Freemasonry & the Enlightenment: Architecture, Symbols, & Influences

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Freemasonry & the Enlightenment: Architecture, Symbols, & Influences. By James Stevens Curl. Historical Publications, 384pp, Pounds 45.00. ISBN 9781905286454. Published 19 September 2011

In the small but very active international network of historians of Freemasonry, James Stevens Curl is an eminence grise. His beautiful publications on history and architecture are manifold, and Freemasonry has a distinct place in his oeuvre.

Freemasonry & the Enlightenment: Architecture, Symbols, & Influences is an enriched and expanded development of an earlier work by the author, this book being prefaced by that other eminent British historian of Freemasonry, Andrew Prescott. After an elaborate and exceedingly up-to- date introduction to the complex history of the genesis and first steps of the organisation, Curl considers Masonic influence in iconography, architecture, garden design, tombs and music. His thesis is that the influence of the order has been grossly underestimated and that Masonic lore holds a considerable place in the buildings and imagery of the 18th and 19th centuries, both in Britain and on the Continent (with its profoundly different Freemasonry).

Obviously, lodge buildings themselves are treated extensively - for example, the gradual development of the colossus of Great Queen Street in London - but Curl also considers the Masonic element of constructions that have no formal use by the Craft. A passionate lover of classical buildings, Curl holds post-1945 architecture in low esteem. Whether dismissing it tongue in cheek or with overt contempt, the author rejects its lack of references, meaning and symbolism. He yearns for older models where meaningfulness was at the centre of a humane art of building, Masonic meaning being an important part of that. I am not quite sure that all of today's architect-Freemasons would readily agree with the whole of the author's argument.

But whatever one thinks of his aesthetical (and even ethical) appreciations, Curl makes an important point when he stresses the richness of allusion and symbolism in the classical architecture he cherishes. …