Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 3, 2017
Jean Wirth Villard de Honnecourt: Architecte du XIIIe siècle Geneva: Librarie Droz, 2015. 384 pp.; 189 b/w ills. Paper $42.00 (9782600005586)

Villard de Honnecourt’s drawings and accompanying commentary (BnF MS fr 19093) have generated tremendous interest since they first came to scholarly attention in the nineteenth century. Despite a century and a half of scrutiny, however, their purpose remains elusive. Initially thought to be a Gothic architect, Villard himself has fallen in status as modern studies have questioned his architectural knowledge. Following the work of Carl F. Barnes, Jr., the idea that Villard was not an architect has, as Jean Wirth notes, become virtually dogmatic among medievalists (10). As the title of this book signals, Wirth disagrees. He sets out, through careful analysis of the drawings, inscriptions, and arrangement of pages, to argue for a new understanding of Villard’s “portfolio” as an object and of its author’s expertise in construction and engineering.

Central to Wirth’s argument is a reconsideration of the identities of contributors to the pages and their chronological relationship (16–29). Since the beginning of the twentieth century, most scholars have recognized in the drawings and texts at least three thirteenth-century hands, one assumed to belong to Villard himself and the other two to masons who worked after him. These were named, according to their presumed chronology, Masters 1, 2, and 3 by Hans Hahnloser in 1935 (Villard de Honnecourt: Kritische Gesamtausgabe des Bauhüttenbuches). In 1999, Wilhelm Schlink (“War Villard de Honnecourt Analphabet?” Pierre, Lumière, couleur: Études d’histoire de l’art du Moyen âge en l’honneur d’Anne Prache, eds., Fabienne Joubert and Dany Sandron, Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 1999, 213–21) argued for a new ordering of the hands, placing the contributions of Master 1, traditionally associated with Villard, after those of Masters 2 and 3. Noting the professional quality of the scripts, Schlink postulated that Villard himself had written nothing, but had instead dictated to three different scribes.

Wirth finds Schlink’s characterization of Masters 1 and 3 as professional scribes compelling (18–22). Master 2, on the other hand, wrote more carelessly, with faint ink, and seems to have hesitated between Latin and Picard, Villard’s presumed first language. Master 2’s entries, Wirth contends, have the character of a first draft, and the diluted ink suggests that some were to be effaced when the work was complete, like instructions to illuminators. For Wirth, this makes sense only if Master 2 was Villard himself, briefly noting essential ideas to be fleshed out later (22–29).

Wirth rejects Schlink’s proposal that Villard dictated to scribes because of illiteracy. Instead, he notes, it was a common practice for learned scholars to dictate rather than write their own work. Villard’s dictation, then, would raise his status to that of an educated person, someone more likely to conceive of compiling a didactic work or to be commissioned to travel to Hungary, as Villard says he was (22–23).

There is no doubt that Villard himself made the decision to create a book; disagreements remain only about when the pages were bound and who was responsible for its final appearance. Wirth looks at the relationship of text and image, palimpsest and final drawing, and traces of text and image hidden in the binding process. He concludes that Villard was responsible for the final product, and that the thirteenth-century inscriptions were written within a short span of time. Wirth’s chronology offers plausible new explanations for conflicting texts; he imagines Villard, Master 2, making notations on his drawings some time after their creation, away from the source. Later realizing his own error, he directed his scribe to correct it (26).

The identification of Master 2 with Villard is critical to the contention that Villard was an architect, since Hahnloser and subsequent scholars have attributed to this hand, traditionally presumed to be a later follower of Villard, most of the technical drawings and all of the accompanying explanatory texts on folios 20r, 20v, and 21r. As Roland Bechmann demonstrates in Villard de Honnecourt: La pensée technique au XIIIe siècle (Paris: Picard, 1991), these drawings evince knowledge of the stereotomy techniques used by masons from the Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century. The person who drew them understood stonecutting practices and could not have been as ignorant of architecture as many believe Villard to have been.

The authorship of these technical drawings is particularly problematic because earlier images of the same type were scraped off the parchment and replaced with those we now see. In his color facsimile, The Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt (Burlington: Ashgate, 2009, 11–13), Carl Barnes identified a fourth hand, using a different ink, quill width, and spelling than Master 2. Wirth rejects Barnes’s new Hand IV, arguing that the limited space available for inscriptions on 20v and 21r could explain the smaller script and somewhat more careful Picard text. Further, Wirth explains the effacing and redrawing of technical drawings on 20v not as the work of a later, more competent master, but as the result of Villard’s realization that he had not left sufficient space in his original layout to include all the necessary textual explanations (198). Whenever he conceived of these as didactic models, Villard decided they needed to be radically rearranged.

Having renamed Master 2 as Villard de Honnecourt and Masters 1 and 3 his scribes, Wirth proceeds to describe a possible process by which the loose parchment sheets became a book (29–45). The portfolio falls far short of the three-part organization of masonry techniques, carpentry, and representation that the “preface” on fol. 1v seems to promise, but Wirth finds within the disorder of the book several indications that Villard himself tried to reorganize the drawings already in his portfolio as far as possible. For example, the fourth quire, containing two bifolios, begins on folio 18r with an incipit by Master 2/Villard identifying it as the beginning of a section on the “techniques of representation as the discipline of geometry instructs” repeating the text on 18v by Master 1, who adds, “on the other leaf are those of masonry” (trans. Barnes, Portfolio, 113–14). The quire is constructed so that it contains four pages of geometrical figures followed by three of masonry techniques. This arrangement of drawings on two bifolio sheets of parchment, together with the inscriptions, suggests an organizational plan (38–40).

Following his philological and codicological examination, Wirth discusses the drawings in detail. Recognizing that Barnes has provided a painstakingly detailed account of Villard’s techniques, he explores the context of drawing practices in the thirteenth century (47–135). He asks to what extent artists thought about the imitation of nature, and how they resolved the problems of projecting a three-dimensional form onto a two-dimensional surface, offering detailed explanations for many of the figural drawings. He supposes, for example, that Villard altered details to suit a particular task or used one model for a different iconographic situation, such as the sleeping apostle turned into the fallen Christ on folio 17r (97). He proceeds as well to offer credible analyses of many of the drawings for stonecutting and other engineering techniques.

The discrepancies between Villard’s architectural drawings and standing buildings, particularly Reims Cathedral, have provided much of the evidence against the idea that Villard knew how to build. In general, Wirth argues that in working through his drawings Villard sometimes may have simplified for the sake of clarity, particularly if he wanted to direct attention to a certain quality, as when suggesting ideas for Cambrai Cathedral. Alain Villes, in his book La cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims: Chronologie et campagnes de travaux (Joué-lès-Tours: La Simarre Editions, 2009), argues that Villard may have visited Reims as early as 1215–17, supporting the hypothesis raised by a number of scholars that he saw the cathedral at an early stage of construction and had access to workshop drawings (228–41). Like Villes, Wirth finds that the radiating chapel drawings on fol. 30v and 31r are precise renditions of the existing walls. Errors in the nave elevation drawings on 31v are explained as a combination of extrapolation from portions of the choir already built and workshop drawings. Like the surviving drawings for the facade of Strasbourg Cathedral, he contends, what Villard saw in the workshop might well have changed during construction (236). In addition, Wirth cautions that the inscriptions by Masters 1 and 3 on these pages could have been written long after the drawings were made, reflecting an attempt to describe them retrospectively (229). Finally, the drawing of flying buttresses on fol. 32v remains problematic. He points out that the dark areas, usually read as voids, might merely be recesses, and thus not structural impossibilities. He also notes that any text that once accompanied this drawing is lost, and he questions why it is assumed that it was meant to represent Reims at all, rather than Villard’s attempt to work with the principle of flyers (236–37).

Finally, Wirth considers what is known of the medieval training of the master mason who designed buildings. The evidence shows that he probably began by learning stonecutting, and was often a sculptor as well as a builder, sometimes required to build machines for construction. Thus, for Wirth the combination of figural drawings, mnemonic devices, engineering and architectural drawings constitute the range of tasks a master mason had to learn.

In The Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, Barnes noted that he was left with more questions than answers (xxv). In this carefully considered study, Wirth frequently weighs Barnes’s argument and draws the opposite conclusion, underlining the ultimate impossibility of discerning the person behind the drawings. Wirth’s proposals for reconsidering the sequence of drawing and writing, as well as his analyses of the drawings, nonetheless raise new questions that should not be ignored.

Ellen Shortell
Professor, History of Art Department, Massachusetts College of Art and Design

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