After listening to architect and rock climber Emily Whiting talk about gothic architecture, which I love, I took a look at her website and list of publications. They include the intriguing “Digital Reconstruction” and “4D Presentation through Time,” the animated movie “Portals,” which allows the visitor to wander among monuments and statues and fly inside Renaissance paintings. In “Detailed 3D Modeling of Castles,” she and collaborators digitally documented heritage sites. Rabelais was grosser, but Emily is a far better builder.
I think Emily has a special fondness for ecclesiastical architecture, just as I do, so I wondered what she might think about the fictional “Abbey of Theleme.” The tale is part of the series of stories collectively called “Gargantua,” by Francois Rabelais, the 16th-century satirical writer of the wild, grotesque, and bawdy. And though my ruminations started with the gaudy architecture of Theleme, I was lured off topic when I read about the gate leading into it. Upon the gate was inscribed a list of the kinds of people allowed inside and, most interestingly, the kinds of people barred from entry (vile bigots, hypocrites, externally devoted apes, base snites, puffed-up, wry-necked beasts, Ostrogoths, forerunners of baboons, dissembled varlets, seeming-sancts, slipshod caffards, and fat chuffcats)!
I love the lunatic lyricism of the “keep out!” list, and I’m intrigued by the notion of using architecture as a satirical tool, as Rabelais did in the intentionally tacky abbey he created. The monastic institutions of old upheld hospitality as a virtue and often served as halfway houses for vagabonds, but Rabelais, for complex religio-political reasons, made the monk proprietors of the Abbey of Theleme snooty and particular about their guests.
Architecturally, the Abbey of Theleme was designed as the ultimate opposite of the monasteries of the day. It was built in “a figure hexagonal” and from each corner arose “a great round tower of threescore foot (sic) in diameter.” These towers were “all of a like form and bigness. Upon the north side…was situated the tower called Arctic….Every tower was distant from the other the space of three hundred and twelve paces. The whole edifice was everywhere six stories high.” Now that would have made an interesting climb for Emily—if the place could have stood at all. Ultimately, I suspect Rabelais didn’t know as much as Emily does about sound architectural principles!