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by Archaeology Newsroom

The Gothic Revival and the Origins of Medieval Archaeology in the Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century is of special interest, not only for its intellectual and ideological movement that accompanied the emerging admiration for the medieval past and its monuments, mainly churches and castles, but also for the institutions and personalities that created the framework for the cultivation of historical studies and medieval archaeology. The “Gothic revival” did not find one and only expression, as the examples of England and France prove. In England, already since the middle of the eighteenth century, the “rediscovery” of the Middle Ages is present in the interest of bourgeoisie and aristocracy in the “Gothic” forms of furniture, decoration and the restoration of medieval castles. Scholars and architects supported the idea that both the way of life and the art of the Middle Ages were superior to those of their time. Therefore, they should become examples for imitation, so that the contemporary architects could reach the structural clarity and the high technical level, prevalent in medieval architecture. In France, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was the leading figure in the Committee of Historical Monuments and its policy for their restoration. According to his theory, “the restoration of a monument does not simply mean its repair or reconstruction, but its reinstatement in a full, complete form, even if it had never existed”. His pursuit was to discover the original logic of the builders of cathedrals, which could be achieved by removing the later additions, stressing the features that should had prevailed in the building and even completing in full the form of the edifice. Most of his contemporaries seem to have favored such a restoration of monuments. However, there were others who severely criticized these notions and practices, denouncing the homogeneity of forms and the modern inventions. Both became the symbol of the archaeological movement of the time and owed a lot, in France at least, to Viollet-le-Duc’s work and talent. It was in the same period in England that John Ruscin was fiercely arguing that the restoration of a building could lead to its absolute destruction. The medieval “critical archaeology” flourished in the intellectual milieu of the late nineteenth century, when the reaction to any restoration project was strong. Its objective was the description and dating of monuments, the excavations that bring to light the substructures and layers of successive churches and towers, the research projects regarding entire areas and the monographs on specific buildings. In the nineteenth century the remains of the Old Regime, towers and cathedrals, archives and works of art, gained a new identity and became the emblems of a new national myth. In the climate of Romanticism, by exploiting the literature of the past and the principles of positivism, the “Gothic revival’ revitalized the archaeology of the Middle Ages.