Author(s) Androuet du Cerceau, Jacques
Title Premier [et Second] volume des plus excellents bastiments de France...
Imprint Paris, s.n., 1576-1579
Localisation Paris, Ensba, Les 1594-1595
Subject Castles
Consult in image mode
volume 1
volume 2


     Les plus excellents bastiments de France, an anthology of the finest achievements in French architecture of the Renaissance, are among the most quoted books on architecture. Every historian of architecture has examined the plates in this work, so precious for the understanding of the 16th century French art of construction. Thanks to du Cerceau, we may have an idea of numerous chateaux no longer in existence, such as Bury, Madrid or Verneuil, and the former condition of edifices which have been disfigured or completely transformed, such as Amboise, Anet or Chantilly. A third volume is lacking, which would have allowed us to see some of the "plus excellents bâtiments" in Paris, of which several preparatory drawings have been kept. David Thompson summarized all these questions entirely in the partial facsimile edition he prepared and presented in 1988.
Even though it is well known, this work is nonetheless problematical. In fact, there seems to be no coherence in the presentations of the different chateaux, as they appear in the two volumes in no visible chronological or hierarchical order. The types of representation are very varied; du Cerceau adopts no systematic bias, alternating bird's-eye views, plane elevations and elevations in perspective with no apparent logic. As for the buildings in existence, one often notices large differences between what we see or analyze in reality and the image the author chose to give of them.
In fact, our familiarity with these representations often makes us forget just how original the enterprise was. At that date nothing comparable existed in Italy or elsewhere in Europe; anthologies of buildings concerned only antiquity then. Catherine de Medici no doubt originated the project. Du Cerceau affirms it clearly in the dedication of the first volume, and also in that of the Leçons de perspective positive of 1576, "Madame, si l’injure du temps et troubles qui ont cours, n’eussent empêché mon accès et vue des châteaux et maisons, que votre Majesté désire être compris aux livres qu’il vous a plu me commander de dresser et dessiner des plus excellents Palais, maisons Royales et édifices de ce Royaume, dès à présent j’aurais satisfait à votre volonté, qui m’est si précieuse, que ne pouvant en cela vous rendre si contente que mon obéissance désire, j’ai pensé d’employer cependant le temps à quelque autre œuvre, qui à mon avis vous sera agréable et de plaisir". The royal family was fond of this project, for in the dedication to the second Livre d'architecture of 1582 du Cerceau comes back to the subject, "Sire, étant votre Majesté à Montargis, je reçus ce bien de votre accoutumée bénignité et clémence, de me prêter l’oreille à vous discourir de plusieurs bâtiments excellents de votre Royaume, et entre autres propos, me demandâtes si je parachevais les livres des bâtiments de France, mon âge et indisposition servirent de légitime excuse, n’ayant moyen, sans votre libéralité, de me transporter sur les lieux afin d’en prendre les dessins pour après les mettre en lumière et satisfaire à vos commandements".
Les plus excellents bastiments de France are thus a royal command, to which Charles IX, Henri III and especially their mother attached a certain importance. Not astonishing, coming from Catherine de Medici. The Queen, who accumulated portraits of the members of the court, could in the same way wish to have a collection representing the residences of the king and his grand vassals. It is necessary to insist on this particular destination of the work: it will allow better comprehension of the way it was carried out. Historians have readily pointed out the errors, even the improbabilities that come to light when one confronts the image with the archeological reality. But the book was not conceived as a collection of documents to be used by future researchers, rather as a vibrant homage adressed less to architecture or French architects than to the dynasty which rendered possible the birth of so many masterpieces, and which allowed France to "équipoller l'antique" in the monumental register. There is a poetic dimension in Les plus excellents bastiments, epic even. It is the architectural equivalent of Ronsard's Franciade which appeared for the first time in 1572. Du Cerceau sings not of the "hauts-faits" of the prince and his valiant knights, but the "hauts bâtiments" of the Valois and their entourage. The heroes are the owners and patrons, the king, the connétable de Montmorency, the maréchal de Saint-André, and not the architects, rarely named. The very title of the collection introduces the reader to a superlative register having obviously nothing in it of the scientific, in the modern sense of the term. Du Cerceau works in the same way as Ronsard who asserts to neglect the real in favor of the likely: "Je dis ceci pour ce que la meilleure partie des nôtres pense que la Franciade soit une histoire des Rois de France, comme si j’avais entrepris d’être historiographe et non poète" (Épître au lecteur, Œuvres complètes, Paris, Gallimard, bibl. de la Pléiade, 1, 1993, p. 1182). It is unimportant whether Francus came or didn't come to Gaul, even whether or not he even existed. In the epic context, the narration is likely, the poem is above all a work of art, to the glory of Charles IX. In the same way du Cerceau, such as a poet "porté de fureur et d’art (sans toutefois se soucier beaucoup des règles de grammaire) et surtout favorisé d’une prévoyance et naturel jugement" (ibidem), does not worry about being exact, but interprets, harks back, imagines. We mustn't attribute the ostentatious expansions of the Tuileries, Chenonceaux or Charleval to the architects of those chateaux, but rather to the muse of Androuet du Cerceau. These disproportionate plans and sumptious elevations were not real, obviously, and never would be, but they could have been, for their poetic grandeur was on a level with that of Charles' and Catherine's. We cannot understand the Les plus excellents bastiments de France, this architectural Franciade unless we take into consideration the fact that the author is a poet and not a builder – all of which Philibert De l'Orme had perceived perfectly, he who knew how to make the difference, if not between historians and poets, at least between architects and draftsmen, "donneurs de portraits et faiseurs de dessins, dont la plupart n’en saurait bien tracer ou décrire aucun, si ce n’est par l’aide et moyen des peintres, qui les savent plutôt bien farder, laver, ombrager et colorer, que bien faire et ordonner avec toutes leurs mesures" (Premier tome, f. 21v°). Ut pictura poesis: for modern buildings as for antique ones, de Cerceau introduces his reader into the domaine of the imaginary.

Yves Pauwels (Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance, Tours) – 2006

Critical bibliography

J. Androuet du Cerceau, Les plus excellents bastiments de France..., D. Thomson (ed.), Paris, Sand & Conti, 1988.

F. Boudon, "Les Plus Excellents Bastiments de France de Jacques Ier Androuet Du Cerceau, à Paris en 1576 et 1579", S. Deswarte-Rosa (ed.), Sebastiano Serlio à Lyon. Architecture et imprimerie, Lyon, Mémoire Active, 2004, pp. 451-453.

F. Boudon & H. Couzy, "Les plus excellents bâtiments de France. Une anthologie de châteaux à la fin du XVIe siècle", L’information d’histoire de l’Art, 1974, pp. 8-12, 103-114.

F. Boudon & J. Blécon, Philibert Delorme et le château royal de Saint-Léger-en-Yvelines, Paris, Picard, 1985.

Y. Pauwels, L’architecture au temps de la Pléiade, Paris, Monfort, 2002, pp. 87-89.

Y. Pauwels, « Petits arrangements avec le réel. Jacques Androuet du Cerceau à Écouen », Revue de l’art, 178, 2012, p. 33-41.