Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

‘Rapture, Fear and Admiration. Architecture and the Sublime in Seventeenth-Century Paris’

In what ways and to what ends did Parisian buildings overwhelm the early modern public? This study is concerned with the experience of the sublime in architecture in seventeenth-century Paris.

2014  -   2018
Frederik Knegtel
European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant

My research focuses on the use and experience of overwhelming architecture in seventeenth-century Paris. The notion of the sublime plays a central role here, and in France – even before Boileau’s 1674 translation of Pseudo-Longinus’ On the Sublime – the concept already had a long history. The idea of the sublime with which seventeenth-century French writers and architects would have been familiar, originated in the Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition. Classical texts on the sublime, such as Longinus’ treatise and other works by philosophers such as Seneca and Lucretius, were studied in Europe relatively early. Latin translations already appeared in Northern Italy in the fifteenth century and reached French readers relatively soon. From that point, in early modern France, the rhetorical sublime became employed as a key notion in various fields: in science, in religion, and in the visual arts.

This project aims to answer several key questions: In which seventeenth-century Parisian architectural projects did the sublime play an important role? Why, by whom, and in what manner did the sublime become employed and experienced in these cases? Can we recognize the sublime in the multitude of reactions that these buildings elicited at that time? Case studies include the church of Val-de-Grâce, the Église du Dôme des Invalides, and the exterior of the Louvre. My research pays special attention to the political use of sublimity by Louis XIV and his political apparatus. Overwhelming architecture was particularly suitable as an instrument of power: it can evoke strong and often conflicting feelings on the part of the beholder, such as reverence, fear and rapture.

The first aspect of my research involves historicizing the sublime in the seventeenth century, in order to come closer to a conceptual definition of the architectural sublime in early modern France. The hypothesis of my research project is that early editions and varieties of the sublime from France became employed in the realm of architecture, and should be understood primarily against a political background. This development contributed to a diffusion and dispersion of the predominantly rhetorical concept of the sublime, which became part of a semantic field that included a variety of terms; French terms that were used to translate the Greek hupsos or the Latin sublimis from ancient texts on the sublime, such as merveilleux, magnificence, ravissement; or words that were coupled with the sublime, such as anéantissement, hublimis, or sainte horreur. The latter words stem from a development of a religious sublime, which was to a great extent based on the teachings of early Christian writers, such as the theologian St. Augustine of Hippo, and would become central concepts in several Catholic movements in seventeenth-century Paris.

Secondly, where can we find the sublime, where and in what way does it appear? Or in the words of John D. Lyons, professor in French of the University of Virginia: ‘Is the sublime within the control of mankind? Or is it something that exceeds human ability and volition, something that can come about only through divine intervention, or by chance?’ The classical writer Longinus finds five principal sources of the sublime in rhetoric, the first two of which are largely the gifts of nature (the natural, true sublime), and the remaining three the gifts of art. This rhetorical sublime, the ‘sublime of words’ ( sublime des mots), can thus be taught, and can be produced by humans in discourse. But there were several seventeenth-century writers, such as Pierre-Daniel Huet, who believed in an original ‘sublime of things’ ( sublime des choses), a sublime of what happens. This is a sublime that arises entirely from the greatness of the subject, instead a combination of talent and rules. What I am interested in, is how these two seventeenth-century views on the sublime played a role within the realm of architecture.

A third aspect of my research concerns the process that follows the sublime effect, namely the viewer’s response. This is an interesting area, not only because the spectator is often confronted with a struggle or inability to put an overwhelming effect into words, but also because of the subjectivity that is characteristic of the sublime. This aspect has already been acknowledged and briefly elaborated upon by Lydia Hamlett from the University of Cambridge, when she discussed the empirical ways of judging the sublime in art by pre-Kantian and pre-Burkian authors such as Jonathan Richardson, who tried to define the sublime but realized that ‘there was always something out of their grasp, something unquantifiable because, affect, sublimity, is subjective.’


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