Monday, July 25, 2011


I started reading this book for very different reaons than those for and through which I finished it.

Philip Ball has been a bright blip on my radar ever since I stumbled across his marvelous Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color. A physicist by training, Ball's approach to art and artist's materials changed the way even I, who had grown up with a nearly complete collection of Horizon magazines and a pretty stunning variety of other amazing resources in my mother's personal library, look at paintings forever. Combining observations on the optical and chemical properties of pigments with a connoiseur's appreciation of how these properties have affected what paintings portray, how they portray them, and how what they're made of changes how they look as they age (Van Gogh's weren't originally so muddy-looking; he experimented with new formulations that didn't age well, for example). The result is a book I turn to over and over out of sheer enjoyment.

So what, I wondered, would a Philip Ball book about the great cathedral at Chartres, France be like?

Very much like Bright Earth but, as Ball regarded a monument that could well outlast humanity, more so, in all the best ways.

Ball has managed to combine lots of different kinds of writing about place into one book. I could take my Kindle with this on it with me on a tour of the cathedral and feel as well-guided as with a Baedeker. I can imagine the personality conflicts and struggles that went on behind the scenes of its building from this book as well as from any Ken Follet doorstop novel. I could look up into its lofty interiors and see the "webs of force" that are carefully balanced there and appreciate the weird mixture of science, theology, lore and guesswork they represent.

And in the midst of all this, I gained from Universe of Stone something I failed to find in God's Philosophers (a book which, you may recall, I desperately wanted to like but found off-putting and hectoring due mostly to its tone): a thoughtful consideration of how science as we know it gradually evolved from the ragbag of half-remembered classics, theology and the odd bout of actual observation of the actual world that was what knowledge was in the so-called Middle/Dark Ages. By which I mean Ball did a much better job than Hannam did of persuading me that the Dark Ages were not Dark, do not represent the lacuna or giant step backward in the advance of our understanding of nature and the universe that the period is popularly represented as being -- even though doing so was not Ball's aim.

For Ball, like the intriguing Villard de Honnecourt*, whose work he often references, is an enthusiast, and his passionate, omnivorous regard for his subject is infectious. The politics and economics of church-building, the problems of quarrying, transporting and shaping stone (his excursis on, e.g., the challenges a groin vault posed to stone cutters is especially dizzying), the evolution of what we know of the Gothic style, all get plenty of play here as Ball explores the fascinating question of just how much the thought and speculations of the scholars in the cathedral school at Chartres and elsewhere (all those Neo-Platonists like Abbe Suger, Peter Abelard, William of Sens, etc.) informed the building of the cathedral. That Ball doesn't quite find an answer for this question -- the answer is very likely unknowable since written records are few and stone can only tell us so much -- doesn't matter. It's fun to watch him consider what can be known and guess about what can't, all in his reasoned, thoughtful, curious and well-informed prose. Ahh.

I found this book, too, to be a balm when my real life intruded rather forcefully into my reading life. News of a good online friend's death hit me late last night and left me sad and thirsty for the kind of order and clarity of which Chartres and this book held promise. It felt better, as I grieved, to contemplate that which will stand to awe generations unborn after I, too, am dust, one of our finest achievements as a species. And so, this book and this cathedral gave me a kind of refuge from the raw new edge of my feelings, for which I am grateful.

And so, I leave you today with THIS:

--from Orson Welles' F for Fake

*de Honnecourt is a fascinating character of whom I had never heard before. Variously believed to have been a mason, a clerk or maybe even a clergyman of some limited kind, what he undoubtedly was, was an architecture fanboy, who kept a portfolio of sketches and observations of most of the great cathedrals that arose in the 13th century. It's apparently quite a jumble of drawings, notes and speculations, this notebook of his, and very little is known about the man behind the pencil. Which leaves lots of room for one's imagination. Viva Villard!

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