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April 2022

Vol. 164 / No. 1429

Notre-Dame three years on

This month marks the third anniversary of the fire that took hold of Notre-Dame, Paris, on the night of 15th–16th April 2019, probably the result of an electrical fault. Would the shock of seeing flames rising through the cathedral be as traumatic if it happened now, after two years of the covid-19 pandemic and the horror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine?[1] It has been a testing time for cultural heritage. Violent storms on Australia’s east coast at the end of February caused widespread damage; at Lismore Regional Gallery, New South Wales, flood waters reached the ceiling of the first-floor galleries. At least Notre-Dame’s status as a national symbol as well as a World Heritage Site meant that financial and practical support on an unprecedented scale were promised within only a few hours of the fire being extinguished. The extent of the damage was summarised in an article in this Magazine in August 2019.1 The principal losses were the thirteenth-century roof and its flèche, designed by Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and erected in 1859 as part of his restoration of Notre-Dame. Although the building is standing, with the exception of some of the cells of the vaults and the crossing vault, which were destroyed by falling timbers, its structure was weakened by the heat of the flames (which reached 800–1200 degrees celsius) and the water used to extinguish them. The cathedral’s contents – the liturgical furnishings, reliquaries and works of art, some 2,000 objects in all – were saved. The restoration has been hampered by pollution caused by toxic lead dust, a result of the lead covering of the roofs having melted. The teams working on site have to wear special protective clothing, including boots, gloves and a mask with an air pump (Fig.2). There is currently no access for scholars, or any other members of the public.

The major battles surrounding the future of the cathedral, as highlighted in our 2019 article, have largely been won. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, President Emmanuel Macron declared that the restoration would be completed by 2024 – in time for the Paris Olympic Games – and that an international competition would be held for a ‘modern architectural gesture’ to replace Viollet-le-Duc’s flèche. Although the cathedral’s chief architect, Philippe Villeneuve, and the association Les Scientifiques pour Notre-Dame, formed by a group of young scholars, including Arnaud Ybert, Maxime L’Héritier, Olivier de Châlus and Philippe Bernardi, together with another 1,170 signatories, immediately published an open letter in Le Figaro warning that such an intervention would contravene the Charters of Venice of 1964 and of Krakow of 2000 and endanger Notre-Dame’s position as a World Heritage Site, Macron did not abandon the idea until July 2020. It has now been agreed that the flèche should be rebuilt as it was. The Commission nationale du patrimoine et de l’architecture has approved a plan to rebuild the roof with a wooden structure, as before, made by a semi-industrial process. However, the five-year time scale remains in place, although it seems increasingly likely that the definition of ‘completion’ of the restoration will be stretched to mean only that the building will be at least partly back in use by 2024.

Phase one of the restoration, securing the building, has now been achieved. The debris that fell to the floor has been removed, a task that initially, while the vault was unsecured, was done by robots. These remains have been sifted and analysed. Centering and frames have been erected to secure the windows; the vault’s ribs and transverse arches have been secured; and the stained glass, with the exception of the three rose windows, has been removed for repair. The interior is now fully scaffolded, a striking sight (Fig.1).

Phase two, the detailed analysis of the fabric and diagnosis of the damage, has also concluded. This work has been supported by the Service des Monuments Historiques and the chantier scientifique, a commission of experts that dates back to June 2019. The chantier scientifique is composed of nine divisions, each researching a specific aspect of the work: wood; stone; metal; glass; engineering; decoration; acoustics; the public response to the fire; and digital data. Phase three, the process of repair, is now getting under way: it will be carried out by private contractors employed by the Établissement public Notre-Dame (EPND), the administrative body in charge of the restoration.

Notre-Dame had not been the subject of a technical examination since the 1980s, when the cathedral was scaffolded for cleaning. One result was an analysis of the construction campaigns in an article by Caroline Bruzelius that has been the basis for all subsequent scholarship on the cathedral.[1] Discoveries are being made – for example, that the vault cells in the choir are only 15–20 centimetres thick; by comparison the vaults of Sens Cathedral are around 35 centimetres thick. Yves Gallet, who is in charge of the stone division of the chantier scientifique, has concluded that by thinning the vaults the architect of Notre-Dame was able to achieve greater height. An archaeological excavation of the floor of the crossing in advance of replacing the roof has discovered fragments of the thirteenth-century stone choir screen (demolished in the seventeenth century), together with fourteenth-century graves. The restoration will be an opportunity for a generation of scholars, restorers, architects and students to discuss how the directives of the Charter of Venice should be implemented – in particular, what does it mean to rebuild a building ‘as it was’, and how authentic can a restoration be when the original materials are gone?

Controversies continue. The mairie of Paris, which pledged €50 million for the restoration in the aftermath of the fire, has refused to exempt the EPND from taxes and will cream off €3 million a year from the money donated for the restoration until the cathedral reopens (the city of Nantes, by contrast, has renounced taxes on its cathedral, which was the victim of a fire in July 2020). In December 2021 the diocese of Paris proposed a programme of liturgical reorganisation for the cathedral. Critics have questioned the ‘use of artistic creation for the new components of the liturgical axis and the new works planned in the chapels’, which it is feared will replace furnishings designed by Viollet-le-Duc. It was always unlikely that the restoration of a building with such a central place in France’s identity would proceed on the basis of universal agreement about what should be done, but at least the money, will and expertise are there to ensure that Notre-Dame will emerge from the disaster more secure and in better repair than before.

1 A. Gajewski and M. Hall: ‘The fate of Notre-Dame, Paris’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 161 (2019), pp.648–52; see also Y. Gallet: ‘Après l’incendie. Notre-Dame de Paris: Bilan, Réflexions, Perspectives’, Bulletin monumental 177 (2019), pp.211–18.

2 C.A. Bruzelius: ‘The construction of Notre-Dame in Paris’, Art Bulletin 69 (1987), pp.540–69.