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24 Apr 2019 6:27
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  •   Home > News > International

    Notre Dame survived centuries of turmoil, but was almost destroyed in a fire during renovation works

    Taking 200 years to build and completed in 1345, the Notre Dame cathedral has been at the centre of much of France's history, withstanding revolutions, world wars, and centuries of wear and tear.

    Taking 200 years to build and completed in 1345, Notre Dame cathedral is considered a crown jewel of French history.

    But with the historic monument engulfed by flames, many have been left wondering what will remain of Notre Dame — and its incalculable works of art — once the embers settle.

    Though there are fears for the future of the centuries-old structure, it's not the first time it has been under siege.

    From 16th century vandals and the Commune uprising to two world wars that saw Paris in the crosshairs of German bombardment, Notre Dame has, remarkably, stood the test of time.

    "Throughout the last 900 years or so, Notre Dame has been at the heart of all the big events in French history," University of Melbourne historian Peter McPhee said.

    A slow build — and demise

    Situated at the eastern end of the Ile de la Cite and built on the ruins of two earlier churches, the cathedral was first commissioned by King Louis VII, who imagined it as a symbol of Paris's cultural and political supremacy.

    The first stone is believed to have been laid by Pope Alexander III in 1163 — but it would take another 200 years (and a slew of modifications) to complete the building.

    Notre Dame includes a choir and apse, a short transept and a nave flanked by double aisles and square chapels, though its central spire, which was destroyed by the fire overnight, was not built until the 19th century.

    Restorations, it would seem, would become a recurring theme for the iconic cathedral, which weathered centuries of turbulence.

    Rioting Huguenots, or French Protestants, vandalised parts of the building they believed to be idolatrous in the mid-16th century.

    It was further devastated during the French Revolution, during which many of the treasures of the cathedral were destroyed or plundered.

    Statues of biblical kings were beheaded, and all the cathedral bells but one were melted before the once-imposing structure came to be used as a food warehouse.

    "The Catholic Church was bitterly opposed to the French Revolution and in the midst of international warfare, Notre Dame was turned into a Temple of Reason and effectively closed to Christian worship," Professor McPhee said.

    "There was a great deal of damage done to a lot of the fittings and the statuary."

    Turning tides for the cathedral

    Heavy tapestries covered the walls to conceal holes and cracks by the time Napoleon Bonaparte took power.

    The Ile de la Cite was a warren of slum housing, and Notre Dame itself was considered a prime fire hazard.

    Napoleon was crowned Emperor in the cathedral in 1804, and vowed to restore it to its medieval glory.

    But many credit Victor Hugo, who authored The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831, with placing the plight of Notre Dame into the public consciousness.

    "All manner of profanation, degradation, and ruin are all at once threatening what little remains of these admirable monuments of the Middle Ages that bear the imprint of past national glory, to which both the memory of kings and the tradition of the people are attached," he wrote in an 1825 editorial, dubbed the War on Demolishers.

    "While who knows what bastard edifices are being constructed at great cost … other admirable and original structures are falling without anyone caring to be informed, whereas their only crime is that of being French by origin, by history, and by purpose."

    The book's success would reportedly spur thousands of people to travel to Paris to see firsthand where Hugo's fictional hero Quasimodo met Esmerelda.

    The public outcry was deafening, and the French state allocated funds for Notre Dame's restoration, commissioning the architect Lassus, who was later succeeded by Viollet-le-Duc.

    "That's the time when the spire was added, in the 1840s," Professor McPhee said.

    As Paris itself underwent a major modernisation, the cathedral found itself in the firing line again.

    The Prussians laid siege to the city in 1870-71, and that was followed by the street fighting of the Paris Commune, when left-wing revolutionaries seized the city and fought pitched battles with the French army.

    What does the future hold?

    Though the German bombardment of World War I may have changed the physiognomy of Paris, Notre Dame cathedral escaped unscathed.

    Landmarks like Saint-Gervais church would be reduced to rubble, but German shells failed to reach the centuries-old monument.

    Similarly, the occupation during World War II, which saw Third Reich flags fly over French government buildings and the clocks of Paris reset to Berlin time, marked a turning point for the nation.

    And yet, despite Adolf Hitler ordering that Paris be left a "heap of burning ruins", the Nazis lost control of the city in the aftermath of the Allies' D-Day landings without putting up a serious fight.

    "At the time of the liberation of Paris in 1944, there was a lot of skirmishing through the streets of Paris as German troops tried to defend their hold on the city and then extricate themselves," Professor McPhee said.

    "[This was happening] right in the heart of Paris, so there was some very minor damage done to Notre Dame during that fighting.

    "[Damage] to stained glass windows and occasional bullet damage, but it wasn't extensive."

    In more recent times, the more than 800-year-old structure has faced ongoing works due to centuries of wear and tear taking their toll.

    But whether recent restorations which have been linked to the catastrophic fire will be the last is yet to be seen.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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