October 09: Querelling with the Academy

2016/10/09 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1688 Claude Perrault died.

Trained as a physician, wannabe architect Perrault (b. 1613) had the happy fortune of a connected brother in need of someone who knew Latin to take on a translation project for the Académie royale d’architecture.  Although the Académie only wanted Perrault to translate Vitruvius into French, Perrault, who must have had a healthy opinion of himself (well, one must have, to pull off a wig like that), decided to dig a little deeper.  Indeed, he was just taking Vitruvius at his word when the old Roman pronounced that generally well-educated professional people will know something of the theory of all fields, and only become expert in the practice of their own.  So it made some sense that Perrault would exercise his abilities as a general theorist on this particular work of architectural theory.  Determining that the Académie had sort of been lead astray in their devotion to Vitruvius, he basically ignored their project and wrote his own book.

Perrault used his translation project as a springboard into developing his own theory.  Although maintaining the accepted belief that the Classical tradition was simply the thing to do, he suggested that contemporary architects might be forgiven for inventing within this system that was set up for developments, rather than being shackled to its time-honored precedents, as Palladio et al. had claimed of Vitruvius.  Predictably, the academicians were none too excited by this idea, since it (1) overturned everything they thought they knew and (2) challenged them as the gatekeepers of all Architectural Truth and (3) threatened to put them out of a job (well, they were just architecture faculty, after all).  Historians now call the battle that unfolded after Perrault presented his study as the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, which spread into other disciplines as well.

As if it wasn’t enough to contribute so significantly to architecture through theoretical work, Perrault also weasled his way into practice, scoring three juicy royal projects–most significantly, the east facade of the Louvre, which Bernini was poised to design before Perrault and his cronies engineered the downfall of the Italian genius.  He advertised each of them neatly in the frontispiece to his publication (above), showing himself to be not only a respected physician, a surprisingly remarkable architectural theorist, a decent architect (well, he did have help), but also, a first-class self-promoter.

Image: frontispiece to Perrault’s work on Vitruvius (from this source)

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