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Le Vau and French Baroque Architecture

Louis Le Vau (1612-1670) was a French architect whose greatest work and popularity shared the twenty-year rule of Cardinal Mazarin, minister of France after 1642. He, along with his architect brother, François, were the sons of Louis Le Veau, a Parisian mason. Both brothers worked together on a few projects, but it was Louis who strove ahead in society and artistic importance.

Le Vauís first important project was the Hôtel de Bautru in 1634, which was later destroyed in 1637. It has been suggested that it was here that Le Vau received the inspiration for his earliest work from the contractor of the Hôtel, Michel Villedo, who greatly influenced Le Vau and continued to do so in providing many commissions following the completion of the building (Groveart, Le Vau, Early Career). The completion of this first successful project led to the participation in François Mansartís Hôtel de La Vrillière in the production of a private suite with a built-in alcove, a design unique to Le Vau.

With each successive commission Le Vauís career and popularity grew in turn. Each project boosted him higher up into successively more prominent circles of society, bringing him wealth and ever more prestigious clientele. Le Vau collected titles on his way to the top. In 1638 he was appointed an Architecte Ordinaire des Bâtiments du Roi as he worked mostly for up and coming officials. Thereafter, in 1644 he bought the office of a Conseiller et Secrétaire du Roi, Maison et Couronne de France et de ses Finances where he made his first step into nobility, which he would later improve upon with the title of Lord of Beaumont eleven years later. However, his most important position was that of Premier Architecte in 1653, "a position" quoted by Martin Shaw Briggs of Baroque Architecture, "which in those days was no sinecure, and which usually resulted in a fortune and title for the holder" (Briggs, 169). Thus, finally as Premier Architecte Le Vau was at the height of his power and influence creating works for the very king, Louis XIV.

During Le Vauís flight to the heights of society he proved himself to be a unique architect with innovative elements of style which would influence the course of French architecture. Indeed, in addition to Jacques Lemercier and François Mansart, Le Vau was hailed to be one of the greatest architects in Baroque France (Briggs, 169). His unique, against-the-grain, and nontraditionalist style became more and more renowned, as he left the standards of architecture in favor of his own inventions. When describing Le Vauís nonconformist style in relation to his first important project, the Hôtel de Bautru it is said:

"He dispensed with architectural decoration set off in a sculptural, generally classically organized context against a plain supporting wall. Instead he deployed strip-like, shallowly recessed compositions, which tended to integrate window surrounds, cornices, architraves and pilasters into a system of similar panels whose homogeneity needed no special differentiation through the use of mouldings" (, Le Vau, Early Career).

But what is most commented upon and praised is he treatment of space and positioning in architectural projects. For example, he was called "a pioneer in the art of spatial effects" (, Le Vau). Furthermore, in his design of Parisian chateaux and residences he was said to have:

"endow[ed] their architectural masses and spaces with individuality by varying their decorative treatment, form and placing; and by grouping them in ingenious combinations around a dominant spatial feature he created a new, feer organization of space that was fundamental to the Louis XIV style and subsequently to the design of palaces all over Europe" (Le Vau,

However, Le Vau did not receive only praise for his unique designs and treatment of space. Many scholars have criticized his "masterpiece" the Vaux-le-Vicomteís "lack of unity" and the "heaviness and tastelessness of the whole" (Kaufmann, 125) Others claimed, "there are too many breaks and returns and changes of motiveÖ [and] the intersection of the dome with the mansard roof is ugly" (Kaufmann, 125). But it was not just Vaux-le-Vicomte that was criticized but also his innovative mishmash of Classicism, and Baroque, his own inventions in space and decoration as a whole. For it is said, " To a classically trained observer, Le Vauís startling discontinuities of decorative treatment, and his violations of conventions, looked like dissonances, barbarisms or just plain mistakes" (, Le Vau, Le Vau under Colbert).

Yet, one the most important characteristics of Le Vauís style was his introduction of foreign stylistic elements into the Franceís architectural heritage. More specifically, Le Vau was unique as an architect since he was strongly influenced by the classical Italian style, especially later in his career. Henry A. Millon claims, "Levau showed a sensitivity to the power of Italian examples that was unusual in a French architect" (Millon, 33). For example, Henry A. Millon claims in Baroque and Rococo Architecture that, "His thoroughly admirable Collège des Quatre Nations is a very personal reinterpretation of Cortonaís S. Maria della Pace, and Borrominiís and Rainaldiís S. Agnese in Piazza Navona" (Millon, 33). Le Vauís work on Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte has also been compared to the Italian Cortonaís work.

Cortona's S. Maria della Pace (1656)

Collège des Quatre Nations/ Institute de France (1662)

Fortunately, the influence of classical Italian architecture did not really stop with Le Vau. There was a legitimate cross-cultural artistic exchange between France and Italy especially prevalent after 1660. Italyís, and more specifically Romeís, architectural heritage was brought into France by the exchange of notable and highly influential artists. For Jean-Pierre Babelon of the French Institute claims, "Öthe decade from 1660 represented a crucial period in the evolution of French taste and in the history of Franco-Italian artistic relations, notably illustrated by two sojourns, Berniniís brief stay in Paris and Nicolas Poussinís long residence in RomeÖ" ( This introduction of classically-influenced Italian style by Le Vau and fellow artists in the late 17th century strongly affected the standard of the French Baroque. For Baroque, strangely enough, became what is known as French Baroque Classicism in France. This style was "a stoic, didactic version of the Baroque" which shared its characteristics with many other contemporary French areas of art and learning being both "rational" and "reserved" (Millon, 28). French Baroque Classicism was generally neither as flamboyant nor as expressive when compared to the more extravagant Baroque architecture of Italy. One only has to compare Borrominiís dynamic, fluidic S. Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane with a more static French building such as Le Vauís Chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte to understand this distinction. Borrominiís front façade comprises of an undulating wall surface accompanied by a high contrast pattern of light and dark created by the columns and the deep space between them in the form of niches. Le Vauís creation, on the other hand, is more formalized with a flatter façade reliant on the regularized by a pattern of alternating windows and static, flattening pilasters. Thus Franceís architecture of Baroque Classicism was a more restrained version of expression as it "produced works of great order wherein variety was achieved principally through subtle adjustments in rhythm and proportions of mass and wall surface" (Millon, 28).

S. Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane


The popularity of this classically influenced architectural style of order, balance, and control was not only nurtured by the exchange of important artists but by the French government itself since the style was so useful and favorable to its representation. The classically influenced Baroque style of France was a great tool in the display of power of a government since it hearkens back to the glory and might of Rome. Most baroque buildings, such as Versailles, were built in glorification of the monarch (most notably Louis XIV) demonstrating his power, wealth, and magnificence. Grove Art agrees with the great usefulness of Classicism to the state in portraying an impression of strength. It states, "That classicism well suited Ďofficialí art (as it had done since Pericles) may be seen not only from the productions of Raphael, Michelangelo and Bramante, but also from the rigidly centralized organization of artistic and architectural practice into academies in the France of Louis XIV, under Charles Le Brun, a veritable arbiter of taste who sought to coordinate a uniform Ďproductí from all artists working on grand projects for the State. Le Brun provided a classicizing bridle for up-to-date Italian Baroque imports, as may be seen by comparing the decoration of Versailles or Vaux-le-Vicomte with the work of Pietro da Cortona" (, Classicism, Renaissance to 17th century).  

Much onsite interpretation of Le Vauís work including that of French Classicism is difficult considering much of it was destroyed, has gone into decay, or was reworked by other architects through the centuries. This is the heavy price of studying architecture in comparison to painting or sculpture, since we often have only drawings or contemporary eyewitness accounts to draw from. The Trianon de Porcelaine at Versailles, for example, was written to be "colouristic" but cannot be directly remarked upon by present art historians because of its replacement by the Trianon de Marbre in 1687 (Tadgell, 130). Yet some famous examples of Le Vauís work still do survive. One of these surviving works of French Classicism is the previously mentioned Chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte, which he designed along with fellow architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart. The Chateau was built between 1657 and 1661 for Nicholas Fouquet, the finance minister of King Louis XIV and one of Le Vae's greatest patrons. It was considered one of his greatest achievements and a good example of some of the classically influenced specifics of his style. Besides the reserved alternating pattern of pilasters and windows, the building also has pavilions at both the corners and center, with a large oval dome above the central salon on the garden side in front of which a large classical pediment is placed. The pediment-adorned dome focuses the eye on and stresses the center and, consequentially, the classically ordered symmetry of the building's garden side. The dome and peidiment are also, of course, classical architectural forms as seen in ancient Rome and Greece as well-though the oval is more of a Baroque element. At the entrance side, the façade has three arched bays at the center flanked by three sets of two bays on each side, each gradually receding deeper into the building until the center section. The building itself creates a very powerful impression on the viewer because of its classical monumentalism, reminding one of the great buildings of Rome, and because of the use of a moat, which gives the impression that the great building is rising out of the water and whose placid surface creates a sharp contrast to the massive stoneware, increasing its monumentalism as well. This impression of power was important in order to communicate the power and wealth of the owner, Fouquetís, position. Thus the classical characteristics of order, balance, symmetry, and monumentalism are pretty well followed, especially on the garden side.



Other famous works demonstrating Le Vau's unique style include the Hôtel Lambert (1639), his masterpiece of earlier work. Here he used the Hôtel as an excellent model of his innovative, nontraditional ideas of space. For, "[The] idea of marking the major axis of a building by an architectural defined open space or series of spaces and not by a solid structure is an original contribution on Le Vauís part to contemporary French architecture" (, Le Vau, The Hotel Lambert). Le Vau also added his designs, along with Robert de Cotte and Jules Hardouin-Mansart, to the reconstruction of the once royal residence and place of government, the chateau at Versailles, under the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV. Le Vauís designed its "nucleus", which was later completed by Mansart (, Le Vau). In fact, his design of the extended Versailles was highly influential to palace design thereafter. Although it was completed by Lemercier and Hardouin-Mansart, it was his "rough sketch" and "substantial form" that made the improved Versailles what it was (Catholic Encyclopedia, Le Vau). His unique treatment and focus on space is also very well exemplified at Versailles. The courtyard was put in front of the façade instead of the normally enclosed design, which was one of the most imitated design elements copied by later palaces (Catholic Encyclopedia, Le Vau). For, "Levau extended the so-called marble court of the old palace by the addition of side wings, and, by pushing these back laterally, he gave to the court a greater breadth" (Catholic Encylopedia, Le Vau). Along with these new architectural designs came accompanying and likewise newly reconstructed gardens and interiors created by Charles Le Brun and André Le Nôtre, respectively.



Le Vau also added his talents to the construction of the Palais du Louvre. The Catholic Encyclodpedia states, "After 1654 he completed the south and north wings of the Louvre as successor to Lescot and Lemercier, and then built the east wing, thereby concluding the square up to the colonnade on the east side" (Catholic Encyclopedia, Le Vau). He was a member of the committee, along with architects Claude Perrault and Charles Le Brun, which designed the Louvre's Colonnade. One can see the reserved French Baroque sense of order in the repeated pattern of columns and first floor windows, as well as Classical influence in its architectural forms of the Corinthian columns themselves and central pediment. Other noteworthy creations of Le Vau are the Collège des Quatre Nations, the Institute de France, and the Church of St. Sulpice.

Louvre's Colonnade


  Thus Le Vau was a highly influential, though oft forgotten, architect of the 17th century who brought an emphasis of space to the forefront, mixing his own styles while promoting the classicizing style of Italy in the reserved, though impressive, buildings of French power.





Babelon, Jean-Pierre. "Louis Le Vau at the College Mazarin: Rome in Paris?"

Feldmann, Dietrich. "Le Vau."

Gietmann, G. "Louis Levau" Catholic Encylopedia.

Greenhalgh, Michael. "Classicism, Renaissance to 17th century."

Tadgell, Christopher. "France." Baroque & Rococo: Architecture & Decoration. Ed. Anthony Blunt et al. London: Paul Elek, 1978.

Briggs, Martin Shaw. Baroque Architecture. London: Adelphi Terrace, 1913.

Kaufmann, Emil. Architecture in the Age of Reason. Harvard: Archon Books, 1966.

Millon, Henry A. Baroque and Rococo Architecture. New York: George Braziller, 1961.



Le Vau

S. Maria della Pace

Institute de France

S. Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane via/wiener_neustadt/

Vaux-le-Vicomte arch/vaux_vicomte.html

Versailles History/bldg2a.html

Louvre's Colonnade