The April 2019 fire that nearly destroyed the Cathedral of Notre-Dame revived a polemic with resonance well beyond France. Should the edifice be reconstructed “as it was” or is the very idea of Gothic “authenticity” questionable – and should the extent and nature of restoration be open to discussion? This talk proposes to leave aside Notre Dame as lieu de mémoire and focuses on it as a material object within a historical context. The cathedral was partially ruined before the Revolution which then of course proceeded to desacralize it in 1793 as a Temple of Reason. By the time Victor Hugo wrote about Notre Dame, in 1831, he described a pillaged and vandalized near-shell of a structure. The sumptuous stained-glass windows are nineteenth-century approximations of thirteenth-century originals (with a few medieval shards of glass here and there). Materially, the most authentic loss appears to be the forest of medieval oak beams in the "attic" that was tinder to the blaze. In other words, the one part of the cathedral that has been lost for good was completely inaccessible to the public. In sum, more of the nineteenth-century architect Viollet-le-Duc's work than that which the twelfth-century artisan of French medieval architecture Abbé Suger inspired has disappeared. This talk will review a few of the controversies over its rebuilding within the context of the edifice’s first fall and resurrection in the age of revolution.
Allan Potofsky is a historian and Professeur des Universités at the Université Paris-Diderot.