Every French art but ecclesiastical architecture now felt the influence of the strengthened monarchy and its Italian forays. Church building kept to Flamboyant Gothic, declaring its own decadence through extravagant decoration and prodigal detail, but dying like an operatic courtesan with all the fascination of feminine delicacy, adornment, and grace. Even so, some splendid churches were begun in this age: St. Wulfram at Abbeville, St. Étienne du Mont at Paris, and the perfect little shrine raised at Brou by Margaret of Austria to the memory of her husband Philibert II of Savoy. Old structures received new charms. Rouen Cathedral called its north portal the Portail des Libraires from the bookstalls that stood in the court; money contributed for indulgences to eat butter in Lent financed the lovely south tower, which French humor therefore named the Tour de Beurre; and Cardinal d’Amboise found funds for the west front in the same Flamboyant style. Beauvais gave its unfinished masterpiece a south transept whose portal and rose window excel most main façades; Senlis, Tours, and Troyes improved their fanes; and at Chartres Jean le Texier built a luxuriant northwest steeple and a gorgeous choir screen that showed Renaissance ideas impinging upon Gothic lines. At Paris the exquisite Tour St. Jacques is the restored survivor of a church raised in this period to St. James the Greater.
Noble civic buildings redeemed the strife and chaos of the age. Stately city halls rose in Arras, Douai, Saint-Omer, Noyon, Saint-Quentin, Compiègne, Dreux, Evreux, Orléans, Saumur. Grenoble built a Palais de Justice in 1505, Rouen a still more resplendent one in 1493; Robert Ango and Rolland Leroux designed it in ornate Gothic, the nineteenth century redecorated it, the second World War gutted it.
This was the first century of the French châteaux. The Church had been made subject to the state; the enjoyment of this world encroached upon preparation for the next; the kings would themselves be gods, and make for their leisure a Mohammedan paradise along the Loire. Between 1490 and 1530 the château fort or castle changed into the château de plaisance. Charles VIII, returning from his Neapolitan campaign, demanded of his architects a palace as splendid as those that he had seen in Italy. He brought back with him the architect Fra Giovanni Giocondo, the sculptor and painter Guido Mazzoni, the woodworker Domenico Bernabei “Boccador,” and nineteen other Italian artists, even a landscape architect, Domenico Pacello.17 He had already restored the old castle at Amboise; now he commissioned these men, aided by French builders and artisans, to transform it “in the style of Italy” into a luxurious logis du roi, a royal lodge.18 The result was superb: a mass of towers, pinnacles, cornices, corbels, dormers, and balconies, rising imperially on a slope overlooking the peaceful river. A new species of architecture had come to birth.
The style offended patriots and purists by wedding Gothic towers to Renaissance palaces, and by replacing Flamboyant decoration with classical forms and details. The walls, the cylindrical towers, the high, sloping roofs, the machicolated battlements, the occasional moats, were still medieval, recalling the time when a man’s home had to be his castle and his fort; but the new spirit brought the dwelling out of its massive martial shell, broadened the windows in rectilinear line to let in the sun, beautified them with frames of carved stone, adorned the interior with classical pilasters, moldings, medallions, statues, arabesques, and reliefs, and surrounded the building with gardens, fountains, flowers, and, usually, a hunting wood or a smiling plain. In these amazing homes of luxury, darkness gave place to light, medieval fear and gloom to Renaissance confidence, audacity, and joy. The love of life became an architectural style.
We should credit this first age of the châteaux unduly if we assigned to it either their origin or their full development. Many of them had pre-existed as castles, and were merely modified; the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries perfected the form to an aristocratic elegance, the eighteenth changed the mood and replaced the gay lyric of the châteaux with the grandiose epic of Versailles. Chinon’s castle-chateau was already old when Charles VII received Joan there (1429), and Loches had had a long history as a royal residence and jail when Lodovico il Moro came there as a prisoner (1504) after Louis XII’s second capture of Milan. About 1460 Jean Bourré, state minister to Louis XI, restored the thirteenth-century castle of Langeais into a form essentially medieval—though it is still one of the best preserved of the châteaux. At Châumont, toward 1473, Charles d’Amboise built another chateau in the medieval manner; and at Gaillon his brother the Cardinal raised an immense castle-château (1497–1510), which the Revolution incontinently destroyed. Dunois, noble “bastard of Orléans,” restored the chateau of Châteaudun (1464), and the Cardinal of Orléans-Longueville gave it a new wing in the Gothic-Renaissance compromise. The chateau of Blois still contains thirteenth-century portions; Louis XII built for it an east wing in a harmonious union of brick and stone, of Gothic portal and Renaissance windows; but its supreme glory awaited Francis L
Gothic sculpture made its exit with infinite grace in the exquisitely carved decoration of the tombs and retable in the church at Brou, where the figure of the Sibyl Agrippa is as fair a form as any at Chartres or Reims. But meanwhile Italian artists were remolding French sculpture to Renaissance independence, symmetry, and grace. Intercourse between France and Italy was growing through the visits of ecclesiastics, diplomats, merchants, and travelers; imported Italian objects of art, especially small bronzes, served as envoys of Renaissance and classical forms and taste. With Charles VIII and Georges and Charles d’Amboise the movement became an impetuous stream. It was Italian artists who founded the Italianizing “School of Amboise” at the country capital of the kings. The tombs of French Royalty in the church of St. Denis are a monumental record of the transition from the somber dignity of Gothic sculpture to the smooth elegance and joyous decoration of Renaissance design, proclaiming glory and celebrating beauty even in the triumph of death.
The transition was personified in Michel Colombe. Born about 1431, he was already described in 1467 as “the supreme sculptor of the French realm,” long before the French invasion and absorption of Italy. Gallic sculpture had heretofore been nearly all in stone; Colombe imported Genoese marble, and carved it into figures still stern and stiff with Gothic intensity, but set in frames exuberant with classic ornament. For the château of Gaillon he cut a spacious high relief of St. George and the Dragon—a, lifeless knight on a spirited horse, all enclosed within columns, moldings, and coping of Renaissance design. In The Virgin of the Pillar, carved in stone for the church of St. Galmier, Colombe achieved the full delicacy of the Italian style in the modesty and tenderness of the features, the smooth lines of the falling hair. And perhaps it was Colombe who, in old age, chiseled the Easter Sepulcher (1496) in the priory church at Solesmes.*
In painting, France felt the influence of the Netherlands as well as that of Italy. Nicolas Froment began with an almost Dutch realism in The Resurrection of Lazarus. But in 1476 he moved from Avignon to Aix-en-Provence, and painted for René of Anjou a triptych, The Burning Bush, whose central panel, showing the Virgin enthroned, has Italian qualities in its background, its brunette Madonna, its majestic Moses, its charming angel, its alert hound and trustful sheep; herç Italy has won a complete victory. A like evolution of style marked the work of the “Master of Moulins”—probably Jean Perréal. He went to Italy with Charles VIII and again with Louis XII; he returned with half the arts of the Renaissance in his repertoire—miniaturist, muralist, portraitist, sculptor, and architect. At Nantes he designed—and Colombe carved—the imposing tomb of Duke Francis II of Brittany; and at Moulins he commemorated his patrons, Anne and Pierre of Beaujeu, with the handsome portraits that now hang in the Louvre.
The minor arts did not maintain their late-medieval excellence. Whereas the Flemish illuminators had long since passed to secular subjects and earthly scenes, the miniatures of Jean Bourdichon in Les beures d’Anne de Bretagne (1508) represented a return to medieval simplicity and piety—the lovely legends of the Virgin and her Child, the tragedy of Golgotha, the triumph of resurrection, the stories of the saints; the drawing poor, the backgrounds classical, the color rich and pure, all in a serene atmosphere of feminine refinement and sentiment.19 As if in contrast, the stained glass of the time adopted a Flemish naturalism at first sight unsuited to windows bringing transfigured light to cathedral floors; yet the glass painted in this period for Auch, Rouen, and Beauvais catches some of the thirteenth-century glory. Limoges now rekindled its furnaces, which had been cold for a century, and rivaled Italy and Islam in painting vessels with translucent enamels. The wood carvers had not lost their skill; Ruskin thought the choir stalls of Amiens Cathedral the best in France.20 Colorful tapestries from the end of the fifteenth century caught the attention of George Sand in the Chateau de Brissac (1847), and became a treasure of the Musée de Cluny at Paris; and the Musée des Gobelins has a stirring tapestry (c. 1500) of musicians playing in a garden of fleurs-de-lis.
All in all, excepting the châteaux, the fifteenth century was a fallow age in French art. The soil was plowed by soldiers’ feet and fertilized with wartime blood; but only toward the end of the period would men have the means and leisure to sow the seeds of the harvest that Francis I would reap. The self-portrait of Fouquet betrays an age of humiliation and distress; the miniatures of his pupil Bourdichon reflect the familial peace of Louis XII’s second marriage, and the smiling ease of a recovered land. The worst was over for France; the best was about to come.