Restoration principles and practice in France

In the first part of the nineteenth century, the architects and builders were still ignorant about mediaeval architectural systems and tech-niques.1 Prosper Mérimée was well aware that those who repair can be just as dangerous as those who destroy! The case of the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis showed clearly the risks involved. There had been works in the church ever since 1805 to repair the ravages of the revolution, but without proper understanding of the structural system (Didron, 1846:175; Leniaud, 1980:78). In June 1837, lightning struck the top of the spire of the north-western tower, and the repairs were entrusted to François Debret (1777-1850), a member of the Conseil des bâtiments civils. Instead of repair ing the damaged part, he decided to demolish the spire and tower down to the platform above the main entrance. Without a proper survey of the causes of the cracks in the lower part, he then built a new and heavier tower. New cracks soon appeared, and were repaired

Figure 6.1 The abbey church of Saint-Denis with two towers. Drawing attributed to Martillage, seventeenth century. (Arch. Phot. Paris - CNMHS)

with cement and iron ties, but the situation worsened. In 1844 the Minister of Public Works gave an order to demolish the new structure. At the same time, Didron wrote: 'we would not see much harm if, whilst at it, they were to demolish the whole portal. We add in all frankness that Saint-Denis would no longer be of any interest to us. We would rather that this monument be destroyed than humiliated in such a way . . . There are many who would prefer death to dishonour!'2 These words, which anticipated John Ruskin, had an effect; Debret resigned, and the work was entrusted to Viollet-le-Duc, who limited himself to consolidation and did not attempt to build a new tower.

The restoration of the flamboyant fifteenth-century church of Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois, in front of the Louvre in Paris, was the first school for sculptors, glass painters and other craftsmen as well as for restoration architects - although the work itself was much contested at the time (Leniaud, 1980:57). In a meeting of the Comité des arts et monuments in March 1839, Victor Hugo denounced the destruction of the charnel house and of two chapels in the sacristy; closing of windows, and removal of fifteenth-century window bars, the intention to remove the roofs of the entrance pavilions, and to scrape the church interior. The works were under the responsibility of the municipality of Paris, and the architect in charge was Etienne-Hippolyte Godde (1781-1869), who worked on several churches in Paris, including Notre-Dame and Saint-Germain des Prés; he restored the Hôtel de Ville of Paris, and repaired Amiens Cathedral. As a restorer, Godde received all possible blame: inconsiderate use of cement and iron which made stones crack, not understanding the real causes of structural problems and making surface repairs, confusing the styles and making costly, superficial and inaccurate restorations.3

With reference to the examples mentioned above, the principles of restoration developed from the 1830's concept of a conservative minimum intervention based on careful archaeological study, to a more drastic 'complete restoration' towards the middle of the century. The early principles were summarized by Adolphe Napoléon Didron (1806-67), archaeologist, glass painter and the founder of Les Annales archéologiques in 1844, as well as one of the foremost critics of restorations in France in the 1840s. In 1839, he condensed the principles in the following, oft-repeated words: 'Regarding ancient monuments, it is better to consolidate than to repair, better to repair than to restore, better to restore than to rebuild, better to rebuild than to embellish; in no case must anything be added and, above all, nothing should be removed.'4 Didron was one of the most ardent critics of the work of Godde, and called his work: 'style goddique'!5 Mérimée certainly reflected Didron's principles, when he praised the conservative treatment of the Triumphal Arch of Orange, and the 'good taste' of the restorers for not having attempted any reconstruction. In Nîmes, he thought the reconstruction had gone too far; it would have been wiser to limit the work to consolidation of the original structure. Even in the case of old mediaeval structures, such as the crypt of Saint-Laurent in Grenoble (Isère), he was reluctant to go ahead with reconstruction, because this would harm the archaeological value of the monument (Mérimée, 1971). In principle, Mérimée considered all periods and all styles to merit protection, but he also recommended that the government should only be involved in those that were really 'digne. Instructions for the restoration of these protected buildings recommended expressly that:

all innovation should be avoided, and the forms of the conserved models should be faithfully copied. Where no trace is left of the original, the artist should double his efforts in research and study by consulting monuments of the same period, of the same style, from the same country, and should reproduce these types under the same circumstances and proportions.6

While Mérimée insisted on the faithful preservation of original architecture and its presentation to posterity 'intact', this often remained a mere intention. As more skills and knowledge were acquired, there was also more confidence to undertake extensive reconstruction of lost features on the basis of analogy. Both Mérimée and Didron had already prepared the ground for the 'stylistic restoration' exploited in practice by Viollet-le-Duc in France and Sir George Gilbert Scott in England. The fact was, on the other hand, that historic buildings had suffered from serious mutilations in recent decades; many buildings had been abandoned, and unskilful repairs had often exacerbated the situation. In 1845, Montalembert referred to such situations when he wrote about Notre-Dame of Paris: 'It is really an act of the highest and purest patriotism since one is removing the ravages of time and of barbarous ignorance from these buildings that bear witness to the supremacy of French genius during the Middle Ages and which still form the most beautiful ornament of the nation.'7

Hugo did not win his campaign against Godde; the restorations were carried out as intended. However, it was not all so bad, and even Hugo accepted that the restitution of the main entrance porch was exemplary, 'gentle, scholarly, conscientious', based on carefully made records of the destroyed original. And, in fact, the porch had been the responsibility of Godde's young inspector, Jean-Baptiste Lassus (1807-57), an enthusiastic promoter of Gothic Revival in France, who worked later on important restoration projects, especially on Sainte-Chapelle, and, together with his younger colleague, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, on Notre-Dame of Paris. For the restoration of Notre-Dame, there was a competition in 1842, in which Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc were authorized to participate unofficially. Didron was very impressed by their proposal, and wrote: 'Among the young architects there were, thank goodness, a few valid ones. One of them [Lassus], who is the most knowledgeable, the most intelligent among these artists of our times to whom profound study and strict practice of Gothic architecture has attributed great value, was designated and selected by all those interested in the Notre-Dame of Paris.'8 The proposal of Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc was preferred, but they had to present a revised scheme which was finally approved in 1845.

The approach of Lassus to the restoration of historic monuments was strictly 'scientific' and 'positivistic', and the creative artist had to be pushed aside.

When an architect is in charge of the restoration of a monument, he has to acquire [scientific] knowledge. Consequently, the artist has to step aside completely, forget his tastes, preferences and instincts, and must have as his only and constant aim to conserve, consolidate and add as little as possible, and only when it is a matter of urgency. With almost religious respect he should inquire as to the form, the materials and even to the ancient working methods since the exactitude and historic truth are just as important to the building as the materials and the form. During a restoration it is essential that the artist constantly bears in mind that his work needs to be forgotten, and that all his efforts should ensure that no trace of his passage can be found on the monument. As we see it, this is merely science, this is exclusively archaeology.9

In this statement, published in the Annales archéologiques in 1845, Lassus crystallized the intentions of restoration based on a scientific methodology, on the 'archéologie nationale' that aimed at a clarification of the history of mediaeval architecture. Lassus himself was recognized for his studies in this field; in 1837 he had already proposed to publish a

Figure 6.2 Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79). (Arch. Phot. Paris - CNMHS)

Figure 6.4 The church of Notre-Dame in Beaune was restored by E. Viollet-le-Duc who removed sixteenth-century additions to correspond to an ideal model. The earlier pitched roofs above the entrance were replaced by a pinnacled terrace. Plans date from 1844, and the works were carried out in the 1860s monograph on Sainte-Chapelle, and he also worked on an edition of the notebook of Villard de Honnecourt.

The most discussed personality in the history of French restoration is certainly Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79), architect and chief inspector of monuments. His influence has been felt - for good and bad - not only in France, but also in the rest of the world. He was the son of Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, conservator of royal residences at the Tuileries, and of Eugénie Delécluze, whose mother kept a salon in Paris where Ampère, Stendhal, Girardin or Saint-Beuve met on Fridays. Eugène received 'a taste for the arts' from his uncle, Etienne J. Delécluze; he travelled widely, and became an excellent draughtsman. Never entering an official school of architecture, he made his own studies practising in architectural studios, working for the Directorate of Public Works, as well as touring in both Central Europe and Italy.

Figure 6.4 The church of Notre-Dame in Beaune was restored by E. Viollet-le-Duc who removed sixteenth-century additions to correspond to an ideal model. The earlier pitched roofs above the entrance were replaced by a pinnacled terrace. Plans date from 1844, and the works were carried out in the 1860s

On his return from Italy in August 1838, he attended the meetings of the Council of Historic Buildings as an observer, and was nominated an assistant inspector to the construction works at the royal archives; the following year, he inspected the church of Saint-Just in Narbonne for repairs. His life and work were divided between his interests as an archaeologist-historian, conservator-restorer and architect-creator; his approach was always systematic, based on a thorough analysis of each case. Mérimée summarized this by saying that he had an excellent mind: 'He knows how to reason, which is a great point in architecture, because the objective of this art being essentially usefulness, an error of reasoning

Figure 6.5 The Synodal Hall of Sens was considered by Viollet-le-Duc a perfect example that linked religious and civic architecture. The exterior was found in a ruined state, and was rebuilt on the basis of fragmentary evidence. Works were completed from 1855 through 1866

could not be made without its being an error against art at the same time.'10

As a result of his successful report, as well as for the good impression he made on Mérimée and other members of the commission, he was recommended for the work of La Madeleine at Vézelay - one of his most significant projects on which he continued until 1859, through the most important part of his career. After his employment for the restoration of La Madeleine in 1840, he rapidly advanced in his career and was nominated Chief of the Office of Historic Monuments (Service des monuments historiques) in 1846; two years later he was a member of the Commission des arts et édifices religieux, in 1853 he was appointed General Inspector of Diocesan Buildings, and in 1857 Diocesan Architect. His intense studies in art and architecture, and his interests in other fields such as mountains and geology, gave him material to write a great number of articles in dozens of periodicals and journals, including Annales archéologiques. During 1854-68 he published the ten volumes of the Dictionary of French Architecture, and in the following years there were several other publications, e.g., on the history of architecture, and furniture.11

Viollet-le-Duc was an excellent draughtsman, and worked as an architect designing new buildings, as well as furniture and interiors - including the design of the imperial train.

He was interested in teaching, and contributed to decorative arts and crafts. However, his main contribution was the restoration of historic structures, both as architect and as inspector, and he had a thorough knowledge of traditional building methods and techniques. His main restoration projects included the cathedrals of Paris, Amiens, Reims and Clermont-Ferrand, the churches of Saint-Just in Narbonne, La Madeleine in Vézelay, Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay, Beaune, Saint-Denis, Saint-Sernin of Toulouse and Eu, as well as the fortified Cité of Carcassonne, the Synodal Hall of Sens, the Castle of Coucy, the Castle of Pierrefonds, and the ramparts of Avignon. In addition, he was involved in numerous other schemes in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. His direct or indirect influence was felt all over Europe and even on other continents, and he became practically a symbol of the restoration movement.

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