Renaissance France

GOTHIC art had scarcely reached its zenith when, exhausted, as it were, by its great flowering, it began to cast an eye upon Italy, where the Renaissance had been in progress for a century, and to submit itself in part to this warm, expansive influence.

There was undoubtedly more than the exhaustion of the Gothic theme to account for the change which came gradually over the face of things. The religious movement of which Gothic art was born had also, with Saint-Louis and the glorious enshrinement of the relics of the Passion, reached its climax and a decline was slowly setting in. Little by little the love of ideal beauty, which the austerity of the early Christians had banished as pagan in feeling, was creeping back with the riches and luxuries of the court, of the ecclesiastics, and of the church itself.

We have only to compare the bald simplicity of the Gothic statues of Saint-Denis, affixed to the portails of Notre-Dame and of the saint’s cathedral, the spirituality of the various paintings of the bishop of the XVth century, with that smooth prelate from Sarazin’s chisel, from the royal abbey of Montmartre, to see how tastes in martyrs had changed with the lapse of centuries.

Gothic sculpture was kept strictly to its mission—to its mission architectural as well as spiritual. Essentially monumental in character, these Madonnas, Christs, Saints, and Apostles, with their unworldly expression, their simple yet significant gestures, their naif symbols, are as marvellously adapted to the architecture of which they are a part as to the understanding of the unlettered public who read in them all the essentials of the Holy Writ. Clinging close to the constructive line the angels and devices of the voussoirs and consoles, niches and stylobates, seem, even when most elaborate and fantastic, but the natural flowering of the forms they ornament but whose contour they never disturb.

The sculptors of the “Death of the Virgin,” in the apse of Notre-Dame, of the figures on the facade of Chartres, of the ” Beau Dieu” of Amiens knew none but arbitrary limitations to their genius and could have advanced to the most transcendent forms of ideal beauty and even to the frankest study of the nude, had that been the purpose of their time; but, says the Marquis de Laborde, ” the desire then was for typical forms of searching truth, suffering and mystic in aspect, clad with the conventual shyness that was the fashion of the time.”

Standing, in point of time, between the opulent works of the antique and the voluptuous beauty of the Renaissance, these archaic figures draw apart, unrelated to either, and are not readily understood by those who approach them from any other than a direct standpoint. One must lose one’s self in contemplating them before they will begin to speak; then the fascination of their simplicity, the pure directness of their message, unclouded by any sophistry, seems to carry them beyond the achievement of any other age.

As the French Renaissance, in its debut, cast many a regretful look behind, hesitated to cast off the worn Gothic raiment until sure of a worthy garment to replace it, so do we part with reluctance from so sweet a tradition. One thinks of such quiet cities as Rouen, Amiens, Beauvais, Chartres, Le Mans, Auxerre, Autun, Bourges, and the immortal Rheims as presided over each by its great Gothic flower. One seems to see them, with that inward eye, standing stalwart, though venerable, reaching their spires, their towers, heavenward with a determination to lift humanity by the sheer force . of architectural impulse to supramundane thoughts and lives. Their vastness, from the distant approach, is overwhelming; whole towns are swallowed in their shadows, the landscape itself is dwarfed by the magnitude of their proportions. The sun seems to shine but to throw into relief the thrilling passages of these cathedrals, so indigenous to the soil, so truly born of the great movement of Christianity across the heart of France. Not again in our loiterings shall we encounter such pure epics in stone.

As the Gothic movement found its expression in churches and in spiritual revelations, so the Renaissance displayed its charms in civil architecture; as Gothic architecture and sculpture glorified God, so Renaissance art and architecture glorified man; and so leaving the great cathedrals of France we must turn now to the famous chateaux and palaces, for the ego is developing rapidly and temporal things are the order of the day.

It was at about the end of the XVth century and at the beginning of the XVIth century that Charles VIII, Louis XII, and Francois I, aware and envious of what was being done in Italy, attracted to their courts certain distinguished architects from Lombardy and Florence; while at the same time French art came rapidly under the influence of the Renaissance.

At first the transition, working tentatively, was quite obvious; French architecture merely borrowed something from the Italians, while holding to the native construction and disposition of the ensemble, producing in the XVIth century a style full of character and peculiar to France. The form of the old French chateau was retained long after its round towers, built for defence, had ceased to function, while the Gothic survived in the general details of decoration. But little by little the round towers gave way to square pavilions and every decorative element even remotely derived from the ogival family disappeared.

Though entered upon the path of imitation the French architect knew how to keep an original face, which was the more meritorious since the Italian colony installed at Fontainebleau exercised a considerable influence; and at this juncture France produced some valiant architects such as Pierre Lescot, Jean Bullant, and Philibert Delorme, who built the more renowned portions of the Louvre and the Tuileries, and whose genius was sufficient to counterbalance the Italian influences which appear in their work.

So handsome are the works of this epoch that the mind is diverted from the dangers of the classic revival, which two centuries later was to inflict even Paris with those slavish imitations of Greek and Roman temples adapted to all sorts of irrelevant buildings. For the moment the transition produced that ” fine and delicate marvel of French art,” the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, built between 1517 and 1626, which has been well described as a Gothic church disguised in the trappings of classical details. ” L’art religieux vient mourir dans Saint-Etienne-du-Mont,” said Henri Martin, and if this be true its last moments are of a transcendent loveliness.

The west facade of the court of the Louvre is considered one of the finest bits of Renaissance of the period of Francois I, and in the Luxembourg Palace, built by Marie de Medicis, at the height of the movement, we see with how little slavery to his model—the Pitti Palace—Salomon de Brosses, the architect of the dowager queen, adapted its general physiognomy while subordinating it to the current French traditions and the demands of the French climate.

We have already seen, at Saint-Denis, the Italian influence as well as the Italian hand itself at work upon the beautiful Renaissance tombs. The sculpture of this period in France, like the civil architecture, had an original and charming character. Jean Goujon, Germain Pilon, Pierre Bontemps, Barthelemy Prieur, Jean Cousin, in submitting to the influence of the antique, kept nevertheless to a quality fundamentally French. In painting, however, the Italian tradition was disastrous to that delicate French art which had scarcely begun to bloom in the revealing portraits of Jean and Jehannet Clouet and Jean Fouquet. Primaticcio and Rosso, established at Fontainebleau, discredited completely these old masters of the XVth century, and though the XVIIIth century gave France some independent talents—Watteau, Chardin, Greuze, La Tour—the style which these two autocratic Italians imposed lay heavy upon native painters, and they dragged along in imitation and pastiche until the birth of the Romantic school delivered them from the Italian tradition.

To feel the full swing of the movement there is nothing more exhilarating than to take, at this juncture, the famous tour of the chateaux of the Loire, for while Paris itself is not particularly convincing upon the subject of the Renaissance, to visit Touraine is to get at the very heart of the matter, to see the Renaissance draw its first breath at Chambord and rise to its finest heights at Blois or Chenonceau; to dig back into its ancestry at Plessis, to witness its conception at Amboise, to be carried to its purest expression at Azay-le-Rideau, to bathe one’s self, in fine, in all the richness of French history, to take in once and for all that fact so freely overlooked by the casual tourist that though France may be Paris, Paris is not France.

In these mediaeval strongholds we see strange metamorphoses—feudal castles changing into pleasure palaces for kings’ mistresses; dungeons, keeps, moats standing as mute souvenirs of dramatic intensity, or, ” renovated in the renaissance style,” mocking at former horrors; great round towers attached from mere force of habit to buildings erected after the days of defence, to buildings which proclaim their peaceful character in multitudinous embroideries and cupolas.

All the pleasures, the griefs, the vanities, the sorrows, the jealousies, the wickedness, the follies, the ignominies of all the French princes from Louis XI to Henry V are enacted here. Here kings were born and died; here queens passed painful periods of mourning or dreary months of banishment; here, at Amboise, Francois I passed much of his hectic youth, with his ambitious mother, waiting for the throne of France, while Anne of Brittany in the royal chateau, but a few miles distant, tried desperately to give Louis XII an heir. The history of the chateau of Blois in the XVIth century is to a great extent the history of the whole of France. Chenonceau, Henri II’s princely gift to Diane de Poitiers, is eloquent of the struggle for supremacy between the king’s favourite and the queen. Catherine triumphs in the end, snatching the chateau from her rival upon the death of the sovereign, completing, with strange indifference to sentiment, constructions conceived by Diane, and stamping the royal mono-gram over the slender device of the favourite as though to take to herself by brutal force all memory of her lord’s romantic passion.

The chateau of Chambord is one of the most curious products of the epoch of reluctant detachment from the purely French form. The architect, who was said to be Primaticcio, but who is now thought to have been a French master of distinction, if obscurity, tried to fuse together in this edifice the fortified castle of the Moyen Age with the pleasure palace of the Renaissance. In the result there is nothing Italian, either in thought or form. The exterior of this splendid dwelling presents to the bewildered eye a multitude of conical summits, terminating in lanthorns, rising on prodigious round towers, of dormer windows in stone, of belfries, of immense chimneys richly sculptured and incrusted with slates, a forest of points, the last pinnacle tipped with a huge stone fleur-de-lys—the only one that escaped the Revolution—and the salamander of Francois I the otherwise constant motive.

With all its fabulous extravagance of extravagance, so closely does it cling to the type of the old French chateau that one takes it to be the nearest thing, from many points of view, to that old historic Louvre, of which we read so much, and whose foundations, still partly buried under the west wing, are traced upon the paving of the inner court.

As at Chambord the castle is in the form of a larger structure enclosing a smaller one, so the old Louvre formed a large square about a court in whose middle rose a big tower which served as dungeon to the chateau. As at Chambord the great central tower of the court seems to fling its shadow over the whole place, so we read that Francois I began his reconstruction of the old Louvre by the demolition of the grosse tour of Philippe Auguste, because it made the palace dark and gave it the look of a prison. There is no doubt that one gets one’s bearings best by seeing first Chambord and the older chateaux of the Loire.

With these in mind the plan traced upon the court of the Louvre becomes perfectly explicit. These lines, done in white marble and in gres, outline with exact accuracy the foundations of the fortress of Philippe Auguste, with its towers, its quadrangle, and all its interior arrangement laid bare in 1866, by the excavations undertaken by the municipality. During several months, at this time, Paris could see this exhumation of an epoch so remote, and read in the half-opened earth one of the most curious pages of its history. About one thousand cubic metres of this substructure were uncovered.

The Louvre, as we see it today, comprises a vast agglomeration of more or less related architecture of which the earliest portions date from Francois I and the latest touches from the first years of the Third Republic.

Everything previous to the actual construction undertaken under Francois I had been legendary until the excavations of 1866, which clearly disclosed the Louvre of Philippe Auguste. But Philippe Auguste himself was but a rebuilder and tradition carries the ancient palace of this site back to remotest times, possibly to Childebert, certainly to Louis le Gros. Whether it was a royal hunting-lodge, situated in the wood bordering the Seine, or whether it was a fort commanding the river, we do not know, but that it had towers, or at any rate a tower, is fairly certain from the fact that writers of the time of Philippe Auguste speak always of his big tower, built in 1204, as the tour neuve, the new tower, which seems to indicate the existence of other towers of more ancient construction.

The Louvre of Philippe Auguste would have been a somewhat newer building than the apse of Notre-Dame, and a few years earlier than the facade of the great cathedral. It was built as part of the wall of Paris, constructed by Philippe Auguste, of which there remain many traces, and constituting the principal work of fortification, became a sort of citadel.

The old chateau, as one can plainly see by examining the outlines of the foundations, formed a square about one-fourth the size of the actual court, its middle well taken up by the huge round tower of the dungeon. Amongst the celebrated guests of this tower were Ferrand, comte de Flandre, whom Philippe Auguste imprisoned here, in 1214, after the victory of Bouvines; Enguerrand de Coucy; Guy and Louis de Flandre in 1299 and 1322; Enguerrand de Marigny; Jean IV, due de Bretagne; Charles II, king of Navarre; le captal de Buch, Jean de Grailly; and Jean II, duc d’Alencon.

From this great tower (after the imprisonment of the comte de Flandre sometimes called the tour Ferrand, from its dominating quality often called the tour de Paris) all the great fiefs of France had their source. When the vassals came to take or to renew the feudal oath, it was there that the ceremony took place. In the Salle des Cariatides, buried in the wall, is a fragment of the old fortress, and to the left of the window concealed by a door, is a spiral stairway of the original building.

We know vaguely of a room in the left wing, long known as the Chambre de Saint-Louis, but Saint-Louis resided in the Palais, and it was not until the reign of Henri II that the Louvre be-came the actual residence of royalty. Charles V was the first to attempt serious occupancy and when he built the third wall of Paris he enclosed the palace within the new limits of the city. He enlarged and embellished the Louvre and installed in one of the towers his library of nine hundred books, and added gardens to the chateau, which, though small, were the admiration of contemporary writers.

But Charles V did not confine his interest to the Louvre; he built also the Hotel Saint-Pol, which became the royal residence until Charles VII abandoned it for the neighbouring Hotel des Tournelles, the official residence of Louis XI, Charles VIII, Louis XII, and Francois I, when these kings had occasion to be in Paris. But the Tournelles is never spoken of with enthusiasm, Francois I did not think it fit to receive his rival, Charles-Quint, when a ceremonial visit from the emperor was impending, and this was his reason for deciding to patch up the old Louvre for the occasion and to make it the royal palace. His mother, Louise de Savoie, found it unhealthy on account of the marshes of the Marais, and obtained the Tuileries from her son with the neighbouring villa of Nicolas de Neufville, secretary of the finances. Finally, when Henri II was wounded in a joust, near this palace, and died in the Tournelles, Catherine de Medicis, his wife, conceived a superstitious horror of the place and had it pulled down, establishing herself and her children at the Louvre and commencing at once her dowager palace, the Tuileries, upon an extension of the villa of Louise de Savoie, whose domain she had greatly enlarged.

The great movement which resulted in the palace of the Louvre, once under way, moved rapidly and it is difficult not to anticipate one’s story. We must go back now to Louis XII, that good and simple sovereign, whose tomb we have seen at Saint-Denis, and upon which we may read so much of the history of France and of the wars with Italy, which, futile and extravagant as they had been from the political point of view, had fostered in the French a keen appreciation of the marvels of the Renaissance.

Upon this tomb Louis XII is represented in the company of his second wife, Anne de Bretagne, the widow of his predecessor, Charles VIII, whom he espoused in order to continue the union of France and Brittany. Anne de Bretagne was his chief companion, his other marriages having been but brief. His first wife was Joan, second daughter of Louis XI, for whom he never cared, and when he became king he persuaded Alexander VI to grant him the dispensation for a divorce. In acknowledgment of this favour he presented to the pope’s son, Caesar Borgia, the Duchy of Valentinois. His third wife was the beautiful young girl, Mary of England, sister of Henry VIII, whose affections were already engaged by Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, but who was forced into this union by her brother. But Anne de Bretagne was the dominating factor of Louis’s wedded life and she seems to have ruled him with an iron hand.

Under Louis XII much rivalry existed between the two most prominent young princes of the day, Francois d’Angouleme, heir-presumptive to the throne of France, and Charles of Luxembourg, who afterwards became the celebrated Charles V or Charles-Quint, king of Spain and emperor of Germany. Louis had only daughters, and his eldest child, Claude de France, was affianced first to Charles-Quint by her mother and married to Francois only after the death of that tyrannical lady.

Anne de Bretagne opposed this most logical and inevitable marriage with all the force of her dominating character. History records her bit-ter jealousy against Louise de Savoie and her brilliant son. She kept them hidden at Amboise, where, however, the duchesse d’Angouleme contrived to hold a rival court and to surround her son, whom she idolized, with every social advantage—and disadvantage. When Anne was too furious she exiled them to the simple Maison d’Angouleme, at Cognac, where Francois was born ; but wherever they were Anne hated her rival with a superstitious hatred, and felt her presence, like a bad fairy, at each confinement. when the queen was delivered of a stillborn.

On the other hand, Louise’s thoughts for the queen were no more friendly and she waited in silence but with murderous wishes, as long as Anne de Bretagne lived, to achieve the ambitions of her life. These ambitions were placed in her son; she loved him, say the chronicles, like a fils de l’amour and many thought indeed that so god-like a creature could not have been the fruit of her union with her mediocre husband.

The marriage between Claude de France and Francois was ardently desired by the people, but Louis dared not go against the wishes of his queen, and she taking advantage of a moment of weakness obtained his consent to the betrothal of their daughter to Charles-Quint, making a disgraceful marriage contract by which Milan, Brittany, and Burgundy were to be given up as Claude’s marriage portion. This meant the alienation of half the kingdom of France and Louis could not have consented had he been in possession of his faculties. Fortunately the king recovered and the States-General, assembling at Tours, besought him to revoke the rash engagement and betroth his daughter to the comte d’Angouleme. Louis recognized the justice of this petition and, breaking the former treaty, celebrated the new betrothal with great splendour. This was in 1505.

In 1514 Louis lost his consort and immediately celebrated the marriage against which Anne had successfully protested until the day of her death. The king, breaking loose from his long fetters, lost no time in consummating his own remarriage with the sister of Henri VIII, a young girl of but sixteen years; and two months after the celebration of these noces nefastes, Louis XII was laid in his tomb. The chevalier Bayard tells of the king’s infatuation for his young bride which caused him to break up all the habits of his old age—to dine at eight instead of at noon, to retire at midnight instead of six as had been his former custom. These excesses hastened the end of the monarch, and released Marie d’Angleterre, who after a short period of mourning, at the Hotel de Cluny, was free to marry the Duke of Suffolk and return to England.

A monarchy loves a decorative figurehead. Louis XII died lamented by the middle and lower classes, whose protector and friend he had been, but the nobles, who had looked upon his prudence and moderation in public and private expenditure as the frugality of a plebeian king, welcomed with joy the advent of a lavish, brilliant, and aristocratic sovereign, who was to make the court the centre of all the splendours of chivalry and learning. The new king was fully alive to every phase of the awakening that was affecting the world, and his accession began a new era for France. He was borne in upon the crest of the Renaissance.

In such a movement Francois I had all the qualities of a leader. Gallant, brave,. generous, gay, possessed of the attractions of youth, beauty, and high breeding, he fascinated all classes of his subjects, and, spending in his large, royal way, there was no danger that his will should be curbed. In Italy the great houses of Medicis, of Este, of Visconti, of Sforzi, patronized the talent and promoted the research of the age. Francois I could not do less. Under him native talent was discovered and flourished, while the king also brought into France, from Italy, such masters as could be lured away by rich opportunity and princely reward, attracting to his court builders, painters, sculptors, who worked upon his palaces and lived upon his bounty. Leonardo da Vinci was his honoured guest and died in the service of the king, near Amboise. Primaticcio and Il Rosso were installed at Fontainebleau and directed the decoration of the palace.

Francois I not only commenced the building of the present Louvre, he collected the nucleus of the exhibits it contains, assembling them at Fontainebleau. He purchased with prodigality, from all parts of Europe, paintings, sculptures, antiques, bronzes, medals, jewels, cameos, and other objects of art for his collections. The Italian artists of the time clustered around his court like bees about the honey pot, and Benvenuto Cellini gives a hint of the jealousies that existed between them in his lament over Primaticcio’s purchase of one hundred and twenty-four antique statues, and many busts, for the king, as injurious to the market for modern works, and his rage against his powerful rival is great.

France has known three such wholesale patrons of art—Francois I, Louis XIV, and Napoleon; between them they made the Louvre, but of the three it is Francois who stands preeminent, it is of Francois that we treasure the choicest memories. In his superb encouragement of art, in his munificent donations to colleges and schools, in the liberality of his invitations to scholars and poets, he stands unique amidst the sovereigns of history.