Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was a precocious 30 years old when he received the daunting commission to restore the then ruinous Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, but he traced the start of his architectural career to a much humbler construction: a street barricade for the 1830 July Revolution that toppled the Bourbon king Charles X.
Viollet-le-Duc was an unlikely revolutionary. Son of the civil servant responsible for Louis XVIII’s palaces, his teenage home was in the Tuileries Palace, and his mother’s Friday salons welcomed such eminent writers as Stendhal and Prosper Mérimée. Indeed, Mérimée would later, as Inspector-General of Historic Monuments, provide Eugène with the restoration projects that made his name. Viollet-le-Duc needed the connection: he had elected not to study architecture, preferring to sketch historic buildings as he journeyed through France and Italy, and to learn on the job.
Viollet-le-Duc’s first successful commission, in 1840, was the 12th-century Benedictine abbey at Vézelay, which was on the verge of collapse. He figured out how to stabilise the structure, but did so by imposing on the abbey an unwonted unity, rounding off the nave’s 13th-century vaults into a simplified 12th-century style. His 1860s plans for brooding Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral were similarly ahistorical, drawing on ecclesiastical architecture hundreds of miles away in Amiens, Chartres, and Troyes. ‘The best idea’, he insisted, ‘is to suppose one’s self in the position of the original architect, and to imagine what he would do.’
He felt no compunction about using modern materials to ‘improve’ the fabric of old buildings: wooden roofs were replaced with metal, and stonework reinforced with new-fangled structural iron. He would remove defaced statuary entirely and replace it with new creations: the vivid gargoyles of Notre Dame were inspired by Victor Hugo’s Hunchback as much as by medieval precedent.
In 1858, Viollet-le-Duc’s Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture – a major contribution to scholarly knowledge – gave a forthright defence of such methods. ‘To restore a building is not to maintain it, repair it or remake it: it is to re-establish it in a complete state, even one which may never have existed at any single moment.’
Yet he was no iconoclast. Extensive knowledge of extant medieval architecture informed his recreations, and he was almost archaeological in recording with photographs and drawings the changes he wrought. Indeed, his work on the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition included plans for a National Museum of French Monuments, which opened a few years after his death in 1882.
The 2019 fire at Notre Dame (see Minerva 185) obliterated Viollet-le-Duc’s much-loved 19th-century spire. But his presence will remain: a bronze St Thomas survives, having been removed from the roof for restoration just days before the fire – a St Thomas designed to look like the cathedral’s remarkable restorer.
IMAGES: Rijksmuseum [CC0]; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Louis de Bayser, 2007 [CC0].
Text: Simon Coppock