Jean Bony (1908-95)
Jean Bony's French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries (1983) represents the last attempt to write the grand narrative of the appearance and development of the Gothic "style."
The author's opening sentences tell the story of a lifetime spent working out the problems that had so preoccupied Viollet-le-Duc and Focillon: "This book has been written in the conviction that the true significance of Gothic architecture can be captured only if one does not lose sight of the unexpectedness [my italics] of the course of history. The art we call Gothic was the assertion of a spirit of modernity which went on renewing itself for centuries, almost ceaselessly; and what matters is to perceive again the vitality of that movement and the accidental quality of its development. The driving force of human inventiveness being a critical dissatisfaction with the immediate past, each generation of Gothic builders in turn had to reassess its aims, each time redefining Gothic on its own terms and often changing dramatically the direction of its movement. There was a time when Gothic was viewed as a predetermined development, as the unfolding through time of a sort of theorem guided by inner necessity." The reader will recognize much that is familiar from Focillon, and although Bony's approach deliberately set out to counter the determinism of the Germans, the idea of the surprises of history had been already expressed by Frankl.
How, then, to reconcile this kind of approach that sets out to "uncover the urges which at each stage dictated the new Gothic movement" with the rigid demands of the book with its pages and its chapters and procession of monuments, all of which will impose a severely linear pattern upon material that is supposed to remain open to every kind of surprising detour?
As with Focillon, we must regretfully conclude that ideas that might energize the seminar room or the classroom wither upon the page. The ability to model the complexity of multiple outcomes possible in each of multiple building sites over extended time and geographic extent is something that would be hard to achieve, even with the help of a computer.
The Introduction promises to "recover for us some of the intensity of meaning it [Gothic] had for the men who created it and who kept rethinking and reimagining it, following no other necessity than that of constantly revitalizing the power and the originality of their vision" -- but to pass from this energizing agenda to the opening chapters is to move between layers of thought like geological strata.
The "accidental" theory of Gothic came late to Jean Bony. Chapter I, "The Technical Bases of Gothic Architecture," belongs to a much older stratum of thought going back to Focillon and beyond. Here Bony defines the essential elements of Gothic, taking Soissons Cathedral as his example. There are four elements -- providing what Schapiro had called the defining "constant" of the style. Rib vaulting, pointed arches, verticality, enhanced spaciousness or openness with skeletonization of structure and enormous windows maximizing interior light.
Having defined the essential elements one is then led on the search to establish where each element "came from." Track the elements to their sources and catalogue the monuments where they were used; establish the time, place and monument where they are all used together and you have solved the "problem" of Gothic style! Bony's enterprise is not quite as crude as this, however, as he explores the ultimate origins of the technique of rib vaulting in Roman masonry practice and the monuments of Islamic Spain, noting the coincidence between the fall of Toledo to Christian forces in 1085 and the first application of the form in the north. Pointed arches are tracked along a similar route from Islamic sources in the Near East and coming into Europe via Sicily and Italy (Monte Cassino) leading to their early application in the third abbey church of Cluny after 1088. The remaining elements -- enhanced height and spaciousness, on the other hand, had roots in the Romanesque North -- particularly in the great Pilgrimage Churches, Cluny III and Norman monuments like Jumièges and the great churches of Caen. Thus, on Bony's pages we find forms "traveling" or "spreading;" or we find that they "have roots in the past." Would it be too much to demand a more precise use of language? Arches and vaults cannot travel: they are assembled, generally out of local materials, on the building site. Bony is like many other writers on Gothic whose language projects the illusion of a kind of animism -- it is as if architectural forms are like the microbes that caused the Black Death, and can be transmitted from one area to another, leading to a spreading contagion.
There was nothing very new about the definition of Gothic style in terms of four component elements: Bony provided novel animation for his story, however, in his account of the "Ile-de-France milieu." Focillon, it will be remembered, had represented this area as an architectural desert -- without its own traditions and therefore the place where Gothic could establish itself. Bony, on the other hand believed that the area had a very powerful local tradition expressed in terms of buildings with "paper-thin" walls and slender supports. A problem was caused by the "entrance" of the rib vault, with its demands for adequate lateral support: "rib vaulting seems to have entered Ile-de-France from Normandy along two routes?." The first route was marked by monuments such as S-Etienne of Beauvais; while a "second route of penetration" ran to the west of Paris. Although rib vaults could be built thinner than barrel and groin vaults, early specimens are still quite thick, and exert considerable outward pressure -- creating the potential for structural disaster. Was this the "force" underlying the start of Gothic architecture?--"things do not happen by mere addition in history: forces have to be released, an impetus has to be created for art movements to take shape." It was not the native genius of the French (a slap at Focillon and Viollet-le-Duc here): "they simply placed themselves in an impossible situation and had to extricate themselves from it." But Gothic architecture was the result of this inner contradiction. Attempting the absurd is a powerful stimulus -- danger, at any rate, is one -- and the pattern followed by the invention of Gothic was one of challenge and response: a sharp response to a self-made challenge. For Jean Bony, then, the "force" behind history is nothing other than a tripartite syllogistic structure -- the thesis is the thin-walled structure; the antithesis the heavy masonry vault which threatens to overturn the unbuttressed infrastructure. The two forces came together "by accident" in the Ile-de-France and the builders were forced either to watch their buildings tumble or devise some kind of solution -- that synthesis was Gothic.
Bony never distinguishes (as he should have done) between the dialectic as a means of representing a historical sequence of some kind (almost any kind of human interaction can be so represented) and the belief that larger "movements" will organize themselves tidily in such three-part sequences. His bigger story is, indeed, told in three parts with a "first Gothic system" developing in the aftermath of Saint Denis and powered by the deployment of the rib vault and the urge to create more spacious buildings with a more rigorously organized linear articulation. In the "first Gothic" the inherent problem of the combination of the tall, spacious, thin-walled building with the masonry vault was never resolved. One wonders how those buildings survived for almost a half century without the necessary technical fix -- the flying buttress -- but it make an exciting story. It was only in the "second Gothic system" that the necessary technical fix became available. According to Bony, flying buttresses were only invented in the late 1170s in the form of a very timid system of double-rank quadrant arches applied to the flanks of the nave of Notre-Dame of Paris. The "second Gothic system" is represented principally around the two great cathedrals of Chartres and Bourges -- other buildings are organized in terms of their similitude (of lack of it) to those great "prototypes." And the third Gothic system came in the 1230s with the so-called "Rayonnant" style with buildings that did not continue to push towards greater scale, but where the development of a rigorously linear grid system was the priority.
Our author is ready to acknowledge the existence of much that does not fit his tidy three-chapter tale (like Frankl with his akyrisms). The linear forms of rayonnant were already apparent in much earlier monuments, the south transept of Soissons Cathedral, for example. But the greatest blow to the Bony system has come with recent work on the flying buttress. Years ago, Jacques Henriet had proposed the Sens Cathedral, begun around the same time as Saint-Denis already had flyers. And following earlier suggestions by Anne Prache and Francis Salet, I have demonstrated that the choir of Notre-Dame of Paris already had flyers. These were not tentative short-reach quadrant arches but bold eleven-meter arches able to leap over outer and inner aisles in a single bound. Builders did not have to wait for fifty years while their precarious edifices tottered without the necessary lateral supports in the form of flyers. There were in the mid-twelfth century clearly multiple experiments with improvising lateral support for high vaults -- we have seen that Suger's new chevet at Saint-Denis had some kind of unconventional buttressing system that might have involved exposed flyers.
The overall structure of Bony's book provides an armature, flawed though it is, to allow the author to demonstrate his truly astonishing familiarity with a formidable number of buildings, and his tireless need to group and arrange them in categories that respond to time, geography and visual qualities like "linear values" and "spaciousness." To keep the attention of the reader he resorts to a deceptive practice that goes directly against the exciting agenda (to try to live history as it happened) he had laid out at the beginning. "It may be questionable from the point of view of historical method to insert into an account of the very beginnings of Gothic art the analysis of a building which was to come only one hundred years later and was unimaginable in 1140; this rather hazardous historical procedure may perhaps be excused on the grounds that it presents a convenient way of demonstrating the multiplicity of different things we tend to cover under the terms 'lines' or 'linear values.' But this anticipation must be wiped out of our minds and we must make the effort of becoming again men of the 1140s when Gothic was just beginning to appear as an amazingly modern architecture and one which gave increasing importance to linear effects and to all means of linear expression." Bony's image of the "force" that powered the Gothic "movement" in terms of a challenging internal contradiction clearly reflects the contradiction inherent in the admonition that we should re-live history as it actually happened, yet the provision of an anticipation of the outcome. This is self-fulfilling prophesy or entelechy.
Bony's representation of Gothic style is at its best not in his labored Hegelistic triads but in his very personal verbal response to individual buildings: the richness of his figurative language. To respond to the question, "what does it look like" one needs a metaphor or simile that will rivet the attention of the audience. Thus, for example, Bony provides a wonderful account of his response to the chevet of S-Martin-des-Champs: " From the center of the choir the eye follows the spreading curve of this long succe/Users/stephen/Desktop/Art historians/Picture 3.pngssion of windows to gain thereby an awareness of the depth to that outer limit which serves in truth to give a measure of the whole interior expanse. To this first perception must be added the actual spaciousness of the central part of the choir and the engulfing effect produced by the enlargement both in height and width of the axial arch of the hemicyle, opening on the disproportionately amplified eastern chapel, as if the choir was bursting open in the middle under the pressure of the expanding space of the building. This irregular, untidy, but powerful vision stands on the threshold of the new architecture as a reminder of the end it was meant to achieve." And in another rich verbal exploration of Notre-Dame of Paris one becomes immediately conscious of the systematic quality of this three-dimensional gridwork. "It looks as if space had crystallized naturally into a honeycomb of little hollowed blocks from which the central space is sliced out cleanly, leaving exposed sheer faces imprinted with a surface on which one reads the partitioning of the lateral volumes into the modular cages which encase the whole building and sustain it?. A diagram is perhaps the best means of explaing this mode of spatial composition. "
Bony, J., "La technique normande du mur épais à l'époque romane," Bull mon 98, 1939, 153-188
-----, "La spiritualité de deux cathédrales: Notre-Dame et Bourges," Rencontres. Chercher Dieu, Editions de l'Abeille, Lyon, 1943
-----, "La collégiale de Mantes," Cong. arch., CIV, 1946, 163-220.
-----, "French Influences on the Origins of English Gothic Architecture," Jour War and Court Inst. XII, 1949.
-----, "L'édifice comme univers," L'art et le destin, Médicine de France, Paris, 1949.
-----, "The Resistance to Chartres in Early Thirteenth Century Architecture, Jour Brit Archeological Assoc ser. 3, XX-XXI, 1957-1958, 35-52.
-----, "Les premiers architectes gothiques," Les architectes célèbres, II, Paris, 1959, 28.
-----, "Diagonality and Centrality in Early English Rib-Vaulted Architecture," Gesta, XV, 1976, 15-25.
-----, The English Decorated Style, Gothic Architecture Transformed, 1250-1350, Ithaca/ Oxford, 1979 AA 445 B645
-----, "La genèse de l'architecture gothique. Accident ou nécessité? Revue de l'art, LVIII-LIX, 1983, 9-20.
-----, French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries, Berkeley, 1983 AA450 B64
-----, and Hürlimann, French Cathedrals, Boston, 1951
About Bony, E. Fernie, Gesta 2000, P. Kidson, "Jean Bony (1908-95) Burlington Magazine, 137, 1111 (Oct 1995) 688; "Jean Bony, Art Historian, 86, New York Times, July 17, 1995, pB8; "Professor Jean Bony," The Times, London, August 9, 1995