Roman revenge and gothic revival

An introduction to the goths

Being gothic seems to be a common thing. We have gothic and neo-gothic architecture; gothic fonts; gothic literature and even in my youth a Goth post-punk music sub-culture.

I lived in London in the mid to late 1980s. I was persuaded to go out one Friday night, straight after work with some younger people I knew. At the time I was working as a schoolteacher and I headed off to Camden in my tweed jacket and bow-tie.

We ended up at a club in Camden Town where the dress code was as far away from tweed jacket as is possible. Everyone was dressed in black—-black leather; black pvc; black denim—these were Goths. There was a famous London Goth night club at that time called the Bat Cave but I don’t think that was the place.

Post-punk fashion

Goth was a post-punk music and fashion scene that combined punk and new romanticism that had emerged in London. We didn’t last long at the club and I persuaded my friends to head to the Camden Lock instead, much more eclectic in its mix of people—rastafarians, folksters, rock and rollers. My tweed jacket was just another quirky costume in an eclectic crowd.

However, I have been introduced to the real Goths a long time before this, in history lessons. The Goths and Vandals rose up in eastern Europe and eventually sacked Rome in 410 AD, contributing to the end of the Roman Empire. Goths were Germanic tribes and in simple terms could be categorised as the Visigoths, the goths of the west and Ostrogoths, the goths of the east (there were other less known Goths).

The Goths by association with the Vandals are portrayed in history as the worst sort of barbarian. When they captured Rome they were said to have destroyed all the public buildings without apparent reason. Hence, we get the word vandal. However, there is no evidence that this wanton destruction really happened. Vandal was the tribe’s name for itself (in Old English Wendlas) and probably meant wanderer. The original meaning of Goth is of uncertain origin, it was Gota, in Old English.

The creation of gothic

The Renaissance occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries. The increasingly wealthy merchant city states of Italy gave a massive boost to the arts in music, literature, painting, sculpture and architecture. This new age was firmly centred in Italy.

So, after what seems to be a thousand years of brooding, the Italians decided all that had come before the Rennaissance that was dark, clumsy and barbarian would be known as Gothic and all that was now bright and sophisticated would be a rebirth of classical Rome (neo-classicism).

Gothic architecture

What we know as Gothic architecture is represented by the great medieval cathedrals of Europe, Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle in Paris, Canterbury Cathedral and others at Exeter, Bath and Wells. However, this form of architecture was known at the time as opus Francigenum, that is French work. The English developed their own parallel Gothic style which was known as English Perpendicular; examples include Gloucester Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

There are many other great Gothic cathedrals all over western Europe. The ones I have mentioned (and many, many more) I have visited bringing me many hours of sublime pleasure. With their fine masonry, towering spires, wooden panelling, the high vaulted ceilings and the beautiful stained glass windows, they are a pinnacle of architectural accomplishment. And yet the Italians with their nostalgic return to the Roman style decided that these magnificent buildings were the equivalent of the work of barbarian Goths (i.e. western Europe) compared to the glories of Roman architecture. Thus the Italians championed a classical revival—neo-classicism.

Gothic script

Blackletter font The script style more correctly known as Blackletter also suffered the same fate at the hands of the unforgiving Renaissance Italians. Believing blackletter was invented by the Lombards (another barbarian group) that had invaded Italy in the 6th century, it was give the name Gothic script, although it has nothing to do with the Goths.

However, the Italians rather made fools of themselves. After denigrating Blackletter they instead adopted Carolingian minuscule. It was a script they mistakenly called littera antiqua, i.e. “the ancient letter” in the belief that it was used by their Roman forebears.

However, Carolingian minuscule was also a “barbarian” font having been invented in the reign of Charlemagne who ruled western Europe in the 8th century. (n.b. Carolingian is the dynastic name of the descendants of Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandfather—it is derived from medieval Latin Carolus meaning Charles). Blackletter script had been developed from Carolingian minuscule.

The Age of Reason

Moving on a few centuries we come to another major change in western thinking—the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason. It was an intellectual and philosophical movement originating in Britain and taking root in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The English Civil Wars caused a reappraisal of the structure of society and its politics. The idea of autocratic rule coming from the classical Greek and Roman models was replaced with a belief in personal freedom and the rights of the individual.

Scientific experimentation challenged superstition. Manufacturing of telescopes, microscopes, barometers, air pumps and thermometers increased significantly. The church felt under threat from an increasingly secular society. The gothic novel emerged In this environment with its changing and uncertain new ideas about where mankind sat in the world.

The Gothic novel

A gothic novel is broadly defined as a dark story combining elements of horror and romanticism. They were called Gothic because they were gloomy and had pseudo-medieval settings. Their plots are full of supernatural events, curses or prophecies and mystery. They are highly dramatic, intensely emotional as damsels in distress are pursued by supernatural creatures (i.e. ghosts, vampires, giants, monsters) through decaying castles or monasteries full of secret, subterranean passages, hidden panels and trapdoors. Ultimately the damsel is rescued by the hero.

Horace Walpole‘s The Castle of Otranto (1764) is considered one of the earliest Gothic novels. Its main character, Lord Manfred, seems to be the victim of a family curse when a stone helmet falls and kills his son on his wedding day—it sets off a series of curses and incidents.

The heyday of the gothic novel was the 1790s but the best known ones are later. Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley; Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker; and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson are Gothic novels but introduce a level of existential mystery.

The Gothic revival

The yo-yoing between Roman classicism and western European medievalism eventually lead to the Gothic Revival in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The high Anglican and Catholic churches feeling threatened by evangelical protestantism turned to architecture to reassert themselves. The neo-Gothic style sought to revive spiritual and traditional values.

One of its most famous proponents is Augustus Putin. He designed the Palace of Westminster (Britain’s parliament building) and its famous tower that houses Big Ben.

Creating a Gothic paradise

Neo-gothic architecture in Australia is also strongly linked to Pugin. He didn’t visit Australia but was commissioned to design quite a few churches in the mid-nineteenth century (not all of which survive). He was friends with Robert William Willson who left England in 1844 to become the first Catholic bishop of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and John Bede Polding, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney.

Willson brought with him an important collection of Pugin designed ecclesiastical material that included several tombs, two complete altars, a font, tiles, embroidered silk vestments, exquisite metalwork and three models of small churches.

Pugin provided designs for quite a few churches in Australia. St Stephen’s Chapel, now in the cathedral grounds in Elizabeth Street, Brisbane, was built to a design of Pugin and St Francis Xavier’s in Berrima, NSW is perhaps the best example in Australia. Also St. Paul’s, Oatlands and St. Patrick’s, Colebrook in Tasmania are fine examples.

Pugin in the Antipodes

Brian Andrews, the Australian historian who curated: “Creating a Gothic Paradise: Pugin at the Antipodes,” a travelling Pugin exhibition in 2003 said:

“There is not a city, town or village in Australia that does not display some evidence of the impact of Pugin and the Gothic Revival, from tiny wooden churches with pointed windows and doors up to the magnificent St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.”

The barbarian Goths have proven themselves remarkably influential across time—from their sacking of Rome in 410 AD to the building of churches in their name in Van Diemans Land in the 1850s.