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UGENE-EMMANUEL VIOLLET-LE-DUC, born in Paris in the year 1814, a diligent student of art, a learned archæologist, and an architect of experience, published in the year 1863 a work entitled Entretiens sur l'Architecture. In the year 1872 a second and concluding volume appeared. The first volume, relating more especially to the theory of architecture,, is now presented to the public of this country in an English dress. Its peculiar claim to attention. consists in the fact that its argument is an appeal to philosophical analysis against the tyranny of tradition and usage in matters of architectural design. "I am convinced," the author says, "that we can bring the taste of this generation to perfection by making it reason."
It would seem that such an argument would be most properly addressed to some nation possessing the desire and means to build monumentally, but destitute of that natural love and appreciation of art which would develop ideas of especial grace and fitness in its works, and enable it to take due rank in the history of civilization. To publish such an appeal in the very capital of civilization, where, ever since the Renaissance, the public mind has been constantly occupied by questions of art, and has diligently searched for the ideal of beauty by every path of practice and theory, would seem to be a most superfluous return to first principles. But the author begs the chief architects of the Latin race and the students who crowd their ateliers to review their knowledge of the architecture of the past, to ascertain if they have not lost their way in the midst of dogmas, commonplaces, and formulas, and if it is not worth while to begin to think again. He professes
to attack ancient abuses and professional errors made academical in the instructions of the great art schools of the capital and perpetuated in the modern architecture of France. In the midst of his polemic, the eagerness of his appeals to reason, his constant return to the practical conditions of structure as the true basis of design, may well attract attention. If the characteristic and deliberate architectural expression of French civilization, which is admired and imitated in every city of Christendom, is open criticism such as this, it is high time for us to analyze the sources of our admiration, to enter upon a logical examination of architecture, and to learn at last whether there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong in this region of æsthetics, and whether taste or artistic feeling, or whatever the quality may be called which concerns itself with this expression of the human mind, can discriminate between them. Such an inquiry is not for architects alone, but for every man who is interested in questions affecting the uses of art in life. If architecture, in its good estate, is an art amenable to laws, and not a mere body of arbitrary formulas, if all the phases of its proper development can be analyzed and explained by whatever process of reasoning, — every layman should be capable of an intelligent appreciation and enjoyment of it without a course of technical study, and the architect could no longer cover his errors of ignorance, carelessness, or haste behind his specious shield of conventionality.
In order as nearly as possible to give the American reader an impartial stand-point from which he may intelligently survey this field, it is important to glance briefly at the present state of architecture, more especially in France, and to ascertain, if possible, under what impulse or inspiration it has developed in the direction of the Louvre, the Hôtel de Ville, the New Opera, and the other familiar and characteristic monuments of French taste. Thus we may see in what an atmosphere and under what especial conditions these Discourses were prepared, and make due allowance for their peculiarities of temper and tone.
M. Viollet-le-Duc in the following pages has sufficiently set forth the historical conditions under which, in the time of Louis XII. and Francis I., classic forms supplanted mediæval forms on the soil of France. The question with which we are immediately concerned is how this fruitful derivative of Roman art has maintained its footing, and how it has continued its consistent development, in the midst of enormous social and political revolutions, and notwithstanding the love of change and fashion which is certainly a leading peculiarity of this people.
The French Academy of Painting and Sculpture was founded in 1648; that of Architecture, in 1671. The modern École des Beaux Arts is a direct descendant from these official schools; it has inherited all their collections, and in it are merged all their traditions of theory and practice. It is in the department of the Minister of Fine Arts, and is governed by a director appointed by the minister for five years; the administration includes a secretary, a treasurer, a librarian, and a custodian of the museum. This bureau iş assisted by a council of instruction, composed of certain officials of state, two painters, two sculptors, two architects, an engraver or medallist, and five others. New members are elected to this council every year, replacing old members, who retire in turn. But old members are eligible for re-election, and practically the council has the power of filling its own vacancies. This important council has thus for a century been adapted naturally to the preservation of whatever inheritance of style and practice should be perpetuated for use in the great monuments of state, according to the traditions and prejudices of the school. The curriculum undertakes to embrace all branches of theory and practice. The theoretical studies comprehend aesthetics, the history of art, the elements of anatomy, perspective, geometry, mathematics, geology, physics, chemistry, archæology,, construction, and the administration of works. Practical instruction in drawing and design is given in the seven official ateliers of the school, three of these being devoted to architecture, and each being under the charge of a director. The whole is enshrined in a superb Palace, constructed for the accommodation of the school, and filled with precious objects of art and every appliance which can inform and inspire the mind. Public interest is periodically attracted to the school by the annual competition for the "grand prize of Rome." This is open to any Frenchman under twenty-five years of age, whether a member of the school or not, who shall have been successful in two preliminary and stated competitions. For architects, sculptors, and painters, the grand competition is annual; for engravers on copper, every second year; for engravers on precious stones, every third year. One grand prize is given to each branch of art. The successful competitors (lauréats) are maintained at the public expense for four years, at least two of which must be spent at the Academy of France at Rome (in the Villa Medici, purchased for the purpose by Louis XIV.), under the control of a director, who is responsible to government for the progress of their studies. In witness of this progress, each lauréat, during his stay at Rome, sends to the school at Paris a work of sculpture,
painting, or an architectural composition. The remaining two years may bè spent in travel, at the discretion of each lauréat, he previously having reported his intentions to the authorities. At Rome the architectural student usually devotes himself to measuring and restoring the antique.
Outside of the school proper, the principal architects of Paris, assuming functions as patrons, have their ateliers filled with students, who, with more or less regularity, attend the lectures of the school, but have their greatest interest engaged in a series of stated competitions (concours) based upon programmes officially prepared and announced. These competitions are decided by juries largely composed of architects not officially connected with the faculty of instruction, and culminate in the two great annual competitions preliminary to the final struggle for the grand prize of Rome.
All this machinery tends directly to the creation and prevalence of a style of architecture peculiarly academical, and which, considering the atmosphere of emulation in which it has grown and its extraordinary fidelity to a comparatively narrow range of precedent and study, must necessarily be carried to the highest degree of technical perfection. This style, first made national by the châteaux of Pierre Lescot, Philibert Delorme, Jean Bullant, and the other French architects of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and afterwards giving expression, with peculiar felicity, to the pomp of that great builder, Louis XIV., is of course a form of the Renaissance.
The council of the school, loyal to the exclusive traditions of the place, is content to keep this national inheritance pure from foreign alloy and free from any rivalry or distractions of mediævalism. The architects of Paris, who desire official patronage and decoration; the students, who rejoice in the superb emulation and national distinction of the grand prize; the multitude, who are proud of their great historical monuments, — all, under these inspirations, cling to the academic style, and recognize no other. Within the shadow of Notre Dame and of the Sainte Chapelle, they are intolerant of any nearer approach to the pointed arch than the conventional use in their ecclesiastical buildings of the round-arched Romanesque of the twelfth century and of such other Byzantine elements as can be adapted to modern means and necessities.
Until lately even Greek influences have been admitted with jealousy. M. Henri Labrouste, a lauréat of Rome in the year 1824, studied the monuments of the Greek colonies, and sent home, as his official contribution to the school, a correct restoration of a Greek Doric temple. M. Joseph Louis Duc, a lauréat of the following year, and immediately afterwards M. Duban and M. Vaudoyer, pursued their studies in Italy in the same direction with intelli