BLONDEL, François
(b. 1628, Ribemont, d. 1686, Paris)


[Nicolas]-François Blondel, French architect, teacher and writer. He was born to a newly ennobled member of the household of the queen-mother, Marie de' Medici. He joined the army and became a military engineer, attaining the rank of Maréchal de Camp by 1652. In that year he was seconded by one of the secretaries of state for foreign affairs, the Comte de Brienne, to accompany his son on a comprehensive Grand Tour of Europe. On his return in 1655 Blondel was equipped with an unrivalled range of first-hand experience that recommended him for a diplomatic career, although the following year he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the Collège de France. Diplomatic missions took him to Prussia, Sweden and Turkey and, while waiting on the Sultan, he visited Greece and Egypt. He was ambassador to Denmark in 1659-63. Thereafter he rejoined the armed services and was assigned to the navy as an engineer responsible for port and coastal defences in Normandy and Brittany, most notably transforming Saintes and constructing the new port and arsenal of Rochefort.

Blondel was elected to the Académie des Sciences in 1669 as a mathematician and was appointed mathematics tutor to the Dauphin in 1673. Meanwhile, in 1671 he was a founder-member and first director of the Académie Royale d'Architecture. Apart from his fortifications, as a builder he is best remembered for his contribution to the great campaign of civic improvement in Paris initiated by Jean-Baptiste Colbert in the mid-1660s. From 1671 he was involved in the rebuilding of the Porte Saint-Denis as a grand triumphal arch and the refurbishing of the Porte Saint-Bernard, Porte Saint-Antoine and Porte Saint-Martin, overseeing the work of his pupil Pierre Bullet on the latter at least. The daring scale and monumental virility, if not austerity, of the Porte Saint-Denis owe much to Blondel's mastery in the field of military engineering. He is reputed to have provided plans for an armoury in Berlin, which were much modified by his pupil Jean de Bodt in executing the Arsenal there over 30 years later.

In the early part of his career, Blondel wrote on the Roman calendar, on Pindar and Horace, on mathematics and on fortification, but his greatest claim to fame was his Cours d'architecture (1675), based on the lectures he gave at the Académie. The rationalist doctrine of this, the first course in architecture taught under state auspices in France, is marked by Blondel's admiration of the Antique, acquired at first-hand, and by the approach of the mathematician, in sharp contrast to the empiricism of Claude 'Perrault the doctor'. For Blondel, Rome's great masterpieces are the pre-eminent models, and analysis of the orders, involving the comparison of practice and all the great 16th-century theorists in particular, is fundamental.

In pursuing the ideal proportions of the orders, guided by the concept of the harmony of the cosmos appreciable in music, Blondel led the Académie in the search for an objective standard of beauty. When the Academicians debated the ideas expounded by Perrault in his Ordonnance, the polarization of the 'Ancients' and the 'Moderns' had the majority siding with Blondel in opposing empiricism and custom with dialectic and principle.