The Style Empire and its Pedigree: Piranesi, Pompeii and Alexandria
The Style Empire offers a unique laboratory to study the dynamics of stylistic transformation, since it is the last attempt to create a new French court style, devised consciously by Napoleon, like the court ceremonial he reinstated, as a successor to the styles of the Bourbons. At the same time it is a revival of Greek and Roman forms, but renewed by the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompei, Napoleon's Egyptian expedition, and nourished by Piranesi's widening of the range of classical forms to include Etruscan, Republican Roman or Egyptian forms. Taking as its focus one of the best-preserved monuments of the Style Empire, the Hôtel de Beauharnais in Paris, this essay will argue that its revival of past styles is not simply a matter of nostalgia, or a historicist desire to imitate the past. Instead it should be understood as a particular approach to composition. Its rationale can best be understood by tracing successive transformations of forms developed in the cosmopolitan Hellenistic architecture of Alexandria and Petra, taken up and preserved in Pompeian interior design and mural painting, and resurfacing in Piranesi's furniture design. This essay singles out the particular approach to composition developed by Piranesi, and its ancestry in Pompeian mural painting and Hellenistic architecture and poetry, as a defining characteristic of the Style Empire. Thus it argues for a new consideration of historicizing styles in terms of a poetics of appropriation and transformation.