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How the Hunchback Saved Notre Dame


No, really. There's a case to be made for the headline, and it's a case backed up by an exhibit that's ongoing at the Archaeological Crypt at Notre Dame itself.


Titled 'Notre-Dame de Paris, from Victor Hugo to Eugène Viollet-le-Duc,' it describes how Hugo's novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (in French, titled Notre Dame de Paris) caught the public's attention at a time when the French government was considering demolishing the badly-deteriorated building.


The wave of interest the novel stirred led instead to a 20-year restoration, led by Viollet-le-Duc that restored, remade, renovated and created the cathedral as we know it today. We'll be back in a moment to look at those verbs.

Percier_et_Fontaine_004Dressed up for Napoleon's 1802 coronation as Emperor

It was a moment in France, after fifty-some years of Revolution, Napoleon, Restoration and more when a taste was developing for 'the good old days,' and with a serious dose of Romanticism with it, in art, literature and more.


That made it a moment for Hugo's novel with a good-hearted monster in love, an evil bishop, a troupe of crooks and thieves and the beautiful Esmeralda. Add in Hugo's love for the building and its medieval roots, and...

P12303361911 movie poster

Between the publication of the novel in 1831 and the start of the restoration in 1844, photography was invented. Because of long exposure times, buildings were ideal subjects. The exhibit makes extensive use of early photographs, some of them by well-known photographers including Charles Marville.

1280px-Bayard,_Hippolyte_-_Notre-Dame_de_Paris_(2)_(Zeno_Fotografie)Notre Dame in 1847, when restoration work was just underway.


But let's go back to the verbs used to describe what Viollet-le-Duc and his colleagues did at Notre Dame.

After the 2019 fire, there was a lot of talk about restoring the cathedral 'as it was,' which begs the question "As it was when?" When Viollet-le-Duc went to work, construction and changes had been going on for over 700 years, with changing styles and functions. As well, it was extensively pillaged and damaged during the revolution.


Viollet-le-Duc had an answer: "To restore a building is not to maintain, repair or re-create it. It is to reclaim a complete state that may never have existed before." That said, while he made many changes and additions, they were based on an extensive study of Gothic and Romanesque architecture; a friend described him as "the greatest 13th century architect of the 19th century."

P1230274P1230277An 1833 view, and an 1875 reconstruction of a view from 1595

P1230315P1230317Views from the 1840s showing removal and reassembly of the rose window

So, not really the hunchback, after all. The credit really belongs to Hugo, and to Viollet-Le-Duc, whose face was used to model the rooftop statue of St Thomas.

P1230334Notre-Dame_de_Paris_086 Harmonia Armanda


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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