The humanity of Jean Bony; French Gothic Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries, by Jean Bony. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 626 pp, 449 illustrations. $ 115.
It was Bernard of Chartres who in the 12th century first said, ''We are like dwarfs set on the shoulders of giants from which we can see more and farther things than they, not so much because of the keenness of our own sight or the magnitude of our own stature, but because we are sustained and raised up by their gigantic greatness.'' In the case at hand this aphorism aptly describes not only our own debt to Mr. Bony for this book, but also his relationship to his master.
Jean Bony was a student of Henri Focillon, perhaps the greatest of modern French art historians; this great work, Bony's magnum opus, is dedicated to him. Focillon's preoccupation with the physical forms of art can be clearly discerned in Bony's approach to the history of art. ''I aimed to become the naturalist of these imaginary worlds (of the development of forms). And then it seemed to me a more useful and perhaps a finer thing to sketch out, even with imperfect strokes , the very special logic which presides over their creation and dominates their development. I have tried to indicate the relationship between this logic and the life of history.'' The impersonality of this approach to the subject, always the greatest danger of formalist analysis, is largely avoided by Bony simply through his obvious love of and dedication to his material. If few traces of the artistic personalities of the builders of these cathedrals are found within this book, the humanity of Jean Bony is clearly evident from the first page to the last.
Bony sets the tone of the book as a whole in the introduction as he presents one of the great themes of this work - the unexpectedness of history: ''The true significance of Gothic architecture can be captured only if one does not lose sight of the unexpectedness 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.'' In viewing history as a ''sequence of distinct and unforeseeable presents,'' Bony sets his historical approach directly against the too common predestinarian attitude toward history and historical occurrences, which sees the end result of a development in every intermediate step. In practical terms, this means that Bony addresses himself in great detail to the forms of 12th- and 13th-century architecture which do not fit neatly into a smoothly evolutionary view of ''the Gothic.'' In so doing he weaves an incredibly rich tapestry out of the simultaneous historical progressions, mutations, and pockets of resistance to technical and formal innovations which combined to provide the historical and artistic context for the invention of what we now recognize as the dominant forms of Gothic architecture.
Bony's idea of historical change is clear when he says: ''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 in its own terms and often changing dramatically the direction of the movement.''
In this quotation he speaks not only of the first cautious development of Gothic form, such as the ribbed vaults of Durham Cathedral around 1100, but also of the systematic changes of, say, Chartres, about a century later, changes so thoroughgoing that, as Bony says, ''Gothic simply starts all over again.'' Because of these changes - changes in size allowed in this case by the invention of the flying buttress - desirable buildings became progressively larger and ended as a qualitatively different order of architecture. Bony's ability always to touch on the human element of these physical changes - the dissatisfaction with what went before - keeps the uncertainty of these developments always to the fore.
The one possible weakness of the book - one of emphasis only - Bony states explicitly in the introduction, and it is implicit throughout the rest of the text. This is the focus on the progressive aspects of the Gothic development to the almost complete exclusion of the creative exhaustion which overtook a great deal of French architecture at the end of the 13th century. This is, however, a minor point and one that is largely rectified by reading Bony's other book on medieval architecture, ''The English Decorated Style'' (Cornell University Press , 1979). This work picks up the thread of Gothic creativity in England, whither one must follow it after its unraveling in France. This following of the thread of creative development is Focillon's legacy to Bony, and his to us. An examination of the life of forms in art (to borrow the title of one of Focillon's books) necessarily spends little time chronicling their decline into sterility. Healthy resistance - even if ultimately futile - is another thing altogether, and Bony's interest in that aspect of the Gothic development goes back more than a quarter of a century to his article ''The Resistance to Chartres in Early 13th Century Architecture.''
It is easy and inaccurate to think of the triumph of Gothic architecture as a monolithic stylistic change. Bony reminds us that while the Gothic idiom was ultimately successful, that success was definitely not a foregone conclusion in the late 12th and 13th centuries, particularly in the more provincial areas. There's a great deal that is not Gothic, for example, in churches like Saint-Serge and Augers (c. 1215-20), or Bayeaux Cathedral in Normandy (c. 1230).
As a physical object, the book is remarkably well put together. In the last few years we have gotten used to seeing lists of corrections included in even the finest books. There are no such lists here, and after two readings I found only one minor typographical error. Including the photographs in the text - another custom unfortunately too rarely seen these days - makes them very much more accessible and removes the burden of flipping constantly back and forth in what is a decidedly large and heavy book.
To say that this is the definitive study in the field is incorrect, and anyway misses the point, since definitive studies of historical subjects are neither possible nor desirable, as I am sure Mr. Bony would be the first to admit.
The sheer quantity of knowledge about the past constantly increases and, just as important, the way historians view their subject is always changing. This book is a product of years of study and years of reflection. The slowly ripening development of what might be called megahistorical ideas is something for which the world appears to have less and less time. The idea of a lifework is almost gone. Within the specific field covered by this book, the celestial brightness of Robert Branner flashing through the academic heavens with the intensity of a comet has turned most eyes away from other views. A man who arguably has done more in less time than any other student of the subject, Branner, before his untimely death, never stepped back for the broader view which Bony takes here.
This is sure to be the most majestic and all-encompassing work on the subject of French Gothic architecture that we shall see for a long time to come. Addressing primarily the student of Gothic architecture, the book is nevertheless extremely rewarding to the interested amateur. Bony writes with such grace and clarity of thought, and has such an overwhelming command of his subject, that this work belongs on the short list of classics whose appeal is to every man and woman in love with art.