Sunday, 30 December 2018

The idea of home

Durer, St Jerome in his study, 1514
What a lovely idea, that of home. We all instinctively recognise what is homely and comfortable, but, as Witold Rybczynski points out, “home” and “comfort” are not words often used in architecture courses. If we think of comfort, we often imagine it as the details that architecture leaves out: sofas, table lights, paintings on the wall. Witold Rybczynski, in his book Home: A short history of an idea (1986), begins by describing Ralph Lauren interiors as examples of comfort.

However, Mr Rybczynski also insists at the outset that his book is not a book about interior decoration.  I wondered why he should try to differentiate his text in this way, particularly because of the use of Ralph Lauren as the exemplar of home comfort. In the absence of any other examples, I would see this book as equating home with comfort and with interior design, or, if you want to be more sophisticated, with the idea of interior decoration.

Sadly, the author’s sweeping generalisations and lack of specifics are immediately apparent.  A quarter of the way through the book, I still haven’t found a definition of “home”. Instead, the book provides a whistlestop tour of major domestic improvements, such as the chimney, the water closet, and the layout of houses; but each of the topics is covered only in the briefest outline, none of them is illustrated, and all the topics seem to have been derived from secondary literature.  I don’t mind him providing a sense of anticipation, when he writes of Durer’s engraving of St Jerome in his study (1514) “bookcases had not yet been invented”, but he fails to tell us just when they were invented (and how he can show examples to justify that claim). Considering the same engraving, he tells us “upholstered seating, in which the cushion was an integral part of the seat, did not appear until a hundred years later”.  But here again he fails to complete the story; just when was the sofa invented? Isn’t that one of the fundamental aspects of “comfort”? Topics are introduced and then dropped with bewildering speed, leaving statements such as “The modern fascination with furniture begins in the 17th century”. If this is the case, can he demonstrate it? Can he explain it?

The Durer engraving used as a frontispiece to one of the chapter headings, is instructive – as the only illustration from before the 18th-century, it has to stand for all Rybczynski’s claims about medieval home life. The author uses the Durer engraving as an example, but curiously uses his reading rather than the evidence of his eyes. We see St Jerome seated by himself in a comfortable working space with a dog and a lion contentedly sleeping near his feet. However, the author tells us, this is not an image of comfort; instead, he states sternly “it was unusual for someone in the sixteenth century to have his own room”. It’s irrelevant for this artwork to know if it was unusual or not; we see a solitary man in pensive reflection, and we see comfort. The fact that a “study … was really a room with many uses, all of them public” is neither here nor there; we see solitary comfort. The author spends a page telling us how uncomfortable this room must have been, while we see the opposite.
Where is the author’s definition of “home”? We are told what home is not: “homeliness is not neatness” (p17). Instead, home is equated with “comfort”, although we spend two pages in a leisurely aside about earlier, irrelevant, meanings of comfort, before the current meaning, which Rybczynski states arose in the 18th century. Well, I disagree, because Durer’s 1514 engraving is for me an image of comfort and of homeliness. But not content with insisting that Durer’s image represents the opposite, Mr R continues by arguing that the lack of comfort in medieval lives was so widespread that people living at the time had no idea of “home” and hence no idea of comfort. This was reserved for the bourgeoisie in towns.

Strangely, Rybczynski himself subsequently appears to recognise the homeliness of the Durer image. He refers to (althoug he does not illustrate) a painting by Antonello da Messina of St Jerome in his study, and points out that the Antonello version has none of the intimacy and homeliness of Durer's version. Rybczynski's book raises topics galore on every page, but seems in too much of a hurry to consider what has already been said - in this case, pages 43-44 on Antonello contradict what was said about Durer on pages 18-19.
Antonello da Messina, St Jerome in his study (NG)

The author’s wide-ranging assertions would be justified only by the use of several visual (or textual) examples to illustrate each claim. For example, comfort is equated with the chair, which, we are told was invented by the Egyptians, used by the Greeks and Romans, then forgotten until the 15th century. Instead, the medievals had benches, and benches were not comfortable.  In fact, continues the author, “little importance was attached to … individual pieces of furniture; they were treated more as equipment than as prized personal possessions”.  Yet medieval art is full of objects, such as reliquaries, which clearly had great personal significance for the owner. Even in the Durer engraving, there are cushions visible on the bench. This is explained away: “the seat cushion does offer some padding against the hard, flat wood, but this is not a chair to relax in”.

Perhaps in his enthusiasm to contrast earlier ways of living with the present day, Mr Rybczynski excitedly tells us that, for example, there were over 300 commodes in the palace of Versailles. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really tell us much about comfort. People of the period clearly found it tolerable to use commodes, while we find it unacceptable; it doesn’t mean their lives were any less comfortable than ours, simply that they had different ideas of comfort.

The author equates “privacy” with home, claiming that the lack of privacy in medieval life was revealed by the public nature of the spaces medieval humans occupied. “Only exceptional people – hermits or scholars (like St Jerome) - could shut themselves up alone.” St Jerome might be exceptional, according to Rybczynski, but in Durer’s engraving, he looks to me a very comfortable hermit. I’d choose his solitude any day. 

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