Gothic revival, c. 1730-c. 1930: NATIONAL AND REGIONAL VARIATIONS: France. (2023)


In France a taste for medieval legend survived into the 16th century in aristocratic circles and was nurtured not only by the literary works of the Italian Renaissance poets Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso but also by books on heraldry and blazonry by humanist scholars. More remarkable as evidence of conscious, widespread, and continuing popular interest in the Middle Ages--and especially in Gothic building--were topographical studies and guidebooks published from the middle of the 16th century onward. The Gothic tradition of building continued, especially in ecclesiastical circles, far into the 18th century. But it was largely survival rather than revival. French admirers of Gothic architecture regarded it primarily as a challenge to the intellect. The architects Delorme in the 16th century and Derand in the 17th analyzed the construction of the Gothic vault. They were quick to appreciate it as a highly efficient and economical framework of columns and ribs, supporting the webs of the vaults (which they regarded as no more than infilling panels carrying no thrust) and counterbalanced by buttresses and flying buttresses--as something, indeed, of a structural scaffold. It was this structural elegance that early 18th-century enthusiasts of Gothic, such as Cordemoy, sought to infuse into contemporary architecture. In the Nouveau Traité de toute l'architecture (1706) Cordemoy proposed that a new, honest, and economical architecture might be arrived at by abstracting the principles of Gothic construction and applying them in a perfectly regular classical way. There was no question of reviving the Gothic style; interest in Gothic was to be altogether transmuted into classical terms. The building of the church of Sainte-Geneviève (now known as the Panthéon) in Paris, designed in a style confirming the Neoclassical ideal but on principles derived from Gothic architecture, gave a new impetus to the study of Gothic construction. French architects were imbued with a rational appreciation of Gothic that was without parallel.

Although there was a native French vogue in the 18th century for the medieval literature of the troubadours, it was the intrusion of English ideas that prompted more authentic representations of the medieval world in stage settings and history paintings after 1772. Certainly, the Gothic taste in architecture was conditioned by the introduction of the informal landscape garden. By 1781 there were a number of English gardens in France with mock-Gothic pavilions, and, during the last two decades of the century, many more were built. But the frivolous, lighthearted "Gothick" of 18th-century England never took hold in France; the French made virtually no attempt to imitate, let alone rival, the splendours of Strawberry Hill and Fonthill Abbey.

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To the Revolutionaries at the end of the 18th century, Gothic architecture seemed a symbol of the vested power of the aristocracy and the church, and many buildings were wantonly destroyed. Yet, popular interest in the picturesque charms of Gothic architecture was sustained and even intensified by such men as Alexandre Lenoir, who in 1795 turned the largest of the Paris depots for plundered works of art, the Petits-Augustins (now the École des Beaux-Arts), into the Museum of French Monuments. Here, by clever juxtaposition and subtle lighting, the Middle Ages seemed to be endowed with an aura of magic. By suggesting a relationship between a chivalric past and the actual forms of Gothic sculpture and architecture, Lenoir coloured the imagination of a whole generation of Romantics. The great Romantic writer François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand, was fascinated by Lenoir's collection. Indeed, a celebrated chapter on Gothic architecture in Chateaubriand's Le Génie du christianisme (1802; "The Genius of Christianity"), in which Gothic is not only taken as the symbol for the old French Catholic spirit but also is traced beyond, through the forests of Gaul, to nature itself, was directly inspired by Lenoir's work. Inevitably, a Romantic Gothic image was popularized in the years that followed; Romantic playwrights, novelists, and painters were seduced by the charms of Gothic. Even antiquarians succumbed to the Romantic myth, and from 1810 onward a spate of popular guidebooks and studies of Gothic architecture was published.

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In spite of a few Gothic-inspired fantasies and an archaeological interest in medieval architecture that found expression in the Neo-Romanesque church of Saint-Paul (1835) at Nîmes by Charles-Auguste Questel, architecture remained a virtually impregnable stronghold until after 1840, when a hard core of Gothic Revivalists began to emerge. This was composed of consistent medievalists who were stirred primarily by archaeological pretensions. Stimulated by the activity of English scholars in Normandy, they patiently studied the medieval remains of that region and slowly forged the science of French Gothic archaeology. An equally important aspect of the Gothic Revival was inaugurated by the great Romantic author Victor Hugo, when he published in 1831 Notre-Dame de Paris, the explicit purpose of which was the glorification of Gothic as a national and Catholic style of architecture. But it was the Protestant statesman François Guizot who first gave real impetus to those ideas promoted by Hugo. In 1830 he inaugurated the organization that seven years later became the Commission on Historical Monuments.

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All the serious, acceptable architects of the Gothic Revival were amateur archaeologists, and they acknowledged an archaeological standard of taste. They designed from the first in the 13th-century style, and nearly all had restored at least one Gothic building before they undertook to build anything new. The patronage of the Commission on Historical Monuments and later of the Diocesan Buildings Service (formed in 1848), for which thousands of medieval buildings were restored and enlarged, was thus of enormous importance in furthering the aims and the technical skill of the Gothic Revivalists. The men who sustained the Gothic Revival were almost all taught by the commission's leading architects, Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc. Lassus trained Viollet-le-Duc first on the restorations in Paris of Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois (1838) and the Sainte-Chapelle (1842). In 1844 they were both appointed to restore Notre-Dame de Paris and to build a new sacristy in the Gothic style; this was regarded as an official sanction for the Gothic Revival. But, although a picturesque revival of Gothic had already been initiated in the provinces, official sanction for a full-scale revival was not easily accorded. The members of the French Academy, faithful to Neoclassical ideals, were firmly against it.

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In 1844 the north tower of the abbey church of Saint-Denis, begun under Suger in 1135, was found to be in danger of collapse. All Gothic Revivalists were aghast. Adolphe-Napoléon Didron, editor of the Annales archéologiques and propagandist for the Gothic Revival, tactlessly accused the Council of Civil Buildings, which was charged with the approval of all building plans in France, of irresponsibility. Its members, mainly academicians, retaliated by arbitrarily stopping the construction of three churches in the Gothic style that Didron had acclaimed in his journal. Didron then launched a counteroffensive; he demanded a public inquiry into the restoration of Saint-Denis. Under threat of this inquiry, which was powerfully supported by the prefect of the Seine district, Barthelot Rambuteau, the council was forced to approve the plans for Sainte-Clotilde in Paris by Franz Christian Gau, plans that they had held up for more than four years. It became a cause célèbre. A furious pamphlet war followed, from which the Gothic Revivalists emerged triumphant, and in 1852 Didron estimated that 200 neo-Gothic churches had been built or were in the process of construction. But the victory was short-lived. Sainte-Clotilde, as completed by Gau and his successor Théodore Ballu in 1857, was an anomalous expression of revivalist ideals. Didron disliked it intensely, and the dispute caused many admirers of Gothic architecture to reflect seriously on the merits of a Gothic Revival.

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Lassus went on to build Saint-Nicolas (1848) at Moulins, Saint-Pierre at Dijon (1852), and Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Belleville (1854) in Paris. Viollet-le-Duc constructed Saint-Gimer (1853-57) at Carcassonne, the church of Nouvelle Aude (1855) and Saint-Denys-de l'Estrée (1860-67) at Saint-Denis; he restored the Château de Pierrefonds (1858-70) to a state of colourful medieval splendour for Louis-Napoleon; and, in his Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française (1854-68; "Analytical Dictionary of French Architecture") and the Dictionnaire raisonné du mobilier française (1858-75; "Analytical Dictionary of French Furniture"), together running into 16 volumes, he provided the vital visual and intellectual inspiration required to sustain the Gothic movement. But he was by no means a convinced revivalist. All but one of his secular works are in an uneasy Renaissance mode. He determined to think his way beyond the Romantic attractions of the Gothic style. Pursuing the inquiries of 18th-century theorists, he envisaged an architecture of the 19th century that would be based on the rational system of construction and composition that he recognized to be embodied in Gothic but would in no way imitate its forms and details. Architecture, he thought, should be the clear expression in 19th-century materials of 19th-century structural and functional needs. He was unable to accept the challenge of his own ideas. Both he and his disciples--Paul Abadie, Émile Boeswillwald, Eugène-Louis Millet, Maurice Ouradou, Anatole de Baudot, Édouard Corroyer, Félix Narjoux, and Édmond Duthoit--continued to design buildings (primarily churches) in a weak Gothic style. There were many less thoughtful and determined men who put up imitations of Gothic architecture in the late 19th century, but the Gothic Revival was never a full-blooded affair. Some of the finest buildings designed after the medieval manner--Saint-Pierre-de-Montrouge (1864-72) in Paris, by Joseph-Auguste-Émile Vaudremer, is one--were isolated works by architects who worked outside the orbit of the Gothic Revivalists and who had no qualms about the intellectual honesty of their chosen mode of expression.

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