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FRENCH ART & ARCHITECTURE
"Without poets, without artists, men would soon weary of nature's monotony. The
sublime idea men have of the universe would collapse with dizzying speed. The order
which we find in nature, and which is only an effect of art, would at once vanish.
Everything would break up in chaos. There would be no seasons, no civilization, no
thought, no humanity; even life would give way, and the impotent void would reign
Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), Italian-born French poet, critic.
To say that the French revere their time
spent soaking up arts and culture is an understatement. Particularly
in Paris--where an abundance of venues is concentrated within a few
square miles--it is common to find the French devoting their weekends
to exploring the wealth of museums and cultural havens; many of the
provincial areas are likewise blessed with impressive monuments to
art and architecture.
Not surprisingly, one
can attribute both the people's pride in their heritage, as well as
the sheer extent of France's artistic wealth, to a long, colorful and
often tumultuous history. Much of the French thirst for cultural
enrichment and education dates back to the Crusades, when books,
artistic influences, mathematics, and philosophical thought were
carried back to the Gallic people from distant, advanced
civilizations. Though relatively few artifacts remain from earlier
eras, art in ancient Gaul may be traced back through the Merovingian
period (beginning in the late fifth century ), to the Roman Empire
(starting in the first century B.C.), the ancient Celts (fifth
century B.C.), and even to the Cro-Magnons of Paleolithic times
(10,000 to 28,000 years ago).
During the past
millenium, many of the icons and most prolific minds in philosophy,
literature, poetry, theatre, painting, sculpture, architecture, and
science can be credited to the French -- or, in some cases,
expatriates living in France. Encouragement and support for artistic
endeavor has been a hallmark of France's kings, emperors, and
presidents to this day. In order to preserve such a rich cultural
heritage, and to make it more widely available outside of Paris, a
Culture was established by the French government in 1959. In this
chapter, we will discuss France's fascinating history of art --
painting, sculpture, and architecture -- while related topics such as
literature, theatre and music may be accessed through the Table of
Contents on other parts of this site.
artistic remains in France date from the Paleolithic Period. By far
the best known examples of prehistoric rock art are the cave
paintings of Altamira, Font De Gaume, Lascaux, Les Combarelles, Niaux
Cave, Les Trois Freres, and other sites in southern France and
northern Spain, which were discovered during the late 19th and early
20th centuries. These paintings, associated with the remains of the
Cro-Magnon peoples, have been widely reproduced in popular books and
periodicals and have thus become familiar to the general public.
Periods of Celtic
culture from the late 5th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D., and
of Roman occupation from the 1st century to the 5th century A.D., saw
the building of towns and the creation of artifacts.
It is not possible,
however, to speak of a nationally distinct French art before the
mid-5th century A.D., when the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties
established authority over this region.
MEROVINGIAN AND CAROLINGIAN
After the decline of
the Roman Empire, France was left as it had been before the Roman
conquest, divided among many small regional tribes. These became
small kingdoms and duchies between the 2nd and the 5th century A.D.
Christianity spread during this period, leading to the foundation of
many abbeys and monastic communities in the 5th to the 7th century.
Few artifacts survive from the Merovingian period, named for the
dynasty of Frankish kings that began with Clovis (c.481). The most
notable Merovingian survival is the baptistery of Saint Jean at
Poitiers, dating from the 7th century. Merovingian churches, with
floor plans based on the Roman basilica, had stone walls, timber
roofs, prominent bell towers, and echoed classical motifs in their
In the 8th century,
under the authority of Charlemagne--the first king to create a
unified realm--a great building campaign began. Carolingian churches
were intricately decorated with pictorial murals, mosaics, goldwork,
and tapestries. The richness of Carolingian church interiors was
equaled by the illuminated manuscripts created at the monasteries of
Reims, Tours, Metz, and Paris. The best preserved of Carolingian
churches is the Chapel of Charlemagne (796-804) at Aachen
(Aix-la-Chapelle), whose octagonal sanctuary reflects the influence
on Carolingian art of the Early Christian, Byzantine, and Greco-Roman
traditions. The Aachen chapel is modeled on the octagonal Byzantine
church of San Vitale (526-47) in Ravenna.
Carolingian churches, built from the 8th to the 10th century, several
important innovations were made, including the construction of an
elaborate westwork, or entrance facade flanked by towers; an
ambulatory, or semicircular aisle around the altar, allowing
worshipers to circulate without disturbing services; and the use of
the composite pier instead of a simple, massive column to support the
upper walls and roof above the nave.
The "Joconde" database is a catalogue of drawings, stamps, paintings, sculptures,
photography and objects of art conserved in more than 60 museums throughout France. It
contains details on more than 130,000 works, dating from the 7th century to the present,
representing over 10,000 artists.
Explore the fascinating history of the prophet from Provence,
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