Villard de Honnecourt from Macmillan Dictionary of Art

Carl F. Barnes, Jr., "Villard de Honnecourt," Macmillan Dictionary of Art (London, 1996), vol. 32, pp. 569-571.

Villard de Honnecourt (fl c. 1220s?-1230s?). Picard artist.

1. Life and Career

Villard de Honnecourt is known only through a portfolio of 33 parchment leaves containing approximately 250 drawings preserved in Paris (Bibl. nat. de France, MS. Fr. 19093). There is no record of him in any known contract, guild register, inscription, payment receipt, tax record, or any other type of evidence from which the names of medieval artisans are learnt. Villard’s fame is due to the uniqueness of his drawings and 19th-century inventiveness in crediting him with having “erected churches throughout the length and breadth of Christendom” without any documentary evidence that he designed or built any church anywhere, or that he was in fact an architect.

Who Villard was, and what he did, must be postulated from his drawings and the textual addenda to them on 26 of the 66 surfaces of the 33 leaves remaining in his portfolio. In these sometimes enigmatic inscriptions Villard gave his name twice (Wilars dehonecort [fol. 1v]; Vilars dehoncort [fol. 15r]), but said nothing of his occupation and claimed not a single artistic creation or monument of any type. He addressed his portfolio, which he termed a “book,” to no one in particular, saying (fol. 1v) that it contained “sound advice on the techniques of masonry and on the devices of carpentry . . . and the techniques of representation, its features as the discipline of geometry commands and instructs it.”

Villard probably was born in the village of Honnecourt-sur-l’Escault (Nord), south of Cambrai, in Picardy, France. When he was born is unknown, and nothing is known of his early training. The claim that he was educated in the Cistercian monastic school at Vaucelles is unsubstantiated. The tradition that Villard knew Latin is suspect: the one Latin word attributed to him, LEO (fols. 24r and 24v), is probably a 1533 addition to the portfolio.

When Villard made his drawings is unknown. Most of the identifiable monuments he drew date in the first quarter of the 13th century. Nothing Villard drew can be securely dated after c. 1240, suggesting that he may have been active earlier, in the 1220s and 1230s. It is unknown when and where he died.

Villard traveled extensively, but we do not know why. If his drawings of architectural monuments prove that he actually visited these monuments, rather than that he knew some or all of them through drawings such as his own, he visited the cathedrals of Cambrai, Chartres, Laon, Meaux, Reims, and the abbey of Vaucelles in France; the cathedral of Lausanne in Switzerland; and the abbey of Pilis in Hungary. [ed. note: Since I wrote in 1995 that Villard was at Pilis, I have been persuaded through discussion with Nigel Hiscock that while Villard may have been there, his drawing of the church pavement on fol. 15v does not prove so beyond all doubt.] He claimed (fol. 9v) to have “been in many lands” and (fol. 10v) that he “had been sent into the land of Hungary” where he (fol. 15v) “remained many days.” But he did not say who sent him, or when or for what reason he was sent.

During a period of perhaps five to fifteen years, Villard made sketches of things he found interesting. At some unknown time in his life, he decided to make his drawings available to an unspecified audience. He arranged them in the sequence he wished, and then inscribed certain of them, or had them inscribed. These inscriptions are all by one professional scribal hand, and fit around the drawings with some care. The language is the basically the Picard dialect of Old French, with some Central French forms rather than Picard forms used consistently, for example, ces and ceus rather than ches and cheus. Occasionally, the different dialects exist side by side: on fol. 32r both the Picard chapieles and Central French capieles, “chapels,” are found. The inscriptions vary in nature, some being explanations (e.g., fol. 6r: “Of such appearance was the sepulchre of a Saracen I saw one time”), others being instructions (e.g., fol. 30r: “If you wish to make the strong device one calls a trebuchet, pay attention here”).

The Villard portfolio was rediscovered and first published in the mid-19th century during the height of the Gothic Revival movement in France and England. For this reason, Villard’s architectural drawings, which comprise only about 16% of the total, attracted the greatest attention. This led writers to conclude that he was an architect, an assumption based on a fundamental error: the practical, stereotomical formulas on fols.20r and 20v were taken as proof that Villard was a trained mason, and it was not discovered until 1901 that these drawings and their inscriptions are by a later hand.

Since the 1970s there has been growing suspicion that Villard was not an architect or mason. It has been proposed that he may have been “a lodge clerk with a flair for drawing” or that his training may have been in metalworking rather than in masonry. The question is not yet resolved, but it may no longer be automatically assumed that he was a mason. It may be that Villard was not a professional craftsman of any type, but simply an inquisitive layman who had an opportunity to travel widely and took the seemingly unusual step of recording some of the things he saw during his travels.

2. The Portfolio

The portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt consists of 33 parchment leaves in a brown pigskin portfolio or wallet. This portfolio wraps around the back of the leaves and its two flaps overlap across the front to protect its contents. This portfolio may be the original container of the leaves, and formerly had buttons and leather thongs to hold it closed. The parchment leaves themselves generally are of poor quality, and variations in their sizes and textures suggest that Villard acquired them individually at different times in different places. These leaves are irregular in size but average 23-24 cm in height by 15-16 cm in width and are now stitched into the portfolio along their inner edges.

The 33 leaves of the Villard portfolio are arranged into seven gatherings as follows:

Quire Bifolios Folios Total Leaves
I 3 1 7
II 2 3 7
III 1 1 3
IV 2 0 4
V 0 2 2
VI 4 0 8
VII 1 0 2
Totals 13 7 33

This assemblage is commonly called an album de croquis in French and a “sketchbook” in English. Neither term is accurate if one imagines a bound book of blank parchments leaves awaiting drawings. While Villard owned the portfolio, and even when it left his hands, the leaves were not stitched together or to the portfolio itself.

As many as 31 leaves are claimed to have been lost from the portfolio, but this figure is too large. Based on physical evidence (mainly fragmentary tabs), textual evidence (two references [fols. 14v and 30r] to drawings now missing), and gaps in 13th-century and 15th-century pagination schemes, the maximum number of leaves that can be proven to be lost from the portfolio is 13, with the possible loss of two additional leaves. Of these, the contents of at least two can be identified from inscriptions on surviving leaves: drawings of Cambrai Cathedral; and a drawing (elevation?) of a catapult. Eight leaves have been lost since the 15th century, and the other five to seven leaves disappeared earlier. There have been no leaves lost from the portfolio since the 18th century.

The subjects of Villard’s drawings and inscriptions fall into ten categories: (i) animals, (ii) architecture, (iii) carpentry, (iv) church furnishings, (v) geometry, (vi) humans, (vii) masonry, (viii) mechanical devices, (ix) recipes or formulas, and (x) surveying. Puzzled by the variety of subjects treated by Villard in such random fashion, some writers have suggested that the leaves have been shuffled around in the portfolio and that this, coupled with losses, explains the pell-mell character of what remains. The effect of arbitrariness is real, but not because the leaves in the portfolio have been shuffled since it left Villard’s hands. Codicological analysis shows that the seven gatherings are in the sequence Villard himself left them, and that within these gatherings the individual folios and bifolios are essentially as he arranged them.

Villard made his drawings over the years without any apparent master plan. The number of palimpsests in the portfolio indicate that at times he had no blank surfaces on which to draw, so he had to erase one drawing to make another. For the same reason he was forced to juxtapose drawings of unrelated subjects on individual leaves.

Villard’s drawing technique was fairly complex, especially when he drew drapery. The preliminary drawing was done in leadpoint, contour first, then content. This contour was next reinforced with a light sepia wash. This completed most of his figure drawings, but some (e.g., fol.3v) he took several stages farther, first by a dark inking of contours and drapery folds, then by using leadpoint to shade drapery folds. For his architectural drawings, Villard employed pin-prick compass, straightedge, and in two instances, the Chartres and Lausanne roses on fols.15v and 16r, respectively, a circular template.

Villard was at his best rendering drapery and small objects, including insects (fol. 7v), and was less successful in human figures, some of which are mere stick figures (fols. 18v and 19r). His treatments of the nude male figure after antique models (fols. 6r, 11v, 22r, and 29v) are among his more interesting drawings. Without exception, his architectural drawings vary from the actual buildings themselves. This has been explained as Villard’s attempt to modify or “modernize” whatever he saw. Villard may have attempted this, but his architectural drawings suggest he understood very little about stereotomy and the actual design and construction of medieval buildings.

3. History and Significance

The history of Villard de Honnecourt portfolio is very imperfectly known. There is no proof that Villard left his drawings to a building lodge, and it has been plausibly proposed that they survived not for their utilitarian value but for their unique antiquarian appeal.

Sometime after Villard several leaves were scraped down, and the “how to” drawings mentioned above were added to fols.20r and 20v. The formulaic par chu fait om . . . (“by this [means] one makes . . .”) inscriptions on this leaf are written in a pure Picard form of Old French. There is internal evidence that these formulae may have been copied from a treatise on practical or constructive geometry. The same hand added repetitious (fols. 6v) and sometimes incorrect (fol. 15r, bottom drawing) inscriptions to the portfolio. Somewhat later in the 13th century a different hand did the same.

Sometime in the 13th century after the portfolio left Villard’s possession, an attempt was started to paginate the portfolio by lettering each leaf, but this was abandoned on the first leaf of Gathering II. In the 15th century someone named Mancel attempted two different pagination schemes, each of which is inconsistent within itself. We learn that eight leaves have been lost since Mancel’s time, because on fol. 33v he noted that “in this book are 41 leaves.” Two 18th-century Arabic numbering schemes confirm that the 33 leaves now in the portfolio were in their current sequence at that time.

The portfolio belonged to the Félibien family by 1600, and passed from this family, probably through a bequest of Dom Michel Félibien, to the Parisian monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In 1795 it became a part of the French national collections, and was catalogued in the Bibliothèque nationale as MS. Lat. 1104. In 1865 it was assigned its current shelf number.

The Villard portfolio is a unique and valuable artifact. From it we learn something of the life and interests of a 13th-century artist. Through careful analysis of it, we can recreate the steps of that artist’s drawing technique. Through codicological investigation of it we can determine what he thought was more and less important in certain of his drawings.

Since its rediscovery and publication in the 19th century, the Villard portfolio has been interpreted in various ways. The least persuasive of these are that it was an encyclopedia of architectural knowledge, that it reveals the secret of stereotomical practices of the Gothic period, or that it was a Bauhüttenbuch, a shop manual of a north French building lodge. The most that can be accurately claimed is that the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt records in visual form the multitude of interests of an intelligent, well-traveled 13th-century Picard and consists of drawings possibly but not certainly made for mnemonic use as a model book.

4. Bibliography

[This has been mroe fully updated since this article appeared.  Click here to see the “Villard Bibliography” sub-page of this web site]

22 December 2003

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