Sunday 18 August 2019

Henry Samuel: 'Tradition demands the most symbolic gesture'

The writer who saved Notre Dame was wary of architects' restorations, writes Henry Samuel in Paris

Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara in a scene from the 1939 movie ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’
Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara in a scene from the 1939 movie ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

Henry Samuel

As debate rages in France over how to rebuild Notre Dame, and the world's greatest architects are called upon to come up with designs to replace its spire, their fiercest critic would have been the man who saved the cathedral and turned it into a global landmark - Victor Hugo.

That, at least, is the view of the hallowed French writer's great-great-grandson.

Jean Baptiste Hugo, 66, is a passionate connoisseur of his illustrious forebear, whose 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) was set in the city's Gothic masterpiece. He has painstakingly gathered archives of the family.

"He considered architecture to be the great book of humanity before printing was invented with Gutenberg," said Mr Hugo, a photographer whose mother was British and father, Jean, was a writer and friend to artists including Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. "He disagreed with the way a lot of architects proceeded with the restoration, feeling they didn't do justice to the original concept," he said.

Last week, Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, issued a call to the world's leading architects to come up with designs in the wake of the devastating fire, and pledged to rebuild the cathedral in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

His prime minister, Edouard Philippe suggested it could be a copy or "endow Notre Dame cathedral with a new spire adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era".

Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo

In an online survey for Le Figaro, the French daily newspaper, more than 70 per cent of the 35,000 people who responded said they opposed a contemporary design.

The Hugo family appeared as split as the rest of France over the matter.

"It's difficult to know what Victor would have gone for," said Jean Baptiste Hugo. "He was obviously keen to respect the origins but on the other hand, he found a lot of poetic inspiration in ruins."

Pierre Hugo, 71, the oldest great-great-grandchild, said it was a tough call. "Victor Hugo was very modern. He transformed his own furniture, which they found when they restored Hauteville House."

Hauteville House in Guernsey was where Victor Hugo lived in exile from Napoleon III from 1855 to 1870. The recently restored house was reopened earlier this month. "What is in no doubt is that he would have opted for the most symbolic gesture, for France and for Europe. Precisely how, you'll have to ask the architects," said Pierre Hugo, a goldsmith and jewellery designer.

His sister, Marie, an artist, was more categorical. "I think that we should respect what was destroyed. I don't think we have the right to touch what was done. I think that it should remain the closest to what he did," she said.

Hugo wrote his 1831 novel to draw attention to the sorry state of the cathedral, disfigured by modern additions and damaged by zealots of the French Revolution. Appalled at the prospect of its defacement or demolition, he wrote in 1829: "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."

His call to arms worked, and a competition held in 1844 to renovate the cathedral was won by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and the young Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, a Gothic revivalist, who built the spire that collapsed in flames on Monday.

Beyond the reconstruction debate, Pierre Hugo was angry that restoration work had not been conducted sooner. "Unfortunately, it took a catastrophe for all these funds to arrive overnight," he said.

Donations were, by the weekend, at the billion-euro mark.

"We had been sounding the red alert for years," said Pierre Hugo. "Now there is far, far more work to be done."

As for the global outpouring of mourning after the fire, Jean Baptiste Hugo said it would have warmed his great-great-grandfather's heart.

"We have lost the sense of the sacred, I think. Victor Hugo had a very deep connection to the universe, to nature and saw the divine everywhere and we have to reconnect to that."

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss