Bernini in France

The visit of the Baroque master in 1665, writes Michael Greenhalgh, coincided with a rejection of Italian influence by French taste.

The visit of Gian Lorenzo Bernini to France in 1665 is of great significance in the history of French art although it was, in artistic terms, a failure.

He produced there a bust of the King, some designs for the Louvre which were never executed, and set in train an equestrian statue of Louis XIV which, when it arrived in France several years later, was to prove an even more resounding failure than the visit itself.

Why did the visit of the greatest sculptor and architect of the Italian Baroque, to a country traditionally responsive to influences from Italy, prove so unsuccessful?

The answer must be sought in the growing confidence, politically and artistically, of the French nation, and it is convenient to see in Bernini’s visit and its consequences a symbolic rejection of the blandishments of the Baroque in favour of a less emotional and more rational style.

Ever since the High Renaissance, France had greatly admired the art and architecture of Italy: although Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494 seems to have had few artistic repercussions, Francis I (King 1515-1547) tried to attract Italian artists to France.

The old Leonardo da Vinci came in 1516, but did little work, and died in 1519. Primaticcio and Rosso came to decorate parts of the Chateau de Fontainebleau; the Galerie François Ier (1530-1560) is the only part of the scheme that survives intact, and set the style of French painting for the rest of the century, helped by the visits of the dashing Benvenuto Cellini in 1537 and again in 1540-1545.

In the field of architecture, it is equally difficult to avoid a discussion of Italian influence: Seba-stiano Serlio dedicated the Third Book of his Architecture to Francis I in 1540, and was called to France and put in charge of building operations at Fontainebleau.

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