1The first editors gave this title (which indeed corresponds to the central idea) to an autograph text which is without one, and presents all the characteristics of a working manuscript that remained unfinished. Long preserved at La Brède, it was first published appended to the Voyages, in 1896. We suppose that Montesquieu wrote it in 1734 (one sheet of reading notes joined with it is in the hand of secretary E, 1734-1739). Montesquieu’s inspiration is directly tied to ideas he had exposed in Florence la Galerie du Grand-Duc (notes taken during his visits to the future Uffizi museum and subsequently reorganized) and takes a few passages directly from it (OC, t. X, p. 537 ; p. 546 et 590).
2“The gothic manner is not the manner of any particular people, it is the manner of the birth and end of art.” (“La manière gothique n’est la manière d’aucun peuple particulier, c’est la manière de la naissance et de la fin de l’art.”) This thesis, expressed right at the start, breaks with the common opinion and the accepted meaning of the word “gothic”: in the manner of the Goths, a synonym of barbarism and bad taste.
3Gothic manner in Montesquieu means ignorance of design, which gives to artistic productions movement and grace, in opposition to the stiffness, hardness, and symmetry we observe in the beginnings and in periods of decadence. Hence a vision of the evolution of the arts, dominated by the model of Greek excellence. The Greeks rapidly achieved the perfection of art, they were imitated by the Romans, they “opened the mind” of the painters and sculptors of the Renaissance. With the same rapidity they invented almost all the genres in poetry. Montesquieu impresses a striking movement on the history of art: “It is not the length of time that prepares the arts. They arise all at once from a certain circumstance.” (“Ce n’est pas la longueur du temps qui prépare les arts. Ils naissent tout à coup d’une certaine circonstance.”)
4What is this “circumstance”? Montesquieu finds it by raising an objection to himself: why did the Egyptians, so knowledgeable in design, “stop” at the hardness of the “gothic manner”? Because the religious laws imposed on them an absolute invariability of customs and arts. The Greeks on the contrary were not constrained by their religion. They saw and imitated the nude. The cult of images saved the arts in the Christian world.
5Even if a passage in the Essay on Taste (“On contrasts”) sends an echo of this text, Montesquieu neither reutilized nor exploited elsewhere the ideas he thus jotted down upon returning from his journey to Italy. At least he was trying out a method of thinking, based on placing into relation or into interference orders of facts and of causality that would prove its fertility elsewhere.
BnF n. a. fr. 15465, f. 14-28.
Voyages, t. II (1896), p. 367-375.
OC, t. IX, p. 83-102 (ed. Pierre Rétat).