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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Villard de Honnecourt

Copyright, Jim Lane
Self-portrait Using Mirror, 1963,
Jim Lane, from sketchbook.
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Artist's Sister, 1963,
Jim Lane, from sketchbook.
I don't imagine there's an artist alive today, or for that matter, any artist who ever lived, who didn't keep a sketchbook in some form. When I use the word "keep," I mean it in a dual sense, first of all in creating the sketchy contents of such a volume, and secondly, in literally keeping it. Artists are very reluctant to destroy their work. I happens sometimes...and has happened, especially when an artist wants too make a complete break with his or her past. But by and large, keeping a sketchbook has more to do with nostalgia than anything else. Doing so allows the artist to reminisce, to see where they came from, how they started, and how far they've come. My own first sketchbook dates from about 1963 (above left and right). I was not quite eighteen at the time. It's mostly filled with pencil drawings (too "finished" to be considered sketches) based upon wallet-size school pictures of my friends, or young movie stars from fan magazines (the photos were larger and more professional).

The Villard de Honnecourt Sketchbook, 1220-40--evidence of an inquiring mind.
Villard de Honnecourt
Sketchbook. Image 48
My sketchbook just turned fifty-one. The French artist, Villard de Honnecourt's sketchbook is approaching eight-hundred years of age. It dates from a period about 1220 to 1240. I don't usually write about artists of whom so little is known. In fact, what little we do know about this artist derives almost exclusively from his 33-page sketchbook and its 250 individual images (above). As medieval sketchbooks go, that's really quite a tome, but, except for some marginal notes written in (very old) French or Latin, there's really not much in the archives of traditional art history about the man. We do know he was from Picardy in northern France. His sketchbook was discovered around 1850 and quite frankly, many of the annotations raise far more questions than they answer. We can gather from his sketches and drawings that he seemed to be quite intelligent, with broad interests in all the arts and sciences, particularly mechanics and architecture. However the book also contains animal drawings of everything from lions to a snail.

"Green Man" or anthropomorphic images from Honnecourt's sketchbook.
Villard de Honnecourt Sketchbook,
Image 04. Medieval crucifixions
were often grossly contorted.
Some have suggested de Honnecourt was an itinerant architect, others an engineer or sculptor. I'm thinking maybe he was little more than a medieval tourist badly in need of a camera to conveniently record what he encountered. Actually, except for the part about needing a camera, there's little, other than his sketchbook, to add validity to any of these conjectures. He seems to have been intensely curious, fairly adept at observational drawing, and a better-than-average draughtsman. As seen in his cruicifixion (left) he also seems to have been a man in desperate need of some anatomy lessons (below, right). We can probably assume him to be relatively young and rather robust in that distant travel during the 13th-century was not for those weak in body, mind, or spirit. In short, it would seem he was cut from the same cloth as Leonardo da Vinci minus the benefits of the Italian Renaissance.

A trebuchet is a war machine, in this case some kind of medieval catapult.
Although most of de Honnecourt's sketchbook
drawings tend toward the mechanical, he did seem
to have and interst in learning anatomy as well
Among de Honnecourt's numerous mechanical engineering drawings we find a perpetual motion machine (we're still working on that one), a water-driven saw, a number of automata (crude robotic toys), lifting devices, war engines, even a drawing of an early escapement mechanism (vital to clockworks). None of these were necessarily "firsts," and there's no indication any of them ever reached the stage of working models, but suffice to say the man had a working knowlege of mechanics far beyond that which was common for his time. Whether he designed (invented) any of these thinsd, or simply recorded having encountered them in his travels. is uncertain, and largely irrelevant in any case.

Plan of the choir of the cathedral of Meaux, de Honnecourt Sketchbook, ca. 1230
Transverse section  of Reims Cathedral
illustrating the flying buttress,
de Honnecourt Sketchbook 1230
Honnecourt's familaritiy with Gothic architecture seems to go well beyond simple observation. His notes refer to words (in ancient French) like ligement (plan), montee (elevation), cretiaus (crenulation) suggesting he may, in fact, have coined some of them. If nothing else, this suggests the state of the art in achitecture during the 13th-century, when architects very often were literally builders (journeymen carpenters, masons, and stonecutters) who also happened to have the knack of rendering their ideas on paper (parchment in the case of Honnecourt). Though most of Honnecourt's travels seem to have involved eclesiastical venues in France, he boasts having traveled to Hungary, though once more we're left wondering "why." I wonder if, perhaps, someday some art historian will stumble upon my enigmatic sketchbooks and ask the same question.

Villard de Honnecourt Sketchbook, Image 27, ca. 1230

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