I was lucky enough to spend a long weekend in autumnal Paris last month with some of my family. As we mooched about our favourite places, we inevitably came to the Isle de Paris and the grand old building of Notre-Dame. Who can forget the night in April 2019 when Paris and the world watched in horror as fire ripped through the ancient cathedral and threatened to destroy a building that has withstood the vagaries of time and man. The rebuilding of Notre-Dame has become a fascinating engineering and emotional endeavour. It was fascinating to learn that this Paris landmark was not always so beloved of Parisians two hundred years ago.
The cathedral is now surrounded by hoardings and the most enormous crane which dominates the skyline for miles around. The restoration is a huge tourist attraction. The scarring at the heart of what was ancient Paris is a timely reminder if ever one was needed, about the precious and precarious nature of our built heritage. The fire destroyed the famous wooden ceiling known as ‘la foret’ and sent the spire crashing through to the vaults below. It has taken two and half years to stabilise the building. Burnt and entangled scaffolding and hundreds of tonnes of lead have been removed. Amid this devastation small miracles happened. Since work was taking place on the Spire (built by architect Eugene Violett-le-Duc in 1859) when the fire broke out, the statues of the twelve apostles and the four New Testament evangelists had been removed only a few days before. They have been saved and the stained-glass windows withstood the heat and remained unscathed.
The hoardings screening off Notre-Dame are being used to tell the story of the rescue and planned renovation of the building in fascinating detail. Photos are displayed of the devastation within and detail the forensic (and potentially poisonous) clean up. Above the hoardings the temporary stabilising wooden beams can be seen where the roof once capped the buttresses. Debate raged early on about how Notre Dame was to be restored and was won by the traditionalists. The last restoration of Notre Dame took place in the 19th century when neglect and indifference not fire threatened to destroy it. Until Victor Hugo forced Notre-Dame back into Parisian sensibilities she had sunk from grace and the city had fallen out of love with her. Though she has been called the birth certificate of French architecture, the renaissance architect and art historian Vasari condemned her French mediaeval style as barbaric and first coined the term ‘gothic’ after ancient German tribes. The first spire which was built between 1220 and 1230 was removed in the late 18th century when it became dangerous and Notre-Dame remained unloved and neglected. Hugo wrote Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) in a declaration of war on those who would demolish her. The heroes of the novel were outcasts Quasimodo and Esmerelda and the beauty and artistry of the mediaeval building herself. Hugo brought Notre Dame back to life and into the hearts of Parisians and the great restoration of the mid 19th century began and finished as she was crowned by Le Duc’s spire.
Notre- Dame is scheduled to be reopened for the Paris Olympics in 2024 as Paris and hordes of tourists continue to love and watch over her.