Classicism ravished by Virtuosity Philibert de L’Orme in Lyon

In his book «L’architecture à la française du milieu du XVe à la fin du XVIIIe siècle», Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos claimed that the peculiarities, or specialties, of French architecture in Renaissance and Baroque epochs were two: «la distribution et la stéréotomie». The classical meaning of the first term refers to the capacity of conceiving the building layout in terms of the paths connecting its inner spaces and their relative hierarchy and clarity; the second word defines “the set of geometrical knowledge and techniques of drawing and cutting the blocks of solid material, such as stone or wood, and their assembly into complex structures (wall, vault, arch, etc.) related to architectural construction” (thank you Wikipedia, you really deserve the 40 dollars I donated this year).

The classical meaning of the first term refers to the capacity of conceiving the building layout.

In Lyon, there is a secret little architectural jewel: the courtyard of Maison Bullioud, designed and built by Philibert de l’Orme in 1536. The ambitious task of connecting the two once separate buildings on the two sides without engaging the existing perimeter of the court on the ground floor ignited in the mind of the architect a static and geometric “tour de force” of two rampart arches springing from a central pillar and resting on two quarter-cylindrical towers resting on what in France is defined as a “trompe”, that is a fan-shaped cantilevered vault resting only on one side. In this work, Philibert de l’Orme shows all his erudition and knowledge of the classical orders as described by Vitruvius and codified by Italian architectural treatises: the lower Doric order is complete of a frieze showing “proper” triglyphs and metopes, and the upper Ionic order show capitals with volutes and a “pulvinated” frieze.

But the lower Doric columns seem not to be able to find a reasonable relationship with the lower landscape of cantilevered vaults and asymmetric demi-arches, which escape any “classicist” grammar, and in the battle between Proportion and Fancy lose the day, and get violently chopped off their body.


As in the famous drawings explaining the “trait”(trace) of the “trompe” of the Anet Castle designed by De l’Orme for Diane de Poitiers and contained in his “Le Premier Tome de l’Architecture” (1567), the sophisticated three-dimensional geometry of the Lyon gallery seems to “ravish” (in its archaic meaning of “rape”, but also in his modern one or “enchantment”) all the obsession for proportion, syntactical coherence and properness of architectural profiles, which dominated the mature Renaissance culture in the 16th century.

Philibert de l’Orme’s courtyard – located in Lyon in Rue de la Juiverie n°8 – shows the duel between tradition and technics, rule and pragmatism, composition procedures and free-style assemblage, anticipating many “complexities and contradictions” of our modern age.