François Mansart and Mansard Roofs

When I was researching information for my recent Bernini post, I came across an interesting anecdote regarding Bernini’s opinion of the French architect François Mansart. The only recorded time that Bernini left Rome in his adult life was in 1665, when he was invited by Louis XIV to present a design for the Louvre palace (Bernini’s plan was ultimately rejected). Bernini found fault with everything in Paris, and mockingly compared the Parisian chimneys and skyline to a wool-carding comb. Bernini also said that all of Paris was worth less than a painting by Guido Reni. However, out of all of Bernini’s criticisms, he was able to muster some compliments for the architect François Mansart – but he couldn’t help but note that Mansart would have been much greater if he had lived in Rome.1

I developed my love for François Mansart’s architecture (not to be confused with Jules Hardouin Mansart, François Mansart’s grandnephew, whose architecture I also love) on a study abroad a couple of years ago. The image above is of the Château de Maisons-Lafitte, one of the châteaus designed by François Mansart. This château, however, is unique in being the only one designed by Mansart that still contains the original interior decoration.2

François Mansart championed the use of the mansard roof (also called simply “mansard”); although the architect did not develop the mansard roof, it is named after Mansart (although a corruption in spelling) due to the architect’s popularization of it.3 Mansards typically are a type of pitched roof that has two slopes on each of the four sides (although Mansart also also developed a three-pitched variety which was not used by other architects).4 The bottom slopes are set at a steep slope, whereas the upper slopes are at a slight incline. These two different slopes allow for maximum space for the attic interior, which accounts for why the roofs were so popular – an extra level to the structure could be added without distorting the classical proportions of the facade. Mansards are also often decorated with an oblong, flat top.5

Aren’t mansard roofs wonderful? For me, mansard roofs are one of the things which typify Paris. If I ever lived in Paris, I would have to have a mansard over my head.

1 Arthur Lubow, “Bernini’s Genius,” Smithsonian 39, no. 7 (October, 2008): 81.

2 “Mansart, François.” In Encyclopaedia Britannica 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, http://search.eb.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/eb/article-4562 (accessed 8 October 2008).

3 Peter Smith, et al. “Mansart.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T053866pg1 (accessed 8 October 2008).

4 Ibid.

5 Francis Woodman. “Roof.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T073782 (accessed 8 October 2008).

  • Hels says:

    The mansard roof and dormer windows are excellent architectural features, aren't they. But a question remains.

    If François Mansart lived in the 17th century (d1666), and most Mansard roofs are a feature of Paris' sky line in the post-Baron Haussmann 19th century, what roof line did houses have between 1650 and 1850?

  • M says:

    Hels, you bring up a really interesting question! I never thought about how mansards may not have existed (or at least would not have been popular), since the architectural element obviously was revived in the Second Empire. Good point!

    It would be interesting to study how mansards may or may not have aligned with the architectural interests of the French nobility during the Rococo period. There seems to be such a stress on 18th century interiors and salons, but what about the exteriors? Would the high ceilings created by mansards destroy the intimate settings in Rococo townhomes? (Or would that even matter, since the mansards would really be creating an attic space and not a salon?) Hmm. This would be an interesting research topic.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.