The Renaissance Myth of Gothic License

  • Today I will critique the idea, popularized in the Renaissance, that Gothic buildings like Strasbourg Cathedral, seen at left, are chaotic and disorderly and that architectural harmony depends on the use of the classical orders, seen at right as shown by Serlio. Mine might seem like an unnecessary project, since the Gothic tradition has had many champions in the intervening centuries, but it’s my sense that this myth of Gothic disorderliness continues to shape the writing of art history even today, contributing among other things to the vexed position of architecture in discussions of the Northern Renaissance. Although I am speaking in broad terms about the Gothic and Renaissance design traditions, I recognize the fuzziness and permeability of such categories. I use these terms not only because I find them genuinely helpful in trying to grapple with the complex patterns of European architectural production, but also because this basic framing has figured so prominently in the historiography of the period. For sake of clarity, I will briefly outline my theses before going on to consider that historiography and its consequences.