How Victor Hugo saved Notre-Dame de Paris

Columnist James Buckley is impressed by writer Victor Hugo’s support for Notre Dame de Paris.

The power of printing, by Jim Buckley

Historically, it is often a determined and talented man or woman who can change the world. And this was the case with Victor Hugo and Notre Dame de Paris.

Without Hugo, possessing both a prodigious talent and an indefatigable spirit, there would be no Notre-Dame today to admire. The cathedral was reportedly demolished in the 1830s. Its foundation stones dating from Roman times would have been washed away to form the base of another more recent building.

The elegant facade of Notre-Dame, its finely crafted doors, the famous bell, the arcades, the stained-glass windows, everything would disappear. The majesty of this structure would be a thing of the past, celebrated where appropriate as a wonder of its time, but vanished like the Colossus of Rhodes and other ancient wonders of the world that only survive as memories.

But, a young writer (29 at the time of his book’s publication), listening to officials discuss what to do with the 226-foot-high double boulders desecrating Île de la Cité – the very place where the city of Paris was born – after being sacked during the French Revolution of 1789 and left in tatters for the following decades, decided that it just wouldn’t do the trick.

Victor Hugo, a rising literary presence, opposed plans by the Parisian authorities to demolish the structure and pleaded publicly – and eloquently – against the plan, which nonetheless progressed rapidly despite its calls.

Determined to save the noble structure, Hugo began to write what he called “Notre Dame de Paris” – and what most people now call “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” – for good. Having already spent a few years writing it, and in a desperate race against time, he barricaded himself in his Paris apartment (which was less than half a mile from Notre-Dame) for four months while he was finishing his novel.

“Notre Dame de Paris” was released in 1831. (The title was changed to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1833.) And it first became a publishing phenomenon in Paris and then throughout France, and soon after a huge bestseller.

The book has been translated into over a dozen languages, and its success marked the arrival of Victor Hugo as one of France’s most accomplished authors (who went on to write the equally influential classic, “Les Misérables », Published in 1862).

“Notre Dame de Paris” caused a sensation throughout the western world, as tourists from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and elsewhere flocked to Paris, apparently in one. goal: to visit the famous cathedral.

The wave of international interest in Notre-Dame completely turned the argument of Parisian officials about what to do with her leftovers: they not only accepted not demolish the structure, but also determined to rebuild it to its former glory.

While reconstruction plans were underway, Paris officials proceeded to a vote to decide who would be responsible for the reconstruction. Our young author, Mr. Victor Hugo, has been selected.

To call his novel a “tour de force” would be an understatement. His words, his affection, his passion saved his beloved mistress, and Notre Dame was on its way to becoming one of the most visited buildings in the world.

Notre-Dame cannot be visited this year or next year, as a fire destroyed much of the interior in the spring of 2019 as the building, coincidentally, was undergoing a major renovation. The work is expected to be completed by the start of the Paris Olympics, which is expected to start in spring 2024.

In the meantime, there is a way to “visit” Notre-Dame even today: By scheduling an archaeological visit to the crypt, an underground museum dedicated to the original construction of the cathedral (built between 1163 and 1345), located under the place directly in front of the two towers of Notre Dame.

In the crypt, you will not only examine the original Roman foundation stones and read the history of the church, you will also be intrigued by the preserved historical archives (via daily newspapers and other similar memorabilia) efforts to preserve and enhance Notre-Dame after the intervention of Victor Hugo and his wonderful novel.

Be sure to enjoy the Oculus 3-D 360-degree virtual tour upon arrival at the crypt. There are only three pairs of these glasses, and it’s first come, first served.

No matter how long the wait, you must not miss this extraordinary experience. Sitting on a swivel chair then putting on the heavy glasses, we go inside the cathedral. You will visit various apses, the main hall, you will come face to face with the two massive organs (surprisingly saved from the crowds who tore most of the pipe organs in French churches to turn metal into bullets), the historic stained glass windows, exquisite statuary, flying buttresses and all.

On the way up you will find yourself inside looking at the central hall from a small balcony near the ceiling of the church. Then you will go to the roof and stand next to various gargoyles and sculptures.

The view of the surrounding city of Paris is exhilarating, and the experience is so real that when I found myself standing on unstable planks left by carpenters, I feared I would fall from the top of the six-story structure if I took another step forward.

Once this “visit” is over, you will be back in the crypt, where you will read Hugo’s efforts to save Notre Dame in the newspapers of the time. You will also learn that many things have been destroyed and / or stolen over the years, for example a number of the original gargoyles carved to guard the exterior of the structure (and to keep water away from the building) have been lost. for history.

The architects conscientiously reproduced part of the statuary described by Hugo that the writer had reimagined. In a sculpture of Jesus and his apostles, Saint Thomas (the doubting Thomas) is the figure on the far right, facing away from all the others.

Thomas’ face, it is noted, is the face of one of the architects who worked to commemorate himself.

You should also know that “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” contains a rather graphic erotic scene, a scene so graphic that I had no idea that such licentious material could be printed in the 1830s.

And, as with Notre-Dame, Hugo’s descriptions of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral are also sensual. His words read as if he was describing an attractive older woman. He qualifies his Grand Lady as “beautiful” and professes his eternal love. He deplores that “it is difficult not to sigh, not to be indignant, in front of the countless degradations and mutilations that time and men have made the venerable monument suffer”.

He calls her “this old queen of our cathedrals”, and proceeds to an intimate and detailed description of her charms: “The three arched portals; the embroidered and toothed cord of the eight and twenty royal niches; the immense central rose window … the frail and high gallery of trilobed arches … its slender and slender columns.

For Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame is “a vast symphony of stone… a divine creation”.

He castigates the various “architects” who, over the years, have disfigured and insulted the proud lady, qualifying their changes as “a thousand barbarisms”. We are now in the middle of his novel and he has spent almost half of the first 300 pages extensively describing the charms of Notre Dame.

I won’t spoil the ending, but be aware that the plot thickens and accelerates right after a date between Esmerelda and Captain Phoebus. The tale is therefore propelled as by an all-powerful demigod (or by a young author locked in his apartment in a desperate attempt to complete his book before the object of his devotion is devoured by the man and the story).

Avé Maria, indeed.

For more information and to buy tickets for the visit to the archaeological crypt, go to:

James Buckley is a longtime resident of Montecito. He accepts questions or comments to [email protected].

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