French Baroque Architecture: Characteristics & Examples

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, explore the gorgeous French palaces and cathedrals that immortalized Baroque architecture and became an influence in all of Europe. We will also learn about the most defining characteristics of buildings from this period.

French Baroque Architecture

Many of us have seen the images from Versailles and other magnificent French palaces, with decorated interiors, artistic details everywhere, and intricate gardens. When you think about French Baroque Architecture, that is the image that should first come to your head. So let's dig deep into this famous architectural style to see what makes French Baroque Architecture so important.

The Baroque was a time in history that came after the Renaissance and was defined by its elaborated and highly ornamented expressions, combining different arts to create stunning effects. This style first appeared in Italy by the beginning of the seventeenth century as a response from the Catholic Church to the Protestant reform. It then developed in neighboring countries like France until finally spreading throughout Europe and European colonies. In France, the Baroque period is seen between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mainly during the reigns of Louis XIII, Louis XIV and Louis XV.

The word baroque has an interesting origin. It comes from the Portuguese word Barroco, used to describe pearls not yet entirely formed and those of irregular shapes, basically the ones that aren't beautiful. The term began to be used with a negative meaning by its detractors, who emphasized the excess they saw in this style. Today the term is commonly used to refer to this period and also to name something very elaborated.

Characteristics of French Baroque Architecture

As with most artistic and architectural movements in history, the Baroque was directly related to the social and economic context of that time. During the XVII and XVIII centuries, in France, the absolutist monarchy was at his highest. The king saw himself as the center of the universe, as a ruler designated by God and all the power was in his hands; this was especially true during the reign of Louis XIV. The king had the absolute authority to decide what to do with the monies of the State, so no project was too expensive or ambitious to be commissioned. Therefore, the church was no longer the main object; this was a secular architecture, focused on the dwellings of the king and his court.

The idea behind every new palace was to highlight the power of the monarch, so buildings were very opulent. Architects designed every room to be as outstanding as possible, every corner was filled with paintings, sculptures, and architectural ornaments. Baroque architecture was designed to create a stunning impression on the visitors; what we commonly refer to in architecture as the wow face, and after over 300 years that effect is still there. This was an architecture of magnificence, power and opulence.

In terms of how buildings were designed, there are some general characteristics that we see in French Baroque constructions. Symmetry continues to be the rule for all compositions, with a general layout of three wings, in which more hierarchy was given to the one in the middle and a secondary role to the ones on each side.

In the composition of the exteriors, the use of classical orders is very clear. Facades are very rhythmical and there is an abundant use of columns, sometimes just as decoration. The buildings have a well-defined base level, a noble floor and a more private upper floor. There are plenty of windows, allowing not only to provide natural light to the interior but also enhancing the rhythm of the facade. Curved lines are used both in the exteriors and interiors to give a sense of movement, dynamism and create interesting perspectives.

It is in the interior areas where we see an abundance of art pieces. Interior decoration was highly ornamental, with many architectural elements like moldings in walls and ceilings, wood carvings, brass applications and mirrors. These galleries were also the place for other artists to create numerous pieces like frescoes on walls and ceilings, sculptures, and tapestries hanging from the walls. Furniture and interior decoration became key elements of the architectural composition.

Elaborated interiors in the Palace of Versailles
Elaborated interiors in the Palace of Versailles

Finally, landscape architecture becomes an important part since the building interacts actively with its surroundings. The elaborated gardens provide a scenic view and make the place look more magnificent. This is another expression of power, showing court members and visitors that the king owned the land as far as the eye could see and he had the power to transform it and control it.

Gardens at the Palace of Versailles
Main garden of Versailles

Major examples of French Baroque Architecture

Vaux-Le-Vicomte Palace (1661)

Exterior facade of the Vaux-Le-Vicomte Palace
Exterior of the Vaux-Le-Vicomte Palace

This palace clearly shows the use of classical orders in the exteriors and the importance given to the gardens. These two elements would become the rule for French Baroque architecture. This building gave a name to French architect Louis Le Vau and it can be considered the predecessor of Versailles, once Le Vau was named royal architect by Louis XIV.

Les Invalides (1676)

Church of Les Invalides, Paris
Church of Les Invalides

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