From fairytale settings to weekend getaways, castles occupy a romantic pinnacle in the minds of westerners who fill their historic halls with images of luxury, feudal kings and queens, and outlandish decadence. But strip away the fantasy, and their origin story is an altogether darker affair, one borne from the age of fragility, warfare and political flux.
In Stone Age: Ancient Castles of Europe – published via Taschen – Frédéric Chaubin casts Europe’s medieval fortifications in a starring role. The photographer and Citizen K editor-in-chief traversed the continent capturing over 200 ancient stone castles. Through his evocative imagery, Chaubin records the rich architectural details of these impressive structures, and more rarely, the ephemeral nature of their atmospheres.
Chaubin takes us inside his architectural love affair with these buildings and explains how their influence has cast a shadow across time from the age of the Crusades to Corbusier.
Frédéric Chaubin: The two collections are both about monumental and anachronic architecture. Even if medieval architecture seems more familiar to us, both categories present the same kind of visual oddity. Also, this primitive medieval architecture, with its elementary shapes and massive volumes, seems to foreshadow the 20th-century modernist principles. More than anywhere else, in an ancient fortified castle, form follows function.
Using Stone Age as a title was a way of emphasising what we owe to this architecture. The idea was also to expand the prospection beyond borders in order to connect with the relevant geopolitical frames, as I did it previously with the late Soviet architecture. At the heart of the Middle Ages, our current borders were not settled. Throughout Europe, powers and monarchies were overlapping each other. I had to link together the different parts of this cradle of ours in order to show the similarity and diversity of the heritage we share.
How much did you know about European medieval history before you embarked upon your project? And how has this ‘architecture first’ perspective shaped your understanding of this tumultuous 400-year period?
I didn’t know much about medieval architecture and, to be honest, had little interest in a topic that sounded mundane at first. But then, starting to investigate, I figured out how rich the theme was, opening doors on countless fields from architecture to politics and anthropology. The most astonishing part of it was to discover how much the lines were blurred in this medieval era of disruption. Basically, the only way to survive in this unstable and hostile background was to [plant roots] by building up stone shelters. And, even more surprising, throughout this chaotic world, the primitive Europeans were travelling intensively. As an example, the Edwardian Welsh castles were built in the 13th century by James of St George (Jacques de Saint-Georges), a skilled Savoyard known for having previously built the Chillon castle on the Leman shoreline.
Is it fair to say that stone castles were born from the age of warfare rather than the aspirational pursuit of luxury? Can the two be separated?
Stone castles are already a step forward compared to the previous wooden structures. The further evolution of their patterns and framework is mostly an adaptation to the progress of weaponry and rules of war. In other words, in the medieval context, power is much more connected to strength than to luxury. Even if castles may be massive in order to impress, the real care of appearances starts rather late with the Gothic architecture and eventually blossoms up at the turn of the Renaissance.
Function shaped the form of Europe’s castle, but there are decorative nuances and regional/national differences among the 200+ buildings you visited. Can you talk us through some of the significant differences you learned; and describe some of the decorative details you chose to highlight?
You may clearly notice local differences arising from the type of material used or specific types of stone available in the area. Then this diversity of cladding will be combined with the variety of shapes derived from the topography. A castle was designed in accordance with the landscape. Besides pure functionality, you will also find local vernacular patterns, even if styling was not the major concern, whose changes were following the fluctuations of power, interacting with other cultural influences and eventually giving birth to new shapes. Of course, there was complexity. One of the outstanding decorative details can be found in the crenellations. Their different shapes, in southern Europe and Italy, would reveal to which clan the owner of the castle was belonging.
As a photographer, are you more drawn to capturing the castles that have endured (through preservation or adaptive reuse for new roles) or those that have fallen into romantic disrepair?
As a photographer, I care about moods as well as shapes. I am trying to achieve what I call ‘narrative photography’. I’m using the background to frame the building with an atmosphere. From experience, I know that it’s difficult to make a successful picture of ruins unless you have an exceptional light. I also know that a castle that is restored is a building on which you have erased the past and by doing so wiped the spell out. This is what probably makes such a topic so challenging.
My preference goes to the cyclopean ones, with minimalist shapes that look like mineral extrusions coming out from the rock. The purest and most dramatic ones.