The French Baroque: Le Vau and Francois Mansart
François Mansart and Louis Le Vau were 17th century French architects that developed and defined French Baroque architecture and decorative art. Both men incorporated classicism with Baroque ornamental aesthetics in building and interior design but also articulated novel elements to construction such as the exterior wall double staircase and u-shaped buildings with pavilions and landscaped gardens. Mansart and Le Vau were both employed by the aristocracy and for Kings Louis XIII and XIV, Le Vau being the initial architect hired to redesign and extend Versailles. Sadly, while Le Vau was known for his successful collaboration with other artisans like Charles Le Brun, and was favored by royals, Mansart’s reputation for being difficult meant an inevitable decline in his career.
Mansart is remembered as the first to use the open staircase - two flights along the two outside walls of the primary salon (great hall) - in what would become the Baroque period. Even more so, he is known for expertly blending classicism with the highly ornamental and dramatic style of the Baroque. In fact, Mansart’s designs would have a hand in the neo-classical period that would follow long after his death. An early example of Mansart’s work is at the Château de Blois where he designed an addition to the structure, called the Orléans wing. Here can be seen elements of classicism in the use of pilasters and columns of the Roman orders, dramatic use of light, and spiral staircases. He also designed the Hôtel du Jars, the interior of which exemplifies the situating of residential spaces two rooms deep (in contrast to popular design of the time in which aristocratic residences were processional, one room deep), and the Hôtel de la Vrilliere, his first example of the use of the staircase along exterior walls, and where he also set a gallery set for paintings.
Mansart’s masterpiece is considered to be Château of Maisons Laffitte, or the Castle House, which is still standing and described as a “remarkable achievement of harmony of forms” on the Château website (now a tourist attraction). The exterior is a testament to Mansart design: pilasters are interspersed with French windows on two levels that are topped by slopped “Mansard” roofs with dormer windows and chimneys interspersed, the classical trim with columns and pediments. The building is u-shaped with a central salon and winged extensions. Inside is a white entrance hall with stone carvings and fluted doric columns and a marble staircase that leads to an enfilade (rooms aligned with one another with connecting doors creating a hierarchical sequence of spaces). The château is surrounded by a moat but also by extensive gardens and lawns, features hallmark of the Baroque. Mansart would go on to design other buildings like the Hotel de Carnevalet and the Val-de-Grâce, but the Castle House is still considered his fundamental work.
Le Vau, like Mansart, worked among the aristocracy - he was the royal architect commissioned for work on Versailles. Le Vau is known for his collaboration with other artisans like Charles LeBrun and Jules Hardouin Mansart (nephew to François Mansart), and for having almost singularly defined Louis XIV style. Like Mansart, he also married the classical with Baroque ornamentalism using recessed compositions, pilasters, architraves, pediments, and cornices that were intermixed with gilded and bronzed stucco, mirrors, carvings, and trompe l’oeil paintings. Vaux Le Vicomte Castle is one example of these syntheses, a residence Le Vau built in concert with Andre Le Nôtre, a landscape architect, and painter/decorator Le Brun. The salon of Vaux Le Vicomte is appointed with arched mirrored doors set between corinthian pilasters, with an upper level of windows set underneath the dome that is surrounded with ornamental stucco figures like putti, and garlands. This intermix of classicism and Baroque ornamentalism is also present at Le Vau's Hôtel Lambert, also at the Apollo Gallery at the Palace of the Louvre – with its long barrel vaulted ceiling and sculpted and painted images - and at Versailles, especially in the chapel.
Le Vau also become known for his innovative spatial designs that is demonstrated how he designed room shape to compliment to the room's orientation and locale within a residence. Of course, Le Vau used the enfilade arrangement in his residential design. The central salon was a public space and served as an introduction to two suites, one on each side of the residential block culminating in an apartment within antechamber, a chamber, and a cabinet. Aristocratic or royal bedrooms would have an alcove set into one wall where the bed was located behind a low gate – a Le Vau innovation. Le Vau’s constructions, like Vaux Le Vicomte, included a dome above the salon, flanked by two wings of apartments on either side of the central main space. However, the design of the hotel, or townhouse, was where Le Vau exercised an even more unique spatial design, as seen in the outlay of the Hôtel Lambert in which the residential left side is dominated by a salon that is adjacent to equally sized courtyards and gardens on the right side, as opposed to having a central open spaced flanked by two blocks of apartments. The exteriors of Le Vau’s buildings were just as grand and intimidating - classical “monumentalism” is expressed in stone facades interspersed with pilasters and pediments surrounded by moats, gardens, courtyards and pavilions.
Mansart’s contribution to Baroque style is revered by the French, in its stolid articulation of classicism balanced with the spectacle in ornamentation. However, Le Vau’s legacy has proven to be more dispersed. While it was Jules Hardouin Mansart (great-nephew of François Mansart)who took over the design and construction of the remodeled Versailles after Le Vau’s death, it was Le Vau that set precedent for its further decoration and orchestrated the collaboration of artisans in the Baroque design of Versailles. It followed that across Europe in the years to follow, construction of the residences of the aristocracy and palaces of the royal elite replicated the style and form set forth by Mansart and Le Vau.