- The Origins of Medieval Architecture: Building in Europe, A.D. 600-900
This accessible and well-illustrated book provides a thoughtful overview of the history of architecture between the later Roman period and A.D. 1000. Dedicated to the memory of Richard Krautheimer, it in fact brings to mind Krautheimer's seminal volume on the architecture of the Byzantine world as well as Kenneth Conant's companion volume on Carolingian and Romanesque architecture. Indeed, in many ways this is a shorter, updated version of these two great volumes squeezed comfortably into 208 handsomely illustrated pages.
Part one reviews the legacy of "late antiquity," the Roman response to the cult of relics, Romanitas and the barbarian West, and the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England. Part two focuses principally upon the Carolingian era and its aftermath in six chapters which include a review of the eighth century, the impact of Rome on Charlemagne's Aachen, private patronage and personal taste, the monastic realm, the innovation of later Carolingian architecture, and an epilogue that examines the architecture at the turn of the millennium in terms of the foregoing history. These contents illustrate immediately that, notwithstanding the reference to the new discoveries thanks to recent medieval archaeology in the introduction, this is essentially a history of ecclesiastical [End Page 298] architecture following closely the works of great masters such as Krautheimer. Moreover, if there is one point that reveals the author's thesis, it is to be found on page 195, where, in sum, he argues that early medieval architecture evolved in response to the later Roman cult of relics. Over time this architecture was fashioned in "an array of shapes, sizes, and decorative textures" by the Franks, Lombards, Visigoths, and Anglo-Saxons, all of whom, McClendon contends, sought to emulate Roman techniques. So, he concludes tellingly, "the so-called Carolingian Renaissance . . . marked a shift in degree rather than kind."In other words, while he identifies the new architectural forms of the era after c. 814, following Charlemagne's death, continuity of experimentation with Roman concepts is his principal theme.
This thesis must surely merit reconsideration following the results of many important excavations. Undoubtedly, the theme of continuity cannot be set aside. The Roman triclinium form, for example, well known in late antiquity, outlives the collapse of Romanitas and is to be found in excavated sites such as the Mercian palace in ninth-century England and, similarly, it served the abbots of San Vincenzo al Volturno as either a residence or guest-house in the same era. Yet we now know that other forms of elite dwellings existed as well: the small but well-preserved ninth-century aristocratic house with its porticoed front from the Forum of Nerva in Rome certainly merits mention, as does the contemporary hall-house with its bowed walls from the village of Poggibonsi, Tuscany. Similarly, while McClendon identifies the Roman conceptual framework for the schematic plan of St. Gall, he pays little attention to the evidence from the extensive excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno which illustrate how a small nucleus was transformed into a ninth-century modular arrangement on terraces that, in Roman terms, now intentionally dominated the landscape. Traces of the same urban concept have been found elsewhere in Italy at Farfa and Monte Cassino, and hints of it exist as far afield as St. Denys. In sum, the archaeology emphasizes a massive injection of investment in the Carolingian era in order to emulate fully Romanitas. This is perhaps best illustrated by the ubiquitous discovery of animal-driven mortar-mixers associated with late eighth- and ninth-century building projects as lime mortar replaced the use of more primitive building materials.
In sum, this handsome book serves to summarize much great scholarship, but new research emphasizes how much there is to ponder as we grasp the rhythms of a truly formative era in European architecture.