial. The windows have the depressed arches of the Flamboyant style, with panelled dadoes beneath, as in Châteaudun; but their profilings are pseudo-classic, and they have keystones at their crowns. The total scheme is more mediæval than classic, notwithstanding the free use of neo-classic orders. To produce a continuity of upright lines, and thus emphasize the Gothic effect, the entablatures are broken into ressauts over the pilasters, and are carried around the lateral columns, as before remarked. The double portal is the only part of the composition that is quite free from mediæval elements. The order and the arches are here combined in the ancient Roman manner, as they are, indeed, in the upper stories; but here the arches have the Roman semi-circular form, and the order is not overlaid with other ornaments. Classic proportions are not at all observed. The pilasters are short, and are raised on high pedestals, which are necessary to the composition in order to give the effect of adequate foundation for the superstructure. The design as a whole has no reason on structural grounds, nor has it any logic of simulated structure. Such merit as it has is of a purely abstract ornamental kind entirely extraneous to the building. Apart, however, from its factitious general character, and its incongruous details, the château of Azay le Rideau has a thoroughly French character, and is one of the finest monuments of the early Renaissance in the country.


Fig. 114.—Part of the Portal of Chenonceaux.

Among other châteaux contemporaneous with Azay le Rideau, and of similar character, are Chenonceaux and La Rochefoucauld. Of Chenonceaux the portal (Fig. 114) is worthy of notice as an instance of a different manifestation of the survival of Flamboyant ideas in the treatment of neoclassic details. In this portal we have again the three-centred form of arch, with a keystone and continuous imposts.[4] The jambs and archivolt are in three planes, or orders, of shallow projection, with simple mouldings of semi-Flamboyant effect. No entablature surmounts this portal, but a corbelled cornice supporting a heavy balcony passes over the arch. This balcony has a curved ressaut at each end carried on a massive corbel in graduated rings of overhanging masonry, with a compound support beneath consisting of a stout pilaster and two small shafts. The Flamboyant idea running through this nondescript scheme is shown in the depressed form of the arch, and by the simulated interpenetrations at the imposts of the pilasters.

In La Rochefoucauld we have an instance of a mediæval fortified castle transformed into a palatial residence. The most noticeable features here are the superimposed arcades of the court. In these arcades we have orders of pilasters used in the Roman way to frame in the arches, but these arches have the Flamboyant three-centred form. In the top story the number of arches is doubled, and the entablature over them is crowned with an ornamental parapet and finials. The vertical lines of the superimposed pilasters, made continuous by ressauts in the entablatures and carried up through the parapet by the finials, give a semi-Gothic expression to the ancient Roman scheme.

In those parts of the vast châteaux of Blois and Chambord that were built in the time of Francis I a richer phase of this early French Renaissance architecture is found. The eastern wing of Blois, which had been begun by Louis XII, illustrates this. On the side facing the court the walls are panelled, not as they sometimes were in the earlier buildings, as at La Rochefoucauld, by interpenetrating mouldings of Flamboyant profiling, but by three superimposed orders of pilasters, in which a continuity of upright lines is given by shallow ressauts in the entablatures (Fig. 115). The pilasters are here irregularly spaced in conformity with the window openings of the work that had been begun, and considerably advanced, under the preceding reign; and have the novel addition of ornamented bead mouldings


Fig. 115.—Part of the court façade of Blois.

set on the edges of the pilasters, and along the under edges of the entablatures, while in each of the panels thus framed the salamander and crown are carved in relief. In the deep and elaborate cornice, dentils and modillions and the egg and dart are worked in with Gothic gargoyles and a corbel-table; while a rich parapet crowns the whole, and dormers of picturesque form, with pseudo-classic orders surmounted by gables and pinnacles, rise against the vast high-pitched roofs which are further broken by ornamented chimney-stacks. A survival of the later Gothic habit of design is further shown in the continuity of upright lines obtained by the ressauts already remarked. But the most remarkable feature of this façade is the great polygonal staircase tower that rises through it. Four vast piers like buttresses, reaching from the ground to the main cornice which is carried out so as to crown them, are treated like colossal pilasters with rich Corinthianesque capitals, and are banded above the middle with mouldings of classic profiling. Yet on the face of each of these members is a corbelled niche, with a rich canopy and statue in late Gothic style. These piers are connected by three stages of ramps with panelled parapets elaborately ornamented with small pilasters, carvings in relief, and gargoyles issuing from their base mouldings. The whole composition is crowned with a dormer having a square opening on each side, grouped pilasters on the angles, an entablature with compound ressauts over the pilasters, and with gargoyles reaching from the cornice, and a balustrade over all.

The reader should consider well the meaning of all this, and observe how the persistence of the native French habits of design, without the logic of the former time, was still giving a largely mediæval aspect to works in which details from the Italian Renaissance, modified and combined in strangely new ways, were being more and more freely introduced.

On the garden side this wing of Blois has a different design, and shows a survival of the Flamboyant depressed arch in the window openings necessitated by the form of the earlier façade, which is incased in that of Francis I.[5] The windows of this earlier façade were spaced and proportioned so as to make wide and narrow voids and solids alternate in a very irregular manner. In the work of the sixteenth century, which overlays this, superimposed pilasters are set in pairs on the wider solids, and single ones adorn the narrow piers. The pilasters of the lower order rest on tall pedestals supported on spurs rising out of the batter wall of the basement, while the upper order is set on plinths resting on the entablature of the order beneath. This upper order has a plain corbel-table in place of an entablature, with a simple cornice, and gargoyles over the pilasters. Over this is the novel feature of an open gallery covered by an extension of the main roof which is held up by columns of no distinct order, with a balustrade in each interval. Similar galleries were afterward in some instances produced by extending the roofs over originally uncovered terraces below the eaves, supporting the extension on wooden posts—as at La Rochefoucauld.

The walls of Chambord, the next vast château of the early French Renaissance, are adorned with pilasters as at Blois, though the design below the cornice is much simpler. Above the cornice, however, it is the richest of all the great French châteaux, and with its steep roofs and manifold dormers, chimneys, and central lantern, it presents an aspect which for multiplicity of soaring features resembles a late Gothic building. It is not worth while to give an extended analysis of its redundant details which, with its vast chimneys adorned with free-standing orders, niches, panelled surfaces, and pinnacles; its dormers with overlaid orders of pilasters, pediments, scrolls, and endless filigree ornaments; and its great lantern with inverted consoles on entablatures forming flying-buttresses (where there is nothing to be buttressed), make up a bewildering complex without structural meaning or artistic merit. Viollet le Duc has well remarked that "Chambord est au château féodal des XIIIe et XIVe siècles ce que I'abbaye de Thélème est aux abbayes du XIIe siècle: c'est une parodie."

The same general character, though in less florid development, marks those parts of Fontainebleau which are contemporaneous with Blois and Chambord. This is true also of Écouen, where the architectural scheme is comparatively simple. Instead of superimposed orders the walls of Écouen are adorned with continuous pilasters banded by the mouldings of entablatures that crown each of the stories. These details are in very shallow relief, the wall spaces enclosed by them are not panelled as at Blois and Chambord, and the windows have no framing members. Even the dormers have a marked sobriety of design, though they are framed with small orders, and crowned with fantastic pediments made up of classic elements and filigree ornaments.

The architect Bullant, who appears to have had a large part in the design of Écouen, was among the first French architects of the Renaissance to travel in Italy. In Rome, as he tells us in his book,[6] he had measured some of the ancient monuments, and in the great portico of the court he reproduced the order of a Roman temple.[7] This portico embraces both stories of the building, and is, I believe, the earliest example in France of the reproduction of an ancient order without any admixture of mediæval details, or Italian corruptions. In the main body of the building it was natural that the architect should modify and adjust his neo-classic details in the prevailing manner of his time; but this colossal portico gave him an opportunity to carry out fully the classic Roman ideas which he appears to have imbibed during his Roman sojourn. It was impossible, however, to make any organic connection between this ancient scheme and the building to which it is attached, and it stands against the façade as an utterly foreign interpolation.

An exceptional building of the early French Renaissance is the château of St. Germain en Laye. The top story of this building is vaulted, and to meet the vault thrusts a series of deep buttresses is ranged along each façade. These buttresses are connected by arches at the level of the floor of the principal story[8] and beneath the main cornice, and entablatures, which crown the basement and the principal floor, break around them. They are adorned with pilaster-strips of Romanesque proportions, connected by small blind arches, capped by ressauts of the main cornice, and pierced with water-ducts ending in gargoyles. The arched windows are in pairs (one pair in each story between each pair of buttresses), and are framed with pilaster-strips and entablatures surmounted with pediments. The balconies formed by the ledges over the lower arches are enclosed with balustrades, and balustrades connect the buttresses over the main cornice. The roof is very low and invisible, thus there are no dormers, but large chimneys ornamented with blind arcading break the sky line.

Such is the early Renaissance architecture of France. Notwithstanding its factitiousness, and its ornamental incongruities, it still has, as I have said, a distinctly French expression, though it has not the reasonable character of the native art of the Middle Ages in its integrity. But the departure from their own ideals and traditions was destined to be carried further, and at length to reach results which should still more profoundly contradict the true native spirit. This further transformation was wrought during the second half of the sixteenth century under the influence of several noted architects who stand in relation to the French Renaissance very much as Vignola, Palladio, and their followers stand in relation to that of Italy. The art of these men will be considered in the next chapter.


  1. The most authoritative French writers are misleading in affirming that no radical departure from their best building traditions was made by the French architects of the Renaissance. Thus Viollet le Duc (Dict., vol. 3, s. v. château, p. 174) says of these architects, "Toujours fidèles a leurs anciens principes, ils ne sacrifièrent pas la raison et le bon sens." But while affirming this, these same writers sometimes make admissions which so materially qualify the affirmation as to deprive it of its truth; thus the same author, remarking on the changes that were making in the character of the château, adds (p. 185), "Nous accordons que la tentative était absurde; mais la renaissance française est, à son début, dans les lettres, les sciences ou les arts, pleine de ces hésitations."
  2. Martin, Hist. de France, vol. 7, pp. 378-382.
  3. Cf. Viollet le Duc, s. v. château, p. 190.
  4. I use Willis's term, “continuous impost,” for an impost in which the jambs pass into the arch without the interposition of a capital, and without change of profiling.
  5. Du Cerceau's plate (Les Plus Excellents Bastiments de France, vol. 2, plate 4) is incorrect, like most of his other plates, in giving the semicircular form to the openings of this façade.
  6. Reigle Géneralle de Architecture, etc., Paris, 1568.
  7. Said by Palustre, L'Architecture de la Renaissance, p. 176, to have been "servilement imité du temple de Jupiter Stator."
  8. These lower arches are concealed from view on the external façades by a basement wall.