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Epic Arts in Renaissance France

Professor Phillip John Usher likes to recall an anecdote about British stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard who once asked a New York audience why we generally refer to the European revival of the classic arts of ancient Greece and Rome as the Renaissance? Why a French word instead of the Italian, rinascimento? After all, when we think of the Renaissance, we are most likely to think Italian—Leonardo da Vinci, or a Madonna by Raphael, or the Duomo in Florence 

In his new book, Epic Arts in Renaissance France, Usher, assistant professor of French, chair of the Medieval and Renaissance studies program, and associate director of the Center for Translation Studies, explores the Renaissance in France. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, Usher examines how artists, sculptors, and writers conspired to create an impressive and monumental array of distinctly French works influenced by classical forms, just as their counterparts were doing in Italy. While researching the book, Usher discovered that artists and writers maintained a constant dialogue; artists drew on epic themes or stories while epic poets promulgated similar ideals. Much of this art (but not all) served the monarchy; a French king wanted his palaces and portraits to reflect the glories of the ancient past, and used the arts to fashion himself in the guise of the ancient gods.

Usher visits several French sites that mark the prodigious output of the period spanning the late-15th to the early-17th centuries. One of the most visited museums in the world, the Louvre, provides examples of the French Renaissance both in its exteriors and interiors. Until the 16th century, the Louvre was the king’s residence and served primarily as a defensive structure. Kings Francis I and Henri II, largely credited with shaping the French Renaissance, transformed the Louvre by overhauling the outside of the building. (Its medieval foundations are still on view.) 

One of the Renaissance façades (less visited these days, as the visitor would first have to go past I. M. Pei’s Pyramide du Louvre) regales visitors with its Corinthian columns and allegorical figures with their elaborate draperies. Usher comments on the connection between art and literature: by the 1550s, readers would have started to hear about epics, such as Pierre de Ronsard’s work-in-progress, La Franciade, France’s unfinished epic poem in which an imagined hero named Francus, son of Hector, discovers France after fleeing the Trojan War. The “Muse of Parnassus” who inspired Ronsard to pen his epic, took visual form when, in 1549, Jean Goujon and Pierre Lescot depicted her on the Louvre’s façade. 

Inside the Louvre, we find the reclining Eva Prima Pandora, circa 1549, by Jean Cousin the Elder. Usher writes that for centuries, French art historians tried to make Cousin into the French Michelangelo. Originally known for his stained glass, Cousin is thought by some to be the first French artist to work in oils. The painting combines classical and Christian elements: the classical idealized female form manages to evoke the Biblical Eve with an apple tree branch in her right hand and a snake wrapped around her arm. Behind the figure, a sealed jar (often replacing the Greek box) suggests the soon-to-be-opened, mythical box of Pandora. 

The classical aesthetic also took shape in the interior architecture of the Louvre. In the Salle des Caryatides, once used for royal celebrations and featuring a platform for musical performances, architectural supports are draped women, recalling the female figures from the classical world. Among the most famous of these figures are those found at the Erechtheion in Athens. These examples at the Louvre, carved by Jean Goujon in 1550, were the first created in France. While contemporary epics might extoll the virtues and accomplishments of the French king, the monarch surrounded himself with visual reminders of artistic greatness as well.

Usher’s fascination with the Renaissance in France began as a teenager when he read Montaigne’s Essais. “Montaigne’s writing drew me in by its lack of rules. It is like a huge experiment in writing that sought out its form as it went along,” he explains. Usher delved further into the period as an undergraduate French major at Royal Holloway College at the University of London, and, later while doing his graduate work at Harvard. 

Phillip John Usher’s new book examines how art and literature enter into dialogue and communicate meaning. His new book demonstrates a methodology of approaching and interpreting literary history through the lens of the visual. By deftly pairing word and image, Usher conveys the distinctiveness and relevance of the French Renaissance.

—Stephanie Shestakow '98

—Photographs courtesy of the Louvre