Just like her The Paris of Henri IV: Architecture and Urbanism (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991, Hilary Ballon's new book, Louis Le Vau, Mazarin's Collège, Colbert's Revenge (Princeton: PUP, 1999) learnedly and brilliantly sets the history of architecture into general history. Le Vau, that underdog — or reputed to be so — among seventeenth-century French architects (especially in comparison to François Mansart) is not so much rehabilitated here as described and understood. The nineteenth century, often Romantically inspired heroicization of Mansart is now really even more out of date than in the 1960s, the decade when I last read up on the subject.
By analyzing the sequence of Le Vau's drawing for the Collège des Quatre Nations, Ballon creates the portrait of a highly creative architect who is perhaps more interested in larger forms and lines than Mansart, and more preoccupied with volumes than with informed, intellectualized respect for and evolution of the classical orders. Le Vau was under tremendous pressure as a result of the demands put on him for the Collège (and after rejection of his project for the Louvre) by an authoritarian Colbert who was uninformed, indeed insecure about his judgment on matters of style. Bernini's visit occurred at just the time when Le Vau was about to start the drum of the chapel dome; the nine-month delay, while Bernini stormed about, is not only perfectly understandable, it was an act of genius on Le Vau's part. With Colbert flapping about and Bernini judging and often deriding what he saw, how could Le Vau have succeeded other than by delaying construction?
Like Ballon's first book, this one on Le Vau captures the obstructionism, the hesitation, the litigiousness, the backbiting, the counter-productive atmosphere that was seventeenth-century Parisian society and politics. One is amazed that buildings turned out as well as they did!
Colbert had wanted to combine the Collège with the Theatine church and monastery just down the quay. The decision to build opposite the Louvre was finally made, and the site was prepared at great expense. Since Le Vau has been accused of corruption, the issue of the costs for all parts of the project have rightly received Ballon's attention. One wonders, however, whether cost overruns were not endemic to large-scale projects — it would be interesting to try to collect data for a comparison, and to find whether it was typical, or not, to pay for the construction of the quay, etc., from Mazarin's money.
A few years ago, at the Château du Grand Jardin at Joinville, the conservateur explained that he had found for the restoration of the walls, gardens and interior first, and then the roof. Why? Had he started with the roof, he explained, the château would have been considered protected, and money would have gone for other projects! But now there was not doubt that the roof would have to be entirely rebuilt, to protect what had been restored! By analogy, the dome, the library and Mazarin's tomb were perhaps easier to fund once the enormously expense site-preparation had been completed and construction of the building itself was well underway.
Raised in a family of master masons, Le Vau was one of those great artisans who, by frequenting the high-ranking and the wealthy, had social aspirations. He dropped the e from the family name — Le Veau —, he built a quite remarkable library, and he engaged in metal founding and manufacturing enterprises, in addition to large real-estate and construction projects. Ballon quite rightly suggests that there was an aristocratic dimension to his career, and I would agree, to the point also that his "cash-flow" problems also seem quite aristocratic. Nobles were less hostile to manufacturing (remember the gentlemen glassblowers!) than commerce, so here too Le Vau's career is of a piece (p. 126). Charges of corruption and attacks in court were typical for anyone from his milieu who was successful. Le Vau received a pension of 6,000 livres as first architect, and he was paid only 1,000 livres for the plans for the Collège, a paltry sum for such a work. When he died in 1670 at age 58, Le Vau was bankrupt; grocers, doctors, etc., had gone unpaid for some time, just as they had been for the households of quite a few dukes and counts!
According to Dominique Michel, François Vatel, the maître d'hôtel (not the cook!) of the Grand Condé received a salary of 1,800 livres and left about 26,000 livres when he committed suicide in 1671 — and 20,000 of them were a loan to Fouquet dating from 1661, probably now worthless. As Daniel Roche so brilliantly shows in La Culture des apparences, domestics, financiers and perhaps high-ranking artisans and architects were quicker to plunge into the new consumerist culture than were merchants and, perhaps, legal professionals.
In our post-Romantic culture, a survival has been the considerable deference the patron bestowed on the creative person. There are important exceptions, certainly. Colbert can only be considered arbitrary and harsh in his relations with Le Vau. Moreover, Colbert had little experience and an untrained eye — certainly prior to the planning and design of the Collège. Colbert's famous comments about proposed plans for the Louvre reveal a pretty conventional mind at work. Perhaps the committee strategy that culminated in the so-called "Perrault façade" of the Louvre was accepted less for its brilliance and its classicizing statement than from Colbert's inability to work with a single creative individual. Ballon says much about Colbert, and she has him right, I think, for the 1660s. And perhaps Louis's decision about Versailles derived in part as a reaction to Colbert's obsessive dabbling and his uncertainty overlaid with authoritarianism.
Ballon found and published here the inventory of Le Vau's library. Someone will want to tabulate the titles according to subject matter, but the result will have little interest. Le Vau's library is that a of a quite well-educated person for whom architecture was a general element along with lay and profane classics, architecture and mathematics treatises, history (Davila), and recent literary works by Madeline Scudéry, Chapelain and La Calprenède. There a few books from the 1660s, which suggests that he built his library when he was in his 30s and 40s, but that after 50 he was either too busy to buy books or had matured to the point that reading was less important to him. A major reservation to this point derives from the fact that there were many books in packets, presumably unbound and awaiting bindings bearing his cipher. This was the fashion not only for the very wealthy, but for the less wealthy; but if these were his plans, Le Vau did not live long enough to fulfill them. I repeat, he did in October 1670 at the age of 58, but not before designing and overseeing the great "envelope" construction on the château of Versailles.
What a splendid book! — a fitting monument to an (almost) self-made man.