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French Renaissance Art & Ornament

Turning from Italy to France, which was the first of the European nations to light its torch at the fire of Renaissance Art, which had been kindled in Italy, we find that the warlike expeditions of Charles VIII. and Louis XII. infected the nobility of France with an admiration for the splendours of Art met with by them at Florence, Rome, and Milan. The first clear indication of the coming change might have been seen (for it was unfortunately destroyed in 1793) in the monument erected in 1499 to the memory of the first-named monarch, around which female figures, in gilt bronze, of the Virtues, were grouped completely in the Italian manner.

In the same year, the latter sovereign invited the celebrated Fra Giocondo, architect, of Verona, friend and fellow-student of the elder Aldus, and first good editor of Vitruvius, to visit France. He remained there from 1499 to 1506, and designed for his royal master two bridges over the Seine, and probably many minor works which have now perished. The magnificent Chateau de Gaillon, begun by Cardinal d'Amboise in the year 1502, has been frequently ascribed to him, but, according to Emeric David and other French archaeologists, upon insufficient grounds. The internal evidence is entirely in favour of a French origin, and against Giocondo, who was more of an engineer and student than an ornamental artist.

Moreover, intermingled with much that is very fairly classical, is so much Burgundian work, that it would be almost as unjust to Giocondo to ascribe it to him, as to France to deprive her of the credit of having produced, by a French artist, her first great Renaissance monument. The whole of the accounts which were published by M. Deville in 1850, set the question almost entirely at rest; for from them we learn that Guillaume Senault was architect and master-mason. It is, however, just possible that Giocondo may have been consulted by the Cardinal upon the general plan, and that Senault and his companions, for the most part French, may have carried out the details. The principal Italian by whom, if we may judge from the style, some of the most classical of the arabesques were wrought, was Bertrand de Meynal, who had been commissioned to carry from Genoa the beautiful Venetian fountain, so well known as the Vasque du Chateau de Gaillon, now in the Louvre, and from which (Plate LXXXI., Figs. 27, 30, 34, 38) we have engraved some elegant ornaments.

Ornaments from Stone and Wood from the Collections of the Louvre and Hotel Cluny
Ornaments from Stone and Wood from the Collections of the Louvre and Hotel Cluny, Plate LXXXI.

Colin Castille, who especially figures in the list of art-workmen as "tailleur a l'antique", may very possibly have been a Spaniard who had studied in Rome. In all essential particulars, the portions of Renaissance work not Burgundian in style are very pure, and differ scarcely at all from good Italian examples.

Portions of the Tomb of Francis II
Portions of the Tomb of Francis II., Duke of Brittany, and his wife, Marguerite de Folx, erected by Anne of Brittany in the Carmelite Church at Nantes, by Michel Colombe, A.D. 1507.

It was, however, in the monument of Louis XII., now at St. Denis, near Paris, and one of the richest of the sixteenth century, that symmetry of architectural disposition was for the first time united to masterly execution of detail in France. This beautiful work of art was executed between 1518 and 1530, under the orders of Francis I., by Jean Juste of Tours. Twelve semicircular arches enclose the bodies of the royal pair, represented naked; under every arch is placed an apostle; and at the four corners are four large statues of Justice, Strength, Prudence, and Wisdom: the whole being surmounted by statues of the King and Queen on their knees. The bas-reliefs represent the triumphal entry of Louis into Genoa, and the battle of Aguadel, where he signalized himself by his personal valour.

The monument of Louis XII. has been often ascribed to Trebatti (Paul Ponee), but it was finished before he came to France, as the following extract from the royal records proves. Francis I. addresses the Cardinal Duprat:

II est deu a Jehan Juste, mon sculteur ordinaire, porteur de ceste la somme de 400 escus, restans des 1200 que je lui avoie pardevant or donnez pour la menage et conduite de la ville de Tours au lieu de St Denis en France, de la sculpture de marbre de feuz Roy Loys et Royne Anne, etc Novembre 1531.

Not less worthy of study than the tomb of Louis XII., and executed at the same period, are the beautiful carvings in alto and basso relievo, which ornament the whole exterior of the choir of the Cathedral of Chartres; the subjects are taken from the lives of our Saviour and the Virgin, and from forty-one groups, fourteen of which are the work of Jean Texier, who commenced in 1514, after completing that part of the new clock-tower erected by him. These compositions are full of truth nd beauty, the figures animated and natural, the drapery free and graceful, and the heads full of life; but the arabesque ornaments, which almost entirely cover the projecting parts of the pilasters, friezes, and mouldings of the base, are, perhaps, the most beautiful portions; they are very diminutive in size; the largest of the groups, which are those that cover the pilasters, being only eight or nine inches in breadth. Though so minute, the spirit of the carving, and variety of devices in these ornaments, are marvellous. Masses of foliage, branches of trees, birds, fountains, bundles of arms, satyrs, military ensigns, and tools belonging to various arts, are arranged with much taste. The F crowned the monogram of Francis I. is conspicuous in these arabesques, and the dates of the years 1525, 1527, and 1529, are traced upon the draperies.

The tomb which Anne of Brittany caused to be erected to the memory of her father and mother was finished and placed in the choir of the Carmelite Church at Nantes on the 1st of January, 1507. It is the masterpiece of an artist of great ability and naivete - Michel Colombe. The ornamental details are peculiarly elegant. The monument to Cardinal d'Amboise, in the Cathedral at Rouen, was begun in the year 1515, under Roulant le Roux, master-mason of the Cathedral. No Italian appears to have assisted in its execution, and we may, therefore, fairly regard it as an expression of the vigour with which the Renaissance viru8 had indoctrinated the native artists.

It was in 1530 and 1531 that Francis I. invited Rosso and Primaticcio into France, and those distinguished artists were speedily followed by Nicolo del' Abbate, Luca, Penni, Cellini, Trebatti, and Girolamo della Robbia. With their advent, and the foundation of the school at Fontainebleau, new elements were introduced into the French Renaissance, to which we shall subsequently advert.

It would exceed the limits of our present sketch to enter fully into the historical details connected with the art of wood-carving. It may suffice to point out that every ornamental feature available for stone, marble, or bronze, was rapidly transferred also to wood-work, and that at no period of the history of Industrial Art has the talent of the sculptor been more gracefully brought to bear upon the enrichment of sumptuous furniture.

Ornaments from Stone and Wood
Ornaments from Stone and Wood Ditto, Plate LXXXII.

Our Plates, Nos. LXXXI. and LXXXII., furnish brilliant evidence of the justice of our remarks on this head. The attentive student, however, as he goes over them, will be unable to avoid perceiving a gradual withdrawing from the original foliated ornament which formed the stock-in-trade of the early Renaissance artists. He will next notice a heaping up of various objects and "capricci", derived from the antique, accompanied by a fulness of projection and slight tendency to heaviness; and then, finally, he will recognise the general adoption of a particular set of forms differing from the Italian, and altogether national, such as the conventional volute incised with small square or oblong indentations (Plate LXXXI., Figs. 17 and 20), and the medallion heads (Plate LXXXI., Figs. 1 and 17).

The dawning rays of the coming revival of Art in France can scarcely be traced in the painted glass of the fifteenth century. The ornaments, canopies, foliage, and inscriptions, are generally taraboyant and angular in character, although freely and crisply made out, and the figures are influenced by the prevailing style of drawing. The glass, although producing a pleasing effect, is much thinner-especially the blue-than that of the thirteenth century. An immense number of windows were executed during this epoch, and specimens are to be found more or less perfect in almost every large church in France. St. Ouen, at Rouen, has some fine figures upon a white quarry ground in the clerestory windows; and good examples of the glass of the century will be found in St. Gervais at Paris, and Notre Dame at Chalons-sur-Marne.

Many improvements were introduced into the art at the epoch of the Renaissance. The first masters were employed to make cartoons; enamel was used to give depth to the colors without losing the richness, and much more white was employed. Many of the windows are very little more than grisailles, as those designed by Jean Cousin for the Sainte Chapelle at Vincennes; one of those representing the angel sounding the fourth trumpet is admirable, both in composition and drawing. The Cathedral of Auch also contains some exceedingly fine examples of the work of Arneaud Demole; Beauvais also possesses a great deal of the glass of this period, especially a very fine Jesse window, the work of Enguerand le Prince; the heads are grand, and the poses of the figures call to mind the works of Albert Durer.

The grisailles, which ornamented the windows in the houses of the nobility, and even of the bottigeoisie, although small, were executed with an admirable delicacy, and in drawing and grouping leave little to be desired.

Toward the end of the sixteenth century the art began to decline, the numerous glass-painters found themselves without employment, and the celebrated Bernard de Palissy, who had been brought up to the trade, left it to engage in another presenting greater difficulties, but which eventually secured him the highest reputation. To him, however, we are indebted for the charming grisailles representing the story of Cupid and Psyche, from the designs of Raphael, which formerly decorated the Chateau of Ecouen, the residence of his great patron the Constable Montmorency.

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