In modern times France is the land of good taste. The world listens to French pontifications on food and dress and even wit.
But that’s not how it used to be.
For a long time taste came from Italy and France had to call in Italian artists to get its beauty and even its judgments on beauty.
When the Louvre, now the famous museum in Paris, needed a facade, King Louis XIV asked Gianlorenzo Bernini to send a design and then come and direct construction. He even sent a nobleman named Chantelou to Italy to fetch the great artist and to accompany him to Paris.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini by Baciccio,1665 (public domain photo)
Chantelou kept a diary that makes very good reading. He was fascinated by Bernini and fills his diary with details of their trip and Bernini’s eccentric ways, his remarks on what he saw, the reception he got, and so on.
Map of Paris 5189-1643 (public domain photo)
Bernini turned up his nose at everything. When the King asked him what he thought of the Tuilleries Palace he said it “seemed a big little thing” and that it was like a “great squadron of tiny children”.
Tuileries Palace, an engraving, 1861 (public domain photo)
The dome of the Val-de-Grâce was like “a little cap on a big head”. Paris seen from the height of Meudon was ugly. “All those chimneys! It looks like a carding comb,” he told his guide. Desperate to find something that would please him, Chantelou showed him a painting by an Italian. That did the trick.
Annunciation by Guido Reni, 1621 (public domain photo)
“This Annunciation by Guido Reni is worth half of your Paris,” Bernini told him; but he immediately corrected: “No, it’s worth more.”
But the biggest thrill for Bernini were the paintings by Poussin in Chantelou’s private collection.
Scipio’s Noble Deed by Poussin , 164o (public domain photo)
Poussin was a Frenchman but he had been living in Italy for years. Bernini spent an hour on the paintings, exclaiming “What devotion! What silence!”. When the prime minister Colbert heard about this he said: “I’m so glad the Master has found something in France that pleased him.”
Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Colbert by Philippe de Champaigne , 1655 (public domain photo)