The Canon: Dictionnaire Raisonné de L'Architecture Française du XIe au XVIe Siècle. By Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc

July 9, 2009

I have long admired the immense contribution made to the Enlightenment by French scholars, especially Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert and others manifest in that vast undertaking, the Encyclopédie (1751-65), which, owing much to the labours of Ephraim Chambers, was an attempt to encapsulate the essentials of knowledge. In turn, Chambers had been profoundly influenced by John Senex (whose name will be known to Freemasons through his association with John Theophilus Desaguliers), Louis Moreri and Pierre Bayle.

When I was a student I read voraciously (quickly spotting that the slogans of Le Corbusier and other heroes of the simple-minded were unworthy of serious consideration), and was fascinated by the Encyclopédie, but my interest in historical architecture soon led me to one of the most wonderful sources of information on medieval buildings: the Dictionnaire Raisonné de L'Architecture Française du XIe au XVIe Siècle by Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, originally published 1854-68.

Recognised from the first as of great importance, it became a major text of the 19th-century Gothic Revival. I managed to acquire for a song the ten-volume set published 1867-1870 by A. Morel of Paris: many libraries were flogging off their collections as "irrelevant to today's needs" or for other depressingly familiar reasons (notably anti-elitism, for anybody who could read French was clearly an elitist), so I was fortunate to secure a clean and comprehensively illustrated prize. With such marvellous books as this, the course of the Gothic Revival was consolidated, and not only in France, for, as William Burges noted, English architects of his generation all "cribbed" from Viollet-le-Duc, although probably not one in ten bothered to read the texts, but this was nothing new (and is true of these days too).

I, however, did read the entries, and I also collected the important 19th-century English works on Gothic architecture including those by Thomas Rickman, Matthew Holbeche Bloxam, John Henry Parker and Thomas Hudson Turner, all of which stimulated my interest, and led me to explore the wonders of English medieval architecture ("not another church, Daddy" was a litany of lament from two children in the back of the old banger).

I finally tracked down the marvellous eight-volume Dictionary of the Architectural Publication Society edited by the exotically named Wyatt Angelicus van Sandau Papworth, and, drawing on these informative volumes, I commenced my own Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. For that, the preparation of which took a decade, the initial spark was provided by Viollet-le-Duc, to whose great works (which have stood the test of time thanks to their meticulous scholarship and beautiful illustrations) I owe a great debt. Viollet-le-Duc gave me the foundations of an understanding of medieval architecture that has been enhanced by study ever since. I will treasure his superb Dictionnaire to my dying day.

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