The Reform of Aulic Space in Late-Eighteenth-Century France

Jean-François Bédard
Jean-François Bédard

An advocate of the pre-Revolutionary monarchy under the Restoration, the Countess de Genlis denounced the artificiality of Napoleonic court culture. She shunned its ludicrous protocol, so different from accepted ancien régime usage, and is said to have hinted that Napoleon’s officers had consulted actors to set it in place.

She despised imperial decorative art just as much, finding its inelegant heaviness and pretentious iconography totally foreign to the refined forms of earlier royal furniture — unlike later observers who detected continuities between eighteenth-century neoclassicism and the Empire Style.

In the Countess’s view, strident Empire interiors and their bombastic furnishings could hardly mask their patrons’ glaring lack of social and political legitimacy.

Napoleonic etiquette was indeed different from that of the old monarchy. While ancien régime protocol established the rank and favour of courtiers according to a temporal scale, which dictated the length of time one could spend in the king’s presence, that of the Empire adopted a spatial measure instead.

As was practised in the households of other European rulers such as the pope, the status of members of the French imperial court was commensurate with how far they were permitted to penetrate an enfilade of rooms, the last of which was reserved exclusively for the Emperor.

Required to be constantly visible to his subjects, the king of France had bestowed distinction by the duration of his intercourse with courtiers, whereas the Emperor of the French regulated his interactions through a form of architectural triage.

This transformation of the ceremonial resulted from a decisive change that occurred during the eighteenth-century: the desacralization of the monarchy. From mid-century onward, a more utilitarian understanding of power replaced the religious model emulated by royal absolutism, which had postulated the indivisibility of the physical body of the king from the political body of the kingdom.

A decline of religious fervour and the advance of critical thinking led to the waning of a Christ-like aura of royal presence and in its place fostered representations of statehood derived from a strict separation of the ruler’s person from his political agency.

The shift from the embodiment of power to its external display had profound consequences on the shaping of aulic space. The increasingly spatialized ceremonial led to a greater formalization of rooms, greater attention to their sequence, and renewed scrutiny of the role of furniture and objects in palace settings.

The displacement of attention from the monarch’s body to his ritualized actions reduced concerns about the needs of his person but increased consideration of the public display of his power. The diminished importance of beds to the benefit of thrones in the late eighteenth-century French court strikingly conveys this change.

Unlike other European monarchies, in France it was the king’s bed and not his throne that had symbolized his temporal power. Louis XIV sat on a throne only in exceptional circumstances, for example when receiving important ambassadors.

French kings reclined on a bed when attending the special sessions of the Parlement de Paris (aptly named “lits de justice”) during which royal edicts were registered. Yet, the palace plans of innovative architects of the late ancien régime — among them Marie-Joseph Peyre (1730-1785) and his brother Antoine-François (1739-1823), known respectively as Peyre the Elder and Peyre the Younger — minimized the importance of the royal bed and thus of the king’s persona.

They focused instead on grandiose settings for public pageantry, creating extensive enfilades of salons, enormous banqueting halls, and pompous throne rooms, shifting the conception of the royal palace as the king’s residence to the symbolic centre of the nation.

Called upon by Napoleon to give material form to his court protocol, Antoine-François Peyre’s pupils, the architects Charles Percier (1764-1838) and Pierre-Léonard-François Fontaine (1762-1853), pursued their master’s vision for reforming palace environments.

Inspired by Peyre the Younger’s example, Percier and Fontaine devised for the imperial court longer sequences or rooms, grand banqueting halls, and lavish throne rooms.

Paradoxically, they couched the new ceremonial in archaic forms. Like the Peyre brothers, they looked to antiquity and to Louis XIV’s grand siècle, but also to the Renaissance palaces of Italy, for the decorative language necessary to legitimize the upstart imperial regime.

They simplified, regularized, and enlarged palace layouts to produce monumental compositions in the manner of Roman imperial architecture. In their furniture and decorative schemes, they favoured large volumes, simple geometric shapes, and flat surfaces unbroken by sculpture, on which they applied large expanses of bright colour and gilding.

A militant simplicity, even an ardent primitivism, was at work in Percier and Fontaine’s buildings and furnishings.

Rejecting the ceremonial and decorative practices of the early eighteenth-century court, they wanted to stamp out the allegedly pernicious influence of Louis XV on palace architecture. They wished to reinstate a perfected grand siècle, purified by a severe vision of antiquity and its Renaissance reinterpretations and suffused with an aesthetic of the sublime.

Their innovative plans and archaic decorative forms should lead one to reconsider Madame de Staël’s often-quoted observation that Napoleon needed only to “make the walls speak” to re-establish the monarchy when he took over the palace of the Tuileries.

On the contrary, Napoleon and his architects Percier and Fontaine sought a profound reform of French aulic space, a project that the Peyre brothers and other eighteenth-century architects had paradoxically initiated from within the old French court.

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