The speculative challenges of festival architecture in eighteenth-century France


Eric Monin

Translated by Nick Hargreaves and Christine Macy


Bonnemaison, Sarah; Macy, Christine. Festival Architecture (The Classical Tradition in Architecture) (pp. 155-157). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Even today, the feasting and splendor of public festivals in eighteenth-century France evoke an image of a frivolous and lavish monarchy. The excess of these events, however, should not disguise the political aims behind them, which required them to be magnificent in direct proportion to their diplomatic importance. City-sponsored public festivals were meticulously documented in sumptuous anthologies offered as diplomatic gifts. Representations of the events were embellished by narratives laden with superlatives, accompanied by descriptions of crowds tirelessly celebrating the glory of a sovereign who was always the centre of the celebration (Monin 2005a). The cries, the colors, the music, the distribution of wine and foodstuffs, the luxury and abundance expressed in all the festival arts were generously illustrated and carefully planned with the dignity and respect appropriate to an orderly and hierarchical society.

Yet the potential for disorder or subversive behavior that was always present at public festivals required that the crowds be contained, the entertainments controlled, and the installation of temporary structures in the city closely supervised. For behind the panache of these large spectacles lay a precise, faultless organization. The power of these ephemeral events— linked to the artistic virtuosity of their creators— would have come to nothing without the rigor of a complex and well-considered system of event production. The temporary transformation of the city and the new uses to which it was put, the production of a completely reorganized environment filled with sensory stimulation, and the introduction of festive time disconnected from the rhythms of everyday life, all required mastery of event planning. No festival is improvised. Even a festival called on short notice required time for planning and preparation.

Spatial control

Eighteenth-century public festivals in France, as in other European cities, continued a tradition that had already been brilliantly elaborated in the Renaissance and the seventeenth century (Jacquot 1964 and Lecoq 1982). By the dawn of the eighteenth century, however, these projects assumed a new dimension in the context of an emerging policy for urban beautification, which was to lay the foundations for the reorganization of urban space in the Age of Enlightenment. Rapidly growing cities suffered from streets congested with traffic and the piecemeal development of water, sewage and other functions needed for their ever-growing populations (Barles 1999). Incapable of integrating these new structural requirements, large cities became synonymous with discomfort and dissatisfaction (Etlin 1977). At the same time, cities were regularly decried for the poor quality of their public buildings that did not reflect the artistic ambitions of their rulers. This misfit between rapidly growing cities and the aesthetic aspirations of their ruling elites governed the considerable transformations that were to mark the history of Western cities. Streets were widened, squares created, openings cleared to connect crucial points, and water and sewage systems organized (Guillerme 1990). Fountains flourished (Massounie 1995), quays were built to simplify the unloading of ships, and nuisances identified and banished from the cities (Patte 1769), while principles of decency and accommodation (bienséance and convenance) guided the artistic production of architects responsible for the construction of new public buildings (Szambien 1986). Nourished by much theorizing (Fichet 1979), this policy of urban beautification was put into practice with the introduction of a rigorous regulatory framework that aimed to correct the long-term development of the city, aided by the grand projects and major public works of the central government (Harouel 1993).

In this rethinking of the city— which made it a subject for reflection and an arena for action— one must consider public festival projects among the body of urban experimentation that accompanied the Age of Enlightenment. The issue of transforming the city occupied a central position in all these projects, and included efforts to reorganize urban functions and to introduce new urban landscapes reflecting the latest fashion (Monin 2005b). These considerations affected the work of those organizing the festivals. Although the choice of a festival site may have depended on a long-established practice, each project required specialized planning considerations— the aim being to provide a large public with the possibility of enjoying, under good conditions, a festival dedicated to a king or a prince who would actually be at the event. The size of the site, its accessibility and layout had to be designed to accommodate large crowds and avoid congestion resulting from the temporary constructions built for the occasion, and sufficient openings had to be provided for crowds to circulate safely through the site.

The weight of tradition occasionally countered this logic; for example, municipal squares of cities with growing populations were often too small to handle the expected crowds. To compensate, festival organizers turned to natural amphitheaters formed by the rivers crossing through the main cities of the realm: in Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Lille, Strasbourg and Grenoble, the Seine, Sône, Loire, Deûle, Ille and Isère rivers became the stage settings for festivals. Public grandstands and viewing platforms were built on the riverbanks, and crowds massed on quays, at windows and on rooftops. Prized by festival designers, riverbank sites made the assembly of large crowds possible, as evidenced by the head counts published on completion of these events. The compendium published for the festivals held in Paris for the marriage of Louis XV’s eldest daughter Marie-Louise-Elisabeth (known as Madame Première) to the Infante Don Felipe of Spain, stated that 500,000 people lined the Seine River to see the festivities (although one must be cautious when using these figures, since an estimate of 1745 cites 600,000 people in attendance) (GDA, C 3638). For the 1782 celebration of the birth of the Dauphin, Pierre-Louis Moreau estimated that his placement of the fireworks machine on the bank of the Seine River allowed a third of the city’s population, or 280,580 persons, to view the display (NA, K 1017: 273). As an inspiration for this festival, he recalled his earlier proposal for the banks of the Seine, establishing a direct link between permanent and ephemeral transformations (Moreau 1769). The Place de Grève was completely redesigned in its form and decoration. Reorganized to lie perpendicular to the Seine, it was closed off to the north by a monumental gallery providing a wing to the main façade of the Htel de Ville. Organized after the raising of the Place des Canons and the extension of Quai Pelletier, this festival provided an opportunity to temporarily realize a beautification project that had never been carried out.

At that time, the Place de Grève was still the showplace for the expression of municipal power, with the Lord Provost and city council members offering, for example, prestigious guests the keys to the city (Le Moël 1984). This obligatory visit was accompanied by a more or less complicated staging that might culminate in fireworks viewed by the honored guest from the balcony of the building. To celebrate a military victory, the signature of a peace treaty, or the birth of a prince, the Htel de Ville and houses of council members were decorated and illuminated and the Place de Grève was carefully prepared for the ceremony. The construction of a fireworks machine along the axis of the city hall, flanked by colonnades that formed wings to the building, and the installation of illuminated yew trees and tapered pedestals to light the square, all contributed to rectifying the irregularities of the site. In any case, regularity, layout and harmony were the keywords governing the installation of these ephemeral projects.

Lights arranged in lines appeared to straighten out winding streets and introduced regular patterns on the street level of houses lacking order and harmony. In November of 1744, the city of Paris celebrated the return of Louis XV from a military campaign by lining the Marché Saint-Paul with chandeliers of Suresnes lamps supported on posts laid out “at a suitable distance so that the rue St-Antoine could be extended the same width (across the market square)” (NA, H2 1861). Below Place de Grève in Place des Canons (a location traditionally reserved for working-class festivities), a “hall of light” was created by garlands of lamps and steel wire chandeliers suspended from the posts outlining the area of festivities.

The main purpose of such posts, barriers, frameworks and lights was to organize the festival space. The intention was to set limits, draw contours and precisely outline the site where the festival was to take place. But it was first necessary to identify an “attractive site” (Blondel 1771: II, VII 282)— that is, a place known for its formal and aesthetic qualities— before setting up the festival. In 1782, for his project constructed on Place de Grève, Moreau had no hesitation in “enlarging the site to receive and place their Majesties and the Court as suitably as possible.”( Gazette 1782: 46) Festival designers were only able to engage the city by exerting considerable efforts in their designs to overcome the constraints of urban space. One solution that promised to overcome all these difficulties presented itself on the occasion of the competition organized for the new Place Louis XV (Garms 2003). A large number of the entries proposed schemes adapted to large festivals: Beausire l’Aîné proposed creating a large square opening onto the Seine River adjacent to the Htel de Ville that would be able to hold a considerable number of people; Cardon imagined a bridge linking the Ile de la Cité, Ile Saint-Louis and Place de Grève able to contain “a vast crowd that would be placed comfortably and without danger” (Granet 1962: 51); Contant proposed rebuilding the Htel de Ville on Quai Malaquai, fronting a square that “would be very useful for holding public festivals” (Granet 1962: 199); and finally, Servandoni, using antiquity as his source, proposed an amphitheatre outside the city able to hold “a prodigious number of spectators” (Patte 1765: 211).

When it was finally built at the western end of the Jardin des Tuileries, Place Louis XV seemed to offer the appropriate solution. Yet as fate would have it, during the fireworks display held for the birth of the Dauphin in 1770, a terrible accident caused by a panic in the crowd led to the death of several hundred Parisians. This disaster led to a complete rejection of the site for public festivity; none of the site’s other qualities could compensate for the public’s fear of its surrounding moats. The festival tradition returned to the center of the city, at the Place de Grève. Yet this attempt proved that durable structures and ephemeral projects could coexist, and anticipated the development of public infrastructures (Chaudoir and Ostrowetski 1996: 80). However, such coordinated planning was not the norm. More commonly, festival organizers struggled to overcome the city’s many imperfections. Backed by an array of municipal decrees aimed at controlling dangerous practices and behaviors, festival organizers were engaged in a risky undertaking with an uncertain outcome, as they set in motion measures that disturbed the usual patterns of city life and aimed to transform the city’s image.

An appraisal of the festival site was the first step towards resolving its logistical problems. To orchestrate the safe movement of crowds converging towards the festival site, traffic management plans were drawn up to chart the flows of goods and people. Instructions were circulated prior to the event in the form of municipal decrees enacted specifically for the occasion. Occasionally, festival organizers mandated separate circulation routes for coaches and pedestrians. For the 1784 launching of the Flesselle aerostat in Lyon for example, the city architect Jean-Antoine Morand dictated parking along the route for coaches traveling from the city center to the festival site. On their return, vehicles had to continue their route across country before circling back to the city. Similarly, in 1770 the engineer Perronet took exceptional measures to control the flow of people attending the festival for the striking down of the new Neuilly bridge, keeping them away from the parking area reserved for royal and palace coaches, and controlling all the traffic in an enlarged perimeter around the festival site (Figure 7.1):

we imposed such a strict organization from the outskirts of Paris and on the roads around Neuilly over a distance of two leagues, that one could arrive without confusion and leave in the same manner and this meant that there were no accidents: this was much more difficult closer to Paris given the considerable number of coaches and crowds drawn by the presence of the King, the wooden bridge used by everyone to pass onto the other side was narrow and the place where this event was to take place very enclosed.

(Perronet 1783: 98)

Wooden barricades were positioned around festival sites to channel the movements of the crowd, reduce accidents, and prevent people from falling into the river and drowning. For example, the estimates for the list of carpentry work to be erected in Paris in 1749 to celebrate the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle included several items concerning the construction of “barriers necessary for the safety of the public on the day of the festivities” (NA, K 1009: 2122).

Employing both appeals and prohibitions, a regulatory framework aimed to control all parameters that might hinder the smooth running of the event. The law accompanied and controlled the actions of the festival organizers, prepared the groundwork for the festival and preserved the city and its inhabitants from risks associated with the event. The use of space was also subject to specific rules. Inhabitants did not have the right to erect scaffolding or stands that might obstruct the space occupied by the festival. To reduce fire risks, it was forbidden to throw firecrackers or launch rockets and should these rules be infringed, those responsible were subject to heavy fines or punishments: “Fathers and mothers are responsible for their children, school headmasters for their students, masters for their servants” (Lecler du Brillet 1738: t. VI, 149).

The issue of public order, however, went further than restrictions on public behavior, it also affected the organization of the festival sites. The entries of kings, princes and ambassadors into cities provide the best illustration of this. The care invested in the composition of these processions and the richness of their retinue testified to the centrality of these events in the political life of the realm, and their pomp and circumstance figuratively represented royal power to the public. The routes taken by these formal entries needed to be wide enough for state coaches drawn by six or eight horses, while still accommodating considerable crowds. As a result, processional routes used the widest and straightest roads (Monin 2006). Generated by the rhythm of events inherent in the kingdom, festivals drew out an urban geography that was dictated by the demands of political events. In that regard, public festivals pushed ideas about the city forward into the reality of the Age of Enlightenment with more acuity than any urban embellishment project.

Lastly, organizers had to consider the pleasure of the spectators. Good visibility was essential to fully appreciate the fireworks and festival illuminations. Organizers had to keep this in mind as they laid out the site and designed its embellishments. Squares were transformed into theaters surrounding fireworks machines or in front of illuminated façades. In Nantes, the façade of the new commodities exchange was regularly used as a lit backdrop for the public festivals taking place in the square facing the building. The wings of the Place de la Bourse were decorated by pilasters crowned with a continuous cornice “connected to one another by a balustrade and a string of lanterns” attached to the trunks of two rows of elms leading up to the building (LADA, C 700: 24). Using the urban structure of this site, this illumination accentuated the geometry of the square and overlaid it with an avenue, temporarily modifying the city.

Many ephemeral projects used similar devices to transform urban spaces for festivals. When Madame de France visited Lyon in 1749, Place Louis-le-Grand became the stage for illuminations intended to draw attention to the statue of Louis XIV by underlining the balustrades and accompanying the fountains livening up the square (LMA, AA 145: 49). In 1759, Jean-Antoine Morand, the city architect, proposed increasing the size of the setting by building four porticos along the outer edge of the square. Designed for the king’s entry into the city, this project, which was never built, was intended to produce, “seen from a certain distance […] the same effect as the Trianon in Versailles” (LMA, AA 144: 44). In the center of the square, around the statue of Louis-le-Grand, Morand completed his composition by “using a circular plan, the same arcades crowned by a balustrade similar to the square’s boundary” (LMA, AA 144: 44). In a similar manner in Paris, Rue de la Ferronnerie was frequently transformed into a “vast gallery” embellished by two rows of porticos positioned in front of the houses, forming a straight aisle leading to a monumental decoration built against the houses on Rue Saint-Denis (Ruggieri 1802: 270) (Figure 7.2).

These examples show that the framed gallery was the leitmotiv for many festival designs, one that allowed festival organizers to correct imperfections of the ground floor. This device was a remedy for the “state of negligence, confusion and disorder” of cities, so lamented by Abbot Laugier (Laugier 1753: 209). To address these problems and to compensate for gaps in the decoration of buildings, Laugier had proposed substituting “the horrible hovels that clutter, narrow and disfigure most bridges […] by large and attractive column-supported porticos located at both sides” (Laugier 1753: 230). We are thus brought right to the heart of the problem represented by urban beautification: the definition proposed by the Encyclopaedia suggests to what degree festival projects might participate in this logic of transformation—“ beautifying means artistically adding to objects that might be uninteresting in themselves, forms or accessories to render them interesting, agreeable, precious, etc.” Having identified the weaknesses and irregularities of urban festival sites, their organizers took measures to correct faults by adding elements to reconfigure urban squares into new spatial and aesthetic orders. Such rectifications, straightening of irregularities and concealment of chaotic buildings allowed organizers to present exemplary urban arrangements. In this way, festivals played as important a role in the reform of urban space as did more durable beautification projects during the Age of Enlightenment.

Nonetheless, numerous critics virulently attacked public festivals as wasteful and pointless extravagances. Voltaire regretted that the sums swallowed up by festivals were not reserved for urban beautification, contrasting the comfort and magnificence of the city with the organization of “small fireworks displays taking place opposite a shoddy building on a little square used for the execution of criminals” (Voltaire 1750: 78)— a criticism that was echoed two decades later by Louis-Sébastien Mercier (Mercier 1776: t.I, 47– 8). But it would be unjust to consider these ephemeral projects as mere substitutes for permanent beautification projects, disconnected from the urban problems of the period. Although they were only temporary installations, it was precisely their capacity to act directly and immediately on the form of the city that won over the officials from the provinces who were often responsible for approving these works. Such festivals expressed the power of the central government in public spaces more rapidly than, for example, the commissioning of monumental statues in city squares.

Controlling effects

Controlling space went hand in hand with controlling the new points of view provided to the public. In his Cours d’architecture, Jacques-François Blondel insisted on the need to define an appropriate distance to appreciate the illuminations “especially [when they] are to be found at the end of a large road, an attractive allée, a canal, etc.” (Blondel 1771: II, VII 277). This concept of “standing back” (point de distance) contributed to the notion of the “viewpoint” which, at that time, held an important place in the development of the idea of urban beautification. In the Encyclopaedia (relying in part on definition given in the Daviler dictionary), the viewpoint is “the spot where one stops at a given distance to fully enjoy the most advantageous aspect of a building.” The siting of ephemeral projects was clearly dictated by this visibility criterion when they were placed at the ends of streets, aligned with traffic routes, in the center of squares and extending their openings, erected on bridges, positioned at high points of the city or anchored in the middle of rivers. In Paris, the aesthetic and visual qualities of the Seine River between the Pont-Neuf and the royal bridge were regularly incorporated into festivals. This is how architect Jean-Nicolas Servandoni justified choosing this site for the marriage between Madame Première and the Infante Don Felipe of Spain, in 1739.

This vast canal is bordered by spacious quaysides and superb buildings that, when taken together are able to hold, much like the tiers of an amphitheatre, a vast number of people. There has never been a better location for a great festival and none that could have a better effect.

(Description 1740: 2)

Ending with a view of the Pont Neuf, the backdrop to this perspective represented an ideal stage setting for Servandoni to construct a monumental fireworks machine in front of the equestrian statue of Henri IV.

The siting of ephemeral constructions along processional routes had to be calculated according to points of view. A memorandum written in anticipation of the visit to Bordeaux by the Infanta Marie-Thérèse in 1745 and attributed to Servandoni, clearly develops the principles underlying the location of these projects:

As a general rule, important monuments are planned for a city in such a way as to give their best effect when seen in perspective […], therefore there is no doubt that any badly placed edifice will lose a large amount of the reputation it deserves. As a result, its author will gain far less renown because, although ordinarily it will be said to be attractive, it will not have been seen from the artist’s point of view […]; in other words, everything that is decoration, even decoration that will only exist for a few days, should be visible to the public without fearing they will die in the effort. (GDA, C 3638) Servandoni’s design for this event scrupulously integrated these principles. One of the various constructions distributed along the Infanta’s processional route was a square-shaped triumphal arch in the city’s moat, “pierced in all directions by four arcades […] through which one discovers the tree-lined streets and buildings forming the most attractive district in the city” (GDA, C3638). Simultaneously a beautifying object and a machine used to frame and stage the city of Bordeaux, this construction illustrated the architect’s inventiveness and foresight. The design was deliberate and controlled. While the triumphal arch bearing the decorations complies with the rules of good architecture, Servandoni uses the unique form of the arch to create tableaus that bring together disparate perspective views, thereby turning this construction into a pivotal point, a centre of urban composition that entirely renews the meaning of the urban landscape.

The anonymous author of a project proposed in 1770— which unfortunately was never carried out— for the marriage between the Dauphin and Marie-Antoinette on Place Louis XV also proposed establishing a large number of visual relationships between the royal square and the neighboring districts, as if the site of the festival had become the point of departure for a visual conquest of the surrounding landscape. The festival spilled out from Place Louis XV and crossed the Seine to the opposite bank to involve other districts (Projets 1770: 26). But the project went much further: proposing to visually link the two river banks by constructing mirrored illuminations that would underline the north-south axis across the ensemble:

The illuminations of these two facades could be linked [the author was discussing the two colonnades on Place Louis XV] by providing a point of view at a sufficient distance that would look down the royal street separating these two buildings […]. This would be answered by an identical device on the other side of the river which would be mirrored by its counterpart on Rue de Bourgogne, assuming that these two streets run in a straight line, something that we doubt. The illumination of Rue Royale would represent a mock-up of the portal to the future Madeleine church; opposite, on Rue de Bourgogne, there would be a matching portal. (Projets 1770: 42– 3)

The spatial investment was based on a visual and landscape composition. Thanks to Place Louis XV and the terraces of the Tuileries, the view projects the city, a capital freed from its physical limits, towards the west and the countryside beyond. The third day of the festival described by this narration proposes an illumination which “would be continued […] beyond the top of the mountain, and the gates of the Barrière de Chaillot. A superb decoration in the form of a triumphal arch would be erected at the top of this mountain” (Projets 1770: 26). These latter proposals prove that festivals were also able to anticipate the city’s development by becoming the tool of a spectacular simulation.

Controlling the viewpoints of an ephemeral layout meant controlling the visual effects that transported the public into the festival’s phantasmagorical universe. This postulate was essential as it allowed the planned effects to be precisely designed and made best use of the money spent. In other words, work was concentrated on the visible parts of the project. It was this principle that anchored public festivals to the world of performing arts. In most cases, timber scaffoldings held in place painted canvas stretched on frames (Monin 2003). The aim was to produce the illusion of a sumptuous architecture which would magically replace day-to-day urban settings. Pushed by time, limited by the means invested, festival organizers found their inspiration in the universe of theater decor, both in terms of installation techniques and expected effects (Rabreau 1978). In his search for rules able to define an architecture that would stimulate the senses, Le Camus de Mézières understood the need to borrow the concept of effect from the theatrical world (Le Camus de Mézières 1780: 5– 6). The best theater sets did not merely depict where the action was taking place, but communicated all the sensations appropriate to the setting. Highly impressed by the dioramas invented by Jean-Nicolas Servandoni (Servandoni 1739), Le Camus de Mézières explained how the architect:

knew how, in a silent spectacle, to make the public feel the effect of the sun’s burning light. […] there were almost no shadows, the sky glowed red, the land arid, a lighting effect that seemed to set the air afire; all these elements produced an illusion from which none of the spectators could escape; there was almost a feeling of suffering, we were subjugated by the power of art. (Le Camus de Mézières 1780: 6)

Illusion drove this art, and the skills of all the artists involved gave form to the phantasmagorical universe of the great baroque festivals. As in the theater, trompe-l’oeil painting played an essential role in creating the illusion (Zorzi 1977). Specifications and estimates detailed how color should be used to emphasize areas in relief and how the imitation of noble materials could trick viewers into believing the effects. In Bordeaux, the triumphal arch constructed in relief and erected by Servandoni was “so well built and so perfectly imitated stone that, without touching it, one could be completely fooled by its appearance” (GDA, C3638). For these public festivals, bronze, gold, Genoa marble, white marble, violet marble, green marble, alabaster, agate, emerald and lapis-lazuli invaded the cities of the kingdom … thanks to paint. For the most important projects, constructions were erected in relief, with stretched canvases used for the flat surfaces and columns, pilasters and pediments protruding into the foreground along with plaster or cardboard statues that gave volume to the setting. In this specific case, Servandoni preferred the restraint of forms to the fantasy of color. In Bordeaux in 1745, as in Paris in 1739, he specified that “a uniform stone color be used to cover all materials that had been employed in the construction of the edifice” (Description 1740; GDA, C 3638). Frequently employed for the decoration of orchestra rostrums and wine fountains, this solution emphasized the monolithic nature of the works. Occasionally, a combination of these two systems was used to reflect a hierarchy between the visible and hidden faces of the construction, as in the decoration for the temporary Temple of Hymen planned in 1747 for the western tip of the Ile de la Cité in Paris on the occasion of the Dauphin’s second marriage. Richly colored architectural reliefs were to face the Seine River where the performance was to take place while, to the rear, “the face overlooking the road was to be given a treatment of rusticated stone painted on canvas” (NA, H2 1861). Imitation marble or stone were not only used to simulate richness and luxury. They were also used to introduce an idea of stability and longevity corresponding to the aesthetic principles of the age (Plate 7a). At that time, duration was essential if buildings were to bear witness to the grandeur of a sovereign’s reign, and constructions able to face the future without weathering acquired the status of monument (Wittman 1997). In Monuments érigés en France à la gloire de Louis XV, Pierre Patte, discussing the construction of the Sainte-Geneviève church, reaffirmed the durable nature of the building which, from the moment it was designed, incorporated an important commemorative value, “The precautions we take in everything we do to ensure the perfect completion of this latter monument should render it eternal” (Patte 1765: 7).

What legitimacy could be accorded to public festivals within this context? How could a festival emerge unscathed from a debate that ceaselessly underlined the imbalance between what was durable and what was ephemeral, a debate which contrasted the wisdom of well-considered investments to the extravagance of public festivals? The solution lay in the ever-greater effects offered to citizens. Festivals created their own monumentality out of surprise, extraordinary beauty, dazzling effects, resounding thunder and lightning; they were designed to impress and leave an indelible memory. The simulation of noble materials even depicted the wear of time: in Rome in 1729, the edifices erected on Piazza Navona for the birth of the Dauphin were richly decorated with trompe-l’oeil “in imitation aged and worn marble to give an impression of antiquity” (Daudet 1731: 299). But of what use was an imitation marble that revealed the wear of time without the figurative representation of an architecture that strictly obeyed “the rigorous rules imposed by past masters” (GDA, C3638)? Volutes, fully arched arcades with their archivolts, freestanding columns crowned with pediments, pilasters with their bases, capitals, triglyphs, metopes and mutules, entablatures incorporating architraves, friezes and cornices ornamented with modillions and rosettes, cradled arcades forming a barrel vault enriched with regularly placed alcoves, acroteria crowned by balustrades and vases were imitated using wooden planks, cardboard, plaster and daub.

These figurative representations conveyed the image of a learned architecture, and more licentious productions were in any case severely criticized by specialists who rejected fanciful experiments (Blondel 1771: II, VII 276). But, over and above these rules, festivals were settings for imitated finishes. In most accounts, such artifice was not discussed. To be sure, there were exceptions, such as a description of the Temple of Peace constructed in Lille in 1749 in which the author, either through clumsiness or excessive zeal, explains that the “columns, pilasters and entablature frieze are in imitation agate,” the plinth in “imitation rustic stone” and the crown elements in “different types of imitation white marble” (Description 1749; LML, 24642) (Plate 7b). In the Encyclopaedia, a paragraph in the architecture article is devoted to the concept of imitation architecture— architecture feinte— with this concept serving to represent:

all plans, projections and reliefs of a real architecture simply through the use of color, such as can be seen on several façades in Italy and on the twelve pavilions of the Château de Marly; or for the decorations of theatres and triumphal arches painted on canvas or wood, either as flat projections or perspectives for royal entries, public festivals, funeral processions, fireworks displays, etc. (Encyclopédie 1751: I, 618)

Like Michel de Pure, should one deduce that festivals “tricked and insulted” the public through the use of artifice comparable to “a house of cards, constructions made from paper”? (Pure 1668: 207) If there was deception, could it not be said that it was based on a tacit agreement between the public and the festival organizers? Was this architecture feinte capable of challenging the credibility of the spectators without disappointing them? How otherwise is it possible to explain the infatuation of citizens for these events, without taking into consideration the mixture of kindness and indulgence that seemingly motivated the public? (Monin 2005a)

The role played by festival audiences should not be underestimated. Both festival designers and the public expected a great deal from these ephemeral projects. Undoubtedly, the festive atmosphere and the distribution of wine and food stimulated a crowd’s exuberance and considerably increased its capacity to be impressed, as imperfections were erased by drunkenness and people’s senses aroused by a vast array of lights, sounds and smells. Intoxicated by such richness, the public willingly succumbed to the entertainment and gave free rein to its imagination. This was the moment when one could invert the order of things to create a sense of wonderment. As early as the seventeenth century, Father Ménestrier explained the success of public festivals as being the result of a pact controlling the diversity of energies brought together by the festivities. He evoked an expression of a joy that was “magnificent in its profusion,” “ingenious,” but “never disturbing” (Ménestrier 1660: 4). For him, it was decorum, or bienséance

that presided over all public ceremonies, that made them magnificent, that controlled their conduct; and that their success was owed to the majesty accompanying this pomp. They made use of various devices to insinuate themselves into the spirits of the spectators, often inversing the order of nature by making birds swim, fish fly and mountains and rocks dance (Ménestrier 1660: 5)

The scene of action spread far beyond the limits of specific architectural representations. All means were used to astound the public and encourage a sense of wonderment. The forces of nature were regularly called on to inspire enchantment or cause fright. The order of the seasons was inverted, mountains rose dramatically from city centers, and extraordinary creatures swam through the rivers while festival organizers prepared the confrontation of elements.

Above all, it was the presence of fire in the city that shattered all references of the citizens (Plate 7b). Taking place at nightfall, festivals became renowned for the sparkle of their lights and illuminations accompanying the simulated architectures. Countless chandeliers, illuminated trees, candelabras, torches, candles, Suresnes lamps, fire pots and lanterns were arranged on the approaches of the festival sites, to light the festivities or create architectural effects, giving birth to extraordinary and spectacular nighttime environments. Because there was little or no ordinary street lighting, the brilliance of these illuminations was all the more impressive. This is evident from the many accounts of these festivals that dwelt on the illuminations, often drawing disproportionate comparisons— for example, when myriad lights laid out around festival areas were seen to transform dark winter nights into “beautiful days” (Monin 2005a; NA, K 1017). For the Dauphin’s first marriage in 1745:

all the bourgeoisie and inhabitants of the city competed with one another in showing their joy, by placing splendid illuminations in front of their houses— one could have thought it a beautiful summer day, but never the night. (NA, H2 1861)

Associated with this profusion, paintings on sheer fabrics were stretched across windows and lit from within, illustrating the subject of the festival. Taken to an extreme, this technique allowed the creation of luminous architectures that shone at night like magic lanterns. In 1739, the temple of music designed by Servandoni and anchored in the middle of the Seine produced a surprising effect highly appreciated by Parisians:

It was entirely made from transparent fabric and lit from the inside by an infinite number of lights that had been artfully hidden and distributed. It produced a soft glow that was easy on the eye, fully revealing the contours and colors of the painting without being dazzled. (Description 1740: 5– 6)

Finally, fireworks played an essential part in the organization of public festivals. For Frézier, fireworks and ephemeral architecture were intertwined, “these two elements are interrelated, with the structures being designed for the fireworks and, reciprocally, the fireworks for the structures” (Frézier 1747: 449) (Figure 7.3). Dominated by the Italians, this art form presented displays that were the apotheosis of these large festivals. Frézier underscored the power of fire when he wrote, “it is one of those creatures on earth that has everything needed to move us through its light and its vivacity”( Frézier 1747: XI). During the seventeenth century, André Félibien des Avaux had already underlined how the festivals at Versailles offered a wonderful display in which fire, air and water were combined to become a new and extraordinary element “formed from a thousand sparks of fire that, like a thick dust or rather like an infinity of gold atoms, shone with the most glorious light” (Félibien des Avaux 1676). The fireworks showered from on high, catapulted through the air, floated on the water in dragons that spat a thousand flames before exploding, or plunged into the river before emerging as a twinkling outline. During the Revolution, Claude Ruggieri even tried to let off fireworks from hydrogen-filled aerostatic balloons! With their capacity to create explosive light, sound and olfactory effects, fireworks overwhelmed the city with their apparent violence and awesome power— although this too, was understood to be illusion, since pyrotechnicians were expected to control their displays to avoid accidents. Yet fireworks could be capricious and temperamental, particularly in bad weather. It was rare for an event to enjoy a “beautiful location, transparent waters and a temperate sky”; this would offer optimal conditions for a project (Blondel 1771: II, VII 282). In bad weather, it was sometimes wiser and simpler to abandon the festival and postpone it to the “first day of good weather” (LADA, C700: 37).

Music was another effect employed to create the fantasy world of public festivals. Considerable efforts were made to create sound landscapes at the scale of the street, the district or, occasionally, the entire city. Dozens of orchestras accompanied these illuminations, wine fountains and the temporary halls erected in the city, producing an extraordinary multi-level musical lattice. The festivals organized to celebrate the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1749 or the Dauphin’s wedding in 1782 distributed twenty-five orchestras across the city, while the public festivities of 1752— held for the Dauphin’s convalescence— were accompanied by twenty orchestras comprising over two hundred musicians.

Occasionally, music accompanied the flow of processions, thereby contributing to inscribe a new geography of dynamic sounds. The choice of instruments, but also the number of musicians in the orchestras, reveals the priorities for this musical engagement of the city. Generally grouping together a dozen musicians, these orchestras were located on the main public squares, in the middle of major intersections and next to the wine fountains. The orchestras placed in temporary halls erected for the Dauphin’s marriage in 1745 each had twenty-five musicians, while the 1739 celebration of the nuptial of Madame Première placed a symphonic orchestra of 180 musicians on the tiers of a floating music room in the middle of the Seine, conducted by François Francoeur and Jean-Ferry Rebel (Description 1740: 5). With their violins, cellos, basses, fifes, trumpets, musettes, drums, kettledrums, hunting horns and oboes, the intonations of the bands gave a powerful rhythm to the night.

Orchestral stages were timber structures supporting benches for the musicians, painted canvases depicting the festival themes and a richly decorated backdrop at the rear (Figure 7.4). These basic but solid constructions allowed the musicians to be seated at levels appropriate to their instruments, with the violins, cellos and wind instruments positioned lower down and the kettledrums to the sides. Raised on scaffolding, not only was the orchestra more visible, but it could be heard from a greater distance. And of course, audibility governed the placement of these orchestras as much as did public circulation and the requirements of dancing. As there were no technical means to evaluate the acoustic impact of these choices, effective orchestra location relied on precedent or the advantageous use of sites with obvious acoustic qualities (Monin 1999). Rivers were particularly appreciated as sites, since they multiplied lighting effects across the surface of the water and amplified sounds as well. In Paris in 1722 and 1739, in Nantes in 1722, and in Lyon in 1759, orchestras were set up on the Seine, Loire and Sane Rivers to heighten the pleasure of citizens thronging the quaysides.

Wherever it took place, music transformed the day-to-day life of the public. It helped citizens to immerse themselves body and spirit into the event— even weighed down by feasting, spectators could not but be affected by orchestral music in city streets. Dancing made people feel lighter, their pains forgotten as the music took hold. We need only read the incredible description of the festivals organized in Nantes in 1729 for the birth of the Dauphin, where “nothing was more curious and surprising than a dance that had been secretly prepared by negroes and negresses with instruments from their country, expressing their dances with all the subtlety and bizarre appropriateness of their nation” (NMA, AA 59: 12– 64). And people, like the music itself, were orchestrated. Their movements were planned as spectators were protected, sheltered and, depending on their status, more or less comfortably installed. In 1739 and 1745, the courtyard of the Htel de Ville in Paris was entirely covered by a giant oil-cloth canopy to protect the guests of a masked ball from inclement weather, a device frequently used by festival organizers in Paris (Description 1740: 19). Six large entertainment buildings constructed in the capital in 1745 were also covered with oil-cloths to “protect the public from heavy rainstorms,” as it was occasionally necessary to “take over from nature” to assure the success of these exceptional projects (NA, H/ 2/ 1861: 159; Description 1730: 4). Particular precautions were taken for princes, princesses and representatives of royal power, such as the tents erected to “protect the ladies from the evening dew” for the Grenoble celebrations of the marriage of Louis XV (GMA, AA47). Mesh screens could be installed outside viewing windows to protect august audiences from stray fireworks— there being a far-from-negligible risk of accidents. Such an incident was recounted by one present at an event organized on the Place de Grève in 1729, “After supper, there was a magnificent fireworks display and the serpent from a rocket entered through the window where the king was to be found, brushed past his cheek and went on to burn Monsieur de Maurepair’s wig” (NMA, II 44: 153).

However, it was necessary to await the Revolution to see any real concern shown for the comfort of the public and even then it was not entirely innocent. While Revellière-Lépeaux proposed installing “convenient benches laid out in such a way that everyone has a clear view” for national celebrations on the Champ de Mars and placed a roof over the spectators to shelter them from inclement weather, it was also to avoid disturbing the patriotic impulses of the spectators and encourage them to remain concentrated and attentive to the ceremonies (Revellière-Lépeaux, an 6: 9). Similarly, in his Projet de Cirque National de Fêtes annuelles, Poyet proposed protecting citizens gathered on the Champ de Mars from bad weather by large tents “below which spectators would be comfortably seated, entirely protected from the inconvenience of the rain and the heat of the sun” (Poyet 1792: 10– 11).

Festivals disrupted the city, transformed the way it was appreciated by its citizens and modified relationships. This heterotopia was based on an immersion of the public in an environment disconnected from day-to-day logic (Foucault 1984: 46– 9). Constructed through the skilful assembly of myriad different devices, this new reality enveloped spectators, transporting them body and soul into an intentionally reconstructed world. It also posed significant challenges to festival organizers— weather and fireworks being the most difficult to control. There were many unknowns that could potentially ruin a festival, and only the rigor and know-how of the artists involved in these colossal undertakings made it possible to overcome these obstacles.

Making full use of available skills and know-how

Painters, draftsmen, joiners, carpenters, locksmiths, roofers, glaziers and fireworks experts were brought together under the management of a festival organizer responsible for detailing these projects and then carrying out the operations necessary for their installation. Simultaneously an architect, theater decorator and entertainment promoter, the person in charge of these delicate, expensive, politically sensitive events needed to have exceptional qualities. He needed to prove he was at ease in numerous areas of competence that demanded a wide range of knowledge and experience. Familiar with the tools, materials and techniques used for theater scenography, he had to understand the capabilities and limitations of imitation architecture— architecture feinte. As an architect, he had to know how to build supporting structures and be aware of the rules governing good taste and the principles of classical architecture. These skills, developed through drawings and models (Siemienowicz 1651: 381), allowed him to design festival projects much as he would architectural proposals.

Cost estimates from the era reveal that these professionals provided detailed breakdowns of the materials needed for the ephemeral constructions. The festival organizer was also responsible for completing the project on time— a production schedule that was often extremely compressed, for events that in themselves would only last a few hours.

Accurate scheduling required a thorough understanding of the logistics of each phase of the project, and organizers had to coordinate the movements of each trade on the festival site to minimize the nuisance to the life of the citizens. In other words, although they were in effect completely transforming the city, they had to do this without disturbing the functioning of urban space. And the great public festivals of the eighteenth century had to be reversible— every aspect of their creation recognized this assumption. They employed lightweight materials that were easy to assemble and dismantle. The framed scaffoldings were pre-fabricated elsewhere and parts marked before delivery, so that when the edifice went up rapidly on the festival site, it contributed to the effect of surprise evoked by Amédée-François Frézier, “we gather [the various parts of the edifice] very quickly, which gives it the additional quality of being a sudden and miraculous construction” (Frézier 1747: 452). At the end of the event, the constructions were dismantled just as quickly— bearing witness to a “certain grandeur”— to free up the space and return the city to its usual state (GDA, C 3638). Speed and precision were the key words characterizing this laborious ballet that brought in a large number of workers to carry out myriad handling tasks (NA, K 1013: 163).

The construction of a Hymen temple or a fireworks machine required vast amounts of materials to be taken to the public squares saw the risk of increasing the clutter on the sites where the festival was to take place. Several hundred or even thousands of pieces of wood were occasionally moved to city centers to give shape to these imposing constructions. When the Dauphin visited Bordeaux in 1745, nearly 5,000 pieces of wood were delivered to the contractors responsible for the construction of the triumphal arches, the Trajan’s column, stables, temporary city hall venue, embarkation pontoons and fireworks machine (GDA, C 1042). Several hundred northern pine boards from Danzig, Prussia and Sweden invaded the city for the construction of these gigantic projects. The framework for the fireworks machine erected in Paris in 1757 to celebrate the birth of Comte d’Artois comprised 818 parts, all of which “raised carefully and diligently to be completely vertical on all four sides and with the cut-outs perfectly aligned to put the boards in place” (NA, K 1013: 163).

For perhaps surprisingly to some (Lecoq 1993: t.VIII, 25), these lightweight, rapidly assembled constructions were built solidly to insure the safety of both workers and audiences for the events. With respect to the framework for theater structures, Frézier commented that “the solidity of the assembly could not be neglected because, whether covered with fabrics or boards forming the decorations and thus exposed to the winds, they could be toppled by an unexpected gust” (Frézier 1747: 451). In his pyrotechnical treatise published in 1802, Claude Ruggieri recalled these precepts. For him, “solidity is the most important factor to keep in mind” when it comes to frame assemblies (Ruggieri 1802: 177). Commissions were specially mandated to assure the solidity of the works. Beausire, the general controller of buildings for the City of Paris authorities was regularly called on to check the solidity of tribunes erected on the Place de Grève. In 1729, as a timber-framed room commissioned by the Spanish ambassadors collapsed during its construction due to bad weather, it had to be inspected in great detail by M. de Cotte, the king’s first architect, as well as by the lieutenant general of police dispatched by the City of Paris authorities (Daudet 1731: 150). Likewise, the six ballrooms built in the capital for the first marriage of the Dauphin in 1745 were visited during their construction:

in the presence of the said carpenters who built them, by the Master of Carpentry Works of the said city, by the civic officials responsible for master carpenters in this city, and by Hiérme Gaudrier, one of the king’s carpenters— charpentier ordinaire du roi. These persons shall jointly produce an exact and detailed report and provide their opinion to the State in writing and in the proper form concerning the cover over the City Hall courtyard, the entire construction of the six public rooms and, if need be, an assessment of their complete solidity, in strict accordance with current accepted practice. (NA, H/ 2/ 1861: 150– 1)

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