The ‘Problem’ of Villard de Honnecourt

Original English Text of

“Le ‘Problème’ de Villard de Honnecourt,”
Les Bâtisseurs des Cathédrales Gothiques
(Strasbourg, 1989), pp. 209-223

Dedicated to the Memory of Robert Branner (1927-1973)

Since 1849 there has been an almost absolute belief that the 13th-century Picard draftsman Villard de Honnecourt was a professional architect or master mason. This is not based on anything Villard claimed about himself, or because we know of any building he designed or built. It is because Jules Quicherat, the first serious commentator on the Villard drawings, wrote that Villard was an architect.(1) This designation is still current in most standard encyclopaedias,(2) although in recent years scholars have come to question this traditional designation. I was the first to do so, in a paper entitled “Villard de Honnecourt: Architect or Dilettante?,” delivered to the Society of Architectural Historians in Los Angeles, California USA on 3 February 1977.(3) Others have since followed my lead or independently have come to the same conclusion.(4)

I originally was inspired to rethink the traditional view that Villard was a professional architect through conversations with Robert Branner and by this comment in one of the last things he wrote: “Despite his [Villard’s] fame and undoubted interest, the question that has always bothered me has been: Was Villard in fact an architect or only a lodge clerk with a flair for drawing?”(5) The “Problem of Villard de Honnecourt” has not been solved, and Branner’s question is no less valid today than it was in 1973. I would like to present here ten reasons, based on the paper presented in Los Angeles, for reconsidering the traditional view that Villard de Honnecourt was a professional mason.

When Villard added inscriptions to the drawings in his portfolio, or had them inscribed,(6) he included his name twice,(7) but nowhere did he say who he was personally or professionally. He asked that people remember him and pray for his soul,(8) a very human but in no sense professional claim on history. One may not assume that Villard omitted mention of his profession or accomplishments because he was too modest to do so. The very act of recommending his drawings to others demonstrates Villard’s pride both in himself and in his drawings. He claimed to have travelled widely.(9) And he gave advice freely, several times claiming proudly, in effect, “if you want to do such and such, this is the way to do it.”(10)

If Villard was a professional in some craft guild, why did he not employ the title “master” (maîtremagister)? From Nicolas of Verdun on the Shrine of the Virgin at Tournai in 1205 to Hugues Libergier on his tombstone at Saint-Nicaise at Reims in 1263 (Fig. 1) (12),

 Figure 1. Reims, Cathedral of Notre-Dame: Tombstone of Higues Libergier, Architect of Saint-Nicaise at Reims, 1263 (Photo: Carl F. Barnes, Jr.)
master craftsmen signed their works and employed the title “master” if they were entitled to do so. Architects honored themselves, or were honored by others after their deaths, in prominent inscriptions on the buildings they had built.(13)

But, given every opportunity to do so, Villard did not give himself a title. I submit that he did not call himself “Master Villard” because he was not a professional in any of the arts.

It being assumed that Villard de Honnecourt was an architect, every building shown in his drawings, and some not shown, have at one time or another been attributed to him.(14) These attributions range from the randomly impossible, such as Emile Mâle’s claim that Villard “… s’en va aux extrèmités du monde chrétien bâtir des églises…”(15) to absurd specifics, the foremost example of which may be the claim that in 1215 Villard and Pierre de Corbie made a plan for Reims which was rejected and which they subsequently used at Cambrai in 1227.(16)

The facts are quite different. There is not any building of any type, extant or destroyed, anywhere, that can be securely attributed to Villard. He is unknown from any building contract, cornerstone or labyrinth inscription, guild register, payment receipt, tax record, tombstone, or any other type of evidence from which the names of medieval builders are learned. Villard is known to history uniquely through his portfolio. And in this portfolio this otherwise proud man says nothing whatsoever of having been involved in the design or construction of any building or any part of any building.

The eight identifiable buildings recorded in Villard’s drawings (Cambrai, Chartres, Laon, Lausanne, Meaux, Pilis, Reims, and Vaucelles) (17);obviously cannot all have been designed and/or built by one individual. It is not even certain that Villard visited all eight of the sites that can be identified in his drawings. It is possible, perhaps likely, that he did so; but Villard could have copied drawings of buildings which he never actually saw in situ.

Villard’s drawings of parts of Gothic buildings does not prove that he was the architect of any one of them. In sum, there is no unequivocal evidence to associate Villard with the design or construction of any Gothic building or any part of any Gothic building.(18)

Since nothing whatsoever is known about Villard except what can be deduced from his portfolio, how one interprets the portfolio determines how one categorizes Villard. Scholars are thoroughly divided on the nature, and therefore the purpose, of Villard’s drawings. On the one hand, there is what might be called the “Swiss-German School,” founded by Hans R. Hahnloser, who believed the portfolio is a Bauhüttenbuch, and whose motto is perhaps best expressed by Paul Frankl as “[the Villard portfolio] is a textbook encompassing everything a Gothic architect needed to learn.”(19) The alternate interpretation of the nature of the Villard portfolio is that of the “French School” which, while generally accepting the view that Villard was an architect, steadfastly denies Hahnloser’s contention that the portfolio is a Bauhüttenbuch. The French generally term the portfolio an album, and Viollet-le-Duc’s characterization of it summarizes fairly the French view: “[L’album de Villard de Honnecourt n’est] ni un traité, ni un exposé de principes classés avec méthode, ni un cours d’architecture théorique et pratique, ni le fondation d’un ouvrage [sur l’architecture].”(20) With the notable exceptions of François Bucher and John Harvey, most American and British scholars side with the French.(21)

Ironically, the multiplicity of subjects in the portfolio provides each “school” adequate evidence that its interpretation is the correct one. The French applaud Villard’s versatility;as early as 1859 Prosper Mérimée compared Villard to Leonardo da Vinci for his multiplicity of interests(22) andview the drawings as the carnet de voyage of an individual of exceptional interests. The Bauhüttenbuch advocates see the variety of subjects as certain proof that the Gothic architect had “omnivorous curiosity”(23) and, since Villard had such curiosity, he per force has to have been an architect.

No one will ever know precisely why Villard made his drawings. Yet it is relatively easy to demonstrate that the portfolio could not have been a Bauhüttenbuch, a “practical encyclopaedia of building arts and crafts compiled for the permanent ‘lodge’ of a great church….” We have the portfolio rather as Villard himself arranged it and left it to posterity, with minimal loss of leaves since the 13th century.(24) Any neutral observer, confronting the arbitrariness of Villard’s drawings,(25) has to question the view that the portfolio was an encyclopaedia.

It is no more rational to view the Villard portfolio as a treatise or manual. If it were a treatise, its text should be as important as its illustrations. But the captions were added, in no apparent pattern, after the drawings were made. The significance of this has been characterized best by Lon R. Shelby: “Even a brief perusal of the contents [of the Villard portfolio] should convince a reader that it is not an illustrated textbook; at the most it is a texted illustration-book.”(27)

The French view of the Villard portfolio as an album in the sense of a prefabricated sketchbook of bound, blank leaves is untenable.(28) The best that can be said is that over an unspecified period of time Villard made a number of drawings of diverse subjects, including architecture. These drawings he ultimately decided to inscribe, or to have inscribed, for an unspecified audience. This scarcely constitutes convincing proof that Villard was an architect.

On the 33 surviving leaves of the Villard portfolio there are approximately 250 different drawings.(29) Of these 250 drawings, 74 (approximately 29 percent) concern architecture in its broadest sense, excluding carpentry and church furnishings. Of these 74 drawings, 33 are not by Villard.(30) Thus Villard’s drawings that concern architecture total 41 in number, about 16 percent of the surviving drawings.(31) It seems reasonable to expect that a Gothic mason, no matter how curious or omnivorous, would have included a higher percentage of architectural drawings than this among his creations, whatever their purpose.

This is speculation, admittedly; but there is an unexpected pattern to Villard’s drawings of architecture. About half are views and plans of architecture, and about half appear to concern stereometry or masonry construction. But in fact, about half of these latter do not concern stereometry, being drawings of templates of profile designs.(32) While there is some room for difference of interpretation, it can be argued that only nine of Villard’s 250 surviving drawings (three percent) concern stereometry.(33) This is a modest number indeed for a portfolio that Paul Frankl termed “a textbook encompassing everything a Gothic architect needed to learn.”

Jules Quicherat and other 19th-century writers who created the tradition that Villard de Honnecourt was an architect-mason did so in large part due to the stereometric instructional drawings found on fol. 20r and the top of fol. 20v (Fig. 2). These drawings and their inscriptions offer specific, practical advice to masons, for example, how to find the center of a column, how to cut an oblique voussoir, how to make the area of the walks of a cloister equal to the area of its garth.(34) Each instruction begins the same way, par chu … (“by this [means one accomplishes such an such]),” and these drawings and inscriptions probably were copied from a slightly earlier 13th-century treatise on practical geometry.(35)

Whether or not copied from an older treatise, these drawings and inscriptions are not by Villard. They are addenda to the Villard portfolio on palimpsest leaves. This was first realized only in 1901,(36) which means that everyone in the 19th century who “created a career” for Villard did so under the misconception that the stereometric drawings were by Villard. To define a profession this way is like judging an artist’s style totally on restorations and forgeries.

It has long been claimed that so-called “Master II” was an apprentice or pupil in the lodge in which Villard worked,(38) and more recently it has been proposed that Villard worked with “Master II” to get his portfolio organized into something useful.(39) The simple truth is that nothing whatsoever is known of “Master II.” Whoever he was, his appearance in the portfolio does nothing to strengthen the claim that Villard was a professional mason. If anything, his appearance weakens that claim, in since “Master II” made palimpsests of certain of Villard’s leaves in order to add true practical advice on stereometry.

Villard gives advice in a number of places in his portfolio. However, except for his recipe for a Cannabis-based painkiller on fol. 33v, most of his advice concerns mechanical devices(40) and is quite vague. For example, for the portable candleholder, he says, “See here a sconce that is good for monks in order to carry their burning candles. You are able to make it if you know how to design.”(41) In his designs of church furniture,(42) he gives details about the numbers of pieces, or parts, but not how to assemble them.

Only once does Villard attempt to give advice about construction or architecture. On fol. 9v a long inscription describes the elevation of the Laon tower drawn on fol. 10r (Fig. 3). After describing the various stages of the tower, Villard concludes, “… and so consider, for if you wish to build great pier-buttresses, it behooves you to have [pier-buttresses] that have enough depth. Take care in your affair and you will act wisely and nobly.”(43) Such advise is about as useful as telling someone to “drive carefully” or “take care.”

Villard’s instructions are vague, inconsistent, and very different from those found in technical treatises such as Theophilus Presbyter’s De diversis artibus or Mathes Roriczer’sBuchlein von der Fialen Gerechtigkeit.(44) Villard’s drawings and inscriptions do not constitute a technical treatise, and in the one place where he gives advice on construction, that advice is common-sense commentary, not technical instruction.

The key to medieval design of real and micro-architecture was quadrature or rotation-of-squares. And yet, nowhere in the portfolio is there any proof that Villard understood this method of design. The celebrated “face in the square” on fol. 19v (Fig. 4) is not rotation of squares. As Paul Frankl noted long ago, it is a scheme of bisecting diagonals used to transfer designs from one scale to another, as from a cartoon on parchment to stained glass or fresco.(45) There is but one instance in which Villard drew a square-within-a-square which could lead one to believe he understood quadrature. In a sketch of two wrestlers on fol. 19r, one square defines the shoulders (top), backs (sides) and knees (bottom) of the figures, and a rotated square within that square appears to define the beltlines of the figures (Fig. 5). However, the two squares were added after the figures were drawn, and could not have generated the design.(46)

In his one architectural drawing clearly involving quadrature, the rose window of the south arm terminal at the Cathedral of Lausanne, Switzerland, Villard completely misunderstood what he saw (Figs.6 and 7). Robert Willis observed in 1859 that in Villard’s drawing, “the unique principle of this remarkable composition is totally lost.”(47)

Villard clearly misunderstood the design principle of the Lausanne rose, which is that of quadrature: “Only someone still not totally imbued with the rotational precepts could have so thoroughly botched up an obvious design.”(48) Several explanations for this have been offered: that he was attempting to “modernize” the design; and that he did the drawing long after he had seen the rose and had forgotten its details. Recently, an intriguing third explanation has been set forth, namely, that Villard drew with templates that created a crude and inexact system of quadrature but which prevented him from transposing the designs of his model exactly.(49)

The simple truth is that throughout his drawings Villard’s geometry is inconsistent and arbitrary. And he seems not to have known the most elemental and fundamental of all medieval “design generators.”(50)

Villard’s drawings do not reflect the true proportions of the buildings he drew. This is most notably true of his drawings of Reims, begun in 1211 and thus underway for perhaps ten to twenty years when Villard visited the site. Reims is characterized in interior elevation by a clerestory which is the same height as the main arcade, the two separated by a band triforium (Fig. 8). Villard drew something quite different: a building with a tall triforium and clerestory windows approximately the same size as those in the aisles (Fig. 9). Villard’s Reims is more Burgundian than Champenois in proportion.

To explain the discrepancy between Villard’s Reims and the “real Reims,” it has been argued that Villard improved the design he actually saw;(51) that he did not see the completed building and, therefore, guessed incorrectly at what the completed structured would have been;(52) and that he based his drawings on drawings he saw in the chantier at Reims, details of which were subsequently modified or omitted when actual construction was carried out.(53)

It is impossible to determine precisely when Villard was at Reims and, therefore, how much of the completed cathedral he could have seen when he was there. The idea that his omission of vaults in his drawings proves that he was there before the vaults were in place is unconvincing, a point made by Francis Salet in 1967.(54) Villard probably omitted vaults because he could not figure out a way to draw the projection towards the viewer (55) and because, had he attempted to draw the curvature of the vaults, he would have hidden details, especially of the window tracery, which were of special interest to him.

Villard simply misunderstood the proportions of Reims, a failing best characterized by Peter Kidson: “The man who drew the elevation of Reims [fol. 31v] knew nothing of the geometrical system which determined the relations between its stages. What he drew was nonsense;something which betrays either a garbled misunderstanding or else total ignorance of the ways in which contemporary cathedral designs were put together.”(56)

This is a harsh but accurate criticism; and it characterizes the simple truth that Villard understood little of the proportions of the architecture he saw around him. The argument is not that Villard’s drafting cannot be favorably compared with that of a modern architect. Such a comparison would be absurd, not merely unfair; the argument is that Villard misunderstood the design of the architecture he saw.

It is reasonable to expect a Gothic architect to understand the construction he observed. However, Villard misunderstood the construction of Reims. In his aisle window he has the aisle vault springers at the level of the springing of the lancet arches in the aisle window, whereas in fact they are lower.(57)

His drawings of the buttressing system at Reims reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of how the flyers had to work. In the actual building the lower flyer abutts the clerestory wall at the level of the springing of the main vaults, well above the springing of the main vaults at the level of the bottom of the clerestory oculus, and the upper flyer abutts the dripwall of the clerestory. Villard has misunderstood this completely and locates his lower flyer at the level of the springing of the main vault and his upper flyer at the level of the top of the clerestory lancets (cf. Figs 8 and 9). This has the effect of leaving him no space for the clerestory oculus, as Branner pointed out long ago. Far from being “the most forceful architectural design of the thirteenth century … [showing] a straightforward and clear vision of a mature master mason who not only understood a complex combination of parts but also their structural dynamics,”(58) Villard’s “shifting the buttresses downward would be considered nothing short of irresponsible on the part of any master mason.”(59)

Likewise, in his exterior elevation drawing of Reims Villard locates the flyers (not shown) but their emplacements are indicated by capitals between the clerestory windows differently both from his section drawing and from the reality of the building itself (Figs. 10 and 11). It asks much indeed to accept as a master mason one so inconsistent and indifferent to the structural realities of the architecture of his day.(60)

Villard’s drawings of Reims on fols. 30v through 32v prove that he was quite interested in details of the masonry of the cathedral. He was especially interested in the windows, so much so that François Bucher has proposed that Villard was a sub-contractor for the windows of the building.(61) Villard gave many window details on fol. 32r (Fig.10), some of which relate to the divisions show in the right window of the chapel on fol. 30v.

However, the accuracy of these details as contrasted with the inaccuracy of his pier designs raises the question as to why is there such a difference? Of his pier plans Villard says, “… throughout all these pillars the joints are as they ought to be.”(62) But, in fact, they are not: Villard has shown the embedded colonnettes set perpendicular to, not parallel and mortared with, the joints of the pier core.(63)

Yet the profile of the pier is rendered very accurately, including the setbacks of the plinth. This contradiction between exterior and interior exactitudes raises a critical question about Villard’s stereometric competency: how could he fail so miserably to understand the construction of a pier and at the same time render so correctly its profile? It could be that Villard was at Reims after the piers were in place, so that while he could measure the pier profile, he could not observe the internal configuration of the pier. This may be, but Villard himself provides the explanation for the discrepancy. He begins his inscription concerning the window pieces, “See here the templates of [the windows of] the chapels of this page therebefore [fol. 31v] ….”(64) In short, Villard was drawing not from real architecture, but from models for real architecture. Templates provide exact profiles, and these Villard could understand. But even with the actual Reims piers before him, he could not understand their construction.

Even a hurried look through Villard’s drawings shows that he was at his best when representing small objects, whether small bronze ars sacra pieces such as the Crucifixion on fol. 8r (Fig. 13), or animals as small as insects such as common flies and crayfish.(65) In such drawings his proportions and his details are impressive. And certain of his drawings are most likely copied from manuscript illuminations and initials (Fig. 14).(66) In sum, we have in these small drawings the habits and skills of a man accustomed to working at small scale, not the gigantic sizes of buildings.

Villard’s drawing technique is that of a metalworker, especially a niello worker, as I analyzed in detail in a study published in 1981 in Gesta.(67) It is not necessary to associate Villard with any profession, but if one insists on doing so, metalwork rather than architecture, is the best possibility.

The “Problem of Villard de Honnecourt” remains to be solved. My challenge to the tradition that Villard was a Gothic architect belittles neither him nor his drawings. Villard was, in the best sense of the word, a dilettante, “one who delights in the world around him.” No profession explains the multiplicity of Villard’s interests, and we are the richer for it.

My challenge to the view that Villard was a master mason is to try to break down the stereotype of Villard. Only if we escape this bind can we look freshly at, and learn anew from, Villard’s portfolio of drawings. By this means alone can we see Villard’s work freshly, and with the same engaging enthusiasm with which he viewed the world around him. And therein lies the hope of someday solving the “Problem of Villard de Honnecourt.”


Endnotes(1)Jules Quicherat, “Notice sur l’album de Villard de Honnecourt, architecte du XIIIe siècle,” RA, ser. 1, vol. 6 (1849), pp. 65-80, 164-188, 209-226, and pls. 116-118. For the literature on Villard from 1666 through 1981, see Barnes, Villard. [For literature on Villard 1982-1998 click here to see “Villard Bibliography.”]

(2) E.g., Der Grosse Brockhaus, 17th rev. ed., Weisbaden, 1957, XII, p. 203. By contrast, Emmanuel Bénézit, Dictionnaire critique et documentaire des peintres, sculpteurs, dessignateurs, et graveurs, rev. ed., Paris, 1976, X, p. 512, treats Villard simply as a draftsman.

(3) See JSAH, 36 (1977), p. 214. I have presented modified versions of that paper some twenty times since it was first delivered, and I would like to acknowledge the support of Jean Bony who heard that first 1977 presentation and encouraged me to develop my thesis. I have benefitted greatly from conversations Harry B. Titus, Jr.

(4) See Barnes, Villard, pp. 102-104. Questioning the tradition that Villard was an architect has caused confusion: “To the 19th century Villard was the most celebrated of Gothic architects. In recent literature he appears as no architect at all, but as a master mason, a carver, a metalworker curious about building, an administrator, and even as a cleric dabbling in architecture,” (Franklin Toker, “Gothic Architecture by Remote Control: an Illustrated Building Contract of 1340,” AB, 67 (1985), pp. 67-95, esp. p. 67.

(5) Robert Branner, “Books: Gothic Architecture,” JSAH, 32 (1973), pp. 327-333, esp. p. 331.

(6) It is not certain that Villard himself added the inscriptions to his drawings. He may have employed a professional scribe. See Carl F. Barnes, Jr., “A Note on the Bibliographic Terminology in the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt,” Manuscripta, 31 (1987), pp. 71-76

(7) Fol. 1v (Wilars dehonecort) and fol. 15r (Vilars de honcort). A 13th-century addition to the portfolio on fol. 15r calls him “Ulardus d[e] hunecort,” and a 15th-century addition on fol. 3r terms him “de honnecor.”

(8) Fol. 1v: Wilars dehonecort vos salve et si proie a tos ceus qui de ces engins ouverront con lon trovera en cest livre quil proient por sarme et quil lor sovienge de lui.

(9) Fol. 9v: Jai este en mult de tieres ….

(10) E.g., fol. 17v: si vos voles vier .i. bon conble legier a vote de fust prendes aluec garde; fol. 30r: se vos voles faire le fort engieng con apiele trebucet prendes ce garde.

(11) HOC OPUS FECIT MAGISTER NICOLAUS DE VERDUN … ANNO INCARNATIONE DOMINI MCCV. See Konrad Hoffmann, The Year 1200, New York, 1970, I, pp. 92-94.


(13) E.g., Jehan des Chelles at Notre-Dame in Paris, 1258; Robert de Luzarches and Regnault and Thomas de Cormont at Notre-Dame in Amiens, 1288; Jean le Loup, Bernard de Soissons, Jean d’Orbais, and Gaucher de Reims at Notre-Dame in Reims, ca. 1300; Erwin von Steinbach at Notre-Dame at Strasbourg, 1316 . These examples are all probably later than the inscriptions in the Villard portfolio, but the suggestion that it was not “normal” before ca.1250 for masters to use the title “Master” is disproved by Nicolas of Verdun. Also, master architects contemporary with Villard did use the title, e.g., at the Church of Notre-Dame at Audenarde, Belgium: ANNO DOMINI M°CC°XXX°IIII° III ID[US] MARTII INCEPTA FUI[T] ECCL[ESI]A A[B] MAG[IST]RO ARNULFO DE BINCHO. See Henri Stein, Les architectes des cathédrales, Paris, 1928, p. 44).

(14) See Barnes, Villard, p. 107, for a list of buildings attributed to Villard.

(15) Emile Mâle, L’art religieux du XIIIe siècle en France, 6th ed., Paris, 1925, p. 54.

(16) Charles Bauchal, Nouveau dictionnaire biographique et critique des architectes français, Paris, 1887, p. 568.

(17) Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Cambrai, France: plan on fol. 14v and reference to drawings now lost; Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Chartres, France: nave labyrinth on fol. 7v; west facade rose on fol. 15v; Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Laon, France: tower plan (and pinnacle elevation?) on fol. 9v, tower elevation on fol. 10r; Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Lausanne, Switzerland: south arm terminal rose on fol. 16r; Cathedral of St. Etienne at Meaux, France: plan on fol. l5v; Cistercian Abbey Church of Notre-Dame at Pilis, Hungary: transept pavement on fol. 15v; Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Reims, France: nave aisle window on fol. 10v, radiating chapel interior on fol. 30v, radiating chapel exterior on fol. 31r, nave exterior and interior elevations on fol. 31v, various pier and mullion plans and sections on fol. 32r, and section of choir buttresses on fol. 32v; Cistercian Abbey Church of Notre-Dame at Vaucelles, France: plan on fol. 17v. NOTE ADDED 2006: Reconsideration of the portfolio suggests that Villard’s drawing of the pavement of an Hungarian church (fol. 15v) cannot be categorically associated with the Cistercian church at Pilis.

(18) Few scholars now attribute any building to Villard. The major exception to this generalization is François Bucher, who attributes the Collegial Church at Saint-Quentin, near Villard’s birthplace, to Villard. See Bucher, “Villard,” p. 25: “It is even possible to defend his [Villard’s] presence as maître d’oeuvre [at Saint-Quentin] from 1233 onward.” Bucher may be basing his attribution on Charles Journel, “Vilars d’Honnecort et la collégiale de Saint-Quentin,” Mémoires de la société académique des sciences, arts et belles lettres, agriculture, et industrie de Saint-Quentin, ser. 5, 3 (148), pp. 97-109. I am indebted to Roland Bechmann for this reference. Attribution of Saint-Quentin goes back to Pierre Bénard, “Recherches sur la patrie et les travaux de Villard de Honnecourt,” Travaux de la société académique des sciences, arts et belles-lettres, agriculture, et industrie de Saint-Quentin, 3rd ser., 6 (1864), pp. 260-280.

As for Hungary, nothing whatsoever is known of the purpose of Villard’s trip there; see Ladislas Gál, L’architecture religieuse en Hongrie du XIe au XIIIe siècle, Paris, 1929, pp. 232-243, esp. p. 242: “En fin de compte, on doit avourer que … le sejour de Villard en Hongrie et qui concern son activité dans ce pays, est actuellement indéterminable.” László Gerevich, “Villard de Honnecourt magyarorszázon,” Müveszettörténeti értesitö, 20 (1971), pp. 81-105, notes that Villard visited Pilis but categorically denies that he can be associated with the design or construction of any Hungarian building.

(19) Paul Frankl, The Gothic, Eight Centuries of Sources and Interpretations, Princeton, 1960, p. 36. This claim has been most recently criticized by Peter Kidson, review of Bucher, “Villard,” JSAH, 40 (1981), pp. 329-331, esp. p. 330, “… anyone who wishes to insist that Villard really did know what every genuine medieval architect knew certainly has a lot of special pleading on his hands.”

(20) Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, “Album de Villard de Honnecourt, architecte du XIIIe siècle,” RA, n. s., 7 (1863), pp. 103-118, 184-193, 250-258, 361-370, esp. p. 104.

(21) For Bucher’s view, which closely follows those of Hahnloser and Frankl, see “Villard,” pp. 15-193; for Harvey’s view, see John H. Harvey, “The Education of the Mediaeval Architect,” JRIBA, 53 (1945), pp. 230-234, esp. p. 232.

(22) Prosper Mérimée, “Album de Villard de Honnecourt,” Moniteur universal (20 December 1859), reprint: Etudes sur les arts du moyen age, Paris, 1969, pp. 229-270, esp. p. 232.

(23) Bucher, “Villard,” p. 7.

(24) See Carl F. Barnes, Jr. and Lon R. Shelby, “The Codicology of the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Fr. 19093),” Scriptorium, 42 (1988), pp. 20-48. The maximum loss of leaves from the portfolio that can be proved on a physical or textual basis is 13, with the possibility of two additional losses.

(25) The randomness of the Villard drawings has troubled a number of writers, e.g., Ernest Renan, “L’art du moyen age et les causes de sa decadence,” Revue de Deux-Mondes, 40 (1862), pp. 203-228, esp. p. 215, “L’ivresse de combinaisions hardies que chaque page [du portfolio] révèle donne de l’inquiétude;” Louise Lefrançois-Pillion refers (“Un Maître d’oeuvre et son album: Villard de Honnecourt,” Maîtres d’oeuvres et tailleurs de pierre des cathédrales, Paris, 1949, pp. 61-70, esp. p. 65) to the leaves themselves as “pêle-mêle.”

(26) Willis, Wilars, p. 14.

(27) Shelby, Review of Hahnloser, Villard, p 497.

(28) Barnes, “Drapery,” p. 205 n. 14.

(29) It is impossible to get a precise count of the individual drawings in the portfolio, because no two commentators agree on what constitutes a distinct drawing, e.g., Hahnloser found 163 “human and sculptural representations,” whereas Bucher found 94. See Bucher, “Villard,” pp. 30-31.

(30) See (5) below.

(31) The Villard drawings of architecture are as follows: fol. 9v, 2; fol. 10r, 1; fol. 10v, 1; fol. 14v, 2; fol. 15r, 2; fol. 15v, 3; fol. 16r, 2; fol. 17r, 1; fol. 18r, 1; fol. 20v, 3; fol. 21r, 7; fol. 30v, 1; fol. 31r, 1; fol. 31v, 2; fol. 32r, 19; fol. 32v, l. This is a generous count, taking, for example, the Reims nave interior and exterior elevations on fol. 31v as two drawings.

(32) See (9) below.

(33) Pier plan on fol. 15v; four voussoir designs on fol. 21r; four Reims pier plans on fol. 32r. A drawing on fol. 5v may show the joining of two voussoirs and where the joint should be relative to the foliage decoration. However, Pamela Z. Blum has suggested to me that this drawing may represent the border design in a stained glass window rather than voussoirs.

(34) For an explanation of three of the guides to cutting voussoirs, see Robert Branner, “Three Problems from the Villard de Honnecourt Manuscript,” AB, 39 (1957), pp. 61-66 and Roland Bechmann, “About some Technical Sketches of Villard de Honnecourt’s Manuscript. New Light on Deleted Diagrams: an Unknown Drawing,” British Journal of Historical Studies, 21 (1988), pp. 341-161.

(35) Robert Branner, “A Note on Gothic Architects and Scholars,” Burlington Magazine, 99 (1956), pp. 372 and 375. For the view that these drawings and inscriptions were not copied from an existing treatise on practical geometry, see Lon R. Shelby, “The Geometric Knowledge of Mediaeval Master Masons,” Speculum, 47 (1972), pp. 395-421, esp. pp. 408-409. I accept Branner’s view on this particular question.

(36) F. E. Schneegans, “Uber die Sprache des Skizzenbuches von Villard de Honnecourt,” Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie, 25 (1901), pp. 45-70.

(37) It is understandable that 19th-century scholars were mislead by the textual and visual evidence, since they did not realize that two individuals were involved. But, it is unacceptable for 20th-century scholars who know better to ignore this distinction of hands because it is inconvenient to their thesis that Villard was an architect, e.g., Claude Lalbat, Gilbert Margueritte, and Jean Martin, “De la stéréotomie médiévale: la coup des pierres chez Villard de Honnecourt,” BM, 145 (1987), pp. 387-406, which claims that study of certain of the stereotomical drawings on fols. 20 and 21 establish “une filiation directe de Villard de Honnecourt aux auteurs [des traités de stéréotomie] de la Renaissance” but then notes (p. 406 n. 10) that the authors do not take into account that the drawings and the inscriptions in question are not by Villard.

(38) Hahnloser, Villard, pp. 194-200, esp. 195: “… Nachfolgern an der gleichen Bauhütte ….” Hahnloser was the earliest writer to be this explicit, but the idea that Villard was an architect in a north French building lodge is much older. Uberwasser, “Masz,” pp. 259-260, made the same claim at the same time independently of Hahnloser.

(39) Bucher, “Villard,” p. 29

(40) Fols. 5r (perpetual motion machine), 9r (handwarmer, “sing-and-cry”), 17v (portable candle holder), 30r (catapult).

(41) Vesci une esconse qui bone est a mones por lor candelles porter argans. Faire le poes se vos saues torner.

(42) Fols. 6v and 7r.

(43) Et si penseiz car se vos voles bien ovrer de toz grans piliers forkies vos covient avoir qui ases aient col. Prendes garde en vostre afaire si feres que sages et que cortois.

(44) John G. Hawthorne and Cyril Stanley Smith, eds., The Treatise of Theophilus, Chicago, 1963; Lon R. Shelby, Gothic Design Techniques, the Fifteenth-Century Design Booklets of Mathes Roriczer and Hanns Schmuttermayer, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1977.

(45) Paul Frankl, “The Secret of the Medieval Masons,” AB, 27 (1945), pp. 46-64, esp. pp. 57-58.

(46) The arbitrariness of the “geometry” on fols. 18r, 18v, 19r, and 19v has long been recognized, e.g., Quicherat, “Notice,” p. 211. It is less commonly recognized that in about half of the drawings on these folios, the geometry was applied to the figures rather than being used to generate the figures. This was discovered through examination of the portfolio by Lon R. Shelby in 1981, although as early as 1949 Louise Lefrançois Pillion, “Un Maître d’oeuvre,” p. 67, had written that it was her instinct that the figures on these folios came before the geometry. See also Pierre du Colombier, Les chantiers des cathédrales, Paris, 1953, p. 86.

(47) Willis, Wilars, p. 99

(48) François Bucher, “Medieval Architectural Design Methods, 800-1500,” Gesta, 11/2 (1972), pp. 37-51, esp. p. 40.

(49) Rebecca Price-Wilkin, “Villard de Honnecourt’s Use of Templates in his Drawings,” a paper presented at the XXIVth International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan USA, 6 May 1989.

(50) A number of authors posit that Villard understood quadrature, esp. Uberwasser, “Masz,” p. 261, and Maria Velte, Die Anwendung der Quadratur und Triangulatur bie der Grund- und Aufrissgestaltung der gotischen Kirchen, Basel, 1951, pp. 53-54, with reference to his plan of the Laon tower (Fig. 7). However, after careful analysis, these two authors, in the words of Robert Branner (review of du Colombier, ChantiersAB, 37 [1955], pp. 61-65, esp. p. 63) “…with reasoned explanations, arrive at completely different explanations of the plan, and neither is completely convincing.”

(51) Bucher, “Villard,” p. 164, with reference to Saint-Quentin.

(52) Hans R. Reinhardt, La cathédrale de Reims, Paris, 1963, pp. 83-88. Reinhardt also argues that when Villard made his Reims drawings, “il a introduit sur place les transformations qu’il envisageait à la cathédrale picarde [de Cambrai].”

(53) Henry Baily Garling, “Some Remarks on the Contents of the Album of Villard de Honnecourt,” Transactions of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 10 (1858-59), pp. 13-20.

(54) Francis Salet, “Chronologie de la cathédrale de Reims,” BM, 125 (1967), pp. 347-394, esp. p. 381.

(55) James Smith Pierce, “The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt,” New Lugano Review, 8-9 (1976), pp. 28-36, esp. pp. 35-36.

(56) Kidson, Review of Bucher, “Villard,” p. 330.

(57) See comparison illustration in Branner, “Origin,” p. 141 fig. 10.

(58) Bucher, “Villard,” p. 172.

(59) Branner, “Origin,” p. 137.

(60) My colleague François Bucher has pointed out to me in conversation that Villard apparently understood “tas de charge” masonry, based on his drawings of vault springers, especially fols. 30v and 32v. In these two drawings Villard certainly appears to show the form of the lower course of the vault springers cut from individual stones to the level where the ribs separate. This does not mean Villard understood their structural function.

(61) Bucher, “Villard,” pp. 24 and 164.

(62) “Par tos ces piliers sunt les loizons teles com eles i doivent estre.

(63) See Dieter Kempel, “Le Développement de la taille en série dans l’architecture médiévale et son rôle dans l’histoire économique,” BM, 135 (1977), pp. 195-222, esp. p. 219 n. 27 for a list of Villard’s errors at Reims. Kempel notes (p. 202) that Villard “s’est maintes fois trompé en ce qui concerne les détailes de la cathédrale de Reims.”

(64) “Vesci les molles des chapieles de celle pagne la devant ….” See Barnes, “Bibliographic Terminology,” p. 74, for an explanation of this “bibliographic” term.

(65) Fol. 7v.

(66) The two evangelist symbol figures on fol. 13v have been linked to the Evangelistary of St. Médard de Soissons (Paris, Bibl. nat., MS Lat. 8850). See Renate Friedländer, “Eine Zeichnung des Villard de Honnecourt und Ihr Vorbild,” Walraf-Richartz Jahrbuch, 34 (1972), pp. 349-352.

(67) Barnes, “Drapery,” pp. 199-206.

Frequently Cited Sources 

AB Art Bulletin
Barnes, “Drapery” Carl F. Barnes, Jr. “The Drapery-Rendering Technique of Villard de Honnecourt,” Gesta, 20/l (1981), pp. 199-206
Barnes, Villard Carl F. Barnes, Jr., Villard de Honnecourt, the Artist and His Drawings, A Reference Publication in Art History, Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982
Branner, “Origin” Robert Branner, “Villard de Honnecourt, Reims, and the Origin of Gothic Architectural Drawing,” Gazette des beaux-Arts, ser. 6, 61 (1963), pp. 129-146
BM Bulletin Monumental
Bucher, “Villard” François Bucher, “[The Lodge Book of] Villard de Honnecourt,” Architector, the Lodge Books and Sketchbooks of Medieval Architects, I, New York, 1979, pp. 15-193
Hahnloser, Villard Hans R. Hahnloser, Villard de Honnecourt, Kritische Gesamtausgabe des Bauhüttenbuches ms. fr 19093 der Pariser Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, 1935, 2nd rev. ed., Gratz, 1972
JRIBA Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects
JSAH Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians
RA Revue Archéologique
Überwasser, “Masz” Walter Überwasser, “Nach rechtem Masz [Mass]: Aussagen über den Begriff des Maszes in der Kunst des XIII.-XVI. Jahrhunderts,” Jahrbuch der Preuszischen Kunstsammlung, 56 (1935), pp. 250-272
Willis, Wilars Robert Willis, Fac-simile of the Sketch Book of Wilars de Honecort with Commentaries and Descriptions by M. J. B. A. Lassus and by M. J. Quicherat: Translated and Edited with Many Additional Articles and Notes by the Rev. R. Willis, London, 1859


21 April 2001 / 6:25:04 PM

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