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Le Vite De Piu Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori, e Architecttori by Giorgio Vasari - Cover Page - Detail

Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori – Giorgio Vasari / First Use Of The Term “Goth”

The use of a certain term in regard to a certain phenomenon is sometimes the result of a fascinating evolution most people are ignorant of. Historians that tries to trace those cultural trajectories have already taught us that terms are usually coined by the victorious, by the ruling party of the day, by the prevalent thinking or certain power-seekers, to demonstrate their dominance and validate their status or believes. And when such a term prevails, the past context and exact original meaning are occasionally forgotten or greatly shifting. Sometimes digging into the history of a term can show us that the mocked up party eventually survived its long forgotten past denouncers.

The use of the term Goth to designate something else than some Germanic tribes such as the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths,[1] was firstly made only in the 16th century, way after those tribes no longer existed. But in this strange twist of history, it actually was written by those who lost their more than 1000 years civilization, i.e. the mighty Roman Empire, to some “barbaric” tribes who comes from nowhere, i.e. the wild north. Moreover, those who declared themselves now winners over those barbarics from the past were not even politicians, they were artists.

Prior to the 16th century, the pointed style or ogival style, known today as Gothic art and architecture was called by its contemporaries opus Francigenum (Latin: French work), opus modernum (Latin: modern work), novum opus (Latin: new work) and even maniera tedesca, (Italian: German style).

The change of terminology only emerged in the High Renaissance, after Italy witnessed a century or so of architecture that drawn heavily on the rediscovered principles of classical orders set by the ancient Greek architect Vitruvius, which at the time perceived as an evidence of a new Golden Age of learning and refinement.

Drawing a direct line to the ancient Greek civilization, to the maniera greca – the Greek manner, (oddly enough there is no such a thing as maniera romana), and designated it as the best practice of the day, the famous architect Gorgio Vasari in the introduction of his pivotal assay The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Italian: Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori), refer to the form of art prevalent in the period between ancient Rome and the Renaissance’s Greek revival as the barbarous German style. Here is an excerpt from the 1568 edition of the book:

But to return to our subject; there issued from the hands of the masters of these times those puppet-like and uncouth figures that are still to be seen in the works of old. The same thing happened to architecture, seeing that, since it was necessary to build, and since form and the good method were completely lost by reason of the death of the craftsmen and the destruction and ruin of their works, those who applied themselves to this exercise built nothing that either in ordering or in proportion showed any grace, or design, or reason whatsoever. Wherefore there came to arise new architects, who brought from their barbarous races the method of that manner of buildings that are called by us to-day German; and they made some that are rather a source of laughter for us moderns than creditable to them, until better craftsmen afterwards found a better style, in some measure similar to the good style of the ancients, even as that manner may be seen throughout all Italy in the old churches (but not the ancient), which were built by them, such as a palace of Theodoric, King of Italy, in Ravenna, and one in Pavia, and another in Modena; all in a barbarous manner, and rather rich and vast than well-conceived or of good architecture.[Translated by: Gaston du C. de Vere][2]

While in the above cited paragraph, when discussing the old churches (but not of the ancient ones), Vasari refers to the style he denounces as barbaric as the German style (maniera tedesca), in other places in this introduction he holds the Visigoths and the Ostragoths, or just the Goths in general, responsible for destroying the ancient buildings after they conquered Rome, and building new ones with architectural features he despises:

And there had not yet come the Goths and the other barbarous and outlandish peoples who destroyed, together with Italy, all the finer arts.[3]

The derogatory approach of Vasari sustained throughout the 17th century, when contemporary works exhibited a similar disdain towards any kind of art not in line with the classic principles. See for instance, Henry Wotton’s 1624 review of Italian architecture:

[51; G 2] Upon these five Theoremes, all the skill of Arching and Vaulting is grounded: As for those Arches, which our Artizans call of the third and fourth point; And the Tuscan writers di terzo, 50 and di quarto acuto, because they alwayes concurre in an acute Angle, and doe spring from division of the Diameter, into three, foure, or more parts at pleasure; I say, such as these, both for the naturall imbecility of the sharpe Angle it selfe, and likewise for their very Uncomelinesse, ought to bee exiled from judicious eyes, and left to their first inventors, the Gothes or Lumbards, amongst other Reliques of that barbarous Age. [HENRY WOTTON, The Elements of Architecture, London: John Bill, 1624][4]

Wotton referring to Goths and Lombards alike, may not be that surprising. Indeed, Lombardy is now considered a part of the state of Italy, but this northern territory embraced the same Gothic Architecture that Vasari condemned, famously manifested in the Doumo (Italian for cathedral) of Milan (Lombardy’s capital), a great example of the said Gothic Architecture with its spider-like flying buttresses and many spires (although made of bricks and not of stones).

Things started to change at the beginning of the 18th century. In a report probably written in early 1700’s, the English polymath architect Sir Christopher Wern stated his disapproval not only of the derogatory use of the term Gothic to designate improper art form, but of attributing this particular style to the Goths to begin with. Actually, he compared the so-called Gothic style with Islamic architecture, which he called the ‘Saracen style’, and suggested that the pointed arch’s sophistication was not owed to the Goths but to the Islamic Golden Age:

This we now call the Gothic manner of architecture (so the Italians called what was not after the Roman style) though the Goths were rather destroyers than builders; I think it should with more reason be called the Saracen style, for these people wanted neither arts nor learning: and after we in the west lost both, we borrowed again from them, out of their Arabic books, what they with great diligence had translated from the Greeks [Report on St Paul’s (exact date unknown, before 1723 – Wren death)][5]

In other place, Wren further asserts his reservation of the attribution of the term Gothic to this certain kind of architecture:

Modern Gothic, as it is called, is deduced from a different quarter; it is distinguished by the lightness of its work, by the excessive boldness of its elevations, and of its sections; by the delicacy, profusion, and extravagant fancy of its ornaments. The pillars of this kind are as slender as those of the ancient Gothic are massive: such productions, so airy, cannot admit the heavy Goths for their author; how can be attributed to them a style of architecture, which was only introduced in the tenth century of our era? several years after the destruction of all those kingdoms which the Goths had raised upon the ruins of the Roman empire, and a time when the very name of Goth was entirely forgotten: from all the marks of the new architecture it can only be attributed to the Moors; or what is the same thing, to the Arabian or Saracens; who have expressed in their architecture the same taste as in their poetry; both the one and the other falsely delicate, crowded with superfluous ornaments, and often very unnatural; the imagination is highly worked up in both; but it is an extravagant imagination; and it has rendered the edifices of the Arabians (we may include the other Orientals) as extraordinary as their thoughts.[6]

While applying the misnomer Gothic to medieval art and architecture in the 16th and 17th centuries was derogatory in nature and intend to denote as ‘barbarian’ all kind of art which possessed a pre-Renaissance no-Italianate appearance, in time of the Gothic revival in the 18th century it ceased to be abusive, and become merely descriptive, designating all medieval art up to the time of the Italian Renaissance.

Only at the beginning of the 19th century, a large section of that period was split off at one end to be labeled Romanesque or Norman, by art historians who wanted to coin a special term to depict the type of architecture prevalent at the 10th-12th centuries which retained many basic features of Roman architectural style (most notably round-headed arches, but also barrel vaults, apses, and acanthus-leaf decoration), although also held many very different characteristics. And thus by this weird process of elimination Gothic came to describe the pointed style which was dominant between the Romanesque and the Renaissance eras.[7]


Leaving aside the claim, made by some scholars, that the terms Visigoths and Ostrogoths were invented by the Romans long after the conflict with the said tribes, I’d like to dwell upon the Wren attribution of the pointed style to the Moors, the Muslims that had ruled Spain between the 8th and 15th Centuries, and suggest that when Vasari referred to the barbaric “Goth”, he may actually referred to the infidel Moors. As for example in the church turned mosque turned church again in Cordova, those Moors apply Muslim architectural elements to the (traditionally considered) Visigoth old church that were left there when the building was turned into a church again when the Moors were forced out of Spain. Furthermore, at the height of the Middle Ages, those foreigner people, that outsider culture where scientifically and technologically way more advanced than the Romans and their civilization, so by deragotorizing them, Vasari actually validate the way he is preaching for, appropriating their status of excellence.

Traditionally the Romans referred to the tribes from Germania (as well as to Huns, Celts, Iberians, Gauls, Goths, Thracians, and all strangers that were not Roman or Greek) as “barbaric”. Some scholars claim that this is where the name of the Berber people of North Africa (who were among the Muslims of Spain) came from. It is strange: all is there and nothing is really there. Looking for a term to distinguish right from wrong, Vasari seems to mix it all up, eventually choosing (maybe quite arbitrary) a term of his liking, with no particular distinct or exact contextual meaning. The same goes as to the term tedesca (German) as the “Gothic” churches were actually mostly French.


Getting back to where it all began, so to speak, a trend is emerging, a pattern that distinguishes the Goth as someone or something who is a stranger to the mainstream culture, a foreigner, an outsider, someone who has its own unique set of values, artistic or otherwise, someone whom the prevalent culture can’t  comprehend or approve as anything else but ugly, wild, acentric, ridiculous, uncouth, awkward, outcast, intimidating and a threat to the right way of doing things, the bella maniera, a threat to the existing order (be it artistic or even religious or social/political), even if this someone or something is long gone, even if it was so designated long after the fact. Maybe it’s just a way of validating the present way. Eventually, tastes may shift, and this counter-culture may no longer be perceived as a threat, but rather as another facet of history.

Weirdly enough, when it come to the term Goth – it seems to reappear time and time again designating yet another totally different counter culture. It would be fascinating to explore the 18th and 19th centuries’ Gothic fiction and the Goth sub-culture of the late 1900s and early 21 century in light of this observation.

So when you say Goth do you mean barbaric, satanic, or better, self?


[1] For elaborate explanation of the linguistic development of the name Goth in various part of Europe, mainly present day Germany and Sweden, pls refer to [the name of Goths – wiki]

[2] English source: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25326/25326.txt.
Ma, per tornare al proposito nostro, uscirono delle mani de’ maestri di que’ tempi quei fantocci e quelle goffezze che nelle cose vecchie ancora oggi appariscono. Il medesimo avvenne dell’architettura; perché bisognando pur fabricare, et essendo smarrita in tutto la forma e il modo buono per gl’artefici morti e per l’opere distrutte e guaste, coloro che si diedero a tale esercizio non edificavano cosa che per ordine o per misura avesse grazia, né disegno, né ragion alcuna. Onde ne vennero a risorgere nuovi architetti, che delle loro barbare nazioni fecero il modo di quella maniera di edifizii, ch’oggi da noi son chiamati tedeschi; i quali facevano alcune cose più tosto a noi moderni ridicole, che a loro lodevoli; finché la miglior forma e alquanto alla buona antica simile trovarono poi i migliori artefici, come si veggono di quella maniera per tutta Italia le più vecchie chiese, e non antiche, che da essi furono edificate, come da Teodorico re d’Italia un palazzo in Ravenna, uno in Pavia, et un altro in Modena pur di maniera barbara, e più tosto ricchi e grandi, che bene intesi o di buona architettura. (https://it.wikisource.org/wiki/Le_vite_de%27_pi%C3%B9_eccellenti_pittori,_scultori_e_architettori_(1568)/Proemio_delle_Vite)

[3] Ibid.
e nondimeno non erano ancora venuti i Gotti e l’altre nazioni barbare e straniere, che distrussono insieme con l’Italia tutte l’arti migliori. (ibid.)

[4] https://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/1870/1/Davis_Fontes68.pdf

[5] Christopher Wren the Junior (1675-1747), Parentalia: or, Memoirs of the family of the Wrens, viz. of Mathew Bishop, printed for T. Osborn; and R. Dodsley, London, 1750, p.297. (quoted from: https://muslimheritage.com/muslim-origin-of-gothic-architecture/)

[6] F. Grose (1731-1791) ed. 1808, Essays on Gothic architecture by the Rev. T. Warton et al., 3rd ed. J. Taylor, at the Architectural Library, London. (quoted from: https://muslimheritage.com/muslim-origin-of-gothic-architecture/)

[7] Andrew Martinedale, Gothic Art, London: Thames and Hudson, 1967, p. 7.

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