Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

In Search of the Origin of the Gothic: Thomas Pitt's Travel in Spain in 1760 *

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

In Search of the Origin of the Gothic: Thomas Pitt's Travel in Spain in 1760 *

Article excerpt

Among the many travellers who toured Spain in the eighteenth century, there is one whose visit has gone unnoticed in the periegetic literature but who is of great interest: Thomas Pitt, First Baron Camelford (fig.1), who visited the Iberian Peninsula in 1760.1 His impressions were recorded in a manuscript account, kept at The British Library, under the title of Observations in a Tour to Portugal & Spain, 1760, by John Earl of Strathmore & Thomas Pitt, Esq. (MSS Add 5845, 217-287/111v-146v).2 This document has remained practically unknown in Spain, although not in the English speaking world and Portugal.3 Nevertheless, the published information about this manuscript is scant and limited to the Portuguese part of the travel. Furthermore, these studies overlook some of its most relevant merits, which can only be evaluated by examining the manuscript as a whole and within a wider context. Pitt's observations are extraordinary for many reasons, but perhaps what makes them unique is the unusual attention that he pays to medieval architecture. In this regard, Pitt has no parallel among the travellers who toured Spain in those years, regardless of their nationality, be it British, French, Spanish or any other. Although it would be easy to fall into the temptation of interpreting this singularity as an extemporaneous caprice of an eccentric personality, this was definitely not the case. His observations, far from being an isolated phenomenon, were, on the contrary, in perfect harmony with the trends of the artistic and scholarly avant-garde. Moreover, they are an exceptional document about the most advanced theories current at the time on medieval architecture and, more specifically, those relative to the origin of the Gothic style. Within this frame of reference, Pitt's observations gain even more interest because they illustrate a hardly known chapter in the past reception of Spanish medieval architecture. Namely, she became the focus of attention due to the possibility, defended by many, that Spain could have been the birthplace of the Gothic. This theory was highly popular in Europe for over two centuries and, paradoxically, has hardly found any echo in Spain, then or now.4 The fact that the thesis is erroneous should not detract from its interest, especially if we consider it from the perspective of art reception, since it not only drew considerable attention to the architecture of the Iberian Peninsula, but it also established numerous criteria for future discussions. Within this process, Pitt's manuscript plays several roles: 1) as a decisive proof of the currency of the theory of a Spanish origin of the Gothic; 2) as a valuable source of information about the cultural archetypes that were conditioning the historiography of architecture at that time; 3) and also, unexpectedly, as a powerful agent of opinion, whose repercussions for the understanding of the Gothic in general, and of Spanish medieval architecture in particular, were greater than one would have expected.

The extraordinary character of the manuscript begins with its author and his impeccable pedigree, which turns him into the most illustrious traveller who made a private visit to Spain in the eighteenth century. 5 Born into the heart of the British political aristocracy, he was the head of the Pitt family and first degree relative of the Grenville, Lyttelton and Temple families, all of them well-known in British history. Nothing less than four close relatives were in charge of the government of the State on six different occasions, and even Thomas was offered such a position, although he declined in the end.6 His political career pales in comparison to those of his uncles and cousins, but even so, it was punctuated with high responsibilities that earned him some notoriety. In any case, no other traveller could boast - either of themselves or of their families - having played such an eminent role in national history. Moving on to other issues, his privileged social status determined a specific cultural background and interests, which explain, to some degree, the unique character of his travel. …

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