What were the key influences of the Greco-Roman Revival in the Neo-Classicism of France?
Oh! You look beautiful today!
Pleased, aren’t you?
The word beautiful flatters us. But, have you ever thought how the word ‘beautiful’ became or came to be known as a compliment? What does its use mean? Did it have a constant meaning throughout the geographies?
Humans throughout history have been obsessed with Beauty. The idea of Beauty is itself very pleasing, and its arbitrary nature is fascinating. The term has had many connotations throughout history. With time, it inevitably penetrated the arts and architecture world, changing with the styles.
In 17th century Europe, during the Baroque era, the idea of Beauty was based on expression, asymmetry, flamboyance. But that was not the only definition that persisted. In mid-17th Century, Claude Perrault, a French physicist and theoretician, proclaimed his ideas of Beauty to his country. Instigated by the state to translate the ten books of Vitruvius into French, Perrault formed his concept of Beauty. It was based on proportions, but those were not rigid.
According to him, there existed two kinds of Beauty. The first was Positive Beauty, which was universal and unchangeable. It was the sense of proportions carried out by the ‘ancients’ such as Vitruvius. The second was Arbitrary Beauty, which was relative and variable. This was found in the proportion that moulded to suit the contemporary times. Architecture should not be rigid to the rules and orders. However, he affirmed that some basic rules of proportionality should always be upheld, or the building would deviate from the standards of Beauty.
In 1665, Gian Lorenzo Bernini came to Paris to propose his design scheme for the Louvre. The proposal was a Baroque scheme, with all its curves and flamboyance. King Louis XIV, however, had a different idea. He rejected the proposal and formed a committee of his own. Perrault was commissioned to design the east façade of the Louvre. He divided the design into five parts. Based on his ideas of Beauty, the ground floor and basement had a simple, rustic character that set off with the paired Corinthian columns. This made the Louvre one of the first examples of Neo-Classical architecture in France.
For Perrault, ‘symmetry’ was not merely a geometric property. In French theory, symmetry signified correspondence between any two parts that resembled one other in size, shape, height, colour, number or placement. This was how it differed from Vitruvius’s concepts. Perrault commented on this absence. He professed and demonstrated to the people of France that the ancients were not to be blindly followed but to be understood in principle and applied to fit the contemporary needs.
Influenced by Perrault, Abbe de Cordemoy created his own triad- ordonnance, distribution and bienséance. In this theory, the size of a building, or its parts, should conform to its function (ordonnance). These parts should be arranged appropriately (distribution), filtered based on their uses and relevance (bienséance). The first two were complementary to their Vitruvian counterparts. However, the third principle surrounded itself around the validity of appropriation of past forms in present structures focused on current utility and commerce.
The Cordemoy Triad anticipated the appropriation of formal expression of classical architecture. It facilitated the differentiation in the physical attributes of classical architecture to suit variation in the social character of different building typologies. Cordemoy focused on the judicious application of elements of Classic architecture. ‘Not all buildings required ornamentation,’ he claimed, probably looking sideways at Baroque. He condemned the piers, arches, and the bas-relief effect of contemporary architecture. He disliked mouldings and motifs scattered over the surface of buildings and even the pedestals and the pilasters. He crowned the free-standing column, from the Gothic cathedral and Greek temples, in its role as a structural entity, as the purest form of architecture.
When the ruins of ancient cities of Greece became accessible in the late 18th century, the French rushed forward to the opportunity. They sent Julien David Le Roy (link article 4) to study the Athens’ Acropolis and understand the Greek orders. During this venture, Le Roy engaged in a rivalry with two Englishmen- James Stuart and Nicholas Revett. Both parties raced to publish a professional description of Athens. But the French had better relations with the Ottoman Empire, of which Le Roy took advantage. He published his ‘Ruins of the Most Beautiful Monuments of Greece’ four years ahead of Stuart and Revett.
But, Le Roy had only spent three months in Athens, followed by his time in Constantinople to study the Byzantine developments. The English criticised him over the superficial nature of the documentation, which talked only of the principles of the Greek order and their culture. Le Roy argued that he did not intend to imitate these models but to understand them in principle. Despite the criticism, his work has had a significant influence on architecture. In fact, he shaped the modern tradition of using colonnades in Urban Design!
Neo-Classicism in France showed that ‘Beauty’ is not necessarily complicated. It does not have to be profoundly moving, overtly dramatic, or visually appealing. It could be found in simplicity, functionality, and relevance. The French’s use of ‘Beauty’ abandoned the pretentious nature of its predecessors. They substantiate that Beauty cannot be derived from a mere copy-paste of elements. This laid the foundation for the idea that if the function of a column is to carry the weight of the structure, then so it shall serve. Beauty in architecture was then born out of its purpose.
After this insight, what is your idea of Beauty?
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About the Writer
Pranjal Maheshwari is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. He has interned at Rethinking The Future (RTF), India Lost and Found (ILF) by Amit Pasricha, and Sandal Kapoor Associates.
About the Editor
Falak Vora is an architect, architectural historian, writer and essayist. She is a graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (UCL), UK and Sarvajanik College of Engineering and Technology (VNSGU), Surat. She has experience working at Aangan Architects, Eternity Architects, Wall Space Architects, Studio i!, Guallart Architects and The Universidad Politécnica de Cartagena (UPCT).
About the Illustrator
Itika Atri is an undergraduate architecture student at the Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology (DCRUST), Murthal (Sonepat). She is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer. She has experience working as an Architectural Journalism Intern at Rethinking The Future (RTF).