October 2008

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, (accessed 8 October 2008).

3 Peter Smith, et al. “Mansart.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, (accessed 8 October 2008).

4 Ibid.

5 Francis Woodman. “Roof.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, (accessed 8 October 2008).


Bernini in America

So, apparently, good things can come from being forced to return illegally obtained works of art. After the Getty museum returned around 40 illegally excavated and exported antiquities to Italy, the museum was able to receive rare Italian loans for a blockbuster exhibition of Bernini’s work – the first major exhibition for the Baroque sculptor in America. One of the loans includes the portrait bust of Costanza Bonarelli, Bernini’s mistress. Like with many of Bernini’s other portraits, Costanza is portrayed with her head turned and lips parted, as if she is about to speak. The lifelike and dramatic quality of Bernini’s portraits is just one of the things that I love so much about his sculptures.

One thing that is unusual about Costanza’s portrait is that it appears that Bernini made the bust for his own enjoyment. During the Baroque period, marble was quite expensive, and it is quite unusual for an uncommissioned marble bust to have been made at this time. In fact, this sculpture is thought to be the first uncommisioned bust in art history.

Bernini’s other portrait sculptures are just as captivating and lifelike. One of the reasons for this lifelike quality is that Bernini tried to convey different textures (e.g. hair, lace, cloth, etc.) with the marble. He also would carve deep incisions which would create shadows and thereby suggest dark color – which can be seen in the dark irises of the Pedro de Foix Montoya bust. Bernini did not have his portrait subjects sit for him while he worked, which makes his stunning likenesses even more extraordinary. When finishing this Montoya portrait, it is recorded that Cardinal Barbernini touched the priest Montoya and said, “This is the portrait of Monsignor Montoya,” and then turned to Bernini’s bust and said, “And this is Monsignor Montoya.”

Not only was Bernini a good sculptor, but he could work quickly when necessary. When creating a bust portrait for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, an interior instability in the marble caused it to crack when it was hit with a simple, straightforward hammer tap. In this detail of the bust, you can see how the crack passed over the forehead of the cardinal and around the back of his head. Unfortunately for Bernini, who had been working on the bust for months, the portrait was near to completion when the damage occurred. With no way to disguise the crack, Bernini started completely over and completed the second bust in only fifteen days, albeit that he worked nearly non-stop. Upon completion, Bernini first unveiled the cracked version and undoubtedly enjoyed the look of horror that certainly passed over the cardinal’s face, only to then unveil the second, flawless copy.

How I wish that I could be in Los Angeles to see these sculptures! This exhibition is on display until October 26, and then will be at the National Gallery of Canada from the end of November to March 2009 . Since I don’t plan on being in L.A. or Ottawa any time soon, I guess I will need to be content with this. Sigh.

* If you’re interested in reading more about this exhibition and Bernini, you can refer to the October 2008 edition of Smithsonian magazine and Simon Schama’s Power of Art (New York: Harper Collins), 78-125.

— 1 Comment

Tara Donovan’s Genius

Yesterday J introduced me to the work of Tara Donovan, a contemporary installation artist who uses everyday materials (e.g. straws, adding paper, scotch tape) for her art. The installation shown in the image is made out of styrofoam cups and hot glue.

Donvan was among the recipients for the 2008 “Genius Grant” given by the MacArthur Foundation. You can see some of her work here. I think it’s really stunning. I think my two favorites are this styrofoam cup installation and another installation made of adding paper.

What do you think? Which installation do you like?


Email Subscription



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.