Victor Hugo, when Literature came to Architecture’s rescue

26 févr. 2020

 An interview with Sébastien Mullier, teacher in Classes Préparatoires aux Grandes Ecoles, doctor in 19th-century French literature and independent art historian.

What role did the work of Victor Hugo play in the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris ?
Thanks to its success, Hugo’s novel « Notre-Dame de Paris, 1482 », published from 1831, strongly contributed to the rehabilitation and safeguarding of gothic architecture in France : in 1843, a reading of it inspired the idea of a restoration of the Paris cathedral. The restoration was overseen by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who was in charge of the construction site from 1845 to 1863, and then went on to illustrate the Hugo novel in the Hugues edition of 1877.

What did Notre-Dame de Paris look like when Hugo published his novel in 1831 ?
In France, from the earliest to the latest decades of the 19th century, the heritage of medieval monuments – sacred or not – was considerably altered, disfigured or even destroyed, as it fell prey to demolition, vandalising or unfaithful restoring ; thus, in 1840, the cathedral of Paris was only a shadow of itself, amputated of its statues of kings, stained glass, tower and west tympanum, damaged by the years, by antique fanatics and by French revolutionaries… Around 1830, the idea of destroying the cathedral to the ground was even discussed !

Did Victor Hugo’s project consist in « rebuilding » the cathedral through literature ?
Exactly. Victor Hugo saw restorers as unfaithful people and traitors : to him, « rebuilding » meant destroying and committing « a heavy stone anachronism ».
For the writer, though, rebuilding consists in « repairing, for the reader, the admirable church of Notre-Dame de Paris » ; for what purpose ? To present the cathedral as it was before. The goal is to give a second life to architecture, in the book’s printed words and pages as well as in the reader’s mind.

In the first editions of Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo’s text was accompanied by many illustrations. How was Notre-Dame de Paris represented in these books ?

In the 19th century, illustrations began to reconfigure the gothic cathedral’s gate, by taking it from its medieval, triangular shape, the warhead, to a modern and quadrangular shape. The drawing, be it by Célestin Nanteuil, on the left, or Aimé de Lemud, on the right, operates a synthesis between the outside and the inside, between the outer architecture – the facade – and the inner architecture – the altarpiece, dungeon or crypt… Opening the book means opening a cathedral, in a physical and concrete manner.

Depending on the editions – Renduel in 1832, Perrotin in 44 or Hugues in 77… - the printed and illustrated book is a material, black & white rendering of the theoretical ideas that Hugo had formulated in his novel, particularly his dream of a synthesis between the visible and the readable, or between architecture and literature.