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18.5.06

Primaticcio in Chaalis?

The Cistercians founded an abbey called Chaalis in the Ermenonville forest, near Senlis to the northeast of Paris, in the 13th century. Ruins of that medieval community's church stand next to the magnificent 18th-century royal abbey that now houses collections of the Musée Jacquemart-André. The property belongs to the Institut de France, to whom it was left by Nellie Jacquemart-André. One of the artistic highlights of the place is the Chapelle Sainte-Marie, sometimes known as the Sistine Chapel of the Valois, adorned with frescos by Primaticcio. As related by Anne-Marie Romero, in an article (Enquête autour de la «Sixtine du Valois», April 14) for Le Figaro, a project to restore those frescos is running into all sorts of problematic issues with previous "restorations" (my translation):

The simple «Sainte-Chapelle aux Champs», visited by Saint Louis in the monks' time, Sainte-Marie was at the height of its glory under François I. This diplomatic king, who juggled around his appointments of bishops and cardinals, gave Chaalis to Hippolyto d'Este. Ceremonial abbot, this haughty prelate was a far cry from the austerity and poverty that were the golden rule of the early Cistercians.

Hippolyto d'Este closed off, on the interior wall, the façade's rose window, in order to have a flat surface that he commissioned Francesco Primaticcio to decorate, as well as the vault and arches of the ceiling. The Bolognese painter (1504-1570), who François I had brought from Italy to decorate his Château de Fontainebleau, was a mannerist virtuoso. But most of his works have disappeared, and his popularity vanished quickly. From the 17th century on, his "maniera" have been denigrated, thought to be pedantic, artificial, precious. He then fell more or less into obscurity.
Primaticcio, Annunciation, Abbey of ChaalisFrom 1875, another owner of the property, one Mme. de Vatry, asked the two Balze brothers (talk about a painter's name you could not mention to a class of young people without laughter) to "restore" the chapel. They added paintings to some of the bare walls, added some gold and other touches around the chapel, and apparently made significant alterations to the Primaticcio frescos.
The paintings include an Annunciation on the wall of the western façade, the Church Fathers, the Evangelists, and angels carrying the instruments of the Passion on the vault and arches. So, if we are certain that the fresco's lower section, showing the angel Gabriel before Mary, was completely repainted by Jean-Paul Balze, no one knows for sure what parts of the upper scene and the ceiling images were altered by the 19th-century painters. "The first task was to analyze 90 layered samples of the paint in the research library of the Commission on Historic Monuments, in order to determine where the new painting is," explained the chief architect in charge of the monument, Etienne Poncelet. This showed clearly the sections painted in fresco, on wet plaster, by Primaticcio and, after an intermediate level in wax, the layers of new painting.
Of course, the problem is whether the restorers are justified in destroying 19th-century artwork in favor of older ones. Initial testing has revealed that significant parts of the original frescos may be gone. Here are some images of the frescos.

2 comments:

jfl said...

"Primaticcio"? Sounds like a title bestowed upon Mustafa.

Charles T. Downey said...

Yes, it does! ;-)