L'art de la Renaissance en France: L invention du classicisme
Paris: Flammarion, 1996, 414 pp.; 459 color and b/w ills. 595 FF.
In 1981 Andre Chastel declared, "No one in the world of scholarship would be able to draft an accurate survey of French Renaissance art."' He pointed out that so little was known about so much, and that no interpretive framework yet existed that could even begin to give a satisfactory shape to the complex phenomenon of the art and architecture of 16th-century France. As if on cue, a great wave of scholarship on the French Renaissance began to emerge just at that moment.
Considering only those books I happen to have on my shelves, the last two decades have seen the publication of three studies of the French chateau; monographs on the chateaux of Madrid, Saint-Leger-en-Yvelines, and Fontainebleau; a reading of the domestic architecture of Renaissance Paris; new critical editions of Philibert Delorme's architectural writings and of Jacques Androuet du Cerceaus's Les plus excellents bastiments de France; a reassessment of Delorme's technical and formal innovations; a new history of French architecture from the 16th to the late 18th centuries in which the Renaissance is carefully rethought; an invaluable edition of artists' contracts from the Minutier central of the Archives Nationales; a comprehensive analysis of the Galerie d'Ulysse at Fontainebleau; a study of the little-known gallery at Oiron and its painting cycle; an exhaustive reading of "Francois Ier imaginaire"; a definitive study of Francis I as collector; a multiauthored volume of the art and society of Renaissance Troyes; and two massive exhibition catalogues, one of French Renaissance prints, the other of drawings.
In the wake of this tremendous scholarly surge, the title of Henri Zerner's beautifully produced and richly illustrated book-L'art de la Renaissance en France would seem to indicate that we now have the "large and articulated survey" Chastel skeptically hoped might one day be possible. Zerner certainly draws on recent work (to which he himself has contributed), but his subtitle-L'invention du classicisme-should give us pause, for it signals that something more original, thoughtful, provocative, and finally, more necessary than a survey is in fact at hand.
The French Renaissance has long been caught between two stories of classicism. In the history of French art, "classicism" is assigned to the formal solutions and institutional structures of the academic art of the 17th century. It was only then that the French are said to have progressively fabricated and theorized their own classicism, their own authoritative, archaeologically attentive take on antiquity. In this narrative, elegantly plotted by Anthony Blunt in his 1953 contribution to the Pelican series and laboriously threaded through Louis Hautecoeur's multivolumed Histoire de l'architecture classique en France (1943-- 48), the 16th century is awkwardly retrofitted as an unhappy anticipatory phase, its chief merit having been that it was ready, if not always able, to give up the ghost of the Gothic.
Intertwined with this national narrative is the story of the arts in l6th-century Europe. Here it is the achievements of Italian artists that fix our idea of the correctly and authentically classical. This identification arises not only from certain formal properties, morphological attributes, or attitudes toward antiquity, but, as Zerner elaborates, also from an Albertian/Vasarian perspective that recognizes only a particular type of artistic personality and specific types of artistic products and modes of production and is blind to alternatives. Furthermore, Italian Renaissance notions of what constitutes an ideal artist and ideal art object (the framed easel painting above all) have long been broadly assimilated as normative, and are thus able to legitimate the art of 17th-century France independent of its classicist claims. …