Claude Perrault

Claude Perrault (1613-1688), French scientist, architect, and engineer, designed the east front of the Louvre in Paris, the finest example of the classicistic phase of the French baroque style.

Claude Perrault was born on Sept. 25, 1613, in Paris. He was trained as a doctor and was a respected member of the Académie des Sciences. He was also a serious student of architecture and archeology, and the influential position of his younger brother Charles, intermediary of Louis XIV's prime minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, in the newly founded academies of science, architecture, sculpture, and painting gave Claude access to the inner circle of artists and architects.

The celebrated Italian architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini had been invited to Paris by Louis XIV in 1665 to furnish designs for the east front of the Louvre, but his excessively Italian baroque designs were inappropriate for the essentially French medieval and French-adapted Renaissance palace, and he departed after a few months. In the spring of 1667 Colbert appointed Louis Le Vau and Charles Le Brun, first architect and first painter respectively to the king, and Perrault to produce in collaboration an appropriate design. Louis XIV selected one of the two suggested projects. Though Perrault was recognized by contemporaries as the designer of the east front, known as the Colonnade, there is still controversy as to whether the preponderant hand was that of Perrault or of Le Vau. Nevertheless, it was Perrault who furnished the solutions to the many problems inherent in the Colonnade project. Roman archeology, of which he had a profound knowledge, was vitally animated and adjusted, in accordance with his theory, to suit the site and the King's requirements of grandeur. The Colonnade was executed largely between April 1667 and 1670.

Other works by Perrault are the Observatoire (1668-1672) in Paris and the château of Sceaux (1673-1674; destroyed), built for Colbert. Perrault designed the triumphal arch of the Porte Saint-Antoine in Paris, selected in competition over designs of Le Vau and Le Brun (begun in 1669 but never completed). Perrault's designs for the reconstruction of the church of Ste-Geneviève in Paris, the present Panthéon (ca. 1675), were discovered recently.

In his Treatise of the Five Orders (1676) Perrault attacked the theories of proportion of antiquity. By drawing lucid distinctions between things of absolute and relative beauty, he shook to the foundations the authority of classical antiquity and opened the way for modern values. The Colonnade showed his aversion to both the frozen formulas of the academic tradition and the emotional excesses of the Italian baroque and demonstrated that architectural proportions truly concordant with French taste could be elastic and subjective. He also published an exhaustively annotated edition of the classical Roman architect Vitruvius (1673; 2d ed. 1684). He died in Paris on Oct. 9, 1688.

Further Reading on Claude Perrault

Little of consequence, either general or specific, has been written about Perrault. The best primary source in English is John James's translation of Perrault's Treatise of the Five Orders of Columns in Architecture (1708). For background information see Reginald Blomfield, A History of French Architecture, 1661-1774 (2 vols., 1921), and Anthony Blunt, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (1953).

Additional Biography Sources

Perrault, Charles, Charles Perrault: memoirs of my life, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.

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