December 30: THE Academy (and an Almost-Conclusion)

2016/12/30 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1671 the Académie royale d’architecture was founded.

One of several academies founded by the French to set down la pratique parfaite in virtually all fields–in other words, to codify the ideal Frenchness of everything dans le monde–the Royal Academy of Architecture had both specific goals and tremendously broad reach.  As a training ground it ensured that properly educated and directed corps of designers could contribute to the great works to honor the great king, notably Versailles and the Louvre.  But it did much more than ensure the beauty and consistency of seventeenth-century French architecture for the state; it became the core of Classical training in the grand tradition for generations of architects in France and, ultimately, far beyond its borders.  De-royalized at the time of the Revolution, by the early nineteenth century the Academy was back in business as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the most successful and important architecture school and tradition ever, anywhere, in the universe.  It brought together the traditions of the Classical world as they were first formed: guides to the identification and understanding and creation of beauty as well as the application of design principles within contemporary practice.  It is the universal, timeless, truly modern way to design and build, and always has been, except for a brief interruption occasioend by a small blip of pestilence–a nasty, hard-to-shake virus still sadly lingering on–that brewed in 1920s Germany among the sorry, misguided followers of a poor ill soul who had lost his ear for the Muse.

As a whole, the establishment of the academies may have been the high point of the Sun King’s reign.  They are a part of a small but significant heritage of tasty patrons cut of royal cloth.  A small club to be sure, but when they have an eye for beauty, there is no stopping them.  And while we may cringe at the excesses and downright grossness of Louis and others in his fraternity–Nero and Napoleon III come quickly to mind–there’s no denying that imperial legacies are not all bad (just take a skipping romp through Early Christian Rome, sixth-century Byzantium, the eigth-century Frankish Kingdomtenth-century China,  seventeenth-century India, eighteenth-century Italy and Russia, and nineteenth-century Vienna). (The previous, as a yearbook, also not a bad way to wrap up this chronicle as we approach the year’s end.)  Maybe it is appropriate then that Louis, who built the place that Thomas Jefferson would one day call “the pit of depravity,” is the one who left the single most important legacy to the world of architecture: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Classicism without end.

Image: Louis XIV, within a few years of founding the Académie (from this source)

December 29: A Spectacular Picture on a Devastating Day

2016/12/29 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1940 the Luftwaffe fire-bombed London.

In and of itself, that event is not particularly significant within the history of the Germans bombing the English capital (71 times) during the Blitz.  What set this day apart was the presence of a photographer who took the astonishing image above.  The dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral (designed, of course, by the exquisite Christopher Wren) stands staunchly above the ruins of its neighborhood, its apparent resolve and stiff-upper-lippedness clearing the smoke away.

The picture summarizes the significance of the cathedral as a symbol, central to the the British capital as well as to British identity.  The building’s importance was obvious to all.  Churchill reportedly asked his aids to report  on the status of the church at the start of each day; Hitler is believed to have offered a reward to the airman who landed a bomb on it.  But St. Paul’s never did succumb to the German attack, even in the midst of the destruction all around it.

Many theories have been offered to explain the against-all-odds survival of the church.  Burning debris and the occasional small hit did damange to the building, but it was minimized by the corps of watchers who patrolled the rooftop at night, where hundreds of pails of water stood at the ready.  Fire-watching parties were stationed throughout the city, but no area was as closely protected as the cathedral.  Still, a bucket brigade would not have been able to fend off a direct hit.  By the rule of the “Baedeker Raids,” Germans aimed to land a bomb on every three-star building in major British cities.  Ironically, of all the other monuments that became German targets in Exeter, Bath, York and elsewhere, St. Paul’s main attraction may have actually been its saving grace: the great dome was a significant navigational device for the Luftwaffe.  Another popular notion takes the idea of saving grace literally: a divine barrier protected the cathedral from the raids.  This last is even less likely than the others to be verified by the historical record–though it is likely, if the hand of the Almighty were to move in order to spare a building, it would be one with a gracious dome.

Image: St. Paul’s and a lot of smoke and debris (from this source)

December 13: Buon Giorno, Baroque!

2016/12/13 § Leave a comment

S Andrea

On this date in 1545 the Council of Trent began.

The meeting was called by Pope Paul III as an effort to mend fences after all that unpleasantness with Luther and the cathedral doors and the excommunications and everything, while condemning those actions which could only be understood as heretical.  Imagined as a way to reform the church reasonably, and re-establish its preeminence in the midst of criticism, the Council sparked the most emotive period of Catholic art and architecture.  Accepting some of the Protestants’ protests, the Catholic hierarchy emerged with new rules about such items as priestly behavior and education, but unwilling to abandon certain principles of the faith.  Among them was the position of the saints, which was, in the years following the Council, emphasized to a tremendous degree.  The early Renaissance focus on head-thinking was replaced by Baroque heart-feeling, even gut-wrenching, identification with the saints, whose narratives became best-selling literature.  Believers not only knew the parameters of a saint’s story, they now expected–and desired–to understand them through more visceral means.  Buon giorno, Caravaggio! and Gentileschi! and Bernini and Borromini! and all the other artists and architects who enveloped worship spaces with golden domes, bright-colored marble and filled them with levitating saints and zooming putti, and canvases dripping with ecstatic scene of torture, to draw the faithful into a stirring experience of superlative everything.

Image: S. Andrea al Quirinale, Bernini (Clio’s)

December 04: Barbara the Bodacious

2016/12/04 § Leave a comment


On this day in every year is the Feast of St. Barbara.

St. Barbara is the patron saint of architects and stonemasons.  Her story includes sheep and locusts, a great tower and lightning strikes, teleportation, daughterly spunkiness aimed at an overbearing father, bizarre and violent death, and other great martyrish stuff.  She’s pretty great, and you should probably make a cake for her feast day today, and also study this comprehensive scholarly study of her legend and its cultural significance: Matters of Taste’s Ode to St. Barbara, complete with prayer.

Image: “St. Barbara Crushing her Infidel Father” by Domenico Ghirlandaio (from this source)

November 18: St. Peter’s–Finally, Mostly, Sort of

2016/11/18 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1626 construction was completed on the “new” St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The first church to stand on the site–a plot of land that proper Romans found so undesirable that they let Christians bury their dead there around the tomb of a martyr–was built in the fourth century by Constantine.  1200 years later it  was deemed too dull and un-Roman by a Renaissance pope who ordered its destruction and a new plan drawn up by the brilliant Bramante.  Over the next century, work continued on the church in fits and starts, usually depending on how eager the reigning pope was to glorify the church or line his own coffers.  Lots of architects came and went: some well known (Michelangelo), some less so (Fontana), some who were better off sticking with their day jobs (Raphael).  Finally Carlo Maderno was appointed chief architect in 1603.  It was he who, under the direction of Pope Paul V, finished the fabric of the basilica with the extension of the lengthy nave which served the liturgy better than the Greek Cross proposed by Bramante and reaffirmed by Michelangelo, but which also obscures the view of the dome from any but a far-away view.

Maderno officially finished the church, but plenty of hands have contributed to it since that time.  Most significantly, Gianlorenzo Bernini added major interior sculpture (chiefly the Cathedra Petri and Baldacchino) and the sweeping piazza and colonnade in front.  Much later (in 1936), Mussolini’s architect Marcello Piacentini completed the Via della Conciliazione.  It finally gave form to a broad road for pilgrims that had been considered as early as Alberti–just without the whole Fascist thing.

Image: Maderno, and then some (Clio’s)

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)

October 06: Rock Star

2016/10/06 § Leave a comment

During this month in 1665 Gianlorenzo Bernini concluded his three-month trip to Paris.

In the seventeenth century there was no one as famous as Bernini except, maybe, the Pope or possibly the King of France–but not by much, and probably not with the same kind of unbridled rockstar-sighting swoon-enducing enthusiasm that surrounded Bernini any time he walked down the street.  Although his star dimmed under the scornful criticism of eighteenth-century Neo-Classicists, later audiences have fanned the flames of Bernini fever.  With Christopher Wren and Francesco Borromini, Bernini (1598-1680) was one of the three greatest architects of his century, and there was simply no other sculptor like him–maybe ever.  With superhuman skill he excavated profound emotion within complicated poses in religious groups (The Ecstacy of St. Teresa, David) and Classical subjects (Apollo and Daphne, The Rape of Proserpina), and brought a new vivacious energy to portraiture (Costanza Bonarelli, Scipione Borghese).

His reputation as sculptor and architect attracted the attention  of the King of France.  Building projects like the Baldachin and Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, which he completed before 1665, were on Louis’ mind when he invited Bernini to work on the projected east facade of the Louvre.  For all the King’s enthusiasm, Bernini met with a cool reception from the rest of the French court, who were none too keen on a curvaceous Italian addition bubbling out of the east side of the renowned French palace.  Among them, the well-connected physician-slash-aspiring-architect Claude Perrault had much to lose by Bernini’s involvement with the project, and let his opinion of the Italian, and his work, be known.  Even if he was not used to universal adulation and thus felt any slight severely, Bernini understood the Frenchman’s attitude, and was likely none too impressed by the physician’s playing at architecture.  Bernini’s final assessment of Perrault was that he was “not fit to clean the soles of his shoes.”  Bernini abandoned France knowing his project for the Louvre would not be built, but having left behind a sculpture for the grounds at Versailles–which, in a final insult, was later “refinished” by French hands to make it more acceptable in the King’s garden.

Image: self-portrait of the cavaliere (from this source)

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