Born on This Day: The Bridge Builder


Furniture, Textiles & Fashion
October 27, 2014

Born this day in 1708,  the French architect and structural engineer Jean-Rodolphe Perronet was admittedly not technically a ‘builder’ but he was the man responsible for the design and construction of many key bridges in 18th-century France.

Perronet improved the network of bridges and roads across France, and established the first school for training bridge and road engineers. He was a high profile figure, presented with several honours for his work in his lifetime and today is perhaps mainly known for his legacy of stone arch bridges.

This bust of Perronet, by the sculptor Pigalle, will be displayed in the Europe Galleries where it will feature in Gallery 4: The Salon, a space exploring the impact of the Enlightenment in Europe.

CIS:A.24-1959
Bronze bust of the engineer Jean-Rodolphe Perronet, by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, French, 1785. V&A A.24-1959

Engineer. Engineers are constantly perfecting major roads, building bridges, embellishing streets, maintaining and repairing canals. An engineer’s work requires much study. The fundamental sciences are arithmetic, geometry, mechanics, and hydrology. An engineer must have some ability in drawing. Physics are necessary to judge the nature of materials.’ (The Encyclopédie)

View of the engineering works in progress on the bridge of Orleans (one of Perronet's earliest bridges), as witnessed on the 28th of July, 1752. From: 'Description des Projets et de la Construction des Ponts de Neuilly, de Mantes, d'Orleans et autres ...' by Jean Rodolphe Perronet, Paris: 1782-83 Photograph © The Prints Collector
View of the engineering works in progress on the bridge of Orleans (one of Perronet’s earliest bridges), as witnessed on the 28th of July, 1752. From: ‘Description des Projets et de la Construction des Ponts de Neuilly, de Mantes, d’Orleans et autres …’ by Jean Rodolphe Perronet, Paris: 1782-83 Photograph © The Prints Collector

Perronet became director of the Bureau des dessinateurs du Roi (Royal Office of Designers) in 1747, where he trained bridge and road engineers. The Bureau later became the Bureau des élèves des ponts et chaussées, then in 1775 was renamed the École des ponts et chaussées. He was appointed Engineer to the King in 1763 and was a member of the academies of architecture and the sciences.

Our bust shows Perronet with his coat turned and drawn back on the left side to reveal the broad ribbon of the Order of Saint- Michel. The Order of Saint-Michel was a chivalric order, abolished in 1830 but considered as the precursor of today’s Order of the Arts and Lettres.

Perronet had been Engineer to the King for over twenty years by the time his friend Pigalle made the bust. A lengthy and touching inscription on the back of the bust specifies that Perronet was aged 76 and ‘his friend’ Pigalle was 71 when the portrait was carried out. The bust was shown in the Salon of 1785 and was to be Pigalle’s last work.

The back of the bust, showing Pigalle's inscription.
The back of the bust, showing Pigalle’s inscription.

Perronet’s most well-known work should be familiar to visitors to Paris. It is the Pont Louis XVI (later renamed Pont de la Concorde), the arch bridge which stretches across the Seine, connecting the Quai des Tuileries (Right Bank) and the Quai d’Orsay (Left Bank).

The construction of this bridge had been anticipated since 1755, when construction of place Louis XV (now place de la Concorde began) but it was not until 1787 that Perronet was commissioned to design and oversee its construction.

This was a tempestuous time for carrying out construction but their work continued during the French Revolution. They even made use of stones taken from the demolished Bastille (taken by force on 14 July 1789) for masonry. Work was completed in 1791.

Christophe Civeton, 1829 (BnF)
A view of Pont Louis XVI (now Pont de la Concorde) by Christophe Civeton, 1829 (BnF) Here you can see twelve statues that were added to the bridge after the fall of Napoleon.
A view of the Pont de la Concorde in 2005 © Photo-clio
Due to congestion, the bridge was widened in the 1930s but the engineers took care to preserve the neoclassical architecture of the original. A view of the Pont de la Concorde in 2005 © Photo-clio

Today the street off the Boulevard d’Inkermann (near the site of the École des ponts et chaussées) is named after Perronet.

Photograph taken from aubergechezrichard.blogspot.co.uk
Photograph taken from aubergechezrichard.blogspot.co.uk

 

About the author

Furniture, Textiles & Fashion
October 27, 2014

I am an Assistant Curator working on the development of the new Europe 1600-1800 Galleries. My interests are wide-ranging but subjects I have particularly enjoyed exploring for this project include:...

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