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Ecole des Beaux-Arts

"The great façade on the gardens is like an enormous rococo clock-face all incrusted with images and arabesques and tablets. What mornings and afternoons one might spend there, brush in hand, unpreoccupied, untormented, pensioned, satisfiedeither persuading one's self that one would be 'doing something' in consequence or not caring if one shouldn't be."

Henry James, From a Roman Notebook (January 26, 1873)

During the long reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), a number of royal academies were founded, including the Academy of Painting and Sculpture (1648) and the Academy of Architecture (1671). By elevating artisans to academicians, the power of the medieval guilds was eroded and could be centered instead on the patronage of the king. These academies also provided classical training in the fine arts that were employed in the adornment of the new residence at Versailles, where the king moved in 1682, as well as the Louvre and Tuileries Palace (which had closed the western end of the Louvre courtyard before being destroyed in 1871 during the upheaval of the Paris Commune.

Subsidized by the State, as were the other schools, the Academy of Architecture was free to those aged fifteen to thirty who could pass the entrance examinations. By the nineteenth century, students were obliged to complete a number of increasingly demanding concours or competitions, the most prestigious of which was the Grand Prix de Rome, a rigorous annual examination that provided the winner a scholarship for advanced study at the French Academy in Rome, where classical antiquities could be seen at first hand.

Each year, for the four or five years they were in Rome, students (pensionnaires) were required to produce two sets of drawings, or envois, of Rome's ancient monuments: the état actuel, which was an exacting representation of the extant state, documenting the site with the precision of an archaeologist, and the état restauré, a more imaginary and often idealized restoration that was accompanied by a written description of the monument's antiquity and construction. These ground plans (a drawing projected on a horizontal plane) and elevations (which was projected on a vertical plane) first were shown in Rome at the French Academy there and then sent to Paris for public exhibition and critique. In the fourth year, after a thorough study of architectural detail, the student presented a complete restoration of a classical building.

Although the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and the Royal Academy of Architecture nominally were abolished in 1793 by the National Convention, their schools continued to exist and in 1819 were reorganized as one institution that in 1863 became the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts). After 320 years, the Prix de Rome was abolished, a consequence of the student protests and the general strikes of May 1968.

Constant Moyaux (1835-1911) did not win the Grand Prix de Rome d'Architecture until his sixth attempt (1861). This detail is from his fourth-year envoi, when the student's understanding of classical architecture was expected to be most refined. Painted in 1865, the watercolor measures approximately three by four feet, which allowed for meticulously rendered detail. The hypothetical reconstruction shows the façade of the Temple of Vespasian behind the Temple of Saturn. Half obscured by the Arch of Septimius Severus is the Temple of Concord. The Tabularium looms in the background and in the foreground is the Rostra, with the Golden Milestone and conical Navel of Rome. Following the convention of the Academy, all architectural elements are shown in equal detail, with no single structure dominating the composition. Rather, the weight of each building is indicated by subtle changes in tone and shadow, which is cast across the buildings at a forty-five degree angle.

The French Academy in Rome, pictured above, was founded in 1666 by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of finance under Louis XIV, although the Villa Medici did not become its home until 1803. Selected every year by an independent jury, approximately twenty pensionnaires, aged between twenty and forty-five years and able to speak French, are elected to stay in Rome for one or two years. The Academy also has extended its support to fields other than painting and music, and now includes art history, photography and cinema, literature and design, and the culinary arts.

References: Roma Antiqua: Forum, Colisée, Palatin: Envois des Architectes Français (1788-1924) (1985) exhibition catalog; The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1977) edited by Arthur Drexler. The illustration has been taken from Principles of Roman Architecture (1999) by Mark Wilson Jones. Many of the black and white ink washes are published in Fragments from Greek and Roman Architecture: The Classical American Edition of Hector d'Espouy's Plates (1981) by John Blatteau and Christiane Sears, which is an abridged translation of d'Espouy's two-volume Fragments d'Architeture Antique.

See also Pediment of Mars Ultor.

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