Consider the lions

Peter Campbell

  • The House of Gold by Richard Goy
    Cambridge, 304 pp, £60.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 521 40513 0
  • The Palace of the Sun by Robert Berger
    Pennsylvania State, 232 pp, £55.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 271 00847 4

Around 1421 Marin Contarini – a member of one of the ruling Venetian families – began building a house on a site across the Grand Canal from the Rialto. This new palace replaced another, on the same site, which he had bought from his wife’s family. More than twenty years later the scaffolding came down to reveal the most resplendent domestic Venetian-Gothic façade of them all. The house was a place to live and do business. It was also, and more obviously, an advertisement for the power and wealth of the Contarini clan. It is still among the most splendid buildings in Venice. More than two hundred years later, Louis XIV built a monument to power on a much grander scale. His palace frontage is not the jolliest Classical building in Paris, but it is still the most impressive and among the most magisterially consistent.

Richard Goy and Robert Berger, in their respective accounts of the construction of the Cà d’Oro and of Louis XIV’s Louvre, remove ambiguities which hang around the word ‘built’. They ask who made decisions, who paid, and how much, and why each building took this form rather than that. Goy’s information about the building of the Cà d’Oro is extracted almost entirely from contracts and the notebooks in which Contarini kept a day-to-day account of work done and payments made. Berger uses contemporary plans, elevations, committee minutes, theoretical writings, eulogies and memoirs. The aim in both cases is to increase understanding, not change the course of architecture; despite the fact that Goy is himself an architect, this is academic rather than practical history. Neither writer engages with his subject in the aggressive spirit of those who have added to (or at least commented on) the history of architecture while, at the same time, using old buildings as inspiration, crib, justification and propaganda for new ones. Proselytising is not a minor strand in architectural history. There have been active designers – Classicists like Adam, Goths like Pugin, Hellenists like Stuart and Modernists like Venturi, as well as historians (Ruskin, Pevsner, Banham) – who have had opinions on the future as well as the past of architecture. The emulating eye may be self-serving and envious, but it is also challenging and competitive.

Goy and Berger, because they are more disinterested, are also less interested in the look of the buildings they deal with. Sometimes they seem downright indifferent. Both use (among other illustrations) photographs of their own in which converging verticals or fuzziness do the buildings they write about a disservice. There is some excuse for printing an author’s snaps when there are a lot of sites to be illustrated. One cannot, I guess, expect scholars to cart plate cameras around, obtain permissions and rise at dawn to get the right light. But to use (to take the worst examples) full-page colour illustrations of a detail of the façade of the Cà d’Oro and of the Porta della Carta which are so blurred that one must suppose them either to be over-enlarged details or bad originals, and to present the east front of the Louvre in pictures where the distortion caused by an upward-pointing wide-angle lens makes it look squat, is offensive. Architectural photography is a craft. If the author is not competent, if the publisher cannot afford two or three days’ work by a professional and if old photographs (which, as a couple of plates in Berger’s book prove, are often very good) are not available, it would be better not to illustrate buildings which are as well-known as these.

Lack of aesthetic engagement also brings benefits, however. There is a salutary dryness in history which starts from documents rather than the surviving fabric. Because Goy knows a vast amount about Venetian buildings and their history he is able to expand terse notes into likely conjectures, and read social history in a pattern of payments. These are as much histories of what went on as of what went up. Both books are at their best when putting you in the shoes of the passers-by who saw the Louvre colonnade and the Cà d’Oro rise. You stand alongside the inquisitive Venetians who must have wondered, as the years passed, just when the jigsaw puzzle of carved stone – perhaps already stored in the half-finished lower floors of the Cà d’Oro – would be assembled, and with the Parisians who saw the massive fifty-foot-long raking cornices of the Louvre pediment slowly hoisted into place: a feat which challenged, so it was claimed, the obelisk-erection which was the pride of Italian civil engineering. While the uninformed passer-by merely wondered what was going on, Goy and Berger eavesdrop in workshops and committee rooms.

Goy has no Ruskinian axe to grind when he provides evidence to test assumptions about the autonomy of Contarini’s craftsmen, but thanks to his patient unravelling one can say that, for this building at least, we know not only that there was no architect in the modern sense, but also what that meant in practice. Contarini himself was the moving force in the creation of the Cà d’Oro, and was clear about what he wanted. He picked and mixed. The details of his house are variations or improvements on things which could already have been seen somewhere in Venice, and one must suppose a degree of co-operation between mason and patron on matters of aesthetics which, as Berger shows, a 17th-century architect would not have allowed. The tracery of the Cà d’Oro has grand antecedents in the Palazzo Ducale; the well-head, modelled on a Corinthian capital, was a regular item; even the idiosyncratic crenellation for which Contarini’s detailed contractual specification survives is an elaboration of a traditional element. But it is also clear that almost any piece of carving allowed some variation, some small degree of inexactitude, if not of invention, and that the same hands were responsible for sculpture and routine stone-cutting.

Much of the original stonework of the Cà d’Oro has been replaced, and time has taken its toll of fine detail – the building we see today has lost the glitter Contarini worked so hard for. He was a man who would have been more at home with Bakst’s sets for the Russian Ballet than with the perfect deportment of Louis XIV’ s court aestheticians. Goy says (in relation to the design of the crenellated cornice) that the documents let you see Contarini looking over the mason’s shoulder, discussing the specification. With the development of taste, an aristocratic attribute, the direction of the mechanical expert by the professional designer (often hard to distinguish from the cultivated amateur) is underway. It is now not a matter of looking over a shoulder and guiding a master, rather it is one of instructing via drawings, and of manipulating details which are so well described in published drawings that they can be replicated almost as surely as factory-made castings. In mapping the progress of the Louvre design Berger shows how Louis XIV’s cultural civil servants gave the lie to a common jibe: by committee-work they turned a rather handsome camel into a refined, (perhaps over-refined) horse. To get a flavour of the difference between 1450 and 1650 consider the matter of the lions. Contarini wanted two – one at each end of his cornice, both holding the family escutcheon. He was not a vulgarian (what could the word mean in 1430?) but he did want all the trimmings. Perrault, on the other hand, quite late on, had lion-head spouts removed from the design for the cornice of the Louvre pediment: they were incorrect, not authentically Roman when used in this position, and a distraction. ‘Less is more’ had arrived.

As Richard Goy’s story advances characters emerge. Marin Contarini himself: methodical in his bookkeeping, but an amateur and no great organiser of building work, tackling problems which still plague the man who is his own contractor – how to get the right materials to the site in the right quantity at the right time, how to keep sub-contractors up to the mark, and on your job, not someone else’s. (One could even equate the obligation to supply a barrel of wine or sardines on site with luncheon vouchers.) There were, of course, arguments and a modern householder might envy the way they were dealt with. In 1431 the master carpenter, Zane Rosso was in dispute with Contarini who claimed the return of 37 ducats – an overpayment for work on the second floor. Two years later, Contarini obtained judgment against him, found he was in Mantua, had him apprehended there and returned to Venice. Knowing that six ducats bought 20 days’ work by a skilled mason, and that the beams of larch used for the largest of the floor timbers cost around one, puts the debt in perspective. One is also allowed to relish Contarini’s extravagances. The stone and marble front of his house was unique for its time and place in showing no scrap of brick or stucco; the Cà d’Oro earned its name – over twenty thousand sheets of gold leaf were applied to details of the façade, along with blue, white, black and red paint. This display, like embroidery on a peasant costume, enriched a conventional structure – a plan-type which Goy traced in Venetian Vernacular Architecture from its earliest appearance in Byzantine palaces through the Renaissance and beyond. Each floor is divided into three by load-bearing walls. The central division, a long, wide hall running from canal-side to street-side, is expressed on the façade by the large windows needed to bring light into its dim central part. On the upper floors it is flanked to left and right by living rooms, on the ground floor by storerooms and offices.

The single-mindedness of high architecture resulted in something quite different from this kind of play-within-tradition. Properly used, the Classical language would result in designs in which the parts were perfectly articulated. As the Classical programme was in the public domain, not a skill embodied in a craft tradition, architecture could exist in the head or on paper – its life no longer depended on being built. The Louvre design was fine-tuned, just as the rules that comprise the Classical machine which generated it had been. Goy’s book deals with the satisfactions of builders and stone-carvers: things well cut, properly finished, nicely decorated. He also gives a sense of the more sophisticated thinking that went into the invention of details in which, like those of Gothic tracery, sculpture and decoration are all involved. Berger’s main protagonists, on the other hand, are able to assume that the highest standards of craftwork will be achieved under direction. The primary drawings will not come from hands which will themselves cut stone. After a technological advance there is a division of the professional spoils. Berger’s book shows that the advance which separates medieval from 17th-century building was one of organisation rather than technique. He points out that there was no structural principle unknown to medieval practice involved in building the Louvre. One can even make modern comparisons. Goy calculates that Contarini’s workmen laid bricks at about the same rate (around four hundred per day) as a modern bricklayer.

Building load-bearing structures of stone and brick is a balancing act. The weight of one stone keeps others in place, and if the forces are not resolved the buildings crack as they settle differentially, walls bow and arches break. The Cà d’Oro has as its foundation a forest of piles driven 15 feet or so into the mud of the lagoon – more of them in the front to support the heavy stone construction. Because the walls were kept light to economise on foundations they were sometimes only a single brick thick at the top of the house and needed the bracing of floor timbers to keep them stable. Meanwhile the façade onto the canal had to keep pace with them, for part of its stability was a result of being tied back to them. This need for synchronised effort gives Goy’s narrative of the last years of building a touch of urgency.

The story Berger tells is a very different one. It can be put in a few sentences. In the mid-1600s Colbert was overseeing the completion of the Louvre Palace. Various proposals had been made but none seemed adequate. In 1667 a committee of three – the architect Louis Le Vaux, the painter Charles Le Brun and the scientist and architectural theorist Claude Perrault – was set up. These three men were asked to co-operate on a final design. The east and south fronts, as they were built, have elements taken from existing work (windows on the ground floor match those of the pre-1660 south façade) and elements which can be tracked back, through drawings and comments, both to members of the committee and to outsiders – the notion of a colonnade punctuated by central and end pavilions appears in a design by Antoine Léonor Houdin of 1661. The ground Berger covers is not all new, and there are false trails to be blocked off. He refutes, for example, the claim that the primary inspiration for the treatment of the East front came from Baalbek or Palmyra.

By the time the Louvre design was being made the room for manoeuvre within Classical architecture had become limited: one can sense that a break-out of some kind must eventually come, but also that official architecture like this, which has a duty to impress, is, in any case, likely to be more correct than inventive. If the Cà d’Oro is a traditional costume the Louvre is bespoke tailoring – power dressing with international overtones, like the grey suits seen today when world leaders meet. The adjustments made to the evolving design of the Louvre by its architects are an example of what happens at the point where rules are so well worked out that a sense of the correct dominates other architectural appetites. All the adjustments tended to simplify the design, and make it more powerful, as well as grander than Pierre Lescot’s 16th-century buildings on the site. One way of doing this was to eschew profuse ornament of the kind seen on the inner façades of the Cour Carrée. In the final, built version the end pavilions are subordinated to the central one – the pavilion roofs which, in early designs, appeared above the balustrade and pediment disappear, and the entrance arch is raised so that it cuts through the line which marks the top of the ground floor. As it became more temple-like the east wing became less useful as a row of rooms; but even before it was complete Louis’s attentions had turned to Versailles; his Louvre was, from the beginning, a monument not a house. Indeed, a reason for Bernini’s plans of 1665 being rejected was, one discovers, that they made the Palace too much like a very large residence.

Although the scale of the work involved in putting up these two buildings is incommensurate (as many names appear in Berger’s records of compensation to workmen who were killed or injured in accidents on the Louvre site as there are in the list Contarini made of all the men – eighty or so – who had worked on his palace) and although one building is as lively as a folk dance, the other as dignified as a court masque, when one turns one’s attention to the matter of construction there is much more common ground. Despite the greater degree of forethought and calculation which the size of the Louvre required, the construction process was not very different. One of Berger’s photographs offers what seems at first to be a boring view down a kind of rough-walled tunnel, but once one has been shown how to read it, it turns out to be the most dramatic in the book. It shows the gallery which runs through the entablature of the colonnade. Two things strike you: the floor is crisscrossed with square-section iron bars, and the walls do not rise straight, but come out at an angle. Here, literally internalised, is a resolution of forces. The angled walls are the backward projections of the stone blocks which make up the frieze and cornice. You might, from outside, think them cantilevered: here you see that they are balanced, see-saw like. The iron bars are part of a chain which takes up the tension caused by the tendency of the flat arches between column and wall (the spans were too great to be covered by single blocks) to push the colonnade out of alignment. In this dim passage, forces of the kind Gothic builders subdued in dramas of buttress and vault are worked out in secret.

This is explained in workmanlike drawings made in 1688 and elegant engravings published in 1769 – one could wish that explanatory drawings of this quality were available to allow one to understand details of the Cà d’Oro. But in both cases the primary documents, printed in the books’ appendices, are more to the point. By engaging with the whole process of construction – the imaginative as well as the practical; with notions of the way Apollo’s palace would look as well as with the correct use of the Corinthian order and the reinforcement of stone; with the political ambitions of the Contarini family as well as the price of bricks and the evolution of a Late Gothic style, these books illuminate more than the buildings which are their subjects.