Soon after the Concordat between the French government and the pope, in 1802, François René Vicomte de Chateaubriand published his Génie du christianisme, which 'introduced history into literature', and contributed to opening the public mind to seeing the historic values of the Middle Ages. Comparing classical architecture with Gothic churches, Chateaubriand wrote that to 'worship a metaphysical God' one needed the Notre-Dames of Reims and Paris; these basilica, covered in moss, were more suitable to house generations of dead and the souls of one's ancestors than the elegant newly built classical temples; 'a monument only becomes venerable after past history has left its mark, so to speak, on its beams blackened over the centuries.'35
The concept of 'continuous history' was also emphasized by Madame de Staël in her De l'Allemagne of 1813, and she was the first to introduce the French to German literature -Winckelmann, Goethe, Schiller. She spoke about the nationalistic significance of churches, stating that no building can be as patriotic as a church, and that it was the only building to bring to mind not only the public events but also the secret thoughts and intimate feelings that leaders and citizens have shared within its walls. At the same time, English travellers discovered Normandy, and their example gave rise to a growing interest in archaeology and historic studies, resulting in the foundation of special societies in the 1820s, concerned also about the conservation of historic structures. The leading personality in this regard was Arcisse de Caumont (1802-73) who, in 1832, created a league among the different provincial societies, which, in 1834, became the Société française d'archéologie.
The Ministry of the Interior disposed of a small budget for the restoration of historic monuments, but there was no organized protection and even restorations were often destructive. There was not a single town where historic monuments were not being destroyed either by the authorities or by individual citizens. Loudest against this destruction was the voice of Victor Hugo (1802-85), who became the father of the historic novel in France - following the example of Sir Walter Scott in England. In 1831, Hugo published Notre-Dame de Paris, where he glorified this 'old queen of the French cathedrals', and made her alive to the great public, showing how the gigantic masses formed 'a vast symphony in stone'. He pointed out that these buildings of transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic were no less valuable than a pure product of a style; they expressed a gradation of the art which would be lost without them, and he continued:
They also make us understand that the greatest productions of architecture are not so much the work of individuals as of society - the offspring rather of national efforts than of the conceptions of particular minds - a deposit left by a whole people - the accumulation of ages . . . Great edifices, like great mountains, are the work of ages. Often the art undergoes a transformation while they are yet pending - pendent opera interruptia - they go on again quietly, in accordance with the change in the art. The altered art takes up the fabric, encrusts itself upon it, assimilates it to itself, develops it after its own fashion, and finishes it if it can. (Hugo, 1953:101f)
Hugo, who here drafted a basis for modern evaluation, did not see the cathedral as an isolated monument, but most importantly as a part of the historic town of Paris, and he continues with 'a bird's-eye view of Paris' as it would have been in the fifteenth century, describing also the changes that had occurred since. Paris, to him, had become a collection of specimens of several different ages of architecture. The finest had already disappeared; modern ugly dwellings were only too rapidly replacing historic fabric, and also the historical meaning of its architecture was daily wearing away. In 1825, he wrote an appeal, Guerre aux Démolisseurs, ('war against destroyers'), which was expanded in the Revue des Deux Mondes in 1832. He attacked the stupidity and ignorance of the French who neglected their mediaeval heritage, let it fall down stone by stone, destroyed it, 'restored' it into classical form, or sold it to the English as was happening in the Abbey of Jumièges; even the architects at the Ecole des Beaux Arts ignored their own fine building, and at the same time money was being spent to fill museums with artefacts from abroad. 'Soon the only monument will be the publication of Taylor and Nodier on Voyages pittoresques et romantiques, he wrote in 1825, and continued:
The moment has arrived when it is no longer allowed to keep silent! A universal appeal is now required so that new France comes to the aid of the old. All kinds of profanation, decay and ruin are threatening the little left to us of those admirable monuments from the Middle Ages which recall past kings and traditions of the people. Whilst I don't know how many hybrid buildings, neither Greek nor Roman, are being built at great expense, other original buildings are being left to fall into ruin just because they are French.36
Later the same year, Hugo continued the list of destructions in a second article, and appealed to the French to stop this madness. In Laon, the municipality had authorized the demolition of a fine tower that was its symbol; 'the town had its crown stolen and paid the thief!!' These monuments represent a capital investment, Hugo claimed, and their destruction means depriving the country of income. It was a question of national interest to save and maintain them, and this required firm legal action. The following year, Charles Comte de Montalembert (1810-70) gave his support to this appeal in an article published in the same magazine on 'Le Vandalisme en France. Montalembert, a brilliant defender of liberal Catholicism, also became a defender of cultural heritage in France, and together with Hugo he was a member of the Comité des arts, created in 1830 at the Ministry of Education.
After the revolution, the question of an inventory of France's historic monuments was again promoted in 1810 by Comte de Monta-livet and Alexandre de Laborde (1774-1842), who addressed a circular to prefects, asking for reports on historic castles, convents and other objects in each prefecture. In addition, the ministry looked for possible correspondents in each area. In eight years only a hundred answers were received, and in 1819 Laborde, then at the Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres, sent another circular with a wider scope, embracing all antiquities, from the Greek and Roman onwards. A better response was now achieved, giving a clearer picture of the patrimony in the country.
Although the period was marked by much destruction, there were also attempts to protect, such as the case of the Cité of Carcassonne, which was again classified as a military site in 1820 to avoid uncontrolled demolition of the fortifications. In 1823, Jean-Antoine Alavoine (1778-1834) was the first to propose a method using prefabricated cast-iron elements for the reconstruction of the mediaeval spire of Rouen Cathedral destroyed by lightning. The proposal was received favourably but was later opposed by the authorities; the construction was interrupted in 1848, being completed only after 1875.
The 1830 July Revolution in France, prepared by the historian and editor of National, Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877), brought to the throne Louis Philippe I, Duke of Orleans (1830-48), who initiated the 'golden age' of the propertied bourgeoisie. Capitalism and industrialism gained ground. With François-Pierre Guillaume Guizot (1787-1874) as Minister of the Interior, the king established a 'conservative-personal' regime. The efforts for an inventory and protection of national architectural heritage were also taken into consideration, and culminated in October 1830, when Guizot established the post of an Inspecteur général des monuments historiques de la France. The first Inspector General was Ludovic Vitet, who was succeeded by Prosper Mérimée on 27 May 1834.
The role of the Inspector General was twofold; on the one hand he had to see that an exact and complete list was prepared of all buildings and monuments that merited serious attention by the government; on the other hand he was responsible for the control of restorations, for administrative guidance of local authorities, and for keeping in touch with local correspondents. Later, in 1837, the Commission des monuments historiques was established to assist the Inspector in this task. Guizot, himself a professor of modern history at the Sorbonne, had translated Shakespeare and edited documents related to the history of
France. As a minister, his intention was 'to introduce old France into the memory and intelligence of the new generations, to restore amongst us a feeling of justice and of sympathy towards ancient French society, who had lived with much effort and glory during fifteen centuries in order to build up the heritage that we have received'.37 The past represented the character, honour and destiny of humanity. Historic monuments did not consist of one sole historic phase, but formed a continuous unbroken chain of evidence (23 October 1830). And while he regretted many past losses, including the Musée des Monuments Français, he was encouraged by the results of recent studies. The architectural heritage of France was extremely rich, but its condition was pitiful. To improve unskilled repairs in historic buildings, more research and better knowledge of historic architecture were necessary, as well as attention to proper consolidation and conservation rather than restoration or reconstruction. Available resources were limited, and it was not an easy task to administer them. Instead of concentrating funds on a few exceptional buildings, the commission preferred to use the money on a large number of buildings, doing minimum interventions now and completing them when more funds were available. The Inspector General's ability to interfere was very limited, and in many cases he could only try to convince the local authority to avoid demolition of certain monuments if this was not really necessary for traffic or similar reasons.
In 1831, Ludovic Vitet (1802-73) undertook his first tour to survey and report on the country's cultural heritage. He selected historic buildings that offered most interest to the history of art and architecture; the buildings that most attracted him dated from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. Vitet showed sensitivity in his evaluation; his mind was open not only to major monuments, but also to a wide range of historic structures. For the cathedral of Reims he reserved a separate report indicating the necessary repairs. He recommended the conservation and repair of the spire of the cathedral of Senlis, considering it unique of its type. A church such as Saint-Remi of Reims he appreciated as an example where the different periods of its construction could be better perceived and more clearly read. Other buildings, perhaps of less interest in elevations or interiors, could be well worth special attention for their character, beautiful balance, perfect regularity and delicate and ingenious details. In many cases, Vitet had to fight to save even parts of buildings; in Noyon, for example, a pretty little cloister had been demolished a couple of years before his visit for no reason at all, and he insisted that at least the two or three remaining arches should be kept. In Saint-Omer, he found the inhabitants quite indifferent to the threat of demolition of the remains of the historically important abbey of Saint-Bertin, and only some English visitors were eager to save them. He drew attention to the most important ruins of the castle of Coucy and proposed a detailed reconstitution of this fortress, in order 'to reproduce its interior decoration and even its furnishings, briefly to give it back its form, its colour and, if I may say so, its original life',38 not on the actual site but on paper. (Later Eugène Viollet-le-Duc referred to this passage, in relation to the restoration of the castle of Pierrefonds, proud of having realized such a dream in stone instead.)
These buildings had suffered greatly from destruction and neglect in the past forty years, and emergency action was required. Vitet was conscious that the state could only protect historic buildings under its direct ownership, and he insisted that sufficient funds be found to assist at least those that risked collapse. The less interesting ones or those in a reasonable state of conservation were left to the care of local administrations. Concerning private property, the only way was to make the owners interested. This was a difficult task; the links with the past had been broken, and the new generation seemed to have little or no concern for ancient monuments. People had to be made to read and understand these monuments as an evidence of their history, he thought.
History, like a clever sculptor, gives life and youth back to monuments by reviving the memories decorating them; it reveals their lost meaning, renders them dear and precious to the towns of which they are witness of the past and provoke public revenge and indignation against the vandals who would plan their ruin.39
In 1833, Hugo in fact had done exactly this; he had made Notre-Dame speak to the people through its history; he had brought history to life. In the same year Vitet also published a volume with the same purpose, the history of the town of Dieppe in Normandy, the first of an intended series Histoire des anciennes villes de France. He wanted to make this publication an architectural history of the city, and make its monuments tell their story. He was interested not only in monuments made of stone, but he also appreciated traditions, old local customs, buried 'illustrations' and the unjustly forgotten sites of the past as worthy memorials.40
Vitet resigned from the post of Inspector General in 1834 for a political career, but remained in close contact with his successor, Prosper Mérimée. He chaired the Commission des monuments historiques for many years, and was with Mérimée one of its key persons. He was given the credit of having inspired a critical approach to the understanding of historic buildings in France. His report of 1831 was a landmark in this regard, and it initiated a more systematic study of the past, giving due consideration also to mediaeval craftsmen. Vitet was aware of the recent discoveries of polychromy in Greek architecture, and he pointed out that a similar fashion had existed in mediaeval buildings as well, though often hidden under later layers of whitewash (Viollet-le-Duc, 1854-68:XIII, Restauration).
During the 1830s several organizations were created to work for the historic buildings and works of art. The Comité des arts, created by Guizot in 1830, changed its name to the Comité des travaux historiques and came under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. In 1837, the Minister of the Interior, Camille Bachasson Comte de Montalivet (180180), son of Jean-Pierre, created the Commission des monuments historiques. The aim of this commission was to support the prefects, and also to assist the Inspector General in his work of evaluation and classification of historic monuments, and deciding priorities for their restoration (Decree, 29 January 1838). Cathedrals, instead, came under the jurisdiction of the Direction générale de l'administration des cultes at the Ministère des Cultes, and until 1848 any works were carried out by local architects; then the Commission
des édifices réligieux was established, and the so-called 'diocesan architects' were put in charge of cathedrals.
Prosper Mérimée (1803-70) was nominated Inspecteur général in 1834, and he became the leading personality in the Service des monuments historiques for more than twenty years, continuing even after his formal resignation in 1853. The work involved a lot of travelling; his first tour, from late July to mid-December 1834, lasted four and a half months, and extended to the south of France. During his tenure, he continued with similar tours almost yearly, and took shorter trips as well. He relied on the collaboration of the Commission des monuments historiques. Some of the members assisted him in reporting: Baron Justin Taylor, Auguste Leprévost, Charles Lenormant, A-N. Caristie and Jacques Duban. In addition, there were correspondents in all parts of the country, members of local archaeological societies, especially the Société des Antiquaires de France and the Société française d'archéologie, but their tasks were never clearly defined.
Architects had traditionally been trained at the Académie des beaux-arts which had strong links with the classical tradition. The conflict between classicists and mediaevalists culminated during the polemics of the 1840s and 1850s (Patetta, 1974; Épron, 1997). Quatremère-de-Quincy as the secretary of the Academy was inflexible in his attitude to mediaeval architecture, and there was no regular teaching on this subject until the 1880s. This meant that one of the major tasks of the Service des monuments historiques was to train the architects as well as all technicians and craftsmen for their task as restorers of mediaeval buildings. The group of architects initially employed by the Commission was relatively small, and mostly based in Paris; it included Viollet-le-Duc and Emile Boeswillwald, and much of the workload fell on their shoulders. Boesswill-wald (1815-96), employed as architect in 1843, Inspector General and member of the Commission des monuments historiques in 1860, worked, e.g., on the restoration of Chartres, Mans and Sainte Chapelle (after the death of Lassus), as well as on the Castle of Coucy. Local architects, surveyors and technicians were used on the sites, but problems often arose due to their proud refusal to respect the instructions of the Parisians. There were also conflicts between different administrations. Some of the key persons, such as Mérimée and Viollet-le-Duc, were members of a number of committees at the same time, and worked for several administrations simultaneously.
In 1837 the restoration budget was increased, and a circular was sent to prefects to submit requests for government funds. There were, in all, 669 requests from 83 prefectures, and some of these the Commission earmarked as specially important. The funds were not sufficient to satisfy all: one could either decide to concentrate on a few of the most important, letting the others wait, or one could divide the available funds between a larger number of buildings, trying to satisfy the real needs so far as possible in each case. This second alternative was preferred, and the prefectures were also expected to share the expenses. In some cases the government funds were only symbolic and intended to encourage the local authority. Priority was given to urgent repairs in order to stop the decay until a complete restoration could be carried out.
There were a few buildings, however, such as the Roman amphitheatres of Arles and Nîmes, La Madeleine at Vézelay and Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, which were given priority due to their architectural and historical values, and the urgent need for repairs.
The monuments listed by the Commission passed from 934 in 1840 to nearly 3000 in 1849. Most of them were religious and mediaeval; then came Roman antiquities, and other types of constructions were relatively few. Many of the more recent buildings were in private hands, and thus not under state control. Guizot had established an appropriate committee with the task of making a list of the French heritage. Later, architectural documentation remained mainly the task of the Comité des arts, but the Commission des monuments historiques also prepared measured drawings for subventions and restorations.41 For archaeological and research purposes, the Commission later decided to pay special attention to buildings threatened by demolition, recording them for the archives.
Was this article helpful?