Posted on:Wednesday 9th June, 2021
Maximilien Robespierre is now best known as the archetype of the ideological revolutionary, a Jacobin leader who presided over the French Revolutionary Terror between 1792 and 1794 and the execution by guillotine or in prison of nearly 30,000 aristocrats, Royalists and political opponents, including women and children. What is less often recalled is that Robespierre was a gifted Latinist and, like many of his fellow revolutionaries, sought through cold-hearted ideological purity to transform France into a republic of virtue, modelled on the supposed qualities of ancient republican Rome. Classical ideas suffused the revolutionary project and reflected a resurgence of interest in the architecture and civic mores of the early Romans. At the very same time two brothers, François and Jean-Pierre Fouquet, were in Paris creating spectacular plaster models of ancient buildings including the Pantheon. Starting in 1780 their model-making business thrived all through the Revolutionary period, and their work remains valuable and highly collectible to this day…
In 1780 King Louis XIV and his Queen Marie-Antoinette visited the town of Arras in the Artois region of France, close to what is now the Belgian border. Local school children came out to welcome the royal family and a hymn of praise was read to them by the pupil who had most excelled at the study of Latin and Greek. The King and Queen of France would have been astounded to learn that the unprepossessing schoolboy who delivered this saccharine welcome message, Maximilien Robespierre, would be responsible for contriving to execute them both with ignominy some 15 years later. However, it was surely a contributing factor to the shape which the Revolution eventually took that so many French schoolboys of the period were intoxicated by the stories of the republican heroes of the early Roman republic, men for whom loyalty to the state supposedly overrode all questions of success, position or even personal survival. Their virtue was cold, hard and unflinching. They were fully prepared to sacrifice themselves or others for the sake of Rome. One can probably question the accuracy of this idealised picture of the early Latins, but this was the image of republican virtue and fortitude found in the work of the ancient historians such as Livy, Pliny and Polybius, and this was the heroic ideal hungrily absorbed by the children of the French Enlightenment, including Robespierre.
Ruined magnificence portrayed by Piranesi
This obsession with the classical world was apparent from the early stages of the Renaissance, of course, and was manifested in a whole series of paintings, etchings and prints of the ancient buildings of Greece and Rome, culminating in the extraordinary work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). However much of this obsession reflected ideas of historical time passing, decadence and decay. In some cases the moral and theological lessons were made explicit, with acts of violence or contemporary poverty and indigence portrayed against a background of ruined classical architecture. Approaches varied but the general sense was that, if Greece and Rome could decline into entropy, what hope could there be for any city or civilisation. Archaeological excavations carried out in Italy from the 1730s generated renewed interest in these buildings and folio editions were produced to fill the demand. To my mind the models created by the Fouquet brothers manifest a quite different sensibility. They seek to recapture the defiant imperialism, the militaristic grandeur of the ancient buildings in a form which is unmarked by time. Far from providing a salutary moral lesson, the buildings of Greece and Rome are being used as the templates for a new contemporary reality. In other words, I think that they are inescapably political and reflective of a revolutionary or proto-revolutionary viewpoint.
What do I mean by political? Simply that the enthusiasm for ancient Greece and Rome was also reflected in a desire to recreate, first in architecture and then in civic and urban design, the supposed plebeian forms of popular government and of direct plebiscitary democracy. This desire was already much in evidence in the forms taken by the American Revolution after 1776 and played an importance part in determining the architectural style and political pageantry of Washington DC, the new capital of the world’s first Enlightenment state, on which work began in 1780. Rather than Greek models the new American colonists consciously drew on an idealised vision of the ancient Roman republic, and the imagined forms of this classical state were reflected in the construction of the Capitol (modelled directly on the Capitoline hill in Rome) and the great avenues and monumental open spaces that connected the different federal institutions. Famously this passion for republican forms and virtues was carried back to Europe by the French soldiers who were instrumental in ensuring that the fledgling American republic gained its independence. These ideas also helped to contribute to the altogether more violent popular insurrection against the ancien regime in Europe in 1789, and the ideological innovation that followed hard on its heels, a purism which took emblematic form in the supposed character of Maximilien Robespierre. Hardly surprising then that archaeology and the rediscovery of pure Roman architectural forms started to inform the built environment even before the overthrow of the monarchy in France, and that a demand for models of ancient civic and urban architecture emerged, even before the birth of the Revolutionary state.
Sir John Soane's Museum and temple model by the Fouquet Brothers
The Fouquet brothers made their models between 1780 and 1830 for architects and collectors in Paris, using innovative du plâtre plaster and other techniques which remain a mystery to this day. I am reliably informed by the model maker Timothy Richards that their architectural models continue to be regarded as amongst the finest ever made. Despite this fame it is rather difficult to find out more about the life and work of the Fouquet brothers, or how they and their contemporaries regarded their models culturally, and within the revolutionary context of Paris during their lifetimes. The V&A has a few examples of their work in its collection, but the finest collection outside of France is held by the Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. The enthusiasm for classical architecture was also evident in London at the time. As a celebrated collector, Sir John Soane could not resist the opportunity to purchase 20 Fouquet models from the architect Edward Cresy in 1834 for the princely sum of £100 (worth perhaps £100,000 in modern money). These models included representations of the Parthenon, Erechtheion, Arch of Hadrian and Tower of Winds in Athens, the Temple of Venus at Baalbec, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), the Temple of Augustus at Pola in Istria (now in Croatia), the Temple of Neptune at Palmyra, the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, and the Pantheon and Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome. Despite being slightly damaged by German bombing in the Blitz these models remain one of the highlights of the Museum’s miscellaneous collection.
Pantheon in Rome
Regular readers of this blog will know that I believe that the arts play a vital part in the articulation and communication of human meanings. This is all about phenomenology or the world as we actually experience it, rather than the rigid world of fixed materialist objectification. In my view it makes no sense to consider the Fouquet brothers and their architectural models in isolation, as a craft industry say, one which just happened to spring up in the 1780s. Instead, should we not frankly accept that the commercial success of the brothers’ models was a direct reflection of the world of ideas in which their customers were immersed? Rome or Greece were being cast (literally and metaphorically in this case) as a golden age of citizen democracy, a model to which modern humans were once again aspiring. The purchase of a model of the Pantheon reflects a desire to create actual domed buildings of classical style in the real world, such as the Capitol in Washington DC. We know that Thomas Jefferson, the American stateman and founding father, purchased a model of the Pantheon and had it shipped to the newly independent American colonies. The display of an ancient temple might surely have also reflected a desire to reframe transcendent beliefs as a new kind of state religion, as Robespierre indeed affected to do in his national celebration of the Supreme Being in 1794? And the recreation of a classical Triumphal Arch might surely have reflected the idea of a modern citizenry in arms winning out in battle over formidable foes? How interesting it is too, that the original obsession with the ruins of the ancient world, almost by definition an irrecoverable lost world, has been replaced by the 1780s by a desire to reconstruct, in model form or in real marble, the architectural symbolism and political eloquence of Greek and Roman originals. Classical hubris is reborn in the Fouquet models, and these artefacts surely reflect the new ideological architecture of a changed world.
Timothy Richards Ltd studio
I have been thinking a lot about models recently because R&V has created a beautiful scale model of the property at No 8 Royal College Street, the house formerly occupied by the poets. The skilled model makers at Timothy Richards Ltd are directly inspired by the work of the Fouquet brothers, whose architectural models provide the benchmark for all subsequent efforts, and the model they have produced is a beautiful artefact. Rather than the classical architecture of the ancient Rome the model of No 8 recreates the urban Regency architecture of King’s Cross, with at least a hint of the industrial revolution and the factories and workshops which were to become a feature of the area at the time when the poets lived at the property. It therefore reflects a rather different kind of urban reality, transient and heterogeneous.
No. 8 Royal College Street by Timothy Richards Ltd
This superb 20cm high 3D plaster cast model weighing roughly 1.6kg is a must-have item for all fans of the poets Rimbaud and Verlaine or of Decadence. It is also a fund-raiser for the charity, a way in which its members and friends can show their support for the organisation. But perhaps the model of No 8 will also be reflective of wider change. Just as the original models of the Fouquet brothers reflected a vision for a better future, our model of No 8 expresses the charity’s vision for the arts coming out of COVID. As well as looking back to the poets and their tempestuous time in London I hope that the model also symbolises the importance of the arts and culture in our modern digital civilisation, where we must learn how to project our values out into the public realm in new ways, and to recreate the basis for democracy and civil society at a time when both are apparently under threat.
Place your order for a scale model of the ‘poetry house’ here.