From Preface to Parallel of the Ancients and the Moderns with Regard to the Arts and Sciences 1688

The first round of the quarrel of the ''Ancients'' and ''Moderns,'' exemplified by the dispute between Blondel and Perrault, ended in 1686 with the death of Blondel. Perrault would follow him into posterity in 1688 -like the conscientious scientist that he was - from a fatal infection incurred while dissecting a camel. He was thus still alive to witness the second and better known round of the quarrel that exploded on the afternoon of January 27, 1687, when his brother Charles had his poem, ''The Century of Louis the Great,'' read before a general assembly of the French Academy. The poem, in which Charles lauded the artistic deeds of Louis XIV and compared them favorably with those of the Age of Augustus, created an uproar within the Academy. A contentious debate ensued within literary circles, with Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux, among others, defending the honor of the Ancients.

Charles Perrault, who between 1662 and 1682 had been the personal secretary to Colbert, had held a number of prestigious and influential academic positions. He was a writer of considerable esteem, and in fact wrote many of the fairytales later collected by the Grimm brothers. Charles responded to his critics on this occasion with a four-part Socratic dialogue, Parallel of the Ancients and the Moderns (1688-97), in which he remained adamant in defending the right of his age to create its own art apart from the sanction of the past. His central theme is that his era had not only equaled the achievements of antiquity and the Renaissance, but (as progress in the sciences had shown) had even surpassed them.

Nothing is more natural or reasonable than to show the utmost veneration for whatever is possessed of true merit in itself and has the additional merit of age. This sentiment, so right, proper and universal, redoubles the respect that we feel for our ancestors; by virtue of it, laws and customs show themselves still more authoritative and inviolable. But destiny has always decreed that the best things become prejudicial by excess, and this in proportion to their original excellence. Honourable in its inception, this reverence has subsequently become a criminal superstition, at times extending even to idolatry. Princes of extraordinary virtue secured the happiness of their people, and the earth resounded to the fame of their exploits; they were beloved in their lifetime and their memory was revered by posterity. But as time went by, people forgot that these were mere men, and began to offer them incense and sacrifice. The same thing happened to those who first excelled in the arts and sciences.

Charles Perrault (1628-1703), from Preface to Parallele des anciens et des modernes en ce qui regarde les arts et les sciences [Parallel of the ancients and the moderns with regard to the arts and sciences] (1688), trans. Christopher Miller from Parallele des anciens et des modernes, Vol. 1 (Paris: Jean-Baptiste Coignard, 1688) and published in Art in Theory 1648-1815: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. Translation © 2000 by Christopher Miller. Reprinted with permission of Christopher Miller.

The prestige that accrued to their century, and the utility that it derived from their inventions, brought them much glory and renown in their own lifetimes, and their works were admired by posterity, which made of them its greatest delight, and celebrated them in praises boundless and immoderate. Respect for their memory so increased that no taint of human weakness could be attributed to them, and their very faults were deemed sacred. A thing had only to be done or said by these great men to become incomparable, and even today, for certain scholars it is a sort of religion to prefer the least production of the Ancients to the finest works of any modern author. I confess to a sense of injury at this injustice; there seems to me such blind prejudice and ingratitude in the refusal to open one's eyes to the beauty of our century, on which heaven has bestowed a thousand distinctions altogether refused to Antiquity, that I have been unable to restrain a sense of veritable indignation. Of this indignation came the little poem, The Century of Louis the Great, which was read to the French Academy when it assembled to thank the Lord for the complete recovery of its august protector. All those present at that illustrious assembly seemed quite satisfied with it, save two or three fanatical admirers of Antiquity, who asserted that it had greatly offended them. It was hoped that their discomfiture might give rise to criticisms such as would disabuse the public; but their sense of offence has boiled away in protest at my attack, and in empty and ill-defined words. [... ]

So many honourable persons have informed me, with a most tactful and gracious air, that I had, in their eyes, ably defended a bad cause, that I have taken it upon me to state unequivocally, and in prose, that there is nothing in my poem that is not seriously intended. That I am, in short, utterly convinced that, excellent as the Ancients are - on this point there is no disagreement - the Moderns are no whit inferior, and indeed surpass them in many respects. This is a clear statement of my position, which I claim to demonstrate in my dialogues.

In the mid-1670s both Charles and Claude Perrault were involved with a proposal to renovate and enlarge the church of Saint Genevieve in Paris, for which Claude made several drawings. Claude had worked out the structural problems for the colonnade of the Louvre, and at Saint Genevieve he proposed an iron-reinforced colonnaded system for the front porch and nave of the church. For the entrance he sketched - instead of arches - a free-standing colonnade supporting an uninterrupted flat entablature. For the interior, he proposed rows of columns supporting the central nave walls with a false ceiling-vault above. Once again his proposal defied contemporary structural beliefs. Many Christian basilicas and early Renaissance churches had columns between the nave and side

Charles Perrault, from the memorandum ''Dessin d'un portail pour l'Eglise de Sainte-Genevieve a Paris'' [Design of a portal for the church of Sainte-Genevieve in Paris] (1697), trans. Harry Francis Mallgrave from Bulletin monumental, 115:2 (1957), pp. 94-6.

aisles, but they also had timber roofs. These roofs were both lighter and the lateral forces could be negated by (truss) triangulation. When Alberti, for instance, chose to vault the central nave of Sant' Andrea in Mantua in 1470, he resorted to a series of massive piers and side chapels to resist the lateral (outward) thrust of the vault. Gothic architects had earlier solved the problem by adding flying buttresses to the outside of churches.

The two Perrault brothers, as this memorandum says, believed the problem could be solved by employing the reinforced masonry system that had been used at the Louvre. The use of a tall, slender colonnade (as opposed to heavy piers) recalls Claude's earlier footnote to the translation of Vitruvius, where he notes France's love of daylight and spatial openness. The cited passage begins as Charles Perrault explains how the iron rods were designed at the Louvre. The memorandum was only published in 1957.

If the peristyle of the Louvre were not built, and in a manner more solid than any building in the world, it would be necessary to respond to all of the objections that people made to my brother and myself on the virtual impossibility of having ceilings supported only on columns. We have also been told that it is beautiful in painting but impossible in reality. We no longer fear these objections. The 12-foot ceilings that stand at the Louvre are sufficient for the ceilings of 8 feet that we propose. But because construction might be postponed for a long time and because there are only a few workers left from that time who fully possess this knowledge, I feel obliged to mention here what must be observed in the construction of these peristyles. The drums that compose the shafts of the columns must be pierced for two-thirds the height of the column, and an iron bar from Normandy, two or two-and-a-half inches square, should be placed inside them. This bar must extend above the capital by a foot or a foot-and-a-half, or there about, where its end is looped by another bar of the same thickness, which crosses over to the wall opposite through and through, where it is tied into the church by an iron anchor, which either descends or runs the length of the wall. There should be another transverse bar of the same size as the other that ties the column diagonally to the opposite wall.

[... ] The peristyle of the Louvre is a beautiful example. It will be good before covering the bars with the second stone course to apply two or three coats of oil to protect them against rust.


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