The new awareness of historical specificity emerging around 1800 entailed an increasing recognition of the geographical and chronological contingency of human culture and sparked new questions regarding historical development. When the past could no longer be seen as stable, uniform and universal, it seemed all the more urgent to understand the nature and causes of historical change.
PriArc’s Ghent team studies how 18th and early 19th century historians, philosophers and publicists viewed the role of printing in bringing about and sustaining historical change. We focus particularly on how architecture was used to lend credibility to notions of historical development, and how historiography could be used to legitimize developments within architecture itself.
Our hypothesis is that historical enquiry around 1800 considered architecture and print culture as closely related practices, in which the architectural monument constituted a privileged aid in understanding the people and customs of the past. Architecture, in other words, was seen as a seismograph registering processes of historical change, while printing – seen as the quintessential modern invention without precedent in the classical tradition – was cast (or rejected) as one, if not the main agent in bringing about such change and sustaining its dynamics. Architecture and printing could thus be viewed as competing or mutually sustaining media of communication, one speaking locally but with the gravitas bestowed by precious materiality, the other ubiquitous yet fragile. At a time when popular and specialized publications made available an increasingly global corpus of historical architecture, this reciprocity between architecture and print culture was a powerful conceptual tool for narrating the past.
This PriArc subproject is based at Ghent University and led by professor Maarten Delbeke. The Ghent team also encompasses PhD student Ben Vandenput.