SERVANDONI, Giovanni Niccolò
(b. 1697, Firenze, d. 1766, Paris)

Biography

French architect, painter and stage designer. He was born either in Florence or Lyon, to an Italian mother and a French father, who was a coach driver between the two cities. He began his career as an artist c. 1715 in Rome, where he knew the vedute painter Giovanni Paolo Pannini, and he was taught drawing and perspective by the architectural engraver Giuseppe Ignazio Rossi (d. before 1739).

In Rome Servandoni first experienced the elaborate theatre productions and festival architecture that became popular in the 18th century and upon which his own fame was later based. By 1724 Servandoni was in Paris, where he became a director of stage design at the Opéra, and in 1728 he became the principal painter and designer to the Académie Royale de Musique. Servandoni's scene painting used angled perspective techniques, in which the vanishing-point is placed to one side of the stage. This technique, which dramatizes the illusion of space, was introduced by the Galli-Bibiena family at the imperial court in Vienna.

In 1729 he contributed, along with Pannini, to the festival decorations celebrating the birth of the dauphin, and in 1731 he was admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in his capacity as a painter of ancient ruins. He had modelled his technique in this genre on that of Pannini, and he was successful both in meeting the growing Parisian demand for the type and in winning academic acceptance for it. In doing so, he helped create a taste for the work of such artists as Hubert Robert and for the picturesque mock ruins of Romantic landscapes.

Although his early career had not provided the conventional preparation for major architectural accomplishment, in 1732 Servandoni nevertheless entered and won the competition for the west front of the church of Saint-Sulpice, Paris. His project went through several changes, however, the main block of the façade was executed under his supervision between 1733 and 1745, with continuous superimposed Doric and Ionic porticos and no pediment, and must therefore reflect his intentions. This one project was sufficient to earn Servandoni the title of Architecte du Roi, but he did not gain much subsequent royal employment. In Paris only the Hôtel Servandoni (1754-7) survives, his first building on the square that he designed in front of Saint-Sulpice. A few projects survive elsewhere: high altars for the charterhouse of Saint-Bruno in Lyon (designed 1738; executed with alterations by Jacques-Germain Soufflot, 1742-45) and Sens Cathedral (1739-42), and a parish church (1742) at Coulanges-la-Vineuse in Burgundy. He competed for the Place Louis XV in 1748, with a design proposing a vast colonnaded and arcaded hippodrome for public spectacles.

Servandoni's skills in theatre and festival decoration were eventually in demand throughout Europe, at the courts in Lisbon (1743), London (1749; for the celebration of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in St James's Park), Dresden (1754), Brussels (1759), Vienna (1760; to celebrate the marriage of the Archduke Joseph, later Emperor Joseph II; reg 1765-90) and Stuttgart (1762).

With a personality as extravagant and volatile as his firework displays, Servandoni was constantly in debt. Despite his success in a century devoted to his form of entertainments, he died impoverished shortly after his exhibition in the Paris Salon of 1766. His son Jean-Adrien-Claude Servandoni (b. 1736) was also a stage designer; however, none of his work is known.