Author(s) Blondel, François
Title Cours d’architecture
Imprint Paris, P. Aubouin & F. Clousier, 1675-1683
Localisation Paris, Ensba, 161 A 0008
Subject Architecture, Orders
Consult in image mode
Vol. 1
Vol. 2
Vol. 3
Transcribed version of the text


     François Blondel’s Cours d’architecture formed part of two related editorial contexts: the program of teaching at the newly established Academie royale d’architecture and the broader publication program sponsored by the minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert to showcase the Crown’s architectural patronage.
Louis XIV established the Académie royale d’architecture in 1671 at the instigation of Colbert, who envisaged a number of roles for the institution.  On a basic level, it was intended to act as a sort of advisory board, a royal conseil des bâtiments.  Many of the discussions recorded in the conference minutes, published in the early twentieth century by Henry Lemonnier, reflect the Académie’s role as a deliberative body, dispensing authoritative recommendations on proposals submitted to it.  Colbert, in particular, approached the Académie routinely for its collective opinion on the continuing work at Versailles and the Louvre, as did both public and private patrons regarding building projects in their charge.
The Académie also had a second function: to provide a venue for teaching.  In this respect, the institution was to serve as an instrument for a broader reform of the building profession itself.  According to the brevet naming Blondel to the post of professor, the body was intended, “pour élever l’architecture à une plus haut degrée de perfection que celuy où elle est aujourd’huy”.  Blondel’s teaching took two forms.  The first and most important was in leading structured discussions or “conferences” with the academicians themselves.  These meetings took place in a room of the hôtel Brion, a separate wing of the Palais Royal built from 1642 to house Cardinal Richelieu’s library.  The same site had served for the meetings of the Académie royale de peinture et sculpture from September 1661. The two groups occupied opposite ends of the long gallery, but otherwise they had little to do with each other.  The conferences were held each Monday from 2 to 4 o’clock.  The academicians – Libéral Bruand, François Le Vau, François d’Orbay, Pierre Mignard, Daniel Gittard, and Antoine Le Pautre –were seated around a table, with Blondel guiding the conversation.  The secretary, André Félibien, recorded a consensus at the end of each session.
The conferences followed an unusual “curriculum” that Blondel appears to have conceived and implemented from the outset.  This was a long-term program of study based on the collective reading and discussion of architectural treatises.  The scheme was inspired, in both method and content, by Roland Fréart de Chambray’s treatise Parallèle de l’architecture antique avec la moderne (1650).  Blondel’s taste, like that of Fréart, was self-consciously learned, rooted in the authority of texts rather than in established modes of practice.  It combined a scholar’s fidelity to Vitruvius and to the physical remains of antiquity with a connoisseur’s appreciation of the “grand manner” inspired by the most select ancient models.  In a series of early conferences held shortly after the official opening, Blondel set out the authors who would compose the Académie’s official “syllabus”, ranking them after Vitruvius in the order that they approached this ideal: Palladio, Scamozzi, Vignola, Serlio, and Alberti.  It was only after the latter that French authors appeared on the list: Philibert De l’Orme, Jean Bullant, and Jacques Androuet du Cerceau.  The plan was pursued for many years.  Although interrupted often and subsequently altered, it nevertheless provided the basic armature for the Académie’s weekly meetings until Blondel’s death in January 1686.
Blondel’s teaching at the Académie also took a second form.  As stated in the royal brevet, his task was “pour en enseigner les véritables règles aux jeunes gens qui se proposent d’embrasser la profession d’architecture”.  The instruction consisted of public lectures on architecture and mathematics, which Blondel delivered on Tuesday and Friday afternoons.  A select group of some twenty young architects – including Pierre Bullet, Antoine Desgodets, and Charles-Augustin d’Aviler – regularly followed these “lessons” in a more-or-less official capacity.  It was presumably these lectures that formed the content of the Cours d’architecture, as specified in the book’s prominently displayed subtitle.  Institutionalized instruction in architecture was still largely unknown in France, but Blondel’s lectures did have an immediate precedent.  As royal professor of mathematics, he had already taught the subject in his courses at the Collège Royal, a qualification explicitly mentioned in the brevet naming him to the post.  Nor was the practice of publishing such lectures unusual.  The title of the book closely echoes the “cursus mathematicus” popular among professors of mathematics throughout the century.
Judging from the contents and structure of the Cours, Blondel utilized a similar approach in composing his lectures as did in leading the academicians’ conferences.  The first volume, published in 1675, presented a comprehensive account of the five orders, which juxtaposed the proportional schemes of Vitruvius, Vignola, Palladio, and Scamozzi.  The method of selective and critical re-reading, based loosely on Fréart’s Parallèle, was continued in the second and third volumes, published in 1683.  After beginning with the diminution, fluting, and twisting of columns, Blondel moved on to consider the proportions of column pedestals and the proper treatment of entablatures, architraves, and cornices.  These sections are followed by long discussions of pediments, pilasters, colonnades and superimposed orders, arches and arcades, porticoes, and finally, doors and windows.  The book continues in an ever-expanding comparative analysis, as Blondel analyzed different kinds of peristyles, methods of intercolumniation, and rules for superimposed orders, pediments, doors, windows, niches, and triumphal arches.
Young architects, the Cours suggests, did not need further practical training or hands-on experience – this was presumably already provided by traditional forms of apprenticeship.  What they required was extensive study and meditation.  For Blondel, taste was to be shaped not principally by practice, but by the discerning comparison of the most respected and authoritative writers.  As he put it in the book’s preface, “les pratiques les plus correctes” were to be determined by juxtaposition.  In those places where Vitruvius was too brief, Blondel inserted “les usages de ses principaux Interpretes ou Imitateurs comme sont Philander, Daniel Barbaro, Cataneo, Serlio, Leon Baptiste Alberti & d’autres, afin d’en faire un corps entier de preceptes”.  Blondel described his first volume as a succinct and general account of the five orders, just enough to give a basic knowledge of practice.  Using the same method, however, he extended his inquiry in the more “speculative” second and third volumes, “expliquant à fonds ce qui n’a été touché qu’en passant dans la premiere”.  The second volume, in particular, leads the reader through a relentless catalog of design elements from pedestals to the twisting of columns to the superimposition of orders.  For each of these categories, he simply placed the solutions of other authors beside each other.  For Blondel, this detailed knowledge of codified authority distinguished practice from the “mille autres particularitez qui appartiennent à la Theorie de l’Architecture”.
The Académie’s goal of reforming the architectural profession had an important corollary: that of educating the public.  As lecteur du roi, Blondel was expected to publish the results of his work, and it is clear that both he and Colbert saw his duties as professor of the Académie in the same terms.  The first volume of the Cours preceded two earlier treatises by Blondel, each intended to extend the Académie’s reach: the Résolution des quatre principaux problèmes d’architecture (1673) and his annotated re-edition of Louis Savot’s small 1624 treatise, L’architecture françoise des bastiments particuliers (1673).  Seen alongside the work of Colbert’s other author-clients – Claude Perrault, André Félibien, and Antoine Desgodets – these treatises reflected a long-term plan to create a new and more enlightened audience for the art and to guarantee better taste among both official and unofficial patrons.  The broader aim of the Cours d’architecture was not simply to provide an encyclopedia for budding architects, but to establish a public discourse – informed by academic concepts and terminology –in which to properly appreciate the accomplishments of the king’s architects.
The Académie’s institutional prestige ensured the book’s continued relevance.  Although it had only one later edition (1698), the Cours exerted considerable influence both in future teaching at the Académie and in subsequent architectural publications.  Philippe de La Hire, for example, used it as the basis for his conferences at the Académie for over two years, from July 1696 to October 1698, as did subsequent professors throughout the eighteenth century.  Its universal ambition, its emphasis on “correctness”, and its method of classification according to design problems became defining qualities of a specifically French model of architectural theory.  Later treatises by d’Aviler (1691) and Jacques-François Blondel (1771-1777), using the same title, also refer to the original in their structure and goals.

Anthony Gerbino (Worcester College, University of Oxford) – 2010


Critical bibliography

A. Gerbino, François Blondel: Architecture, Erudition, and the Scientific Revolution (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).

L. Hautecoeur, Histoire de l’architecture classique en France, 7 vols. (Paris: Picard, 1943–57), vol. 2 (pt. 1): 462–91, 511–18.

W. Herrmann, “Antoine Desgodets and the Académie Royale d’Architecture”, The Art Bulletin 40 (1958): 23-53.

H-W Kruft, A History of Architectural Theory: From Vitruvius to the Present, trans. Ronald Taylor, Elsie Callander, and Antony Wood (London: Zwemmer, 1994).

H. Lemonnier (ed.), Procès-verbaux de l’Académie royale d’architecture, 1671–1793, 10 vols. (Paris : Jean Schemit, 1911–29), vols. 1 (1671-1681), 1911 ; 2 (1682-1696), 1912.

H. Millon, “The French Academy of Architecture: Foundation and Program”, in The French Academy: Classicism and Its Antagonists, June Hargrove ed. (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990), 68-77.

H. Rousteau-Chambon, “L’enseignement des mathémathiques dans la première moitié du XVIIIe siècle au sein de l’Académie royale d’architecture”, in Les académies face à la question de la technique en architecture (fin XVIIe siècle-1750), ed. by Pascal Dubourg Glatigny, SVEC, n. 6 (2008), 57-68.

W. Schöller, Die “Académie Royale d’Architecture” 1671-1793 (Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 1993).