BOOKS ON ARCHITECTURE

 

Author(s) Aviler, Charles Augustin d’
Title Cours d’architecture... [Explication des termes d’architecture...]
Imprint Paris, N. Langlois, 1691
Localisation Paris, Ensba, Les 223
Subject Architecture
Consult in image mode
vol. 1, vol. 2
Transcribed version of the text

French

     Far from representing the legacy of a professional in the fullness of age, the Cours d’architecture qui comprend les ordres de Vignole expresses the hypotheses and itemizes the work tools of a practitioner who is still at the beginning of his career. Contributing to its fame, the many new editions and the three rewritings of the book complicate the understanding of an editorial project based on the complementary features of two volumes, one devoted strictly speaking to the course (about 480 pages) and the other, to the dictionary of architectural terms (about 540 pages), which both went through in several “forms”.
The first volume opens on a full-page frontispiece followed by a title page ; there is no exact correspondence between the two opening documents. The frontispiece is an allegorical view of architecture in which Vignola’s portrait in a medallion and the ruins of the Roman forum seem to limit the range of the book to a commentary of the work of this architect. Thanks to the title page, we learn that the goal of the publication goes beyond this objective. Perhaps this imbalance between the two pages betrays the stratifications of a book in which the goal is not immediately declared. The great originality and the real impact of the Cours consists probably of this progressive accumulation of elements, rather arbitrarily assembled. As anarchic as they may appear, the various additions that d’Aviler believed would enrich Vignola’s theoretical work contribute to bring together in a completely new way the rudiments which appeared in the Regola. It differs as much from the Vitruvian tradition as from the treatises of the Italian Renaissance. In view of these advances and extensions of the project, we observe that the epistle to Marquis de Louvois beats a retreat, and limits the range of the book to Vignola alone. Thus the first pages of the d’Aviler betray the doubt which must have weighed on the author as to the exact content of his Cours and anticipate the stratifications visible in the book when taken as a whole.
The two volumes, published in 1691 by Nicolas Langlois, immediately praised by the Mercure de France, use the title François Blondel (1618-1686) used for his book which came out in 1675 and 1683. Unlike d’Aviler’s Cours, the Cours enseigné dans l’Académie royale d’architecture written by the architect of the Porte Saint-Denis is a body of knowledge proving its worth after several years of teaching. Fifty-seven years old when the first volume was published, and with a great deal of practical experience, Blondel, the Director of the Académie d’architecture, was at the pinnacle of his career. When d’Aviler, who had been his pupil, was writing his Cours, was in his thirties and on the contrary was taking a long time to get his book started. After spending several years in Italy which were paid for by the king, the academicians noticed and praised him when he returned to Paris. Familiar with the highest echelons of the architectural world, he managed to get himself hired at Jules Hardouin-Mansart’s agency, the most prestigious one in the kingdom. Aware that it would be impossible to stand out as long as he stayed under the thumb of the first architect, he freed himself from this yoke. Writing the Cours d’architecture was clearly a part of a plan to rise professionally.
Reputed to be an easily accessible book, even for the general public, written by an already experienced practitioner, the Cours d’architecture probably resembles a manual more than a treatise. It is a quarto format, handy and economical, which distinguishes it from François Blondel’s folios. D’Aviler doesn’t burden himself with the theoretical subleties that the academician’s works boasted about during the period. In La théorie architecturale à l’âge classique, Françoise Fichet ousts him significantly from the list of the twenty authors whose extracts she provides. Now, the d’Aviler reedited several times and rewritten only two times – in 1710 and in 1738 – was probably the book which circulated the most across Europe. If the Cours takes up the framework of the first part of Blondel’s book, it clears up its subject. The exegesis with which the director of the Académie sets out to compare the sentiment of the various authors : Vitruvius, Vignola, Palladio and Scamozzi, disappears, benefitting the clarification of a single model, Vignola’s. It is true that the architect of the Gesù had won the approval of master-builders for a long time because of the simplicity of his rules and the ease of their application. D’Aviler was probably far from being the first to transcribe those rules, but he was the first to have the idea of presenting them in a functional way, ready for use.
Distorted by the simplicity of the subject, the consistency of Blondel’s Cours gives way profitably to a composition which is freer but also much more diverse, which accepts various additions from which he benefited. This is a frequently used device among Italian authors ; the aggiunte are additions which enrich or illustrate the comprehension of the theoretical text. The system of proportions borrowed from Vignola is thus preceded by a life of the architect and the weakening of the use of the orders is extended at the end of the volume where he presents several of the most famous of his realized works. If constituting this corpus relative to Vignola can be explained by the fact that d’Aviler recognizes authority in him, the principle of aggiunte prevails totally from one end to the other of the treatise and decides the sequence of the parts. It is at the end of the presentation of the architectural orders that the relationship emerges which will be established and which will prevail during the whole book between theoretical knowledge and practical application. Starting with the paragraph on the “Manière de torser les colonnes”, d’Aviler goes beyond the theoretical context, describing and illustrating the contemporary example of the baldachins in Saint Peter’s and Val-de-Grâce (pp. 110-111) in much greater and more precise detail than Blondel. This first extrapolation made from a theoretical context in which the Director of the Académie willingly confined himself heralds all the others.
The tone was set by this first discrepancy. The Cours is in fact marked next by its arbitrary presentation and the sequence of subjects, the absence of real transitions among the parts, and by the constant shifting between orthodox examples and practical application. If we go from the orders to doors and windows as Blondel did, it wasn’t in order to be burdened with a futile account of the weakening of temple openings, but in order to draw up a lexicon of all the doors in use (p. 114 sq.). D’Aviler doesn’t hesitate to leave joinery language momentarily to go to that of the locksmith, of course more appropriate for describing grounds railings or choir enclosures (p. 117 sq.). Looking at the question of the openings leads us to examine closely a corpus whose authorship includes cases in which d’Aviler is barely interested to know whether they were Vignola’s or not, such as a window in the Sacchetti Palace. He attributes it explicitly (and correctly) to Antonio da Sangallo (p. 142). Dissatisfied with the proportions of this window, d’Aviler uses this as an excuse to suggest a correct version based on a drawing divided into two equal parts representing variants of a single project. Then comes the question of mantelpieces which decorate the interiors of the apartments and the example of a fireplace in the Farnese Palace is used as a preamble to several examples of Louis XIV fireplaces (p. 158 sq.). The carefully drawn elevations of these architectural pieces contrast with the drawing, a plan and a section of the humble principle of tilting canals, a useful and recent invention, true to say (p. 159).
Doors, windows and fireplaces make up a sort of preliminary to the customary description, not of the Greco-Roman temple or even the Italian palace, but more practically the residence “à la française” between courtyard and garden (p. 172 sq.). This transposition of the framework and data inherited from Blondel’s Cours tends to turn d’Aviler’s book into a list of shapes and objects with no bearing on each other at that period, which calls for the reader to invent relative affinities. If it has aroused a very understandable interest among sociologists like Monique Eleb-Vidal, the edifice proposed by d’Aviler has scarcely been the subject of the exegeses one would expect to come from historians of architecture. Inspired in its general layout of the constructions of that period, the mansion is nevertheless dominated by the remarkable dogmatism of its conception. Why give as a single example of a residence one conspicuously situated at the top of the architectural hierarchy, larger than the most vast layouts that Pierre Le Muet presented in 1623 and then in 1647 in his Manière de bien bastir ? Copying a layout in which apartments are totally separated from each other is rigid and which the many ways to associate the different rooms and the history of the residences of the period seem to contradict. If the theoretical character of this construction does not belong to a past register of architectural production, the very great luxury of his layouts excludes it from the context of ordinary French production as well.
Following this presentation of the Parisian mansion, but only slightly linked to this account, a glimpse of materials and their use leads to very detailled illustrations, with no connection or equivalence in the various registers which are approached (p. 201 sq.). If it was impossible to reproduce illustrations in color, the list of stones and marbles does not lend itself very well to illustrating them, the iron work gives way to abundant plates of ornaments. Brackets, locks, various ornaments, bolts and hinges vie with banisters and balustrades with tracery whose voluptuous round forms evoke the admirable cursive script in the notarial deeds of that period (p. 217, plate 65 C and p. 219, plate 65 D). The implementation of the heavy stonework is absolutely not accompanied by the decorative exaggeration which became established at the same time in the capital and in the main cities of France on the model of what was being practiced in the royal buildings. There is none of that flowering of sculptured elements, consoles, cartouches, mascarons, which invade the façades of simple bourgeois residences at that time. The presentation is purely technical, limited to a list of stonework examples with no connection to the ornamental characteristics which seemed to accompany if not qualify this part of the Cours (p. 237, plate 66 A and p. 241, plate 66 B).
Inconsistent with what precedes, and created a little like an appendix to this part on construction, a series of buildings designed by Vignola follows, an echo to the first part of the book (p. 245 sq.). It is without doubt here a question of emblematic works in the career of the author of the Regola. Revealing its author’s admiration for Michelangelo, the Cours accepts a eulogy of the Florentine (p. 261 sq.) following this development on Vignola. This time, the buildings mentioned and illustrated are surprising. If they are all done by the sculptor of David – or are attributed to him more or less correctly – the motley character of the sample inherited from Italian treatises is surprising. They are first the arches of the Palazzo del Popolo and of the Porta Pia, followed by portals of large suburban villas of the princely families and the high clergy residing in Rome. The documentary value of these pieces of architecture appears uncertain, including to the author of the Cours, who introduces nuances in his text (p. 270, about the “Porta Pia”). The account finishes with general and detailled drawings of the Palace of the Conservators in the Capitol (p. 282 sq.).
The Cours ends soon after on another collection of decorative elements such as rostral and votive columns, bases, an assortment of balusters and elements of interior decoration, some of which are already mentioned in the book (p. 306 sq.). A few pages later, rustication, exterior or interior entablatures, inlaid marble designs and paving make up a final pot-pourri, as if d’Aviler was all of a sudden afraid of forgetting something important.
If the second volume of the Explication des termes d’architecture is the first culmination of a genre of which certain editors of Vitruvius (for example Jean Martin, Declaration des nome propres et motz difficiles contenuz en Vitruve in the 1547 translation) and later Félibien des Avaux (Des principes de l’architecture de la sculpture, de la peinture… Avec un dictionnaire propre à chacun de ces arts, Paris, 1676, reed. 1690, 1697 and 1699) had respectively given the idea in their books, it was d’Aviler who developed the genre of the dictionary considerably. His dictionary stands out by the number of words defined – about 4000 – and by the clarity of the definitions, often illustrated. Unlike the academicians who were at the same moment writing the articles for the Dictionnaire de l’Académie françoise, and classifying the words in families, d’Aviler stopped giving the etymology of each word, for example, and listed all words in alphabetical order. The dictionary is presented as a technical book, bringing the reality of constructing buildings as close as possible to the reader. D’Aviler was familiar with theoretical texts, life in the agency and work in the building site, and wore the two caps of the man in the agency and the man in the field. In the Cours, the plate “Des moulures”, frequently reproduced, in which the profiles of classical ornamental treatment appear in two different types of representation illustrates his habit of confronting theoretical knowledge with practical experience (p. III, pl. A). In the Dictionnaire d ’Aviler uses the vocabulary used on the building site, not convoluted but explicit, to describe the drawings. The expression of the same profiles, more detailed, that is to say with the representation of their shadows goes hand in hand with a declension of the Vitruvian vocabulary.
The dictionary appears as the indispensable complement to the balance of the Cours. The four thousand words give an opportunity to clarify a number of points, not to say themes which were not included in volume 1. The table of contents refers as often to the volume of text as it does to the articles in the dictionary, the proof that d’Aviler attached equal importance to both. There are many references to current projects : Versailles, le Louvre, les Invalides and Italian buildings refer very often to the dictionary. Finally, according to Thierry Verdier, certain keywords in architectural language in the period from the end of the Middle Ages to the French Revolution are defined briefly, perhaps, but always in great detail, such as symmetry, point of view, layout, etc... Widely used by Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos in his Vocabulaire de l’architecture published in 1972, d’Aviler’s dictionary is the first lexicon written by an expert, one of the principal sources of inspiration for authors such as Roland Le Virloys and Viollet-le-Duc.
We could be very surprised that the “catch-all” character of this book raised no objections when it appeared. More recently, due to the authority of a famous and often reedited book, noone has allowed himself to describe its presentation as all in all rather disconcerting, even clumsy. The odds are very probably that the d’Aviler was always much more leafed through than read. In this respect, it is appropriate to stress the fine quality of the plates which make the Cours a great collection of illustrations. But the organization of its different parts reflects an addition or even an arbitrary collage of parts whose coherence was not important to d’Aviler. The Cours is presented a little like a herbarium in which the specimens are glued in as they are discovered. In that they are similar to the diaries of some apprentice architects, who mixed their past and present experiences all together without a predetermined order. The interest of the whole work does not reside in the carefully thought out arrangement of the parts but in an accumulation conducive to confrontation, meditation and creation. In this sense, the Cours can disconcert the amateur or the historian who is endeavoring to recreate the conditions in which an architectural thought would emerge. The book was reedited and rewritten several times, but noone thought about changing its economy, except notably for a table of contents which stayed lost for a long time in the mass of prologues, prefaces and preambles of all sorts at the beginning of the first volume. This table of contents found its rightful place finally at the end of the book thanks to Mariette’s reedition in 1738, almost fifty years after the first edition of the book.

Jean-François Cabestan (Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne) – 2012

Critical bibliography


M. Eleb-Vidal & A. Debarre-Blanchard, Architectures de la vie privée, XVIIe–XIXe siècles, Brussels, Archives d’architecture moderne, 1989.

F. Fichet, La théorie architecturale à l’âge classique : essai d'anthologie critique, Brussels/Liège, Mardaga, 1979.

T. Verdier, Augustin-Charles d’Aviler, architecte du roi en Languedoc, 1753-1701, Montpellier, Presses du Languedoc, 2003.

T. Verdier, "Un manuel d’architecture au XVIIe siècle, le Cours d’Augustin-Charles d’Aviler", Cahiers de la recherche architecturale et urbaine, 13/14, 2003, pp. 81-92.