Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 14, 2022
Joseph C. Williams Architecture of Disjuncture: Mediterranean Trade and Cathedral Building in a New Diocese (11th–13th Centuries) Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2020. 150 pp.; 95 b/w ills. Paper €79.00 (9782503581088)

Reading Joseph C. Williams’s Architecture of Disjuncture feels both like stepping back into familiar architectural-historical territory and peering forward to the exhilarating advances heralding the discipline’s future; in this sense, it is very much a product of the current slow but inexorable transitioning of the study of medieval architecture to the digital age. The book is devoted to the meticulous scrutiny of a single building, the Romanesque cathedral of Molfetta, Apulia, Italy, via the implementation of a diverse array of research methodologies ranging from the hands-on examination of the building fabric with the aid of modern technology to the reconsideration of broader patterns of architectural practice in the Mediterranean region during the High Middle Ages. Despite its focus on Molfetta, the volume in question aspires less to a monographic treatment of a typologically intriguing, if relatively modest, Italian church than to the proposal of a new way of looking at the social history of medieval construction (outlined on 106–10). Even though attaining such a lofty goal might have required more extensive discussion in certain places than is to be found in this relatively short study, Williams’s text undoubtedly proves thought provoking and is poised to make a significant contribution to the field.

Building archaeology, digital documentation and visualization techniques (namely, photogrammetry and geographic information systems), and political/social theory are all applied to the study of the “joints” of Molfetta Cathedral’s architecture—that is, to the analysis and interpretation of the physical evidence attesting to the edifice’s long and complex history of redesign and adaptation. Although Apulia between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries was blessed with a flourishing economy based on maritime trade, the new see of Molfetta did not command financial resources commensurate with its architectural ambitions for an imposing mother church. Partly on account of the Norman rulers’ overall lukewarm support and partly due to the irregularity with which lay donations trickled in until the later thirteenth century, the cathedral clergy chose to implement a protracted construction sequence consisting of several “episodes,” between which major changes of plan occasionally occurred. Drawing largely on Marvin Trachtenberg’s Building-in-Time: From Giotto to Alberti and Modern Oblivion (Yale University Press, 2010), the author contrasts this versatile way of episodic building with the views of Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) concerning the inviolability of the architect’s authorial vision, presenting it as a conscious strategy developed by Molfetta’s patrons and builders in response to the difficulties of exploiting the see’s straitened finances to raise a cathedral reflective of its status. Compared to the Albertian ideal, this “architecture of disjuncture” was much more the rule in medieval and early modern construction, when buildings often materialized in fits and starts, allowing for radical design readaptations predicated on changing fashion and taste as well as liturgical, cultic, and other considerations.

At the heart of Williams’s discussion of medieval construction strategies is a substantial appendix laying out his reading of Molfetta Cathedral’s chronology with the help of abundant illustrations and plans. Five major “constructional episodes” have been identified: phase 1 (first half of the twelfth century) consisted of the setting up of a sizable groin-vaulted crypt; phase 2 (ca. 1150–80s) entailed the shortening of the length of the crypt by one bay, the partial erection of the transept walls and those of the east end of the nave on the model of local timber-roofed basilicas, and the carving of various items of architectural sculpture; phase 3 (ca. 1180s–1250) suppressed the crypt and reconfigured the east end to receive a new roofing system of three domes over the central vessel and quadrant vaults over the aisles; phase 4 (second half of the thirteenth century) resulted in the swift completion of the nave up to the level of the bases of the dome squinches; and phase 5 (late thirteenth–early fourteenth century) saw the completion of the middle and western domes, which were constructed in a squinch scheme different from the one originally envisaged. The annotated orthophotographs of the church’s elevations (figs. 19–21) are particularly helpful in distinguishing between all these different phases, the contours of which could have been made even clearer with the addition of a color-coded ground plan (the black-and-white plan in fig. 2 does not indicate the phasing). 

Chapter 1 lays the foundation for the rest of the author’s argument by introducing the two main processes adopted by Molfetta’s builders to achieve the versatility and multiplicity of design and construction solutions necessary to overcome the project’s erratic funding. Both “hybridization,” or the fusion of different building typologies, and “fragmentation,” or the aggregative approach to space and architectural features that undermined the sense of the edifice as a coherent whole, are here regarded as positive values, conducive to a more open-ended conceptualization of the building enterprise. Chapter 2 does much of the heavy lifting in applying these concepts to the cathedral’s chronology by relating in detail how each of the five “constructional episodes” introduced a different vision for the final building, which sometimes clashed with what had come before. The builders seem to have focused on a single episode at a time, without consideration of the overall project; according to Williams, phases 1–3, with their oversized crypt and grand, towered east end, sought above all—even at the risk of successive revisions delaying the progress of construction—to impress on viewers the bishopric’s power and prestige, whereas phases 4–5 (undertaken at a time when more abundant funds were available) aimed at the chantier’s rapid completion. The author’s thoughtful analysis raises a few pertinent questions, not the least of which is who we imagine the audience for phases 1–3 to have been. The arguments about the rhetorical uses of incompletion would have been strengthened by a lengthier discussion of what we know of the topography of Molfetta Cathedral’s surrounding area and the social/professional groups and individuals who would have had visual and/or physical access to the site during the church’s construction. Furthermore, although deliberately stalling construction might have made sense as a promotional and fund-raising strategy in the case of the nave, side chapels, and so on, one tends to think that finishing the east end, and especially the choir, would have been top priority for the clergy, who would presumably have been eager to move from their (conjectural) temporary choir in the crypt to a more dignified space above.

Chapter 3 engages with what may well be the book’s most stimulating and eye-opening proposal: namely, the versatility in design and construction achieved through the division of labor at Apulian Romanesque sites. Williams astutely identifies specialists in planning, pier design, and vault construction working across multiple buildings in the wider region, possibly under the direction of each site’s master mason (protomagister). The coordination of these three mutually compatible areas of expertise resulted in the creation of a nearly kaleidoscopic variety of architectural solutions from the reshuffling of a finite number of forms and techniques. In this sense, Molfetta Cathedral represented a unique combination of practices, types, and motifs, the diverse geographic origins of which are the subject of chapter 4. The author convincingly argues that the movement of human capital via commercial and professional travel routes (including the networks of recruitment for the Latin Church) functioned as the primary mechanism for the transmission of both architectural forms and building techniques over a range of distances. This movement is mostly deduced from the study of the material evidence, since the documentary record, already poor, has dwindled even further: Eudes de Montreuil, evoked here as an example of a thirteenth-century foundation planner having worked in Latin Syria (94), is now known never to have set foot in the East. (For more on this issue, see, Yves Gallet, “Pierre de Montreuil, architecte de la Sainte-Chapelle? Généalogie d’une erreur,” in Regards croisés sur le monument médiéval: Mélanges offerts à Claude Andrault-Schmitt, ed. Marcello Angheben (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 183–99, at 188–89, with earlier literature.)

In his conclusions, the author broaches the role of the Mediterranean in shaping the form and construction history of Molfetta Cathedral, as foreshadowed in the book’s title. Following Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (Harper and Row, 1972) and Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Blackwell, 2000), he views the Mediterranean as a set of interconnected, overlapping nodes and networks facilitating the sharing of ideas and expertise between different regions. Yet the discussion of hybridization, fragmentation, and interconnectivity as broader Mediterranean building strategies could have been developed further. As it stands, only the evidence of the Cairo Geniza documents and the case of the Islamic ornamental motif known as muqarnas are cited here as examples of such phenomena outside Italy (105–6); moreover, the Iberian Peninsula and the Eastern Mediterranean are only very briefly mentioned in the book. Given the obvious interest of the “architecture of disjuncture” both as an interpretative paradigm and as a potential tool in current architectural education (110–14), this reader very much hopes that the author will have the opportunity to revisit his topic in the future with a view to testing his methodology on other Mediterranean sites of the High and late Middle Ages.

Michalis Olympios
Department of History and Archaeology/Archaeological Research Unit, University of Cyprus