Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2160
The first section of the book deals with the cave drawings at Lascaux. Herbert briefly sets the scene for his investigation of those drawings by describing his breakfast of truffled omelet at a nearby restaurant and giving a history of the truffle industry in the region. He traces the discovery of the cave drawings by some young boys in the 1940’s and the subsequent debate over their authenticity. His reaction to the drawings is one of awe; he calls the drawings known as the “Chinese Horse” a masterpiece. Herbert is not only drawn to the drawings’ beauty but also fascinated by the rituals of primitive man and their representation in the drawings. He suggests that the only way to reconcile the artistic beauty with the violence it portrays is to see the animal being placed on a plane that is equal or even superior to the human. The qualities embodied in the animals depicted in the caves were necessary and desirable in that prehistoric society. Herbert responds fully and enthusiastically to works of art, but aesthetic contemplation is not a sufficient end for him. He is always probing behind the work to see the historical and social context.
Herbert moves from the mysteries and fascinations of prehistory to the Greek colonies of the eighth and sixth centuries b.c.e. in “Among the Dorians.” His interest in the ruins in Sicily is more historical than artistic; he traces the changes in the settlement at Poseidonia (later Pesto) from its founding by Dorian exiles through rebellions by the native population, conquest by the Romans, and the establishment of a Christian community there in the Middle Ages. His attention is drawn, however, to a Doric temple in Hera; Herbert is impressed by its austerity, but he disagrees with the academics who perceive it as a purely mathematical and linear structure. The historical changes embodied in the site are also found in the mixture of styles in the surviving temple to Demeter. Herbert ridicules the academic attempt to circumscribe the periods of Greek style by some mathematical formula, but it is clear that his preference is for the Doric, which was more closely linked to gods and rituals. The Corinthian and Ionian styles might be more “correct,” but according to Herbert they also signify that “the graceful gods had lost their power.”
Herbert relates some amusing anecdotes about his visit to Arles—for example, the limited and confused account an old man gives of his memories of Vincent van Gogh. The old man can only recall, “He was very funny. His hair was like a carrot.” In keeping with his chronological approach, Herbert focuses here on the growth of Arles from Roman times. Most of the residents seem more interested in that distant period of the caesars than that of recent centuries. The apogee of Arles’s glory came when Constantine the Great moved there with his court in 308 c.e.; a few centuries later, Arles sank back into its place as a provincial capital. There was one attempt to recoup the lost glory of the region in the nineteenth century: the Felibrige movement, led by the poet Frederic Mistral. There may be something of Herbert’s special position as a Polish poet who has experienced an uprooting from his land and culture in his response to the work of Mistral, “the last of the troubadours.”
After a brief stop to view the Italian version of the northern Gothic in Orvieto, Herbert goes to Siena, where he speculates on the troubled Renaissance history of the town. An aristocratic council ruled the city at least as early as the thirteenth century. Because of its geographical position, between Florence and Rome, it was natural for the town to resist subjugation by Florence and support any cause which Florence opposed. This led it to choose the Ghibelline side against Florence in the conflict that raged over many years. The Republic of Siena came to an end with the invasions of Charles V of Spain and the hated forces of Florence in the sixteenth century.
Turning to the artistic heritage of the city, Herbert first singles out Simone Martini and Duccio for attention. The qualities he finds in Duccio’s art represent a synthesis of the Byzantine and Gothic, of East and West, rather than the prized realism of the later Renaissance. Duccio’s paintings are for him dramatic and so powerful that he “has no desire to look at anything else after Duccio.” He describes Duccio’s Maesta as a masterpiece that was honored by the whole town in 1311 and still retains its power today. Herbert does quarrel with Bernard Berenson’s promotion of Giotto and demotion of Duccio, for Giotto was an innovator while Duccio produced “new syntheses,” and in order to appreciate the latter’s work fully the observer must “be thoroughly acquainted with their epoch and its artistic background.”
Herbert makes further distinctions between Sienese and Florentine painting when he visits the local museum; in contrast to Florence with its Medicis, Siena had no great patrons. Artists created works for various guilds in the town and for local churches. In addition, Siena was the home of numerous saints, most notably Saint Catherine of Siena, who became a sort of Joan of Arc, visiting the pope in Avignon to convince him to return to Rome.
In the next chapter, Herbert interrupts his city-by-city tour to meditate upon the creation of the Gothic cathedrals. He does not describe the aesthetic effects of a specific Gothic cathedral but discusses the people who actually built them and the problems and difficulties they had in erecting them. The most difficult problem was in transporting blocks of stone to the site of the cathedral; if the quarry was one hundred miles away, costs were multiplied by five or more. To reduce transportation costs, materials from castles and Roman ruins were used. The men who built the cathedrals were not pious volunteers from the town but skilled workers who went from cathedral to cathedral to ply their craft. The patron was not the sovereign but a local council or abbot. One of the most interesting pieces of information Herbert brings to light has to do with the status of the architect. At first, architects were merely privileged workers, but as cathedrals became more elaborate, architects’ technical knowledge came to be prized. Consequently, the architect’s role became distinct and important, so important that the sponsors of the work had to give him a house, a horse, and a place at the abbot’s table to bind him to that one job. Herbert removes the story of the construction of the great Gothic cathedrals from the realm of myth and shows the builders of such glory to have been simple human beings.
The chapter titled “Albigensians, Inquisitors, and Troubadours” does not deal with art or the history of a city but with the persecution and extinction of the Albigensians. Herbert traces their “heresy” to the Gnostics, the Manichaeans, the Paulicians, and the Bogomils; their basic belief was that there were “two principles in the universe, Good and Evil.” This belief led them to see the world and the flesh as a manifestation of evil in the material world. Herbert has much sympathy for the sincerity and honesty of this group and a regret that they were so brutally attacked for their beliefs. He has nothing but scorn for the Albigensians’ persecutors, especially Pope Innocent III, the inquisitors, and the nobles who profited from the destruction of this group. Once again, he rejects the standard academic approach for one that “allows the play of prejudice and passion.” Herbert’s views are informed, but they are not constructed by a misleading standard of historical “objectivity.”
The tale of the destruction of the Albigensians is a gripping one, and Herbert brings out the character of the main historical figures in this struggle. On one side was the old Crusader Simon de Montfort, on the other the Count of Toulouse, who attempted to preserve the integrity of his domain. At first, Simon conquered nearly all the Albigensian territory, but the new Count of Toulouse, Raymond VIII, won back the lost territory and nearly expelled de Montfort. At this point, a new pope, Gregory VII, gave his legates inquisitorial powers, and the priests accomplished what the Crusaders could not. Thousands at a time were burned at the stake, and only a few renounced the Albigensian doctrine; most went joyfully to their death. Herbert sees and feels this as a great loss, since the Albigensian faith “might have played as significant a role in the shaping of the human race’s spirituality as Buddhism or Islam.”
Herbert becomes even more partisan in “Defence of the Templars”; he pleads to an imaginary “high jury” the worthiness of the Knights Templars and the duplicity of their enemies. The history of the Templars lies, once more, in the East. They occupied the cities of the Holy Land that were conquered in the Crusades. In contrast to the rapacious knights of the West, the Templars were, according to Herbert, ascetic and humble. According to their rules, no Templar could carry money on his person, and nearly all lived austere and virtuous lives. Their position in the Holy Land became weaker, however, as the Muslims recovered their lost cities, and the Templars lost their last fortress in Acre in 1291. When they returned to France, they found enemies more subtle than the Muslims. Philip the Fair of France tortured a number of Templars, according to Herbert, to extract incriminating evidence against the whole group. The Templars appealed to the pope to judge their case, but the leaders were put into dungeons on their way to Rome, and their fate was decided by temporal rather than spiritual rulers. At the end, Jacques de Molay renounced the confession he had made under torture and affirmed the innocence of the brotherhood. Philip the Fair then had de Molay and thirty-six other members burned at the stake within sight of Notre Dame Cathedral. Their property and wealth, which Philip had desired all along, were given by the pope to the Order of the Hospitallers. Herbert sees the destruction of the Templars as an early example of the exercise of totalitarian power, pitting all the resources of the state against a minority in its midst. Therefore, this historical event requires an impassioned response and cannot be left to “the pale fingers of archivists.” Herbert does not mention his own experience with totalitarianism with the Nazis and the Soviets, but something of that experience is in the passion of his plea.
Herbert devotes a chapter to the art of Piero della Francesca, whom he describes as the painter closest to his heart. The most important quality he discovers in the painter is that he “was one of the most impersonal, supra-individual artists in history.” (The reader will have noticed Herbert’s own detachment in surrendering himself to paintings or Gothic cathedrals; this detachment is set aside, however, when he considers occasions of cruelty and intolerance.) Herbert describes Piero’s masterpiece, The Legend of the True Cross, in luminous terms, even though the painting has been badly restored. He notices the compositional quality in the painting and ascribes this to the influence of the Italian architect Alberti rather than to that of other painters. Herbert examines Piero’s life and continued residence in the small town of San Sepulcro, showing him to have been an appealing individual who consorted with some of the most important men of his time, including Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. Herbert imagines him in a different setting, his home town, where he strolls “with a peasant’s assurance.”
The last chapter of the book focuses on the towns north of Paris. Herbert finds many important paintings in the museum in Chantilly, but he focuses on a miniature book of hours created for the Duc de Berry. He suggests that the essential quality in such works is their ability “to attain a definite boundary and depth” through the use of color. In Senlis, Herbert contemplates one of the oldest Gothic cathedrals; he then offers an account of their creation and the work of their founder, Abbot Suger. Suger created the Gothic cathedral at Saint-Denis, which motivated all the bishops in the northern area to match this wonder. Though Saint-Denis had taken only two years to build, construction of these other cathedrals went much more slowly. Most took nearly a century, so that the man who planned the work seldom lived to see it completed. At Chaalis, Herbert comes upon the tomb of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other reminders of French Romanticism. Herbert often seems to feel oppressed in these sentimental landscapes and monuments; his tone now is not one of wonder but one of ridicule and amusement. For example, an engraving of Rousseau’s dying praise of “greenery, nature, light and God” is described as “phoney and operatic.”