History of gothic part I

What is gothic?
This question can of course not be answered in one sentence. It’s clear that gothic is not only about music, it’s a lifestyle, a certain sensibility. According to the Collins Cobuild English Language Dictonary, the word “gothic” is used in three ways. First of all, ‘a building such as a cathedral that is gothic has a style of architecture that is distinguished by tall pillars, high vaulted ceilings and pointed arches.’ Furthermore, ‘gothic is used to describe stories in which strange, mysterious adventures happen in dark and lonely places such as the ruins of a castle.’ Gothic is also ‘a style of printing or writing in which the letters are very ornate.’ On this website, I use gothic mainly as a collective noun to describe a subculture, with many related musical styles, from gothic to industrial, from electro to dark folk. But let me first start with some origins.

The word ‘gothic’ is very old, and was used from the Renaissance on to signify the art style of the Middle Ages. It was named after the German tribe of the Goths, who once had invaded Italy and so had broken up the Roman Empire. In the 15th century, man hoped to revive the classical age, they had the idea of a rebirth or renaissance. The intervening period was called a Middle Age, and we still use this negative term. Because the Italians blamed the Goths for destructing the Roman Empire, they called the art style of this period Gothic, by which they meant barbaric. Of course this was a black & white view, during the Middle Age beautiful art was made too and there wasn´t a sudden rebirth of all the classical achievements in the Renaissance. And what to think of the technical inventions in architecture in the Middle Age, which made the huge Gothic cathedrals possible, like the Notre-Dame.

But there was more than architecture: “Contrary to popular perception, Gothic style refers to more than cathedral structures. The label applies to art, sculpture, glass works, decorative pieces and illuminated manuscripts from the mid 12th through the early 16th century”(Earthlore Explorations: Gothic Dreams). Religion played an important role in Gothic art, painters and sculptors for instance were less interested in depicting their subjects in a realistic way than in spreading a religious feel. Anyhow, it is clear that the word gothic originally has negative connotations, invented by the people of the Renaissance, who wanted to distinguish themselves from it.

During the Romantic Movement, around 1800, many people felt attracted to the past and a revival of gothic and medieval things came into fashion. Romanticism emerged as a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Emotive, nonrational aspects were central to the movement, and the creative power of the individual. Romantics wanted to escape from the concrete historical situation. They used various ways to achieve that goal: some looked back to the medieval past, some sought it in religion or the supernatural, others tried to find it in Nature. During the Romantic period gothic became associated with the dark, the strange, the bizarre. Many symbols and themes in Romantic art have remarkable similarities wih the present gothic subculture. Romantic and Decadent writers like Byron, Shelley, Baudelaire and Verlaine were interested in the darker realms of human conscience and experience. Sexual obsessions played an important role in Romantic literature, books of that period contain many femmes fatales (“la belle dame sans merci”) and various sinful agonies of delight. To learn about the Romantic erotic sensibility, I advise the classic study “The Romantic Agony” by Mario Praz.

The Romantic spirit was also clear in the visual arts. Painters like Caspar David Friedrich had a preference for dark, desolate landscapes. In architecture, a neo-gothic style was fashionable in the nineteenth century. Especially churches were build with gothic facades, to remind of the Age of Faith.

An example of the taste for the dark and the bizarre is the Gothic Novel, which became fashionable in the 1800’s. It confronted the darker, shadowy side of the self. It also challenged accepted social and intellectual structures of the time. Gothic literature existed of a complex mixture of terror, horror and the mysterious, with action situated in out-of-the-ordinary settings. A typical character in Gothic fiction is the vampire. Examples of gothic literature are Mary Shelley´s “Frankenstein”, the work of Edgar Allan Poe and of course Bram Stoker´s “Dracula”. Stoker took the rather vague and contradictory picture of the vampire that had emerged from the nineteenth-century literature and earlier times and developed a fascinating satisfying, and powerful character whose vampiric life assumed mythic status in popular culture. Contemporary authors who write in that tradition are Anne Rice (“Interview with the Vampire”, with her major vampire character Lestat de Lioncourt) and Poppy Z. Brite (especially “Lost Souls”).