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M. A Newman
- Publié sur Amazon.com
How much is too much? Joan DeJean addresses these questions in her history of 17th and 18th century French architecture and design, "The Age of Comfort."
The story begins at the grandiose court of Louis XIV. Essentially since the renaissance, rulers had been building bigger and less comfortable edifices. When news of the Florentine Renaissance reached the popes in Rome, they wanted much the same thing only bigger. When France discovered, under its late 15th century kings, the innovations of Italy (during wars with the Holy Roman Empire to gain control of it) they wanted the same thing. Buildings became bigger and more grand and at the same time less comfortable, harder to heat and more and more oppressive.
Versailles was the crescendo of these attempts at royal grandeur making. It is very likely that during his lifetime Louis XIV never at hot food in his life, the kitchens were so far removed from the dining room. While it set the standard for regal living quarters, every ruling house built something along its lines, Versailles with its uncomfortable furniture made out of silver, and its lack of comforts sent people in a radical new direction.
The novel approach was to build and design for comfort and not just show. This meant houses with flush toilets, smaller easier to heat rooms and more effective chimneys, bathing. Furniture was to be upholstered instead of wood with no padding. The arm chair and the sensual sofa came into vogue.
This desire for comfort by the courtiers of Versailles was seen as the thin edge of the wedge in terms of standards declining. Had not one of Louis's mistresses, the formidable Madame de Montespan, this 17th century comfort craze might have died on the vine. Montespan sponsored a generally loosening of standards, if not stays which appalled members of the old order. In their minds good courtiers reflected grandeur in cold rooms, uncomfortable clothing and never had the desire to sit down. While Louis indulged in such revolutionary behavior in private, he took a dim view of this slackening in what was viewed as "standards" and the dangerous innovations proposed by the new generation. Had Montespan not been the king's mistress, she surely would have been dismissed as a "communist" if not a fascist for her instance on bathrooms in lieu of urinating in the corners (the traditional approach).
The comfort revolution received a shot in the arm with the death of Louis and the declaration of the regency under Phillip duc D'Orleans. He was the person who New Orleans was named after and as one might expect, a firm believer in all forms of comfort to the point of debauchery. The shift of court life to Paris during his time as regent created a vogue for building there that involved not only the aristocracy, but also the new commercial classes, empowered by the easy credit of John Law. The collapse of Law's financial schemes created both new rich and impoverished aristocrats (who got burned by the vagaries of the market).
Under the new world of the regent, architecture took on a different character. Influenced by classical forms, it assumed a more human scale. Patronage was, probably for the first time, not just a product of the aristocracy. If one looks at the paintings of De Troy, which are largely genre paintings of bourgeois domestic life, these are quite different from the allegories that featured Louis XIV as a figure from Greek mythology.
Probably the most amusing chapter deals with the invention of the sofa. Like comic books, radio, the internet, and chewing gum, the sofa was seen as a threat to public morals and a source of moral turpitude. Moralist would not have one of these new furniture inventions since artists tended to portray them as alters of seduction. While it was too early for a popular movement trying to ban them (one of the advantages of aristocracy is the lack of importance given over to paranoid ranters), members of the clergy predictably tried to limit their use. However, comfort by this point was here to stay, having acquired an new champion during the reign of Louis XV, the middle class born, Madame de Pompadour. Jefferson would latter seek to import ideas of French comfort to his home in Virginia.
This is a very entertaining book that shows how conveniences and attitudes evolved today that we take for granted. DeJean brings together a number of trends and attitudes to show how people came to take the idea of comfort not as a sinister movement, but as necessary to human happiness.