Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 19, 2017
Martin Bressani Architecture and the Historical Imagination: Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, 1814–1879 Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 623 pp.; 86 color ills.; 64 b/w ills. Cloth $114.95 (9780754633402)

Martin Bressani’s Architecture and the Historical Imagination brings psychological unity to the life and work of Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the nineteenth-century French architect, restorer, and theorist whose numerous and diverse activities continue to enthrall and perplex historians. In the groundbreaking 1980 catalogue of an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris commemorating the centenary of Viollet-le-Duc’s death, Bruno Foucart (who supervised Bressani’s 1997 dissertation) argued that the “paradox of Viollet-le-Duc” is that he was both “delirious and rational” (“Viollet-le-Duc, cent ans après,” in Bruno Foucart, ed., Viollet-le-Duc, Paris: Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 14). Contradictions like this are reconciled in two books published in 2014 to commemorate the bicentenary of Viollet-le-Duc’s birth: Bressani’s monograph and Viollet-le-Duc: Les visions d’un architecte, a catalogue edited by Laurence de Finance and Jean-Michel Leniaud for an exhibition held at the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine. The flourishing of scholarship marking the bicentenary also includes the conference “Viollet-le-Duc (1814–2014), villégiature et architecture domestique” held in Hendaye, whose proceedings have been published (Viviane Delpech, ed., Viollet-le-Duc: Villégiature et architecture domestique, Villeneuve-d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2016). In his introduction to Viollet-le-Duc: Les visions d’un architecte, Leniaud proposes the unifying thesis that Viollet-le-Duc was accompanied throughout his life by visions, and that this led him to consider himself a visionary (16–18). Bressani’s title, Architecture and the Historical Imagination, relates to the catalogue’s, with its evocation of Viollet-le-Duc’s mental images; it also alludes to the title of Laurent Baridon’s 1996 book, L’Imaginaire scientifique de Viollet-le-Duc (Paris: L’Harmattan), signaling, with its replacement of “scientific” with “historical,” a shift to the remembrance of the past. Still, Bressani devotes considerable attention to Viollet-le-Duc’s engagement with science, a major subject of his dissertation (and that of Baridon, defended in 1992). Bressani’s intellectual biography stands out in the landscape of Viollet-le-Duc studies because it offers a unified narrative based on the distinctive premise that the architect was motivated consistently by a form of pathological mourning.

Bressani’s main approach is psychobiographical: he explains Viollet-le-Duc’s activity as symptomatic of mental illness, in particular the “illness of mourning” (28), which he attributes to family conflict and early trauma. As Bressani articulates it, “the central thesis of this book is that Viollet-le-Duc’s life’s work must be conceived as the progressive deepening of an identification with the past predicated upon loss” (27). Viollet-le-Duc related especially to the national and medieval past, and to its monuments and builders. Initiating his regression was the grief he felt because of his sad childhood and his mother’s death when he was eighteen. His mother was depressive, while his uncle, who served as his mentor, was cruelly manipulative. For Bressani, a childhood memory that Viollet-le-Duc recounts in his Entretiens sur l’architecture is key (6). A male servant carried Viollet-le-Duc in Notre-Dame de Paris, which was “hung with black” and crowded (3). Suddenly, as Viollet-le-Duc gazed at a rose window, he heard the sound of the great organ. Believing the window was singing, he became terrified, and the servant had to take him out. According to Bressani, this is a “screen memory” (24); he decodes it to identify the servant as Viollet-le-Duc’s controlling uncle and the cathedral, draped in funerary black, as his mother. The memory signified the loss that caused his “illness of mourning,” which manifested itself in his compulsive restoration of the past. Not only personal, but national loss conditioned Viollet-le-Duc’s regression. The trauma of the Revolution produced expressions of grief and efforts to “renew with the ancien régime” (5), particularly during the Bourbon Restoration and July Monarchy. The regimes used ceremonies, such as the one that Viollet-le-Duc remembered at Notre-Dame, to commemorate the royal dead and expiate revolutionary violence. These rites are the subject of an important recent book that could have informed Bressani’s interpretation, Emmanuel Fureix’s La France des larmes: Deuils politiques à l’âge romantique (1814–1840) (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2009).

The emphasis of Bressani’s book is on Viollet-le-Duc’s writings; its scope goes beyond the well-known Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture and Entretiens sur l’architecture to include summaries and analysis of less familiar publications. These include “De la construction des édifices religieux en France,” Viollet-le-Duc’s first publication, a serialized article in the Annales archéologiques that details his theory of Gothic construction, and Histoire d’un dessinateur, his last publication, a book published posthumously, that gives a fictional account of a boy’s apprenticeship, which is an idealized reimagining of his own childhood. At the same time, Bressani excludes major built works: the restoration of Carcassonne and church of Aillant-sur-Tholon are mentioned in passing only, and the church of Saint-Denis-de-l’Estrée in Saint-Denis is omitted. Organized chronologically, the book is divided into fifteen chapters grouped into five parts. Part 1 examines the origins and development of Viollet-le-Duc’s “restorative attitude” in his childhood and early adulthood (11). Bressani begins with the Notre-Dame memory and a family portrait, then turns to Viollet-le-Duc’s activity of the 1830s, focusing on his travels in France and Italy and drawings of architecture and mountain landscapes, and finding in the drawings early evidence of Viollet-le-Duc’s liberal politics and interests in artistic unity and illusion.

Part 2 traces the deepening of Viollet-le-Duc’s empathy with medieval masons between his return from Italy in 1837 and the fall of the July Monarchy. Bressani analyzes the concurrent and mutually reinforcing projects of his restoration of the abbey church at Vézelay and his article “De la construction des édifices religieux en France,” both of which present Vézelay as the “birthplace of the Gothic” (115). He considers Viollet-le-Duc’s coordinated activities in relation to debates surrounding the newly institutionalized field of restoration and the question of the appropriateness of the Gothic in the nineteenth century. In part 3, Bressani interprets both Viollet-le-Duc’s rise to power in the administration of church architecture and the launching of the Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture in 1853 as reflections of the nationalist authoritarianism of the Second Empire. He analyzes the Dictionnaire, emphasizing Viollet-le-Duc’s argument that Gothic cathedrals express bourgeois emancipation and secularization. Bressani also examines his well-integrated images, focusing on the exploded perspective of the springing point of an arch and the ideal cathedral, as well as the three estates vignette that appears on the title pages of the Dictionnaire. The vignette, Bressani argues, encapsulates not only Viollet-le-Duc’s theory of the Gothic, but the family drama of his childhood.

Part 4 investigates the climax of Viollet-le-Duc’s career in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Bressani explains the opposition to the Académie and École des Beaux-Arts that led to reforms in 1863 and Viollet-le-Duc’s doomed lecture course of 1864. He analyzes the Entretiens sur l’architecture, published beginning in 1858, especially Viollet-le-Duc’s formulation of unified theories of style and race to explain the diversity of human creation. He argues that the struggle of the three estates in the Dictionnaire is replaced by racial hybridization in the Entretiens as the driver of architectural development and that the recurrent image of the Lycian tomb confirms the racial theory and prefigures later European architecture. In part 5, Bressani turns to Viollet-le-Duc’s design projects of the 1860s, his contribution to the Franco-Prussian War, and his subsequent retreat to Switzerland. He explains Viollet-le-Duc’s struggle to accommodate the modern material of iron to historical construction techniques and his eventual combination of stone and visible iron supports in Gothic “structural equilibrium” (433). Bressani finds continuities in Viollet-le-Duc’s late work: he went from escaping to the Middle Ages to escaping to nature, from contemplating principles of historical change to contemplating principles of geological change, and from restoring medieval buildings to restoring Mont Blanc and himself, in Histoire d’un dessinateur.

Some of the book’s psychoanalytic interpretations are more convincing, like those of the Notre-Dame memory and the three estates vignette; others less, notably the provocative interpretation of Viollet-le-Duc’s late project for a Russian assembly hall as “maternal” (514), with a “womb-like” interior space and “projections [that] appear like breasts and feeding nipples” (516). The book’s complex arguments could be made clearer by offering more straightforward exposition. And while its interdisciplinarity is commendable, readers may wish for definitions of specialized terms from outside the field of architectural history and problematic and esoteric concepts. They may also wish for more help in keeping their bearings, with outlines, summaries, and links between arguments and the main thesis. Nevertheless, the book succeeds in fulfilling its stated aim of unraveling Viollet-le-Duc’s identification with the past (xxv). It presents a continuous narrative that integrates Viollet-le-Duc’s “immense web of activities” with the larger network of people and things and words and images with which he interacted (xxiv). The product of Bressani’s extraordinary specialized knowledge and deep research, it makes extensive use of primary sources, including Viollet-le-Duc’s correspondence, and appropriate recent secondary sources in English and French. The book provides intriguing publication histories, perceptive analysis of Viollet-le-Duc’s texts and drawings, and fascinating accounts of nineteenth-century architectural debates, all of which historians will find useful. As Viollet-le-Duc wished for readers of the Dictionnaire, readers of Architecture and the Historical Imagination may well get absorbed (237).

Jessica Basciano
Assistant Professor of Art History, University of St. Thomas, Houston

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