Jacques Androuet du Cerceau

Paris, Cite de l’Architecture et du patrimoine, from 10 February to 9 May 2010

1. View of the exhibition Androuet du Cerceau
Photo : Didier Rykner

Architecture is the most difficult art form to exhibit since it cannot be moved and thus has to be evoked in various ways so as not to bore visitors with the same uninspiring plans and engravings. The curators for the retrospective on Androuet du Cerceau at the Cité du Patrimoine have managed to avoid this pitfall, thanks to many maquettes – some produced specifically for this occasion – and finely accomplished virtual 3-D reconstitutions and computerized animations. The historical context surrounding this architect is also illustrated by means of paintings and sculpture casts (ill. 1).

2. Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (1520-1586)
The château de Fontainebleau
Pencil, black ink on vellum - 50.8 x 74.4 cm
London, British Museum
Photo : British Museum

The event was organized to coincide with the publication of two essential books [1] : the first is a fundamental work highlighting Du Cerceau, presenting several essays written by the most prominent specialists along with a catalogue sommaire of engravings and drawing collections. The second offers a complete set of reproductions of 116 drawings held at the British Museum which are preparatory for the plates of the Plus excellents bâtiments de France, a famous collection of engravings representing the most important châteaux in the French Kingdom. Five of them are presented in the exhibition (ill. 2) and the show’s only flaw might be that it does not display more of Du Cerceau’s original sheets [2].

Those in favor of reconstructing historical monuments which have disappeared might learn some lessons from this exhibition. The first of these would be that it confirms once again the very approximate character of period documents which have come down to us. One might have expected Androuet du Cerceau, whose drawings are incredibly precise down to the slightest detail, to represent these monuments exactly as they were. And yet, this is a false impression. The architect improved and enhanced whatever he thought was not harmonious enough. The reconstitutions, virtual or not, which can be seen here, have raised dilemmas for their authors as they had to choose among several plans and elevations for each monument. The respective proportions never correspond as they should. A maquette such as the one for the Tuileries in the 16th century (ill. 3) is always preferable to a reconstruction of said monument, a risky, expensive and historically unfounded task.

3. Maquette of the Tuileries Palace in Paris
at the beginning of the XVIth century
Done by Aristeas in 2010 after, for a part,
the drawings of Androuet du Cerceau
Paris, Musée des Monuments français
Photo : Didier Rykner

Androuet du Cerceau was a draftsman from the antique and from existing château, an engraver, an exceptional designer of ornamental and architectural forms which were to influence a considerable number of artists, but was he himself an architect ? This question underlies the exhibition but cannot in fact be answered conclusively. Claude Mignot, the author of the essay “Du dessin au projet : Du Cerceau architecte ?” thinks that he was but admits that this is a personal conviction and cannot hold sway over others. The château of Verneuil (today destroyed) which was represented in Les plus excellents bâtiments de France is no doubt the best example among those attributed to Du Cerceau.
In any case, it is unfortunate that some of his designs were not executed as the artist himself said that his projects were too strange to be built. Some of his fantastical architecture even evokes at times, two hundred years ahead of its time, those of utopian architects of the 18th century.

4. Spiral Staircase from the
François Ier’ part of the château de Blois
Maquette in plaster done under the direction
of Anatole de Baudot and Henri Chaine
for World’s fair of 1900
Scale : 7.5 cm / m
Paris, Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine
Photo : Didier Rykner

We would like to say a word in concluding, about the Musée des Monuments Francais which we have never mentioned since it reopened. This exhibition provides us with the opportunity to express our regret – and this is an understatement – about the scant number of Renaissance and modern casts on display. Except in some cases, the presentation skips directly from the Middle Ages to the 20th century (thus totally omitting almost four centuries of architecture). A great number of casts have been relegated to storage rooms far away and, significantly, this happens to be the case for most of those presented in this exhibition, except for the maquette of the Blois staircase (ill. 4).

Collective work, Jacques Androuet du Cerceau “un des plus grands architectes qui se soient jamais trouvés en France”, Editions A. et J. Picard and Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine, 2010, 352 p., 65 euros. ISBN : 9782708408692.

Buy this book now.

Collective work, Jacques Androuet du Cerceau, les dessins des plus excellents bâtiments de France, Editions A. et J. Picard, Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine and Le Passage, 2010, 49 euros. ISBN : 9782847421507.

Buy this book now.

We also point out the Dossier de l’Art (number 171) published at the same time.

Didier Rykner, lundi 5 avril 2010


[1] There is, therefore, strictly speaking, no catalogue for this exhibition, a regrettable fact.

[2] Visitors can also see some drawings held at the Louvre.

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