Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 26, 1999
Richard Cleary The Place Royale and Urban Design in the Ancient Régime New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 300 pp.; 12 color ills.; 194 b/w ills. Cloth $90.00 (0521572681)

When the Place Louis-le-Grand (today Place Vendôme) was inaugurated on August 13, 1699, many of the elegant facades that surrounded the square had no buildings behind them, and the king it was intended to glorify was not even there. The state of the square did not matter, in some sense, because its future shape was dictated by Mansart’s revised blueprint for the site, and the absence of the king did not matter, in some sense, because the urban space was dominated by Girardon’s equestrian statue of the sovereign. The Place might have looked like nothing more than an unfinished stage for adulation of an oversized bronze Louis XIV on that day, but there is much more to be said about this royal square as well as those constructed before and after it.

Richard Cleary of the University of Texas at Austin has written the first synthetic study of these impressive examples of the architecture of absolutism. His thoroughly researched and profusely illustrated book examines the proposals for, conflicts over, and functions of royal squares planned or built in two dozen French cities. Based on extensive reading in secondary literature and detective work in archival sources, it covers the whole story, from conception to inauguration; the complete ensemble, both monuments and settings; and the entire cast of characters involved in these projects: administrators, architects, artists, and artisans. Cleary has wisely divided the book in half in order to both analyze the squares collectively and describe them individually. The first half contains six chapters devoted to themes: “Patrons and Politics,” “Design Management and Funding,” “The Sculpture,” “The Architectural Setting,” “The Place Royale and the City,” and “Visions of the New Rome.” The second half, a city-by-city catalogue, includes detailed information about variations on these themes.

The first two chapters are largely devoted to the process and the other four are largely devoted to the product. Cleary’s account of the process reaffirms some of the lessons we have learned from recent work on the principles and practice of absolutism. The French people, on the one hand, did not always embrace the cult of kingship as spontaneously and obsequiously as royal ideology assumed they would or at least suggested they should. The French crown, on the other hand, could not always impose its will on clergy, nobility, parlements, estates, cities, and corporate bodies. Often restrained by custom and always short of cash, it routinely negotiated and compromised in ways that belied its ideological claims. Royal squares were built not in order to satisfy the demands of masses of loyal subjects but as a result of proposals made by courtiers and officials enmeshed in networks of patronage and clientage. The bills were paid by provincial and municipal governments, which sometimes persuaded the royal government to grant them construction subsidies or tax reductions, sometimes handed projects over to private developers engaged in real estate speculation, and sometimes ended up burdened with substantial debts.

Louvois, director of the Bâtiments du Roi, and Mansart, premier architecte du roi, supervised the initial building “campaign” in the 1680s, before economic problems and military defeats darkened the reign of the Sun King. They reviewed and approved the designs, which were inevitably influenced by Roman and Renaissance models, and they adjudicated conflicts in the name of Louis XIV, who was probably more interested than involved in such matters. In the eighteenth century, when the crown was entangled in decades of disputes about religious, fiscal, and administrative issues, the process was less centralized, so local authorities, architects, and artists had more leeway than their predecessors.

Cleary’s analysis of the product reminds us that the French monarchy, despite its predictable invocations of providence and history, was by no means blindly hostile to change. As the crown gradually expanded its presence and consolidated its authority throughout the realm, it involved itself in the modernization of royal ideology as well as the transformation of urban space. The monuments dedicated to the glory of Louis XIV generally portrayed him in Roman armor, more often than not on horseback, with a commander’s baton in his hand and pictorial, symbolic, and verbal references to his victories on the pedestal. In the course of the eighteenth century the poses, gestures, inscriptions, and iconography of royal statues became less militaristic and more paternalistic in character. Pigalle’s pedestrian Louis XV in Reims, for example, did wear Roman armor but did not hold a baton in his outstretched hand. The pedestal, which identified him (in accessible French rather than erudite Latin) as “the best of kings,” was decorated not with warlike trophies but with allegorical figures illustrating the benevolence of his government and the prosperity of his subjects. The design of the square, with dozens of shops on the ground floor, demonstrated royal interest in the public welfare. Many other squares planned or built during the reign of Louis XV were intended not only to impress the locals but also to improve their lives. These open spaces, surrounded by commercial (markets, graineries, and offices) and civic (city halls and theatres, but not churches) buildings, facilitated the salubrious circulation of air and the expeditious circulation of traffic through congested cities. They combined utility with ideology, and they represented the monarchy, contrary to the charges of its critics inside and outside the established order of things, as an agent of progress. Royal ministers sounded the same note, especially when they tried to reform the inequitable tax system, but the crown did not use innovative language consistently or aggressively, and in the end, of course, it lost the culture war over Enlightenment.

Cleary has located and digested a vast amount of information about royal squares throughout France and outlined the evolution of this remarkable architectural genre in a readable and persuasive manner. He has consulted and cited the secondary literature on the cult of kingship in the seventeenth century (though the title and arguments of Peter Burke’s study of The Fabrication of Louis XIV [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972] certainly should have claimed, respectively, a place in the bibliography and attention in the text) and such relevant aspects of the cultural history of the Revolution as classicism and festivals. His book should encourage others to explore the relatively neglected history of royal ideology, imagery, and ceremony (though useful material is already available in Alain-Charles Gruber, Les Grandes fêtes et leurs décors à l’époque de Louis XVI [Geneva: Droz, 1972]) in the eighteenth century. At the same time, he could have added more context to his book and underscored the importance of its conclusions by reading and using some of the important studies of political culture produced by historians (such as Keith Baker, Roger Chartier, Robert Darnton, Lynn Hunt, Sarah Maza, and Dale Van Kley) before and after the bicentennial of 1789. Much research has been done and many pages have been published about the linguistic and conceptual shifts from kingdom to nation and subjects to citizens, the cultivation and manipulation of opinion, the emergence of new forms of sociability and expression, and the meanings and manifestations of the “public.” By taking this work into account, Cleary could have made his book even more illuminating than it already is.

Jeffrey Merrick
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee