Robert Bork has written a remarkable book that in its scope has no competition. He offers a detailed analysis of late Gothic architecture, tracing its long history and examining the ultimately successful challenge to the style made by classicizing architecture from Italy. Bork reminds us that the years just prior to this challenge witnessed some of the most dazzling and wondrous inventions of Gothic architecture. Nave vaults were equipped with looping ribs resembling the petals of flowers. Smaller chapels displayed hanging ribs, miraculously suspended several feet below the webbing of the vaults. Tracery fields became ever larger and more complex, veiling broad segments of façades. Artful filigree towers of intricate design rose far above the pavement. Gothic elements became increasingly mimetic, imitating vegetal forms and other objects, such as the enormous buckle dressing the buttress at the Portuguese monastery of Tomar. Yet by the middle of the sixteenth century, the Gothic was in decline. For much of the previous century the Gothic's innovative building techniques had led architects such as Filarete to call it the modo moderno; by 1550 this was no longer the case. Giorgio Vasari changed the nomenclature, referring to classicizing approaches as modern and the northern tradition as barbarous, German, Gothic.
This extensive volume has numerous strengths. Bork deals with both northern and Italian buildings, Gothic and antique, and discusses the complex interplay between practices on both sides of the Alps. He charts the Gothic's origins and trajectory, including the High Gothic of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, noted for its supposed rationality, an aesthetic opposed to later manifestations. He offers the most detailed account to date of how the late Gothic evolved from the English Decorated and French Rayonnant styles.
As Bork notes, most discussions of the Northern Renaissance have said little about architecture. What we call Renaissance architecture was during this period in northern Europe called antique, modo Romana, welsch, and, eventually, Italiaanse or Italianate. Bork calls it “classicizing” to convey the authority held by Roman antiquity and its offshoots in the early modern world, and he contrasts it to both the Gothic and the concept of realism. In this context, he discusses the work of artists such as Jan van Eyck and Claus Sluter, who looked both to medieval modes and to emerging trends from Italy, and whose realism, contemporaneous with late Gothic architecture, promised a renewal of the arts. Realism is a difficult notion to define, attributed to many eras and thus problematic as a period term. It might, however, be applied to the radical representational ornament of the late Gothic, as in the arboreal vault in the Tower of Jean the Fearless in Paris or the pretzel-shaped tracery in the bakers' chapel in Saint George's Minster at Dinkelsbühl. Such a move would bring together the figural and nonfigural arts.
How might we best explain Gothic architecture's mid-sixteenth-century decline? The Gothic and the antique were based on opposing systems of reference and proportion. Gothic forms were produced geometrically, their proportions often given in terms of square roots; thus, the relationships between parts could be difficult to parse. Classicizing proportions were mostly arithmetic and consequently much easier to read. They were typically based on the human body, whereas most Gothic elements had no real-world referents and were abstractly mathematical, products of the compass and straight edge. What eventually doomed the Gothic, then, was not simply aesthetic fatigue—a system having exhausted its permutations and run its course—but rather its confrontation with an opposing classicizing system with a divergent set of values.
Bork views the demise of the Gothic as an “extinction event,” seeing the abandonment of the style across Europe as an abrupt change caused by social factors, independent of the Gothic's formal viability. He rejects the teleological notion of progress, which sees the move toward classicism as a foregone conclusion. One of the book's strengths is Bork's explanation of the adoption of the antique as a multifaceted phenomenon. Factors contributing to this included increased visits to Italy by northerners (often for university education), dynastic ties between different parts of Europe, the use of classicism as a sign of military conquest and translatio imperii, interest in Italian cultural developments among northern humanist intellectuals, commercial relations between northern and southern areas, and aesthetic curiosity among increasingly well-traveled artists. Bork discusses the military engagement between France and the Holy Roman Empire—between Francis I and Charles V—as a competition that cast the antique as a mode of triumph. As a result of Venice's prominence in trade with Augsburg and Nuremberg, antique features took on a special appeal for business communities in southeast Germany; the Fuggers of Augsburg, prominent bankers, built one of the earliest classicizing architectural works on German soil. Humanism and antiquarian interests impelled others to seek out ancient artifacts and embrace classicism, as in the case of Philip of Burgundy, patron of the Flemish painter Jan Gossart. Albrecht Dürer, too, traveled to Italy and returned with ideas for Italianate designs for architecture and other arts.
Thus, Bork offers no single, primary reason for the victory of the antique. Instead, he shows the various avenues through which classicism established itself in northern Europe, from oft-considered architectural treatises and pattern books to the intricate family ties and political allegiances that constituted chains of patronage. His perspective is remarkably wide-ranging. He endorses Marvin Trachtenberg's theory of subtraction, whereby Gothic buildings gradually lost their rich ornaments—vault ribs and window tracery, for instance—only to emerge as classicized creations. He follows Stephan Hoppe, Christopher Wood, and others in seeing northern classicizing buildings as born in many cases from earlier Romanesque ones, the Romanesque having been considered as continuous with ancient Roman building campaigns.
Bork's geographical range is also impressive. His treatment of Prague is understandable, given that it was a principal building site for two great architects, Peter Parler and Benedikt Ried. More surprising are Bork's inclusions of the Netherlands, Portugal, and Hungary, all of which he effectively uses to cast light on the development of late Gothic architecture. The Church (now Cathedral) of Our Lady in Antwerp represented a synthesis of English Decorated style and French Rayonnant conventions. The Antwerp town hall, one of the paradigmatic buildings of the Northern Renaissance, combined elements from local Gothic town halls, Italianate elevations from Sebastiano Serlio's treatises, and frontispieces drawn from French châteaus. English and Netherlandish models seem to have informed the design of the monastery church at Batalha, Portugal. Hungary, meanwhile, under the humanist king Matthias Corvinus, became one of the first places to adopt classicism as a sign of political and military triumph. Bork discusses the Bakócz Chapel in Esztergom (ca. 1506), a striking adaptation of contemporary Florentine models. Significantly, Bork also treats the materiality of the chapel, noting its construction in red Hungarian marble that immediately distinguishes it from Tuscan buildings. The accompanying color photograph reveals this contrast. Iberia, meanwhile, with its innovative late Gothic structures, is shown to have been a magnet for international talent from France, the Netherlands, and the Rhineland. Hanequin of Brussels, Juan of Cologne, and Joosken of Utrecht commanded positions of authority in Toledo, Burgos, and León. The Netherlanders Anton and Enrique Egas and Gil de Siloe and the Frenchmen Felipe Bigarny, Nicolau Chanterenne, Jean de Rouen, Jean de Langres, and, most important, Juan Guas did much to shape the Isabelline style, named for Queen Isabella of Castile.
Bork does not pretend to offer a comprehensive picture of Italian Renaissance architecture, but he shows enough to help the reader understand the challenge it represented to the Gothic. For this reason, Bork does not limit himself to discussing Roman, Florentine, and Venetian achievements but also considers the church of the Certosa of Pavia and other Lombard buildings that had a greater impact on French and Netherlandish patrons and artists. Similarly, he demonstrates that Giulio Romano's Mantuan architecture was ultimately more important for buildings such as the Bavarian Residenz at Landshut than Donato Bramante's Tempietto in Rome.
In his synthetic account of the rise and fall of late Gothic architecture, Bork provides a compelling and nuanced explanation of the end of an artistic manner. He confronts conflicting notions of a Northern Renaissance devolving partly from the division between architecture and the figural arts. This is a hefty book but one that integrates many architectural and cultural currents of the late medieval and early modern eras.