Beloved and revered, Notre Dame hasn’t always been cared for, historian says
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Beloved and revered, Notre Dame hasn’t always been cared for, historian says

Building at the center of Paris, both spiritually and physically, was damaged during both the Renaissance and the 18th century

Gargoyles watch over the streets of Paris from the top of the 11th century Notre Dame cathedral, January 10, 1997. (AP/Remy de la Mauviniere)
Gargoyles watch over the streets of Paris from the top of the 11th century Notre Dame cathedral, January 10, 1997. (AP/Remy de la Mauviniere)

PARIS, France (AFP) — The Notre Dame Cathedral, ravaged by a huge fire which toppled its spire Monday before the gaze of shocked and helpless Paris residents and tourists, has been much beloved yet also neglected down the centuries, a French historian said Monday.

Middle Ages specialist Claude Gauvard, also the author of a book on the Gothic masterpiece that dates from the mid-12th century, told AFP there was no overstating the site’s cultural resonance.

But she added it had not always been treated with due reverence.

Notre Dame “is a symbol of Paris, a symbol of peace, togetherness and concord… which occupies an exceptional site at the heart of the city.”

The Notre Dame cathedral is illuminated during a light show called “Dame de Cœur” to celebrate the centenary of the First World War, in Paris, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (AP/Christophe Ena)

It is also kilometer zero — the spot from which all distances to other cities from the French capital are measured.

“For me it is perhaps one of the most harmonious of cathedrals, symbolizing at once the work of the craftsmen who built it — though through the ages it has been much loved and yet unloved.”

Pope Benedict XVI delivers a message from the front of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Friday, Sept. 12, 2008, following a vespers service. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Gauvard explained: “Notre Dame de Paris is much loved by the millions of French people and foreigners who visit each year — yet they enter and go out again, I am sure, without quite understanding just what this cathedral is.”

“It was much mutilated during both the Renaissance and the 18th century — for example, they didn’t hesitate to hack away at the main entrance to get through the king’s dais.”

“It needed all the 19th century labors of Prosper Merimee, Victor Hugo, (Eugene) Viollet-le-Duc and (Jean-Baptiste) Lassus which allowed the Gothic art to be restored to its rightful place,”she said.

Gauvard said the maintenance works, which may have been responsible for the fire, were a long time coming “and perhaps even a little late.”

“I went up to the foot of the spire (before the renovations began) and some of the brickwork was disjointed, held in place by a grate to prevent it falling…”

The steeple collapses as smoke and flames engulf the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. (Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)

As to whether the imposing site can be restored following Monday’s inferno, Gauvard observed that the spire that toppled could be reconstructed according to the blueprint of Viollet-le-Duc’s blueprint, who built the spire after it came down in 1792.

“Yet there will no longer be this ‘forest’, this magnificent wooden frame which held up the roofing… That’s my fear; that the fire will reach the interior of the choristry.”

Flames and smoke rise from the interior of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019, after a fire engulfed the building. (PHILIPPE WOJAZER / POOL / AFP)

And Gauvard said the competing interests regarding the site could hinder reconstruction.

“Notre Dame’s problem is that it comes under several jurisdictions: the Archbishopric, Paris, historic monuments, etc. That complicates its maintenance.

“I hope that national, indeed international donations will be forthcoming to finance the restoration as it’s going to be very costly.”

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