Art and culture
Art and culture
Architecture and art
In addition to the castles built for the dukes of Anjou, such as Saumur, manor houses and mansions were constructed in the 14C for merchants who had grown rich through trade. The 15C saw a proliferation in the lively ornate Gothic style of châteaux built of brick with white stone facings, such as the château at Lassay, of manor houses such as Le Clos-Lucé near Amboise, of town mansions with projecting stair turrets and high dormers, and of half-timbered houses. The finest examples of Gothic houses are to be found in Le Mans, Chinon and Tours.
Monastic gardens, such as those belonging to the abbeys in Bourgueil, Marmoutier and Cormery, consisted of an orchard, a vegetable patch with a fish pond and a medicinal herb garden.
In the 15C they were succeeded by square flower beds, created by King René at his manor houses in Anjou and by Louis XI at Plessis-lès-Tours. A fresh note was introduced with shady arbours and fountains where the paths intersected; entertainment was provided by animals at liberty or kept in menageries or aviaries.
The Renaissance did not spring into existence at the wave of a magic wand at the end of the Italian campaigns. Before the wars in Italy, Italian artists had been welcomed to the French court and the court of Anjou; Louis XI and King René had employed sculptors and medallion makers such as Francesco Laurana, Niccolo Spinelli and Jean Candida. New blood, however, was imported into local art by the arrival of artists from Naples in 1495 at the behest of Charles VIII.
At Amboise and Chaumont and even at Chenonceau, Azay or Chambord, the châteaux still looked like fortresses but the machicolations assumed a decorative role. Large windows flanked by pilasters appeared in the façades, which were decorated with medallions; the steep roofs were decorated with lofty dormers and carved chimneys. Italian influence is most apparent in the low-relief ornamentation. At Chambord and Le Lude the decor was refined by local masters such as Pierre Trinqueau.
The Italian style is most obvious in the exterior of the François I wing at Blois where Il Boccadoro copied Bramante’s invention of the rhythmic façade which featured alternating windows and niches separated by pilasters. Later, as in Beaugency town hall, came semicircular arches and superimposed orders, then the domes and pavilions which mark the birth of Classical architecture.
The Italians created new types of staircases: two spirals intertwined as at Chambord, or straight flights of steps beneath coffered ceilings as at Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau and Poncé.
The Renaissance also inspired a number of towns halls – Orléans, Beaugency, Loches – and several private houses – Hôtel Toutin in Orléans, Hôtel Gouin in Tours and Hôtel Pincé in Angers.
In his enthusiasm for Neapolitan gardens. Charles VIII brought with him from his kingdom in Sicily a gardener called Dom Pacello de Mercogliano, a Neapolitan monk, who laid out the gardens at Amboise and Blois; Louis XII entrusted him with the royal vegetable plot at Château-Gaillard near Amboise.
Pacello popularised the use of ornate flower beds bordered with yew and fountains with sculpted basins. The gardens of Chenonceau and Villandry give a good idea of his style.
The extraordinary vegetable garden at Villandry, whose decorative motifs were highly popular during the Renaissance, has retained a number of traditional and monastic features dating from the Middle Ages; the rose trees planted in a symmetrical pattern symbolise the monks, each digging in his own plot.
Classical period (17C–18C)
Following the removal of the court to the Paris region (Île-de-France), architecture in the Loire Valley fell into decline. Handsome buildings were still constructed but the designers came from Paris. In the more austere climate of the 17C the pompous style of the Sun King displaced the graceful fantasy of the Renaissance and the picturesque asymmetry of medieval buildings. The trend was towards pediments, domes (Cheverny) and the Greek orders (Gaston-d’Orléans wing at Blois). Tower structures were abandoned in favour of rectangular pavilions containing huge rooms with monumental fireplaces decorated with caryatids and painted ceilings with exposed beams; they were covered with steep roofs in the French style.
There was a new wave of château building, but the main legacy of the 18C is in the towns. Great terraces were built in Orléans, Tours and Saumur with long perspectives aligned on the axis of magnificent bridges with level roadways.
The church in Germigny-des-Prés, which dates from the Carolingian period, and the Benedictine basilica of St-Benoît are particularly fine examples of Romanesque art in the Orléans area. There are two pretty churches in the Cher valley at St-Aignan and Selles.
Various influences from Poitou are evident: apses with column buttresses, domed transepts, doorways without pediments. The bell-towers are unusual: square or octagonal with spires surrounded at the base by turrets.
Angevin buildings are clustered round Baugé and Saumur. The church in Cunault shows the influence of Poitou in the nave buttressed by high aisles with groined vaulting. The domes roofing the nave of the abbey church at Fontevraud and the absence of aisles are features of the Aquitaine School.
From Romanesque to Gothic
The Plantagenet style, which is also known as Angevin, takes its name from Henry Plantagenet. It is a transitional style which reached the height of its popularity in the early 13C and died out by the end of the century.
Unlike standard Gothic vaulting in which all the keystones are placed at the same level, Angevin vaulting is domical so that the central keystones are higher than the supporting arches. The best example is the cathedral of St-Maurice in Angers. This type of vaulting evolved to feature an ever finer network of increasingly fragile-looking ribs, which were eventually adorned with sculptures.
The Plantagenet style spread from the Loire valley into the Vendée, Poitou, Saintonge and the Garonne Valley. At the end of the 13C it was introduced into southern Italy by Charles of Anjou.
Gothic art is characterised by the use of intersecting vaults and the pointed arch. The triforium, which originally was blind, is pierced by apertures which eventually give way to high windows. The tall, slender columns, which were crowned by capitals supporting the vaulting, were originally cylindrical but later flanked by engaged columns. In the final development the capitals were abandoned and the roof ribs descended directly into the columns.
The Flamboyant style follows this pattern; the diagonal ribs are supplemented by other, purely decorative, ribs called liernes and tiercerons.
The Flamboyant style (15C) of architecture is to be found in the façade of La Trinité in Vendôme and of St-Gatien in Tours, in Notre-Dame-de-Cléry and in the Sainte-Chapelle at Châteaudun.
Renaissance and Classical styles (16C–17C–18C)
Italian influence is strongly evident in the decoration of Renaissance churches: basket-handle or round-headed arches, numerous recesses for statues. Interesting examples can be seen at Montrésor, Ussé, Champigny-sur-Veude and La Bourgonnière.
In the Classical period (17C–18C) religious architecture was designed to create a majestic effect, with superimposed Greek orders, pediments over doorways, domes and flanking vaulting. The church of Notre-Dame-des-Ardilliers in Saumur has a huge dome whereas the church of St-Vincent in Blois is dominated by a scrolled pediment.
A stained-glass window is made of pieces of coloured glass fixed with lead to an iron frame. The perpendicular divisions of a window are called lights. Metal oxides were added to the constituent materials of white glass to give a wide range of colours. Details were often drawn in with dark paint and fixed by firing. Varied and surprising effects were obtained by altering the length of firing and by the impurities in the oxides and defects in the glass. The earliest stained-glass windows to have survived date from the 12C (The Ascension in Le Mans Cathedral).
In the 12C-13C the colours were vivid with rich blues and reds predominating; the glass and leading were thick and smoothed down with a plane; the subject matter was naïve and confined to superimposed medallions.
The Cistercians favoured grisaille windows, which were composed of clear-to-greenish glass with foliage designs on a cross-hatched background, giving a greyish effect.
The master-glaziers of the 14C-15Cdiscovered how to make a golden yellow; lighter colours were developed, the leading became less heavy as it was produced using new tools and techniques, the glass was thinner and the windows larger. Gothic canopies appeared over the human figures.
Windows became delicately coloured pictures in the 16C in thick lead frames, often copied from Renaissance canvases with strict attention to detail and perspective; there are fine examples at Champigny-sur-Veude, Montrésor and Sully-sur-Loire.
In the 17C–19C traditional stained glass was often replaced by vitrified enamel or painted glass without lead surrounds. In the cathedral of Orléans there are 17C windows with white diamond panes and gold bands, along with 19C windows portraying Joan of Arc.
The need to restore or replace old stained glass stimulated a revival of the art in the 20C. Representational or abstract compositions of great variety emerged from the workshops of the painter-glaziers: Max Ingrand, Alfred Manessier, Jean Le Moal, M Rollo.
Mural painting and frescoes
In the Middle Ages the interiors of ecclesiastical buildings were decorated with paintings, motifs or morally and spiritually uplifting scenes. A school of mural painting akin to that in Poitou developed in the Loire region. The surviving works of this school are well preserved owing to the mild climate and low humidity. The paintings are recognisable by their weak matte colours against light backgrounds. The style is livelier and less formalised than in Burgundy or the Massif Central whereas the composition is more sober than in Poitou. Two techniques were used: fresco work, which was done with watercolours on fresh plaster thus making it impossible to touch it up later; and mural painting, where tempera colours were applied to a dry surface, producing a less durable work of art.
The art of fresco work with its Byzantine origins was adopted by the Benedictines of Monte Cassino in Italy, who in turn transmitted the art to the monks of Cluny in Burgundy. The latter used this art form in their abbeys and priories, from where it spread throughout the country.
The fresco technique was the one most commonly used, although beards and eyes were often added once the plaster was dry with the result that they have since disappeared. The figures, drawn in red ochre, were sometimes highlighted with touches of black, green and the sky-blue so characteristic of the region.
The subjects were often inspired by smaller-scale works. The most common theme for the oven vaulting was Christ the King Enthroned, majestic and severe; the reverse of the façade (at the opposite end of the church from the apse) often carried the Last Judgement; the walls depicted scenes from the New Testament whereas the Saints and Apostles adorned the pillars. Other subjects portrayed frequently are the Conflict of the Virtues and Vices, and the Labours of the Months.
Good examples of fresco painting are to be found throughout the Loire Valley in Areines, Souday, St-Jacques-des-Guérets, Lavardin and best of all in the chapel of St-Gilles at Montoire. There is also a fine work in St-Aignan in the Cher valley. The crypt of the church in Tavant in the Vienne valley is decorated with lively paintings of high quality.
In Anjou a man called Fulk seems to have supervised the decoration of the cloisters in the abbey of St-Aubin in Angers. His realistic style, although slightly stilted in the drawing, seems to spring from the Poitou School. More characteristic of the Loire valley are the Virgin and Christ the King from Ponginé in the Baugé region.
It was not until the 15C and the end of the Hundred Years’ War that new compositions were produced on themes which were to remain in fashion until the mid-16C. These were really more mural paintings than frescoes and new subjects were added to the traditional repertoire; a gigantic St Christopher often appeared at the entrance to a church, whereas the legend of the Three Living and Three Dead, represented by three proud huntsmen meeting three skeletons, symbolised the brevity and vanity of human life. In the Loire Valley such paintings are to be found in Alluyes, Lassay and Villiers. Two compositions with strange iconography adorn the neighbouring churches in Asnières-sur-Vège and Auvers-le-Hamon.
In the 16C paintings in churches became rarer. There are, however, two surviving examples from this period: the Entombment in the church in Jarzé and the paintings in the chapter house of Fontevraud Abbey.
During the 15C and 16C, the French School asserted itself, first through the work of Jean Fouquet (c. 1420-80), a portrait painter and miniaturist native of Tours who travelled to Italy, and later through the paintings of the Master of Moulins (late 15C), sometimes identified with Jean Perréal (c. 1455-1530).
The Flemish artist Jean Clouet, commissioned by Louis XII and François I, and his son François Clouet (1520-72), who was born in Tours, became famous for their portraits of the Valois.
Last but not least, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) spent the last three years of his life at the court of François I.
Tapestries from the Loire Workshops
Hanging tapestries, which had been in existence since the 8C to exclude draughts or divide up huge rooms, became very popular in the 14C. The weavers worked from cartoons or preparatory sketches using wool woven with silk, gold or silver threads on horizontal (low warp – basse lisse) or vertical (high warp – haute lisse) looms.
Their value made tapestries ideal for use as investments or diplomatic gifts; as well as those commissioned for châteaux or even specific rooms, some were hung in churches or even in the streets. The most famous is the 14C Apocalypse tapestry.
The mille-fleurs (thousand flowers) tapestries evoked late medieval scenes – showing an idealised life of enticing gardens, tournaments and hunting scenes – against a green, blue or pink background strewn with a variety of flowers, plants and small animals. These are attributed to the Loire Valley workshops (c. 1500). Good examples can be seen in Saumur, Langeais and Angers.
The Renaissance to the 20C
The use of cartoons (full-scale designs, usually in reverse) instead of paintings, and more sophisticated weaving techniques and materials rendered greater detail possible. The number of colours increased and panels were surrounded by wide borders. In the 18C the art of portraiture was introduced into tapestry work.
In the 20C Jean Lurçat, originally a tapestry renovator, advocated the use of natural dyes. Contemporary weavers started to experiment with new techniques in order to create relief and three- dimensional effects.
Gemmail is a modern art medium consisting of assembling particles of coloured glass over a light source. The inventor of this art form was Jean Crotti (1878-1958). The Malherbe-Navarre brothers, an interior decorator and a physicist, provided the technical expertise; they discovered a bonding agent which did not affect the constituent elements.
Mills of Anjou
Very early on, the extensive network of waterways encouraged the construction of a great many watermills of all kinds (barge-mills, bank-mills, mills with hanging wheels). But the region is furthermore exposed for most of the year to strong winds blowing from the south-west to the north-west – a fact which led to the proliferation of various types of windmills as early as the 13C. Some of these have been restored or converted and are still standing today.
The region still features many structures sometimes open to the public during the summer season or on request. They fall into three categories:
Characteristic of the Anjou landscape, the corn mill consists of a conical stone base called the cellar, surmounted by a wooden cabin bearing the shaft and sails. The cellar was used for storing grain, flour and spare parts; in some cases, it also housed stables and a shed.
The post mill was a huge wooden structure supporting the sails, the millstone as well as the whole mechanism. Unfortunately, because it was made entirely of wood, its age of glory was short lived, either through lack of maintenance or because the shaft suffered damage.
By far the most common type of mill, the tower mill – built in stone – has remained comparatively intact over the centuries. The conical roof, with its rotating cap, carries the sails.
“Le beau parler”
Since the Loire Valley was the cradle of France, it is here that old France is recalled in the sayings which have shaped the French language. It is said that the best French is spoken in the Touraine region; though this does not mean that you hear nothing but the most sophisticated, high-brow language. However, the French language has certainly found some of its finest expression in the Loire Valley, where the peace and beauty of the countryside have fostered many leading French writers.
In the 6C, under the influence of St Martin, Tours became a great seat of learning. Bishop Gregory of Tours wrote the first history of the Gauls in his Historia Francorum and Alcuin of York founded a famous school of calligraphy at the behest of Charlemagne, while art in the 11C came under the influence of courtly life in the Latin poems of Baudri de Bourgueil. At the beginning of the 13C Orléans witnessed the impact of the popular and lyrical language of the Romance of the Rose, a didactic poem by two successive authors – the mannered Guillaume de Lorris, who wrote the first 4 000 lines, and the realist Jean de Meung, who added the final 18 000. The poem was widely translated and exerted tremendous influence throughout Europe. Charles d’Orléans (1391-1465) discovered his poetic gifts in an English prison. He was a patron of the arts and author of several short but elegant poems; at his court in Blois he organised poetic jousts – François Villon won a competition in 1457.
Hitherto a princely pastime, poetry in the hands of Good King René of Anjou became an aristocratic and even mannered work of art. In Angers, Jean Michel, who was a doctor and a man of letters, produced his monumental Mystery of the Passion; its 65 000 lines took four days to perform.
Renaissance and Humanism
When the vicissitudes of the Hundred Years War obliged the French court to move from Paris to Touraine, new universities were founded in Orléans (1305) and Angers (1364). They very soon attracted a vast body of students and became important centres in the study of European humanism.
Among those who came to study and to teach were Erasmus and William Bude, Melchior Wolmar, a Hellenist from Swabia, and the reformers Calvin and Theodore Beza; Étienne Dolet, a native of Orléans, preached his atheist doctrines for which he was hanged and burned in Paris.
François Rabelais (1494-1553), who was born near Chinon, must be about the best-known son of the Touraine. After studying in Angers, he became a learned Benedictine monk and then a famous doctor. In the adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel he expressed his ideas on education, religion and philosophy. He was very attached to his native country and made it the setting for the Picrocholine war in his books. His comic and realistic style, his extraordinarily rich vocabulary and his universal curiosity made him the foremost prose writer of his period.
A group of seven poets from the Loire founded a new school, named after a cluster of stars in the Taurus constellation, which was to dominate 16C French poetry; they aimed to develop their language by imitating Horace and the Ancients. Their undoubted leader was Pierre de Ronsard, the Prince of Poets from near Vendôme, but it was Joachim du Bellay from Anjou who wrote the manifesto of the group, The Defence and Illustration of the French Language, which was published in 1549. The other members of the group were Jean-Antoine de Baïf from La Flèche, Jean Dorat, Étienne Jodelle, Marot and Pontus de Tyard who all held the position of Court Poet; their subjects were nature, women, their native country and its special quality, la douceur angevine.
Classicism and the Age of Enlightenment
At the end of the Wars of Religion, when the king and the court returned north to the Paris region (Île-de-France), literature became more serious and philosophical. The Marquis of Racan composed verses on the banks of the Loir and the Protestant Academy in Saumur supported the first works of René Descartes. In the following century, Néricault-Destouches, from Touraine, followed in Molière’s footsteps with his comedies of character; Voltaire stayed at Sully; Rousseau and his companion Thérèse Levasseur lived at Chenonceau; Beaumarchais, who wrote The Barber of Seville, settled at Vouvray and visited the Duke of Choiseul in exile at Chanteloup.
The pamphleteer Paul-Louis Courier (1772-1825) and the songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780-1857), both active during the second Bourbon restoration, were sceptical, witty and liberal in politics. Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863), a native of Loches who became a soldier and a poet, painted an idyllic picture of Touraine in his novel, Cinq-Mars.
The greatest literary genius of Touraine was however Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). He was born in Tours and brought up in Vendôme; he loved the Loire Valley and used it as a setting for several of the numerous portraits in his vast work, The Human Comedy.
The poet Charles Péguy, born in Orléans, wrote about Joan of Arc and his beloved Beauce. Marcel Proust also returned to the Beauce in his novel Remembrance of Things Past. Another poet, Max Jacob (1876-1944), spent many years in work and meditation at the abbey of St-Benoît-sur-Loire.
The Sologne calls to mind the young novelist, Alain-Fournier, and his famous work, Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Domain). The character of Raboliot the poacher is a picturesque evocation of his native country by the author Maurice Genevoix (1890-1980), a member of the Academy. The humourist Georges Courteline (1858-1929) was born in Touraine which was also the retreat of several writers of international reputation: Maeterlinck (Nobel Prize in 1911) at Coudray-Montpensier; Anatole France (Nobel Prize in 1921) at La Béchellerie; Bergson (Nobel Prize in 1927) at La Gaudinière. René Benjamin (1885–1948) settled in Touraine where he wrote The Prodigious Life of Balzac and other novels.
Angers was the home of René Bazin (1853–1932), who was greatly attached to the traditional virtues and his home ground, and of his great-nephew, Hervé Bazin (1911–96), whose violent attacks on conventional values were directly inspired by his native town.