Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 18, 2009
Janet T. Marquardt From Martyr to Monument: The Abbey of Cluny as Cultural Patrimony Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. 99 b/w ills. Cloth $69.99 (9781847182128)

For more than eight decades, scholarly interest in the Burgundian abbey of Cluny has focused on the first 250 years of the monastery’s history, from its founding in 910 on the site of what had once been a Roman villa through the reign of its influential twelfth-century abbot Peter the Venerable (d. 1156). It is thus intriguing to find Janet Marquardt focusing instead on aspects of the abbey’s demise and recovery during the restoration of France’s monumental heritage in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She has made an interesting and overdue choice, one that positions Cluny in a newer narrative of Romanesque art.

Marquardt’s study is organized into a chronologically arranged account of the afterlife of the abbey church in the post-Revolutionary period. Six chapters follow an introductory one in which notions of monument, heritage, and patrimony, as well as the theoretical claims that define and attend these issues, are presented. The summary account she gives of Cluny’s early history obscures a key point, however. The legendary foundational story associated with the late eleventh-century rebuilding of the abbey’s church by Hugh of Semur, the revered leader of the Benedictine community, shares qualities with the myth- making properties set forth in modern engagements with the ruined site.

Conceived ostensibly in a dream and unfinished for nearly a hundred years, the abbey church was destroyed in the aftermath of the French Revolution. All that survives above ground is its lofty southwestern transept. Kenneth Conant’s excavations and notional reconstruction of the church in the twentieth century, to which Marquardt devotes nearly half of her text, provides an appropriate bookend to the legend of Cluny’s foundation, a subject she examined in a brief paper thirty years ago (Janet Marquardt, “The Original Significance of the Gunzo Legend at Cluny,” Comitatus IX (1978): 55–62). The American archeologist’s quest for what he believed to be the paradigmatic medieval monastic church envisaged what had never really been. Further on in her book, Marquardt notes the impact that Conant’s reconstruction had on half a century of teaching and scholarship, although she does not undertake a more sustained examination of that important issue. She instead turns her attention to a cursory review of the relationship between Conant’s work and modern practices of memory building.

Knowledge of Cluny’s physical demise is generally assumed in Romanesque studies, but its significance is invariably either overlooked or understudied. When the story of the abbey church’s destruction is told, it is customarily attributed to general anti-clerical violence in the aftermath of the revolutionary government’s decision in 1791 to shut down monasteries and appropriate religious property. Marquardt, noting an early instance in which a group of citizens held off a band of zealots, argues that vandalism was not involved in the destruction of Cluny. Instead, she blames Louis Réau’s popular study for spreading erroneous ideas here and in relation to other sites regarding the destructive activities of various groups in the wake of the Revolution; many defacements were not ill-intended at the outset, whatever their effects (Louis Réau, Histoire du vandalisme: les monuments détruits de l’art français, édition augmentée par Michel Fleury and Guy-Michel Leproux, Paris: Robert Laffont, 1994).

The most pressing issue affecting the loss of medieval buildings went beyond Indifference toward the aesthetic and historic value of the outmoded edifices of the ancien regime; it involved changing economic circumstances in post-Revolutionary France. Marquardt does not adequately explore their contribution to the partitioning and pulling down of church properties such as Cluny, when, in fact, failures to safeguard the abbey accompanied drawn-out negotiations between Paris and the newly realigned provincial council regarding sources of local funding for a range of issues. Officials in the capital hoped that revenue from regional property sales could replace contributions to local governments that had previously been made by both the crown and the church. It was not simply or solely a matter, as Marquardt suggests, of “support[ing] the constitutional clergy who were now promised state salaries after the divorce from Rome” (14). Failures to safeguard the abbey should be understood instead in light of extended negotiations between Paris and the newly realigned post-Revolutionary provincial councils regarding economic matters. Officials in the capital hoped that revenue from regional property sales would replace contributions to local governments that had previously been made by the crown and the church. Thus the partitioning and deterioration of Cluny was not the result of outright hostility or willful neglect; it was rather the consequence of financial necessity, coupled with indifference toward the aesthetic and historic value of the outmoded edifices of the ancien régime.

The seminal event and turning point in Cluny’s post-Revolutionary history was the millennial celebration held in 1910, ostensibly to commemorate William of Aquitaine’s donation of the lands surrounding his Burgundian hunting lodge to abbot Berno for the purpose of establishing a reformed monastery. Marquardt offers comprehensive details of the program for the three-day event that included liturgical processions, theatrical re-enactments, a Congrès organized by the Academy of Mâcon, and visits to local sites. She includes photos of postcards, posters, parades, and program covers, some of which lack sufficient size and clarity to be at all illuminating, and amasses data concerning how many attended the talks (728), how much they were charged to attend (6fr.), what the titles of the papers were, and what costumes participants in the pageantry wore. Her transcription of these factual details from archival records and published works chronicles the ceremonies in the manner of contemporary reportage in local newspapers.

The French historian Dominique Iogna-Prat has convincingly argued that a palpably pro-Church agenda shaped the 1910 celebration throughout, providing the occasion for Catholic France to celebrate its own past, not merely Cluny’s, and position itself in the present (Dominique Iogna-Prat, “Cluny 910–1910 ou l’instrumentalisation de la mémoire des origines,” Revue Mabillon, n.s., 11 = t.72 (2000): 161–85). Marquardt cites his study without engaging its important findings in pursuit of another goal: the desire to establish the moment at which Cluny’s lost grandeur was sufficiently lamented so that the site could become remembered as something grander than it ever was. This is the burden of the title of her book.

As she presents it, no temporal trajectory accompanied the conversion of Cluny from regretted ruin into storied shrine. Cluny was not deliberately sacrificed in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and the notion of the martyrdom of historical monuments initially emerged as a rhetorical trope in France during the First World War. Thus the evocative title of Marquardt’s book misstates its own findings: Cluny came to be seen as a martyred site only after the utility of its monumentalization had been decided upon.

Within a few years of the millennial celebration at Cluny, devastations caused by the war had lengthened the list of ruined monuments and increased France’s need to pay tribute to its past glory. Conant would profit from this new attitude. The last two chapters of Marquardt’s book are devoted to the archeological work Conant carried out at Cluny in the aftermath of the war. The author has previously published a portion of the material in these chapters in French (Janet Marquardt, “Un romantique à la recherche du passé: K. J. Conant à Cluny,” Cahiers de civilization médiévale 48 (2005): 327–340). Comparison of the two versions indicates that Marquardt’s initially positive evaluation of Conant changed in the space of a couple of years. Her examination of the daybooks that Conant maintained while excavating, which are preserved at Cluny, now leads her to question their reliability since Conant appears to have recopied notes and reworked drawings after he left the excavation site. Yet she does not make clear to the reader the differences between her two discussions of what is otherwise very similar material, omitting reference to the earlier article in her bibliography while mentioning it in her preface.

This hundred-page portion of the book has the character of a celebratory monograph, complete with photos of Conant at different stages of his life. However amusing it may be to see him holding his hat, the token of class he invariably wore while being photographed at the excavations, little if any of this is particularly relevant to the issue of Cluny’s re-emergence as a physical or material entity, as this has been discussed in preceding chapters. By dint of hard work, Conant succeeded in ingratiating himself with the French and in making Cluny the focus of Romanesque architectural studies in America for half a century. What we take away from this book is a heightened appreciation of the extent to which wealthy Americans, through financial support of the reconstruction of European monuments in the aftermath of the First World War, helped solidify the foundation for “heritage studies” in France and determined the direction that scholarship on medieval architecture would assume in the United States. Funding that sustained Conant’s work at Cluny over the course of more than a decade was dependent upon his personal association with John Nicholas Brown, the eponymous benefactor of Brown University, as well as one of the prime movers of the Medieval Academy in its early years, in whose fledgling periodical, Speculum, Conant’s reports were initially published.

Marquardt’s account intertwines primary sources rich in local color with a multitude of secondary ones. Throughout her book she situates events on the ground in terms of “larger trends [that] raise broad questions about so many things,” having stated [and states] that the primary goal of her work is “[to] get something out as grist for the mill” (xvi). Thus she puts forth a lot of material related to timely topics without examining it in depth. While her work sheds light on some intriguing and heretofore overlooked moments in Cluny’s modern history, the reader must digest a multitude of unequal claims and sift through at times inadequately documented references, particularly in regard to the dating of depictions of the deteriorating abbey.

This reader wonders what fresh insights into the relationship between politics, religion, and material culture might have been uncovered if the author had more systematically pursued issues generated by specific circumstances at Cluny instead of applying conclusions based on scholarship involving other sites. While the afterlife of the abbey of Cluny and its centerpiece, abbot Hugh’s glorious church, fully merits the attention Marquardt draws to it, the sweeping approach of the book, along with the summarily written overviews that stand in for studied analysis of complex topics, ultimately undermines the work’s scholarly value and its aspirations to authority. Finally, I should alert the reader to the inadequate editing and proofreading, and publicly lament the poor quality of numerous photos including one that is completely invisible (185).

Linda Seidel
Hanna Holborn Gray Professor Emerita, University of Chicago