Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 12, 2000
Rochelle Ziskin The Place Vendôme: Architecture and Social Mobility in Eighteenth-Century Paris Cambridge University Press, 1999. 2240 pp.; 116 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0521592593)

Three hundred years ago, in August 1699, royal and municipal officials in Paris dedicated François Girardon’s gilded bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIV in the city’s newest place royale, the Place de Nos Conquêtes, later called Place Louis-le-Grand, now Place Vendôme. The grandeur of the colossal statue and its architectural setting proclaimed the square a monument to the king’s gloire, a theme that was to have been amplified by the royal library, learned academies, mint, and accommodations for extraordinary ambassadors that were to have been housed there. Financial exigencies and shifting political priorities prevented the realization of this vision, and the Crown turned to private developers who reconfigured the square on a smaller plan better suited to residential subdivision. During the first decade of the new century, bourgeois financiers took the lead in gradually occupying the Place Vendôme. Beholden to the Crown for their fortunes and desirous of securing noble rank for their families, they apparently felt that advantage might be had in possessing an address with royal overtones.

Rochelle Ziskin has examined aspects of the design, financing, and inhabitation of the Place Vendôme during the ancien régime in her Ph.D. dissertation (“The French Crown and the Financiers of Paris: Public and Private Representation at the Place Vendôme, 1685-1792,” Harvard University, 1992) and an article (“The Place de Nos Conquêtes and the Unraveling of the Myth of Louis XIV,” Art Bulletin, vol. 76, March 1994, pp. 147-62). In this book she focuses on how the square’s inhabitants created residences that were finely tuned to display without overreaching their social ambitions.

The irregularly shaped lots at the Place Vendôme challenged the ingenuity of clients and architects. Floor plans, for instance, simultaneously had to provide the expected sequences of public and private rooms, incorporate the facades lining the square, and work around the limited points of access for formal and service entries. The design process must have required much give and take. Unfortunately, few records of the interactions of clients and architects remain, but a surprising number of archival drawings and contemporary engravings document the original configuration of a number of the residences. Ziskin effectively employs this material to demonstrate how architects such as Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Pierre Bullet, and Robert de Cotte adapted familiar typologies of massing, circulation, and living spaces to the unique conditions at the square. Her presentation of these solutions is clear, well illustrated, and very accessible to readers who have limited experience with architectural terminology and analysis.

Ziskin uses typology as a springboard for her primary interest: how the residences of the Place Vendôme represented the social aspirations of their inhabitants. Investigation of this topic is a difficult task requiring precise control of the respective histories of buildings and occupants and sensitivity to subtle changes of form and family circumstances. Lacking, for the most part, explicit statements of intention by her subjects, Ziskin bases her observations on comparative analysis drawn from a wide range of primary materials, including drawings, descriptions, and records of legal proceedings rarely used by architectural historians. Since her objective is to identify architectural expressions of social status, she restricts her scope to those addresses for which sufficient documentation exists. Readers seeking a more general history of the Place Vendôme and its inhabitants will need to consult Fernand de Saint Simon’s monograph, La Place Vendôme (Paris: Editions Vendôme, 1983).

Ziskin is attentive to the ways in which both men and women occupied their homes, and her method yields insights easily overlooked by more conventional approaches. For example, in her description of the Maison Crozat (no. 17 Place Vendôme), designed in 1700 by Pierre Bullet for the financier Antoine Crozat, she cites a notary’s inventory recording two beds in both Mme Crozat’s private bedroom and the ceremonial chambre de parade and interprets this item as an indication that the Crozats maintained the bourgeois custom of sharing a bedroom while otherwise conforming to the noble convention of including a chambre de parade in their appartement.

With her best documented examples, such as the Maison Crozat and its neighbor, the Hôtel de Thiers (no. 19 Place Vendôme), Ziskin tracks stylistic change over time and successions of owners and offers her readers an unusually broad context integrating analysis of interior design features, architecture, and the social and economic circumstances of the clients. These case studies may be read to advantage alongside other recent publications that are expanding the interpretation of eighteenth-century French domestic architecture and interior decoration, such as Mimi Hellman’s “Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in the Eighteenth Century” (Eighteenth-Century Studiesvol. 32, no. 4, Summer 1999, pp. 415-46) and Katie Scott, The Rococo Interior, Decoration and Social Spaces (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995).

Richard Cleary
School of Architecture, University of Texas at Austin