In a television address on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron set a sooner-than-expected deadline for the completion of Notre-Dame Cathedral's restoration.
"We will rebuild the cathedral and make it even more beautiful," he said, per the Wall Street Journal. "I want this to be achieved within five years... We can do it." Frédéric Létoffé, an expert in construction work for old buildings, had previously told the New York Times that he expected the project to take 10 to 15 years.
But even if it does take triple the time Macron is aiming for, it'll be relatively speedy, in Notre-Dame terms. The edifice we know was built on the site of another church that had burned down-and it took nearly 200 years, from 1163 to 1345, to erect the current structure from the ground up. In the middle of that construction, the partially-built cathedral caught fire again, requiring additional work. The monument’s iconic flying buttresses are another late addition, and weren't even planned until the 1300s.
Thereafter, the cathedral was subject to all manner of additions and alterations. The cathedral was targeted by French Huguenots in the 16th century and revolutionaries in the 18th, with each group taking out their anger at the monarchy on Notre-Dame's statues. The tides turned following Victor Hugo's 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which renewed interest in preserving the run-down landmark. The most notable period of (constructive) intervention occurred afterward its publication, from 1844 to 1864.
Helmed by architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the 19th-century "restoration" was decried as an egotistical overstep. Rather than simply repair the structure, turning back time, Viollet-le-Duc set about adding elements that he believed the original designers would have wanted, but couldn't realize. "He really thought he could almost become the medieval architect of the building," Columbia professor emeritus Stephen Murray told the Washington Post. It was Viollet-le-Duc's spire that was lost in the 2019 fire-hardly an original element of the cathedral.
It is easy to imagine that Notre-Dame rose fully formed from the ground, remaining untouched since it sprang from the minds of Gothic architectural luminaries. But it's burned before; it's been rebuilt before. In five or 15 years, it'll be rebuilt again-and 200 years from then, it'll seem like it always was that way.
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