Jean-Louis Viel de Saint-Maux

Lettres sur l'Architecture des Anciens et celle des Modernes (Paris, n.p., 1787).

by Richard Wittman
Associate professor of Art and Architecture
University of California at Santa Barbara


For many years, Jean-Louis Viel de Saint-Maux was conflated by scholars with his relative, and probably brother, the architect Charles-François Viel. In 1966, however, Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos successfully distinguished them from one another and assembled most of the known facts about each man.[1] In the case of the author of the Lettres sur l'Architecture, these facts come mainly from asides in his own publications, as well as from a handful of surviving letters.[2]

The dates of Viel de Saint-Maux's birth and death are unknown. We learn from a note in the Lettres that his father had been Inspector General of Fortifications in Languedoc, that Viel inherited from him a passion for the physical remains of remote antiquity, and even that both men pursued archaeological excavations along the Mediterranean coast of France (6.27 [n.9]). In 1762, the young Viel was agréé as a painter at the Académie royale des Beaux-Arts et Architecture navale de Marseille. He apparently pursued a career as a painter during most of the 1760s, spending at least part of that time in Lyon. Painting soon ceased to be his principal occupation, however, as he admitted in a letter upon receiving a nomination to the Académie de Saint-Luc as an amateur in December 1769. It was around this time that Viel's protector, the Marquis de Paulmy, had him presented as écuyer and avocat in Parlement.[3] This was probably also when Viel purchased one of the three offices as maître général des Bâtiments du Roi, an administrative position involving the arbitration of disputes involving the building trades (7.54-5 [n.23]). (Traditionally, the holders of these offices had been notoriously incompetent in both legal and architectural matters. By the final decades of the Old Regime, architectural reformers were complaining that knowledge of building should be a qualification for the post - a complaint Viel himself expressed quite forcefully in his writings [6.18-23 and 30-1 {n.19-23}]. However, the more common reform at this time was to place jurists, not architects, in these positions.[4] It may be that Paulmy's efforts on Viel's behalf were intended to smooth Viel's path towards obtaining the office by enabling him to satisfy this requirement.) In any event, Viel held his office as maître général for only eighteen months before a legal challenge stripped him of it.

In Paris during the 1770s and 80s, Viel reinvented himself as a writer on a variety of topics, including architecture, the history of languages, ancient religions, and more. He continued, however, to paint, exhibiting a miniature portrait of Vanloo at the 1774 Salon exhibition.[5] In 1780, he appeared as "M. Viel, Architecte & Avocat en Parlement" in a list of subscribers to Court de Gébelin's Monde primitif analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne, a work that was to have a profound influence on him. Indeed, Viel probably knew Court de Gébelin personally: Court de Gébelin was one of the highest ranking Freemasons in France, and Viel was a fellow member of his Masonic lodge (Les Neuf Soeurs).[6] It was also sometime in the mid-80s, apparently in connection to his new position as écuyer, that he added "de Saint-Maux" to his name; prior to this, he had referred to himself simply as Jean Viel or as Jean-Louis Viel.[7]

The first of the "Letters" that were subsequently published as the Lettres sur l'Architecture appeared in pamphlet form in 1779. Others followed in 1780 and 1785. 1785 also witnessed the publication of two other books, the Observations Philosophiques sur l'usage d'exposer les Ouvrages de Peinture & de Sculpture (La Haye: n.p., 1785), and the anonymously published Dissertation sur les cornes antiques et modernes, ouvrage philosophique (Paris: Mme Veaufleury, 1785). The Lettres sur l'Architecture des Anciens et celle des Modernes then appeared in 1787, the work upon which his reputation almost entirely rests. On the title page he identified himself as "Architecte civil & militaire." At various times in his life, Viel de Saint-Maux also worked on, but apparently never published, a work entitled Essai sur la marche progressive des Sciences et des Arts; various essays about legal and technical aspects of architecture; and an art historical text entitled Essai sur les Artistes. The last known trace of Viel de Saint-Maux appeared in 1790, when he and a collaborator called Sergent produced a "Projet d'un monument a la gloire de Louis XVI."[8]


The basis for Viel de Saint-Maux's theories was that an unbridgeable chasm separated the modern world from the ancient. Because of this chasm, European thought since the Renaissance had failed completely to understand the true nature of antiquity, and instead tended complacently to regard ancient and modern culture as oriented towards essentially similar goals. Viel was obsessed with dispelling this illusion, and with teaching his contemporaries something of the "true" nature of the ancient world.

In Viel's view, the archaeological and philological evidence indicated that ancient civilization across the globe had been largely the same. This global unity had been strongest at the dawn of time, but had persisted in mysterious ways until the coming of the modern era in the Renaissance. Viel delighted in pointing out, for example, that "l'aiguille ou pyramide qui termine le clocher de la Sainte Chapelle à Paris, est à-peu-près imitée de celles de l'Inde" (4.32 [n.13]), or that his investigations had revealed "une ressemblance singulière" between the Japanese language and the local dialect of Montpellier (4.34 [n.19]).

Much of the evidence for Viel's claims about the world beyond Europe was drawn from travel books, particularly Engelbert Kempfer's account of Japan and the Englishman Richard Pococke's account of the Middle East.[9] But his vision of ancient society drew mainly on Court de Gébelin, whose Monde primitif had depicted an ancient world of harmonious agricultural communities that worshipped nature as their supreme divinity in the guise of the Sun and Moon.[10] Viel elaborated on this, describing a civilization that possessed a thoroughly integrated world view in which the interrelatedness of all things physical and metaphysical was fully acknowledged; this awareness, in turn, led the ancients to a profoundly symbolic or allegorical view of the material world. Large sections of the Lettres are devoted to decoding the symbolic meanings the ancients assigned to different objects and forms. Viel made no attempt to conceal his nostalgia for this lost Eden of myth, magic, and reconciliation between man and the cosmos, noting also that, in the social domain, these societies were totally unified: "les particuliers n'ètoient rien... la nation étoit tout... par conséquent, tous les travaux, toutes les découvertes étoient absolument relatives à la société entière... personne n'inventoit, ne travailloit, n'écrivoit sous son propre nom." All things had been "plus relatives au bonheur & à l'utilité de tous, qu'à l'intérêt personnel" (1.20-1).

The modern world, on the other hand, was in Viel's view epistemologically and socially fragmented. And while this fragmentation had been gradually setting in ever since antiquity, it had been dramatically accelerated in modern times with the invention of printing. Printing, Viel claimed, had robbed humans of their ability of discern the symbolic dimension of the world and imprisoned them in the literal meaning of things. As a result, all of man's knowledge had become isolated and subdivided, people had become unable to grasp the deepest truth of anything anymore, and both the arts and the sciences had become lost in the superficial materiality of things. With the common center between the arts and sciences thus abolished, collective knowledge had fragmented into a perpetual battle of mere opinions - a form of pernicious individualism that had fatally infected the polity.

Viel's special interest lay in the social dimension of language - What were the conditions that made communication within groups easy or difficult? - and it was this that led him to the most original argument of his Lettres sur l'Architecture: namely, that architecture had preceded verbal language as the original communal language of primitive antiquity. Viel argued that the airtight social, religious, and epistemological unity of primitive societies had enabled them to articulate collective knowledge, with full public comprehension, entirely through mute visual and spatial means - via the forms of columns, stele, menhirs, altars, and buildings, and via the densely meaningful lines, symbols, and emblems that were inscribed on them. In making this claim, Viel brushed aside the Vitruvian tradition which held that architecture had originated in a primitive hut. Vitruvius's treatise was obviously a forgery, Viel claimed, since any ancient writer would have known that architecture had originated in the sacred; in the altar, not the hut.

Buildings had been the public repository of primitive antiquity's collective memory - the "poëme parlant" and "book" by which it perpetuated its knowledge about the natural divinity it worshipped. Only later did verbal language and painting evolve from this primary language, as the pristine originary moment of primitive antiquity passed, and society imperceptibly entered its slide from unity towards a fragmentation that rendered more explicit forms of communication necessary. But this was a slide that was to take centuries: the classical architecture of the Greeks and Romans, Viel argued, had been the direct descendant of the menhirs and altars of old, and for its originators had still possessed a communal legibility and metaphysical significance. It was only in modern times - that is, from the Renaissance on - that this had been finally lost, along even with the knowledge that it had once existed. Viel was scathing about the characteristically modern obsession with the mere physical aspects of building (proportions, measurements, and so forth), deploring that these things were meaningless unless tied to deeper realities. The situation of architecture in the eighteenth century was, for Viel, an illustration of what happened when a civilization tried to speak a language it no longer understood: modern buildings all looked alike, with columns now used on both butcher's shops and cathedrals. In a pathetic admission of the muteness of contemporary architecture, designers had even resorted to placing sculpted horses above the doors to stables so as to identify their function. "Enfin, un écriteau de la part de ces Architectes, qui diroit, c'est ici telle chose, deviendroit aujourd'hui on ne peut pas plus nécessaire" (7.24.5). The muteness of architecture would then be total, and the victory of the refractory language of the publicly written word complete.

While it was in his Lettres sur l'architecture that these ideas were given their fullest expression, they are present also in the Observations Philosophiques sur l'usage d'exposer les Ouvrages de Peinture. Here Viel noted that the origin of the practice of exhibiting artworks had been lost "dans la nuit des tems," but that it had once been general across the planet, back when "[les] images exprimant les devoirs des hommes, décoraient les murs des villes, des temples & des maisons particulieres, ainsi qu'on le pratique encore dans l'Asie méridionale" (7). And although vestiges of these practices could still be detected in recent times ("Vous savez que parmi nous les maisons étoient encore couvertes de peintures dans les derniers siecles"), he concluded characteristically that these are practices that ultimately "aucun moderne ne sçauroit apprécier" (8). This work also contained a sharp attack on the practice of printed art criticism: "Ainsi admettre des décisions critiques, par la voie de l'impression, que souvent l'intérêt pécuniaire a fait produire; reconnoître indistinctement pour juges tous les hommes... c'est une inconséquence qui sans doute ne peut être que le fruit des préjugés les plus barbares" (13-14). He marveled that the Academy permitted critical pamphlets to be sold outside the biannual Salon exhibition.

While Viel de Saint-Maux has been mostly forgotten since the eighteenth century, his ideas have been very influential - mainly because they were adapted, without attribution, by Victor Hugo, apparently assisted by the architect Henri Labrouste, in the famous architectural chapters of his historical novel, Notre-Dame de Paris (Paris, 1831). These chapters describe in broad poetic strokes the passage from the age of architecture to the age of printing, depicting it as a movement from a heroic but barbarous age to a more democratic and progressive one.[11] Although Hugo's optimism ran directly counter to Viel's understanding of the shape of history, nonetheless the overall shape as well as many details in his account were drawn straight from Viel's Lettres. Viel's ideas were then modified even further, and given even greater exposure, when Hugo's account became the basis for Frank Lloyd Wright's famous 1901 speech (and later essay), "The Art and Craft of the Machine."[12] Wright depicted the printing press as the paradigmatic machine, proclaimed that the modern era was the age of the machine, and argued that architecture must therefore cease clinging to an outmoded aesthetic of handcrafts and embrace the aesthetic possibilities of the machine. The message couldn't be further from that of Viel's original text, which was more concerned with indicting the present than setting a course for the future. But what had survived from Viel's text, and what survives still, was the notion that architecture reflected cultural, technical, epistemological, and sociological conditions that lay far beyond the control of the architect, and that in fact determined the possible horizons for architectural expression.


Jean-Rémy Mantion, "La solution symbolique: Les Lettres sur l'architecture de Viel de Saint-Maux (1787)," Urbi 9 (1984): 46-58

Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos, "Charles-François Viel, Architecte de l'Hôpital général et Jean-Louis Viel de Saint-Maux, Architecte, peintre et avocat au Parlement de Paris," Bulletin de la société d'histoire de l'art français (1966): 257-69.

Rémy G. Saisselin, "Painting, Writing and Primitive Purity: From Expression to Sign in Eighteenth-Century French Painting and Architecture," Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 217 (1983): 257-369 (esp. 316-32).

Anthony Vidler, The Writing of the Walls, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1987 (esp. pp. 139-46).

David Winterton, "Architecture and the Vegetal Soul," Chora 3 (1999): 255-280.

Richard Wittman, "The Hut and the Altar: Architectural Origins and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century France." Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 36 (2007): 235-59.

Richard Wittman, Architecture, Print Culture, and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century France (London: Routledge, 2007) (esp. pp. 1-5).


[1] See bibliography. The evidence for Charles-François and Jean-Louis being brothers is two-part: first, the opening dedication of Viel de Saint-Maux's Lettres sur l'Architecture is addressed to his architect brother; and a notarized act of March 6, 1784, jointly cites Jean-Louis Viel, painter, and Charles-François Viel, architect of the Hopital General (Pérouse de Montclos, p. 262).

[2] All parenthetical citations in what follows refer to the Lettres sur l'Architecture, which contains an introduction and seven letters, each of which is paginated separately.

[3] Pérouse de Montclos, pp. 262-4.

[4] Jean-Jacques Letrait, "La communauté des maîtres maçons de Paris au XVIIe et au XVIIIe siècles," Revue historique de droit français et étranger (4e série) 24 (1945), pp. 217-20.

[5] Jules J. Guiffrey, Livrets des Expositions de L'Académie de Saint-Luc à Paris pendant les années 1751, 1752, 1753, 1756, 1762, 1764, et 1774 (Paris: Baur et Détaille, 1872), p. 141.

[6] Vidler, p.142.

[7] Pérouse de Montclos, 263.

[8] Pérouse de Montclos, 264.

[9] Engelbert Kempfer, The history of Japan, trans. by J.G. Scheuchzer (London: The Translator, 1727); Richard Pococke, A description of the East and some other countries, vol. 2. (London, 1745).

[10] Antoine Court de Gébelin, Monde primitif analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (9 vols, Paris: Chez l'auteur, 1773-82), passim.

[11] Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame of Paris, London: Penguin Books, 1978, pp. 189-91. On Labrouste's involvement, see Neil Levine, "The Book and the Building: Hugo's Theory of Architecture and Labrouste's Bibliothèque Ste-Geneviève," in The Beaux-Arts and Nineteenth-Century French Architecture, ed. Robin Middleton (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982), pp. 138-73.

[12] Frank Lloyd Wright, "The Art and Craft of the Machine," in B. B. Pfeiffer et al. (eds), Frank Lloyd Wright: Collected Writings, vol. 1 (New York, Scottsdale, AZ: Rizzoli, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, 1992), pp. 58-69.