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  • The Art of Medieval Urbanism: Parthenay in Romanesque Aquitaine
  • Max Staples
Maxwell, Robert, The Art of Medieval Urbanism: Parthenay in Romanesque Aquitaine, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007; cloth; pp. xxiv, 376; 190 b/w & 95 colour illustrations; R.R.P. US$90.00; ISBN 9870271029566.

Robert Maxwell discusses the ten Romanesque churches built in Parthenay in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, with particular attention to their sculptural decoration. His book is wide-ranging, and painstakingly researched. For readers seeking information on this particular topic, Maxwell offers a wealth of detail. He has the enthusiasm and patience to follow leads, and records his discoveries comprehensively. At the same time, his work is not encyclopaedic and there are areas that Maxwell leaves out. His presentation is more akin to a series of unexpected detours than a planned journey.

Maxwell is candid about the work under discussion. He concedes the modest status of some of the churches and the humble quality of their decoration, and he acknowledges the absence of a broad iconographic programme. He argues that their significance lies instead in their sheer number, compared to other [End Page 183] locations, and in what they reveal about the construction of urban identity.

Maxwell proposes that in a first phase, the construction of church buildings served to transform Parthenay from a rural fortification to a regional power. The use of the motifs of the equestrian figure and the lion wrestler signalled the elevation of the leading family from castellans to lords with authority and a hereditary title. A pilgrim quarter and a church dedicated to St Jacques were built, not so much because there were pilgrims, but because that is what a town of substance had. In a subsequent period, stylistic influences from a variety of regions were introduced, as the affiliations of the local lords wavered.

Where Maxwell uses historical and secondary sources to shed light on the art, he is at his most successful. When he attempts the converse, to shed light on history using the evidence of the artwork, he is on less certain ground. To arrive at his conclusions he pursues a series of hypothetical possibilities, each dependent on the previous.

The two possible forms of landscape are identified as cultus and incultus. Maxwell finds a growing preference in the eleventh century for the cultus and for the built environment, which was expressed as a positive re-evaluation of the city. Maxwell assimilates the city with the town and re-badges the totality as urbanism. He emphasizes that the figurative elements depicted in the sculptural decorations might have no significance at all, except for being the choice, or within the repertoire, of the masons. On the chance, however, that they have any wider significance, such as expressing the values of the lords or the townspeople regarding urbanism, Maxwell explores the possibilities, at substantial length.

This concentration on the figurative, and exploration of the interpretive possibilities, is perhaps a limitation of the book. Maxwell is reticent about the physical structure of Parthenay, the parts that make it up, and how they combine. The ten churches are taken as crucial, whereas the topography, access roads, streets, houses, chateau and citadel are not analysed, and the fortifications are discussed only at the end. This is despite the presence of some excellent diagrams.

As with the text, the illustration is painstaking. Very few physical objects are mentioned that are not also illustrated. In a book of some 400 pages, there are 286 illustrations, most of them photographs taken by the author, the majority in colour. On many pages there are two and in some cases three photographs. The effect, however, for this reviewer, is underwhelming. There [End Page 184] are so many images that very few of them receive any discussion or analysis. Many of the pictures look similar, because they are of beige stonework. At the same time, lighting, tone and saturation vary prodigiously.

The Impressionists long ago noted the relativity of colour, depending on time of day and atmospheric conditions; readers of a scholarly work on architecture do not require further demonstration. On the contrary, in the interests of intelligibility, the task of the layout artist is...


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