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Jean-Nicolas Servandoni's Spectacles of Nature and Technology

From: French Forum
Volume 30, Number 2, Spring 2005
pp. 31-47 | 10.1353/frf.2005.0036

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French Forum 30.2 (2005) 31-47

Marc Olivier

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

The name "Servandoni" appears enigmatically in Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, the unfinished work in which Benjamin theorized the foundations of modernity. Grouped with flânerie and illusion, and contextualized within Benjamin's interest in the "effect of industrial production on traditional cultural forms," the obscure references connect the architect, painter, set designer, and virtuoso of spectacle Jean-Nicolas Servandoni (1695–1766) to problems of modern aesthetics. Given that most of Benjamin's references for the Arcades project point to nineteenth- and even twentieth-century figures, it is curious that –Servandoni should be pulled from the past to create a tableau of –nineteenth-century Paris. Based on those brief notes, one is left to imagine the anticipatory link Benjamin saw between Servandoni's work and the industrialized nineteenth century….

Jean-Nicolas Servandoni is most often remembered today as the architect of the St Sulpice façade in Paris. Educated as an artist in Rome, he moved to Paris in 1724 and became known for his lavish set designs for the Opera. He was admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in 1731, and was the choice of royalty to decorate public festivals in England, France, and Portugal. His reputation well established, he began to use his skills in architecture, art, set design, and his flair for the extravagant to produce a series of mute spectacles at the Tuileries between 1738–1743 and 1754–1758. The plays combined the vogue for English pantomime with the breathtaking effects of the seventeenth-century machine play. Diderot characterized Servandoni as a great machinist and architect, a good painter, and a sublime décorateur, and the Encyclopédie calls him the only stage designer of any real talent in all of Paris, but in spite of ample praise for his talents, the judgment of Servandoni by his contemporaries does not necessarily yield the image of a man on the forefront of modernity, as Benjamin's notes might suggest. In fact, critics warned Servandoni that his aesthetic sense was so antiquated that he risked adoption by the seventeenth century. In his own time, it seems that Servandoni's work brought to mind nostalgia more than it anticipated the future. His productions, cohabited by ancient ruins and modern technology, stage a combat between the old and the new in which one clear victor is not always apparent. This essay aims to shed light on Servandoni's paradoxical modernity as expressed in his mute spectacles. In particular, I will focus on how the confrontation of nature and technology in the Spectacle de Pandore (1739) and La forêt enchantée (1754) reinforces the effects of his scenic innovations. I will suggest that the ideological and cosmological underpinnings of Servandoni's aesthetic are informed by, and yet alter the world-view of the princely cabinet of curiosities. Servandoni's tableaux reflect and respond to a tradition devoted to the absorption of the modern into the ancient, to the tethering of the artificial to the natural, and to the preservation of enchantment amid change.

Of Servandoni's innovations, the elevation of scenography as spectacle in its own right most impacted his renown. According to M.J. Moynet's 1873 study of theater machines and décor, "les progrès de la mise en scène […] furent peu sensibles […] jusqu'à Servandoni." Moynet echoes the tone set by Diderot, Blondel, and Marmontel in the Encyclopédie. More recent studies affirm that, with very few ex–ceptions, stage décor was severely limited both in quantity and in im–portance on the eighteenth-century French stage. Servandoni's contributions to scenography are manifest in his early work with the Paris Opera, and become even more apparent in his later productions at the Tuileries, where the décor itself becomes the primary focus of the spectacle. After studying in Italy and working in Portugal and En–gland (where he made set decorations for the London Opera), Servandoni brought his experience to the Académie Royale de Musique. His first set decoration for the Paris Opera was the first act of...

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