Fontainebleau, the Loire and the Valois (part III)

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The French monarchy could not refuse an ardent sympathy to Italian art. Ruined by a hundred years of wars, the guide of men whom that terrible period had caused to forget their own civilization, the monarchy was all the more dazzled by the treasures heaped up in the Lombard or Tuscan cities because Italian art, at this time, was beginning to become exterior, to apply itself more and more to the decoration of the palaces of a middle class that had grown rich, and of the chapels of the restored papacy. Money was coming back into the coffers of the French kings, peace was returning to the countryside; coming back to his France, and finding it benumbed, with Its old springs dried up and its new springs not yet above ground, it was very natural that the king, in order to restore his castles, to build and decorate them, should think of bringing back with him some of those artists whose fecundity, whose facility, and whose nervous and abundant animation enchant him. Fra Giocondo, the architect, follows Louis XII to France. Francis I summons da Vinci, Benvenuto, Andrea del Sarto, and later Rosso and Primaticcio. Michael Angelo is foreshadowed.

The Loire, which the Valois had not yet abandoned after the fifty years in which they had grown accustomed to the life there, was to be the first halting place of these artists in their northward march. During the whole war, it had been considered by the English and the French as the key to the territory. The lands which it waters are the face of France. In its course it unites the valley of the Rhone and the Central Plateau with Brittany, while the tributaries of its right bank connect it with the basin of the Seine and the tributaries of its left bank with the basin of the Garonne. One might say that all these long rivers bring to it in their waters the fat lands of the North, the thin lands of the South, and the great rain clouds which have been mirrored in their sources. The oak, the chestnut, the poplar, the willow, the grasslands, and the reeds all meet here. The "garden of France" is born and reborn continually among these great tranquil waters, their soft curves between the banks of sand and the leafy shores, and the flooded fields from which clumps of trees emerge. The French princes chose these great landscapes, abundant and pleasant, as places where they might forget the sufferings they had undergone in the preceding century and flee the responsibility for the sufferings of their own century. The château built for pleasure succeeded the stronghold. It was still surrounded by great sleepy moats, it was sometimes built on rivers, but that was rather to have the murmur and the coolness of the waters than to protect it against the enemy from within or without. In the beginning, the new world indicates its character but slightly by the windows which open in the stone of the bare façades among the great pepper-box towers and which open upon the gardens. We have not yet seen the end of the austerity of the military edifices whose loopholes and battlements, through which boiling oil had flowed, animated the contour of the wall. Behind their thick masonry was the wealth accumulated by five generations of feudal lords, the deep coffers, the chests, the high-backed chairs, the sideboards whose wood is carved into flames, and the enormous profusion of flowers sown in the tapestries that are flooded with blacks and reds, but have the sober and powerful arrangement which Beauvais reserves for the seigneur; this confused mass of embroideries, goldwork, and carving will have to feel stifled and in need of room within the walls, and men will have to feel the desire to parade the vanity that comes with the acquisition of fortune before the façades break into flower, before the windows frame themselves with ornaments and cap themselves with pinnacled cornices, before the new architecture of the nobility shall appear in the space of a few years.

What is called French Renaissance architecture, that unprecise mixture of styles which, despite all, becomes a style, develops out of the multiple influences of the military construction, of the feudal centuries, of Gothic ornamentation, and of the counterfeit Greco-Roman art devised by the Italians—the whole being erected at the edge of waters or in the vicinity of woods. In this style the essential architectural principle which the men of the twelfth century had seized in a flash, and which is to think first of the destination of the building, is absent, or at least the destination of the château is so secondary in importance, so temporary and superficial a matter, that it quite masks this architectural principle. The necessity for adapting the organ to the function demanded of it had compelled the master builders to use the simple forms which caused harmony to burst forth from the interior of the body of the edifice itself and to flood the exterior. Even during the death struggle of Gothic construction, the ornament is so much a part of the building that it is the building itself turning, little by little, into a bare skeleton, hollowed out, even to its bones, to permit the entrance of the light. The Renaissance, on the contrary, thinks first of charming through the surface, of covering, with a gorgeous mantle, the body devoid of its skeleton, its muscles, and its blood. And all modern architecture has resulted from this error, which will be perpetuated until the day when new social needs will call for other organs.

The ornamentation is of a time when analysis has begun, when the glass maker, the sculptor, and the painter all work for themselves, when a thousand influences, which the architect knows only too well, turn a single man into a dispersed multitude, whereas three centuries before an ignorant multitude acted like a single man. When fallen Italy has completely subdued the spirit of the builders, they so far abandon themselves to the decorative orgy that they turn even toward the Gothic artists, against whom they had intended to react, that they may seek instructions from them. And when these façades are not complicated by colonnades, by loggias, tribunes, galleries of arcades, and all the complicated display of the new Italian decorators, the slate roofs, the great sloping roofs that undulate to the very cornices, are crushed under a wearisome forest of pinnacles, of steeples, of lanterns, of carved chimneys, and of monumental windows. There is a meager stylization, enervated and impoverished, of the old Gothic designs of foliage that was so full of the juices and the odors of the earth; there is an infinitely varied but infinitely monotonous combination of coiling stems, vases, shellwork, animals, flowers, and human forms which try to hide their misery through their abundance, and lose their breath in so doing. The last flicker of the Gothic passion has become a cold, exhausting, and forced debauch, a disappointing chase after a lost illusion—the saddest thing in the world, a great love that is dying and that is unwilling to admit it to itself. However, after fifty years of this French criticism, which alone was capable of recreating in the better minds a kind of intellectual enthusiasm which almost replaces instinct, the energy of Pierre Lescot and of Philibert Delorme will assure to the edifices which they construct a powerful skeleton; it arises from amid the accumulation of the materials with which they have to deal and which maintains its balance behind the stiff and sumptuous shell of the round or flat columns and of the Corinthian efflorescences, of the great corniced windows, of the bas-reliefs, and of the statues which frame them. And since the giving way of the too lofty vaults of Beauvais, French art was to know, in the Louvre, its first moment of hope.

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