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How Art Styles Got Their Names – Gothic: A Medieval Style with a Modern – and Inaccurate – Name

The first recorded or preserved appearance of the term “Gothic”, applied to architecture, is to be found in none other than Raphael’s writings, in a letter from 1519 (although the letter was possibly drafted for him by Baldassare Castiglione according to the book Renaissance Rome by Peter Partner, page 179). However, the famous painter, at the time writing in his capacity of surveyor of Roman monuments, applied this term quite correctly, to architecture built in the period when Goths really did roam the country, i.e. in the 5th and 6th centuries – not to the much later period that corresponds to the “Gothic” era as we conceive of it today.

Gothic: a Renaissance Invention

It was Giorgio Vasari – not only a solid craftsman in the field of painting and architecture (his most conspicuous work is perhaps the building of the Uffizi in Florence) and important organiser of artistic life in Florence, but also a famous biographer (and an even more famous gossiper) of Italian artists – who in his work On Technique, published in 1550, used the term “Gothic” for the style of building, which he calls “German”, with pointed arches (introduced in Europe in the 12th century). Thus, his phrase, “this manner was invented by the Goths”, is historically important, as it is the earliest phrase that introduces this term in the sense we know it today

And this hopelessly anachronistic term, “Gothic”, he clearly used in a pejorative sense, to denote what he saw as “barbarous” and graceless. (Otherwise, his insult of choice was “German”. In Vasari’s and his contemporaries’ parlance, germanico or tedesco – both signifying “German”, but really meaning anything or anyone north of the Alps – is synonymous with everything and anything horrid, ugly, “barbaric”.)

Why Did the Term Stick?

Perhaps precisely because of Vasari’s notoriously passionate tone (which often tends to make more of an impression than cool and objective writing); and being a prolific writer on art and artists, his works were much read, even centuries later. Anyway, this term was later picked up by French authors of the “Baroque” era, including Molière, who wrote of medieval sculpture and architecture: The besotted taste of Gothic monuments, / These odious monsters of ignorant centuries, / Which the torrents of barbary spewed forth. (Excerpted from his poem La Gloire du Val-de-Grâce, 1669.)

Tastes change, yes; it is only natural. The only major difference between yesterday’s fashions and today’s aesthetic perceptions is perhaps the notably pluralistic aesthetic approach characteristic of our days. Today, “Gothic” art is admired and beloved. (And so is Molière.)

The Original Name of “Gothic”

But how was “Gothic” art called before Vasari? Or, to put it differently, what would have the architects building in the “Gothic” era called their own work?

Since most of those commenting on it were highly knowledgeable in the topics they covered, they used mostly the Latin term opus Francigenum – “French work”, which is correct insofar it was in France where this style originated and whence it spread – assuming many local variants – across Europe. And that is probably how the builders themselves would have called it… if they had the time or the inclination for divagations on terminology.