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Reviews Essay

In the 1830’s, when the study of mediaeval architecture was just beginning, the Romanesque style was described as offering “all of the characteristics of Roman architecture, in an advanced state of degeneracy.”1 Within the last few years a Cistercian monastery — Le Thoronet — equally Romanesque in all of its characteristics has been hailed as the “architecture of truth.”2 Yet, in spite of this enthusiastic reversal in taste, the interested student or amateur could find no compendium in the English language to assist him in his studies or to satisfy his curiosity about Romanesque building until Kenneth Conant’s Carolingian and Romanesque ArchUecture, 800-1200, appeared in the Pelican series in 19.59. Within a few months of its appearance, Professor Conant’s volume was awarded the Alice David Hitchcock Medal by the Society of Architectural Historians “for the most distinguished work of scholarship in the history of architecture published by an American scholar for the year 1959.” The citation reads: In this work of brilliant scholarship, adorned with many of his lucid restorations, the author presents the complex picture of Early Medieval architecture. His balanced judgment and vast erudition have produced а of major importance, giving clarity and order to this often obscure phase in the development of Western Architecture. The reader shares with delight the author’s enthusiasm for his subject and follows with ad miration the exciting spatial adventures of these four centuries of expanding spiritual fervor.

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Years of devoted study and an unrivalled acquaintance with the monuments themselves give a cachet of irreproachable authority to this work of scholarship. Kenneth John Conant, professor of architecture, emeritus, Harvard University, needs no introduction to the readers of Speculum, or indeed, to any student of mediaeval civilization. In these pages he has reviewed most of the books on mediaeval architecture that have appeared in the past two decades; but, of course, it is also in Spfxjulum that he reported on his magnificent excavations and reconstructions of the Abbey of Clunv. Cluny may not have been his first love,for he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Santiago de Compostela, published as a  monograph in 1926. The following year, though, Cluny claimed his attention and this hold has not as yet been relinquished. During these more than thirty years, his eye and pencil, and those of his students, have also roamed widely over the problems of early Christian and early mediaeval architecture, with particular delight in the lost or greatly altered monuments that seem to mark the achieve ments of those complex times. His enquiring mind has included problems in American archaeology and in the development of modern architecture; indeed there arc few aspects in the history of architecture that he has not investigated or lectured upon. But perhaps more significant than anything else in his training and career was his early experience in the practice of architecture. He always has approached each monument as a specific architectural entity and has tried to understand the way in which each building solved its own particular problem.

The number of styles and the degree of their variety that must be considered in a survey of western European architecture between 800 and 1200 A.D. presents a formidable problem in and of itself. Although the title of Mr Conant’s volume is Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture, the chapter headings prove that he considers the entire period essentially as Romanesque, or as preparatory for it. Chapter 2, Part One, for instance, is called “The Carolingian Romanesque.” There is nothing very unusual about such a treatment. Arcisse de Caumont pro posed essentially the same approach in the nineteenth century,* and as recently as 1950 Pierre Lavcdan, in his concise survey of the history of art, treats Caro lingian art in his chapter entitled “L’Art Roman.”4 I do not wish to argue the point, as there are certainly two sides to the question, but my experience as a teacher would indicate that the truly confusing sequence of dynasties and artistic styles in the different countries of western Europe during this period can best be made intelligible to a student by identifying their historical environment and the distinguishing characteristics of their different artistic styles, rather than by grouping them together under one rubric, such as Romanesque. Be that as it may, Mr Conant’s primary interest in this volume is with Romanesque archi tecture. The text is divided into seven parts. Part One, “The Pre-Romanesque and Proto-Romanesque Styles,” begins with a brief discussion of the backgrounds, both institutional and architectural, of mediaeval building and in three following chapters treats the architecture of western Europe from the late eighth through the tenth centuries.

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There is a fairly extensive consideration of Carolingian architecture — first during the reign of Charlemagne and second in Germany and France under the later Carolingians. The careful description of the famous plan of the Abbey of Saint Gall will introduce a student to a monastic ensemble and also introduce him into the problem of reading a plan, although the di mensions proposed for the over-all area and for the church are stated in more positive terms than the hypothetical basis for these dimensions really admits. The careful reader will find that this same tendency to over-state the extent or  degree of precise knowledge about non-existent or altered buildings recurs per haps too frequently throughout the text. Knowing Kenneth Conant’s meticulous care in his own work at Cluny, I am inclined to believe that it may have been an editorial program to present a confident, straight forward exposition which has led to these often misleading assertions of fact, when in most instances scholars are still debating the issues. The attention given to the development of the west works and of the eastern end of the church — experiments leading to the ambula tory and radiating chapels so characteristic of Romanesque and Gothic churches — is evidence of the author’s interest in current thinking about the evolution of these important architectural innovations. The student will also find discussions, although often very brief, of Irish, Anglo-Saxon, and the beginnings of Scan dinavian Christian building, as well as Asturian and Mozarabic architecture in Spain and early Lombard and Byzantine buildings in Italy. A specialist in any of these areas or problems will often find that not all pertinent buildings are mentioned or that significant problems may be rather summarily treated.

This is inevitable in a survey of this character, especially when the text must not exceed a certain length. The student will find, in most instances, that the footnotes will provide him with additional comments and reasonably up-to-date and inclusive, not exhaustive, bibliographical references, although the inevitable time-lag in producing as complicated a book as this means that many important recent items are not mentioned. In general these comments apply to the text as a whole — not only to Part One. The detailed table of contents lists all of the periods and areas under con sideration. It also discloses how difficult it often is to be consistent or to discuss material in consecutive sequence, when so many areas and such uneven stylistic development must be considered. Part Two, as an example, is entitled “The Earlier Romanesque Styles.” It is basically concerned with the so-called “First Romanesque” of Lombardy and Catalonia and with the French developments from about 900 to 1050. A full chapter is also devoted to “Romanesque Architec ture under the Saxon and Franconian Emperors (930-1125).” The author recog nizes at the end of this chapter (p. 73) that he has advanced beyond the de velopment of Early Romanesque into the mature Romanesque of the kaiserdume and that the mature German Romanesque (which ultimately seems somewhat slighted) should logically be discussed with them, but cannot because of too great chronological discrepancies. Today, I believe, the author would have de voted a chapter to Ottonian architecture (as defined in the recent book of Louis Grodecki, UArchitecture Ottonienne , which appeared too late to be of use to Mr Conant) and would have relegated the monuments of the Fran conian emperors to the later consideration of mature Romanesque.

It is also true that M. Grodecki’s study proves that Ottonian architecture deserves greater emphasis in any consideration of the development of mediaeval architecture than it has previously received. In Part Three, “The Mature Romanesque as Inter-Regional and International Architecture,” the “Great Churches of the Pilgrimage Roads” are discussed in detail and the “Role of Cluny in the History of Romanesque Architecture” re ceives, as it deserves and as would be expected in a Conant text, thorough treat ment. The device of presenting the history and influence of Cluny by studying the important abbots and what was undertaken during their life-times is sym pathetic and successful. As a symbol Cluny represented order and learning in a world dominated by petty warfare and superstition. Its great church and monastic buildings were the summation of Romanesque achievements. As a captive, my self, of another abbey (the Royal Abbey of St-Denis) I found the author’s emphasis of Cluny reasonable and enlightening. His revelation of the modular system employed in the design of the great third church is provocative, although the scholar must wait for a more extensive demonstration, with diagrams, to be able to assess its significance for an understanding of mediaeval design in general.5 Perhaps the author’s instinct for architectural exactitude has led him to insist on precise measurements (see footnote 24, p. 116) which would have amazed the mediaeval mason who worked with much less accurate controls than our steel measuring tapes or transits.

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We even have proof of this in regard to Cluny III as can be seen in a twelfth-century miniature showing Gunzo, the architect of Cluny, dreaming about the plan of his church, which is being laid out by means of heavy ropes.6 In fact, it is amazing that sucli seemingly crude methods could have produced such harmonious results, but we must remember that the builders of the twelfth century, whether Romanesque or Early Gothic, were masons, not architects in our sense of the word. And as masons they had an instinct for stone construction unparalleled at any other moment in history. It is also in relation to Cluny III that the term “half-gothic” first appears (p. 125). In discussing the work on the great church carried forward under Abbot Peter the Venerable, Mr Conant first says that it is “interesting as showing early premonitions of the Gothic style” (p. 122) — a perfectly reasonable phrase, as is the author’s admission that it is difficult to decide precisely what role Cluny played in the creation of Gothic. The invention, though, of the term “half- gothic” is not, in my opinion, a very happy one; and its use elsewhere in the text tends to obscure the issue rather than clarify it.

For many years historians have stopped using such terms as “transitional style,” which once referred to the Early Gothic of the twelfth century, because styles are always in the process of transi tion. In the same degree one style may contain elements of another one, but there are no “half-styles” since there are always dominating characteristics which identify whether a building, or work of art, belongs to one style or another. In Mr Conant’s text, the use of “half-gothic” seems uncomplimentary to Romanes que, as though the intrinsic qualities of Romanesque architecture were less significant than those of Gothic. I don’t believe that he would admit to such a proposition. Perhaps my reaction is a personal one. In the light of Mr Conant’s interest in modular and proportional systems, it is surprising to find no mention of Cistercian proportions in the chapter on  “The Cistercians and Their Architecture.” Otto von Simson discusses these proportions in some detail in his The Gothic Cathedral,7 which Mr Conant refers to in his long footnote on the proportions of Cluny 1 (note 24, p. 116). but fails to mention in regard to Cistercian building. Similar proportions are mentioned by Francois Bucher in his Notre-Dame de Bonmont,8 which also provides a careful study of early Cistercian building in Switzerland and is a valuable addition to the bibliography of Cistercian architecture. Parts Four, Five, Six, and Seven treat the “Mature Romanesque” as it ap peared throughout western Europe, in the Holy Land, and in Scandinavia. No area of Romanesque building is overlooked, but these different areas do not al ways receive equal, or proportionate, treatment.

This again is inevitable in a sur vey of this type, where the author’s predilections and direct experience must necessarily be reflected. The discussion of Norman and Anglo-Norman architec ture is very properly delayed until the last chapter, so that the contributions of these regions to the development of Early Gothic are recognized. The fact that Geoffrey Webb’s book, Architecture in Britain: The Middle Ages, had already ap peared in the same series unquestionably curtailed the discussion of English Romanesque. This is unfortunate in a general survey, for among all the variations of Romanesque style, these northern buildings certainly present some of the most challenging and inventive structural forms, as well as an almost sculptural treat ment of the forms themselves. At the beginning of the volume there are twelve extremely useful maps, and following the bibliography, just before the plates of excellent photographs, are fifteen restoration studies from the almost magical pen and pencil of the author. Two additional restoration studies in the form of retouched photographs (St- Etienne, Nevers, and the interior of Autun cathedral) are included among the plates. These are so convincing that it is regrettable that notes of some sort were not appended to provide the scholar and student with the bases for the reconstructions. Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture should be on every shelf of mediaeval handbooks. The descriptive text is presented through the eyes of an architect and enthusiastic sholar. It is stimulating, because the student or reader is not told exactly what the Romanesque style was. He is given all of the ingredients and invited to formulate his own definition.

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Reviews Essay

In the 1830’s, when the study of mediaeval architecture was just beginning, the Romanesque style was described as offering “all of the characteristics of Roman architecture, in an advanced state of degeneracy.”1 Within the last few years a Cistercian monastery — Le Thoronet — equally Romanesque in all of its characteristics has been hailed as the “architecture of truth.”2 Yet, in spite of this enthusiastic reversal in taste, the interested student or

2017-09-26 12:01:23
Reviews Essay
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