Debbie and I have made a number of trips to Paris both before and after the tragic burning of Notre Dame cathedral. Read more from both of us about that tragic event here, here, here, and here. In The Wall Street Journal, John Anderson reviews the new NOVA documentary, Rebuilding Notre Dame, writing:
No one in “Rebuilding Notre Dame” goes so far as to declare that a silver lining lay behind the April 2019 fire that nearly destroyed the place—never mind that the relevant elements are lead, iron, limestone and oak. But what’s being discovered, as the fabled Notre-Dame de Paris is readied for a 2024 reopening (to coincide with the Summer Olympics), is not just absorbing and revelatory but instructive: Perhaps a medieval cathedral should be steam-cleaned every 850 years.
A presentation of “NOVA,” the special begins with the inferno that began in the “forest”—the network of ingeniously scrambled oak beams that provided support for the fabled structure’s roof since its origins in the 12th and 13th centuries. Much is devoted to the rebuilding of the forest and the church’s spire—a signature of the structure and the collapse of which prompted heartbreak among those watching the conflagration from around the world. Finding the proper oak trees—sound, straight, knotless—is a fascinating aspect of the show. But hardly the only one.
There is a tendency in “Rebuilding Notre Dame” to inject drama into every move made by the restorers who, as described by architectural conservationist Elsie Owusu, had to build a building inside the building to save the building: Footage from within the fire-damaged vaults shows an enormous nest of scaffolding erected to support, and prevent further damage from, the efforts to strengthen the weakened limestone walls and buttresses. No dramatic emphasis is necessary. The “mysteries” hinted at by narrator Mercer Boffey are probably more about a lack of historical records left by masons of the 1100s than about the kind of secrets behind Egyptian tombs. But what they find is testament to the collaborative genius of the cathedral builders: The iron “staples” used to secure limestone blocks side-by-side; the gravity-defying construction of the spire; the ingenuity of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who led the 19th-century restoration of the church after years of neglect and, sometimes, abuse. (French Revolutionaries had basically sacked the place and converted it into a Temple of Reason.)
“Rebuilding Notre Dame” doesn’t get into it, but renewed interest in the derelict church was kindled by Victor Hugo’s famous novel and led to the previous major restoration, though the extent and reasoning behind many of Viollet-le-Duc’s moves are revealed only in the course of re-examining everything. This includes Notre-Dame’s rose windows, miraculously spared in the fire and which are found to contain glass only from the 13th and 19th centuries. Why? It’s one of those things you find out.
Part of the charm of Notre-Dame, despite its enshrinement as the great model of French Gothic architecture, is its eccentric mix of styles—Gothic, yes, but also Romanesque and Baroque, with a spire that served as a crazy exclamation point. In “Rebuilding Notre Dame,” however, the emphasis is on the body rather than the soul, and how the rehabilitation team has found things out to its ultimate chagrin: A layer of plaster, it was discovered, had been laid originally between the lead roof and the limestone beneath it and water—from the 2019 firefight and rain that fell during the absence of a roof—leached salt from the plaster, which in turn ate away at the walls. The lead dust left on those walls has had to be cleaned, for health reasons alone, and in doing so the cleanup team has left the surfaces looking the way they did in, say, 1270—before being stained by the smoke of “a million candles,” as Mr. Boffey says, in what is probably an understatement.
Producer-directors Joby Lubman and Alessandra Bonomolo employ marvelous computer animation sequences that show in harrowing detail what might happen to Notre-Dame at various stages if its surgery doesn’t go well. But the patient seems to be recovering. Will it be ready for 2024? The efforts being made are Olympian, so one tends to have faith.
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