Search This Blog


12 February 2010

A Bridge too Far: Why We Can’t Emulate the Middle Ages

Emulation distinguishes itself from Imitation in that it requires some knowledge about how the model to be emulated operated intellectually—it is not simple copying, but “working in the manner of,” which means not only matching what someone did, but how they did it (in order to exceed it). Roman architects emulated the Greeks in that they not only copied their buildings’ forms, they exceeded them in richness, organizational logic, and scale. They could do this because they knew enough (see Vitruvius), or thought they knew enough, about what the Greeks were doing, and they knew this because they still spoke their language. Similarly, the Renaissance emulated antiquity by not merely copying ancient buildings, but adapting them to new purposes while embracing their logic and refinement—again because, thanks to Vitruvius, they “spoke their language.” And thanks to Alberti and a host of other Renaissance thinkers, not to mention modern historians who have recovered their intellectual context, we can emulate the Renaissance—it is a language we can speak again, if we have the will.

Not so with the Middle Ages. There is no Vitruvius or Alberti for medieval art and architecture. Apart from Abbot Suger—whose writing on architecture ( On Saint Denis) could just as easily describe a Roman Baroque church as a medieval one—we have no substantive writing from the period that describes how medieval architects went about doing what they did. There are late-medieval treatises on painting like the one of Giotto’s follower Cenino Cenini, but these are technical manuals with little insight on what mattered in the composition of a medieval painting; and there are reports from late-medieval cathedral building committees that tell us something about proportion, but this is not composition. There is no codified medieval canon of either the human figure nor of architectural columns. There is, in effect, no medieval “language” of art or architecture, but rather a loosely coherent, evolutionary cultural habit of form-making. In other words, it’s not that the Middle Ages didn’t write down what they were doing, but rather they weren’t doing anything as coordinated or internally coherent as the Renaissance or even ancient Greece and Rome. What this means is that those who want to work today in a medieval manner must resort to copying, or collaging, since they cannot credibly think like a medieval artist or architect.

If this is true for art and architecture, how much more so is it true in urban design. There is no medieval urban design to begin with, in the sense of an orchestrated effort at organizing substantial stretches of urban terrain according to an artistic ideal, as Sixtus V or Alexander VII did in Rome. When medieval communes did project new towns, like those developed by Siena or Florence, they created grids, which tell us little about the forms of Siena or Florence in the Middle Ages. All of which makes the current New Urbanist interest in neo-medieval urban design (New Urban News) a very oddly contrived thing indeed.