Author(s) Desgodets, Antoine
Title Traité de la comodité de l’architecture...
Localisation Paris, BnF, Estampes et photographie, ms. HA-23(B)

Church, Hospital, Town hall

Transcribed version of the text


     The Traité de la commodité de l’architecture has come down to us as an unfinished manuscript in two copies, one of which this one is at the BNF. It is an incomplete course, very probably prepared for publication, judging by the formal qualities of the documents written with great care accompanied by very precise sepia wash drawings clearly intended to be engraved. Initially the treatise was to comprise three parts : the first concerning churches consists of five chapters (the description of old Christian churches, cathedrals, parish churches, monastic and convent churches) ; the second part deals with basilicas, town halls, businesses, law courts and public baths (an unfinished part ); the third, remaining at a project stage, was to deal with palaces, hotels and private residences. Thus the course covered the whole spectrum of architectural programs usual during the first half of the 18th century. This teaching was aimed at the students of the Royal Academy of Architecture, as Jean Pinard, himself a student of the institution and transcriber of the present course, recalls. As a result the author uses a simple clear style for young students. One purpose all through the lessons of the training consists in incorporating the students in the corps of architects of the Royal Academy. As such Desgodets’ course enters into the thought pattern of the Vitruvian tradition of his Dix livres d’architecture. He goes back to the essential triad : convenience, solidity, beauty, to which he adds the very French “criterion of decorum”.
     For the first chapter Desgodets bases his teaching methods on the history of architecture and on its great models minutely measured and drawn. The buildings he studies are however not those that one would expect ; the author chose the church at Tyr, the oldest known church for it is a prototype of the church with three naves, a plan found in particular in Rome, in Santa Sabina, in Sant’Alessio and in Santa Maria in Trastavere. Then Desgodets analyzes in the same fastidious way the baptistery of the Basilica Saint-Jean-de-Latran, this time a model of a church with a centered plan so dear to the modern era. Thus the historical part skips over all the architecture of the Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance periods. In this way the author’s projects are part of the oldest works –if not antique– of architecture, far from “modern license” and tacitly demand an architectural orthodoxy from Vitruvius. These churches are depicted in very precise architectural drawings, minutely described and accompanied by plans, sections and elevations. With an educational purpose in mind he puts forward many details for the use value of the buildings, as needed in liturgy. Then he puts forward plans for four churches : a cathedral, a parish church, a monastic church and a convent church, in which he focuses on a systematic method of analysis. First he explains the project and its specifications, then he analyzes the plan and finally the elevation and sections of the building. These projects are admittedly theoretical but the multitude of details add to the plausibility of the drawings, very precise in themselves, undertaken with the same type of graphic representation as the architectural plans of ancient buildings. All the pitfalls, subtleties and difficulties of the program are examined closely as to the ways that buildings are used and to the decorum, the main words of the treatise.
     In this respect the question of architectural orders is not overlooked and constitutes an important part of the treatise around the question of the proportions as they affect the building as a whole. One of the main preoccupations of the Royal Academy of Architecture which devoted entire years to conferences in measuring them is found here. Thus, for the cathedral church the author concentrates particularly on the proportions of the orders : “One of these spaces (of a half-span) will be divided in five parts of which one will be taken to make up the diameter of the width of the columns and pilasters of the church interior, in the Corinthian order ; next, according to the diameter one will draw the plan of the columns and of the pilasters to ensure that the length of the nave of the choir and of the transepts will be equal to the diameter of nine interior columns” (p. 59). On the other hand, one must admit that he appears a little more dogmatic in the choice of the orders which he hardly justifies beyond a certain obviousness.
     Desgodets also describes the non-structural systems : the stalls, pulpit, ambo, canopy, stained glass windows, statues, tabernacle… which are overlooked neither in design nor location. Most often in a convincing way Catholic liturgy determines his choices. In this way the treatise is quite up to date and in any case is part of the Tridentine reform in architecture. It appears for example in the use of the confessional (the council recalled the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation), the use of a gloire to embellish the alter of a parish church (there again the council insisted on the importance of images), on the main altar the enhancement of relics of the patron saint of those churches on the main altar or even the use of a monumental dome in the Roman style. Although the author recommends using it, one can recognize more the inspiration of great Parisian models of the last decades of the 17th century, the domes of the Sorbonne chapel or of Val-de-Grâce and the Invalides. He chose the most Roman of the Parisian models as the source of inspiration in composing the façades of his projects in which he cleverly mixed elements borrowed from the Sorbonne, from the collège des Quatre-Nations and from the church of the Minimes.
     Because of the relative novelty of the programs studied in the second part Desgodets approaches the Hôtels-Dieu (chapter 1) and the town halls (chapter 2) differently. Here he no longer uses the argument of the history of architecture ; he only provides projects he has explained to his students. As he did with churches, the author refers to the great contemporary models, in particular for the Hôtel-Dieu clearly inspired by the hospital of the Salpêtrière. The radio-centric organization of the building, modeled starting from the central chapel inside a square shows the author’s interest for the most advanced projects of the times and the very sensitive contemporary questions concerning hygiene and particularly air circulation.
     On the other hand the last building Desgodets studies, the town hall, appears rather strange. Here he seems to be inventing something similar to a true “government complex” organized around an agora which combines premises earmarked for town councillors but also representatives of the merchants and aldermen, reception halls, other spaces for the archives and workshops for the painters of festivity scenery. (Concerning this last component of the project, one remembers the close relationship between François Blondel, founder of the Royal Academy of Architecture and André Tremblin, a painter of the Academy of Saint-Luc who created full-scale painted models drawn by Blondel for the gates of the capitol). Desgodets adds lodgings for the various officers and judges, for the public prosecutors, the king’s prosecutor, an office of weights and measures, a corps of bodyguards, etc. At that time there was not yet a model for such a complex ; it would not be until the Third Republic that Paris would be equipped with a structure of this scale.
     It remains to be determined what the impact of this course was and its influence on architectural production of that time. Because of the unfinished nature of the manuscript, the repercussions were only partial, and in spite of the precision of the models, it is very difficult to establish a direct connection between Desgodet’s projects and contemporary constructions. Nonetheless, it seems that the cathedral church inspired Jacques Hardouin-Mansart de Sagonne for Saint-Louis de Versailles on one hand and on the other that the convent church combining a centered and longitudinal plan was used by Pierre Constant d’Ivry for the plan of the Abbey of Panthemont (moreover reproduced in the Encyclopédie). If it is difficult to measure the direct consequences of Desgodet’s course, these examples certainly show the influence of his teaching on an entire generation of architects like that of his predecessor François Blondel and of his successor Jacques-François Blondel.

Christophe Morin (Université François Rabelais, Tours) – 2017

Critical bibliography

J. Duportal. “Le cours d’architecture de Desgodets. Recueil inédit du Cabinet des Estampes”, Revue de l’art ancien et moderne, vol. 36, 1914, pp. 153-157.

H. Rousteau-Chambon, “Présentation du cours de la commodité”, Website “Desgodets” (

H. Rousteau-Chambon, L’enseignement de l’Académie royale d’architecture, Rennes, PUR, 2016, pp. 234-250.

H. Rousteau-Chambon, “Antoine Desgodets et les églises paroissiales”, Revue de l’art, 160, 2008-2, pp. 61-68.