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French Renaissance Architecture

Drawing of Chateau du Verger, Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, ca. 1854

1500 - 1520

The architectural styles we associate with the Renaissance have just come to France, but they have long blossomed in Italy. From 1500-1520 in France, the overall styles remained Gothic, but took on a Milanese or Italian decoration. It was merely an imitation of Italian decorations; there was never a true weaving of the French and Italian in this stage. Rather, it was a very rough blend of the two, so often the architecture looks like a hodge-podge and is more than slightly unbalanced, with column orders in disarray and ornamentation where it really wasn’t necessary.  We also have retained few names of architects from this period. It seems that French masons were given Italian designs, and they did what they deemed possible with French materials and moved on with their day.  While the royal family was not the only patron of architecture, most of the famous buildings are concentrated in the Loire Valley: Châteaux de Chenonceau, le Verger, Blois, and Bury.

Drawing of Chateau Bury, by Jean Abel Hugo, ca. 1836, The British Library, London, United Kingdom

1500-1520

1500 - 1520 Chateau Chenonceaux

1500 - 1520 Chateau de Verger

1520 - 1540

Up to ca. 1530, French architects continued French traditions, such as the spiral staircase. While they loved Italian decoration, they didn’t often adapt other concepts from Italian architecture:  the perfectly semi-circular arches, symmetrical facades, and pure geometries of Italian plan design. Facades were still irregular, arches were flattened, and the plans and structure do not show signs of change. The 1530s saw a drastic switch. An architect whose name emerges in that decade is Gilles LeBreton.  The classical style became more prevalent, there was a stricter use of the orders, and a new simplicity to the decor.  Some of the remaining buildings from this period are the châteaux of  Chambord, Villandry, and Fontainebleau associated with the work of Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) and Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570); and in Paris, L’Hotel d’Ecoville and St. Eustache.

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1520-1540

1520 - 1540 St. Eustache

1520 - 1540 Fontainebleau

1520 - 1540 Chambord

1540 - 1565

The classical period of Renaissance France is characterized by innovation in decoration, realization of the orders, true geometries, and simple forms, associated with Pierre Lescot (1515-1578), Philibert de l’Orme (1514-1570), and Jacques Androuet I du Cerceau (1510-1584). These architects looked back to ancient Rome for inspiration -- not contemporary, Mannerist Rome. Lescot’s façade of the Louvre and the interior design of that wing uses finely skilled craftsmen and exemplifies the classical features: the caryatid, the correct use of the classical orders, and pure geometries in the plan. De l’Orme was the court architect of Henri II and Catherine de’ Medici. Restorations, updates, new designs were at least overseen by de l’Orme.  No longer imitations of Italian decor or French plans, his designs innovate and seamlessly blend Italian and French influences, creating something else entirely: a particularly French Renaissance style.  Buildings from this period include the Lescot Wing of the Louvre and Hôtel Carnavalet in Paris, Château de St. Germain, the Tomb of St. Denis, and Chapel at Villers-Cotterêts.​

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Engraving of Aile Lescot of the Louvre Palace, Le premier volume des plus excellent Bastiments de France by Jacques Androuet du Cerceau, ca. 1576

1540-1565

1540 - 1565 Aile Lescot the Louvre

1540 - 1565 Chateau St. Germain

Bibliography

Blunt, Anthony. Art and Architecture in France 1500-1700. Éd. Nikolaus Pevsner, Peter Lasko et Judy Nairn. 4th ed., reprinted with revisions 1982. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982. Paperback.

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