Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Secrets of Architectural Drawings

Façade of Strasbourg Cathedral (“Plan A1”)

Above: Façade of Strasbourg Cathedral (“Plan A1”), Strasbourg, France, 1260s, 33 7/8 x 23 1/4 in. (86 x 59 cm), Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame, Strasbourg, Inv. no. 2.

The so-called Strasbourg Plan A1, seen above, offers an exquisite example of medieval architectural drawings, which are rarely accessible to anyone, including scholars and researchers. It is one of the earliest surviving graphic documents of a monumental structure, authored by an anonymous artist. Although we do not know his name, the artist left us with enough information, in pen and ink, to express his vision for the design of the west façade of Strasbourg cathedral.

It was more than pen and ink that I wished to find when I approached the framed drawing for the first time. It was leaning against the wall, silently, waiting to be hanged. I knelt down and started looking for prick holes—yes, prick holes—those barely discernible marks left by the sharp point of a compass. Prick holes serve two important functions. In an original drawing, they reveal the invisible geometric forms underlying the design: circles, say for a rose window; or arcs, two of which combine to form a pointed arch for a window or doorway. Prick holes penetrating through the entire thickness of the parchment may suggest that at some point the drawing was used as a master for copying, when the sharp point of the compass or a similar instrument needs to reach the parchment below. Key details of the original drawing—for example the apex of a pointed arch, the cusps of a tracery window, or the outline of a doorway—would be pricked through. A précis, or essential summary, of the design would then be transferred onto a sheet of fresh parchment directly underneath, visible with the marks (prick holes) made by the sharp point. These marks would then serve as guides for the artist to complete the copying process. Medieval Xeroxing, one might say.

When the Strasbourg Plan A1 was removed from its frame in the studio of a restorer in Paris, prick holes were only visible on the front face, with none discernible on the back. This suggests that it might have been copied from another drawing, perhaps the so-called Plan A, which is almost identical to Plan A1 but has fewer intricate details. We know that Plan A1 belongs to a set of drawings depicting the various designs for the Strasbourg west façade, now known as Plans A, A1, B, B1, and D. None of these drawings was followed exactly when the façade was constructed, although Plan B seems to be the closest version to the main bulk as built. We know from documents that construction of the west façade began on May 25, 1277, but we do not know when the various designs for the façade were attempted. A logical and commonly accepted strategy is to date some of these designs to the 1260s and 1270s. The chronology of these drawings, and the incongruities between their renderings and the actual façade, only add to the intrigue and challenge of understanding the drawings’ history.

Anyone visiting the cathedral of Strasbourg cannot help but be impressed, if not outright awed, by the enormity of the spectacular façade. Yet, to untangle the thinking behind its design, we rely on—among other things—the tiny prick holes.

—Nancy Wu, Museum Educator, The Cloisters Museum and Gardens

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Comments (5)

  1. Joseph Kopta Says:

    Following prick holes in the history of western drawing reveals their relevance and is evidence of the changing process of drawing. A relevant comparison is made between medieval and Renaissance pricking practices. Wu’s discussion reveals that the prick holes, as evidence of the precision of the compass used to define the geometry of the drawing, are themselves the foundations for the design of Strausbourg’s façade. The underlying belief by medieval thinkers, architects and draftsmen in “elegant geometry,” (to use the title of another blog post, /penandparchment/2009/06/30/elegant-geometry/) as evidence of God’s hand has been well documented.

    Yet during the Renaissance, we tend to find prick holes in different places on the surface of drawings. Pricking was relegated to outlines of shapes or figures as part of pouncing, where a Renaissance artist would fix the drawing against the surface that was to be painted, whether a panel or canvas for oil painting or a surface of wet plaster for fresco. The artist or shop assistants would then pounce, or blot a small bag of charcoal against the drawing, leaving a line of dots on the fresh surface where prick holes in the drawing above had been made. One example from the Met’s collection showing prick holes for transfer is The Angel of the Annunciation by Raffaellino del Garbo (12.56.5a). ( http://www.metmuseum.org/Works_of_Art/collection_database/drawings_and_prints/the_angel_of_the_annunciation_raffaellino_del_garbo_raffaelle_de_capponi_raffaelle/objectview.aspx?OID=90005914&collID=9&dd1=9 )

    Although medieval drawings were also pricked for transfer, as Wu has noted, it seems that pricking in original medieval drawings is evidence of the desire for mathematical perfection. To my knowledge, this is not necessarily the case in Renaissance draftsmanship; the drawing in the Renaissance becomes an essential part of the process in crafting a finished painting. Although it would be inappropriate to say that Renaissance draftsmen did not use geometric devices for their drawing (Bramante’s plan for New St Peter’s at the Uffizi comes to mind), the drawing during the Renaissance becomes a receptacle for the artist’s freehand, and their prick holes are evidence of the transfer process– not the quest for the elegant geometry of medieval drawings.

  2. Nancy Wu Says:

    Thank you for reminding us of the extensive use of prick holes in the Renaissance to transfer designs (drawings) onto surfaces such as panel, canvas, or wet plaster, on which the final product is executed. This was a significant function played by prick holes, especially with the increased production of large-scale frescoes and panels. Prick holes did not simply cease to exist on parchment or paper containing architectural designs—Bramante’s design for St. Peter’s, as Kopta mentioned, is but one of many surviving examples. Prick holes exist as long as architects relied on compasses or other sharp instruments to express their ideas, which continued to be inspired by increasingly complex geometry (think of St. Ivo or the piazza at St. Peter’s). Happily, even with the advent of digital technology—for example the myriad computer-assisted drawing programs (CAD) now in use—it is still possible for us to trace the thinking process of architects and, if any recently erected buildings in New York are an indication, we should feel comforted that architects still play with the same geometric shapes tackled by their medieval predecessors.

  3. Richard Hills Says:

    The exhibit note to the Strasbourg Cathedral drawing states “…fascinating questions about the use of drawing in the development & construction of buildings in the Middle Ages, a topic that remains poorly understood.” Would you be able to direct me to any sources on this topic, particularly with respect to “development & construction of buildings” in early 15th century France? This is for my research on 2 still existing buildings from that period: l’Hotel-Dieu in Beaune and le Palais Jacques Coeur in Bourges. I am trying to get some background information on how master builders used drawings to conceive and execute their works. Thank you for a fascinating and beautifully presented exhibition!

  4. Nancy Wu Says:

    Although our understanding of medieval construction—from the design process to the division of workshop labor—remains limited, a small group of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have devoted much of their career to this issue. For your specific question about the Palais Jacques-Coeur and l’Hotel-Dieu at Beaune, I suspect you are familiar with some of the recent publications about them (Palais Jacques-Coeur, 2001; The Hotel-Dieu at Beaune, 2005). As to how master builders used drawings to conceive and execute their works, the most important information for your research is to acquire accurate measurements of the buildings. These readings allow you to understand the underlying designs of the structure, and the measuring units used. With this information, one can even attempt to plot the progress of the actual construction. The following selection of books, some more technical than others, may help get you started:

    Alain Erlande-Brandenburg, Cathedrals and Castles. Building in the Middle Ages, 1995

    John Fitchen, Building Construction before Mechanization, 1986

    Roland Recht, Le dessin d’architecture: origine et functions, 1995

    Lon Shelby, trans., Gothic Design Techniques. The 15th-century Design Booklets of Mathes Roriczer and Hanns Schmuttermayer, 1977

    Nancy Wu, ed., Ad Quadratum, The Practical Application of Geometry in Medieval Architecture, 2002

  5. Richard Hills Says:

    Thank you, Ms. Wu, for your response to my question. Yes, I have both books you mention, but your further references are extremely helpful! Best, Rick Hills

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