A Nostalgic Filter: A University of Pittsburgh Exhibition

Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 19093

Like the Model Book of Rein in this section, this portfolio has frequently been described as a book that played a role in the dissemination of artistic knowledge but its true function remains a matter of debate. The close observation of contemporary buildings has invited speculation that Villard de Honnecourt may have been a master builder; the appearance of automatons on some pages also indicates an interest in hydraulics: but whether he was himself a maker of such things, or an artistic observer, is difficult to know. 

Some of the drawings show Reims Cathedral in France; among these, the elegantly depicted flying buttresses and window traceries reflect Villard's keen interest in the latest structural innovations of the day. Animals appear regularly throughout the book, like the shaggy bear and elegant swan shown here; on another page Villard famously depicted a lion from life. In other instances, the animals are drawn from other artworks instead; for example, the bird perched atop a lectern below represents a bookrest in the shape of an eagle.

The manuscript freely mixes diagrams, drawings, and designs, and its soft leather binding – a rare survival from the Middle Ages that is beautifully replicated in this state-of-the-art facsimile – only enhances the impression of a curious artist gathering evocative images of his world.

This manuscript has been fully digitized and is available at the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

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