Victor Hugo

by Andrea Strobl

Book Stories: Victor Hugo – a Monument Protector in the 19th Century

The great buildings, like the great mountains, are the work of the centuries. Often art is transformed while they are still in the making; the work is carried on peacefully in the spirit of the new age. The transformed art takes over the work as it finds it, overdresses it, adapts itself to it, continues it according to its sensibilities, and strives to complete it.[…] The individual man and the artist disappear before these giant works, which bear no creator’s name; the human spirit in its totality shapes itself in them.1

Most of you will be familiar with the story of Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda; but even if you have never read the book by Victor Hugo (1802-1885), you may have seen one of the numerous film adaptations, among others, and will be familiar with the plot of the book.

But I am less concerned in this short article with one of the most famous fictions in world literature than with the author Victor Hugo, who reveals himself in this book to be a committed preservationist of the early 19th century.

Kathedrale Notre-Dame, ©PhillipMinnis

When reading this book carefully, the reader will notice Hugo’s caustic comments on the structural changes to the cathedral, which he was able to ascertain during his lifetime and had meticulously researched in terms of architectural history, since the novel’s plot takes place in the 15th century. Hugo therefore had to find out what Notre Dame Cathedral and the city of Paris looked like at that time before writing his novel.

During his extensive research in libraries and archives, he came across the many structural changes to which the cathedral and city had been subjected over the course of the past centuries.

Now, dealing with the subject of the Middle Ages was not uncommon for writers of the time in the early 19th century. In Romantic literature, the Middle Ages are directly related to the replacement of ancient pagan mythology with Christian medieval thought. After this epoch was still disregarded as a ‘dark age’ during the Enlightenment, it experienced a decisive revaluation in early Romanticism, among other things, also in literature; the theoretical background for this in literary history by Hugo’s older contemporaries, such as Chateaubriand and Madame de Staël, is mentioned here only in passing.

But then came the then just twenty-nine-year-old man of letters Victor Hugo and created with Notre-Dame of Paris a masterpiece of this literary epoch and of the entire world literature, which quickly became popular.

At one point, while rereading the novel, I wondered why the author was so relentless in castigating these changes in the centuries-old history of the structure that he had even included two explicit chapters on the architectural concerns of the cathedral and the city of Paris. Obviously, I had read the preface all too inaccurately, because the answer to my question was implicitly already there:

“Since then, the wall has been scraped or painted […]. This is what has been done to the wonderful churches of the Middle Ages for almost two centuries. From all sides they are threatened with mutilation, from the outside and from the inside. The priest paints them, the architect scratches them off, and finally the people come and tear them down. “2

The book “Notre-Dame de Paris” was published in 1831, and in the third book of the novel there are those two, above mentioned, famous chapters explicitly devoted to the cathedral and the cityscape of Paris. Hugo first describes, with many examples, the changes that the building ‘endured’ over the centuries, and then how the viewer could perceive the city from the high platforms of the cathedral at the time of the novel’s plot.

Turm Notre Dame de Paris, © Alexandra Lande

This alone indicates the author’s intention that the reader should not see both the cathedral and the city as mere ‘staffage’ for the story being told. Throughout the novel, both the cathedral and the city join the story being told. Thus, the reader realizes more and more impressively that the novel’s plot would be inconceivable without these two settings, but especially without Notre-Dame:

“He preferred to keep away from people; his cathedral was enough for him. The stone kings, bishops, and saints who populated Notre-Dame did not laugh mockingly in his face and had only calm, benevolent looks for him. The other statues, the monsters and demons, did not hate poor Quasimodo. He was all too much like them. They rather mocked the other people. The saints were his friends and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and protected him. […] The cathedral not only replaced human society for him, it replaced nature, the whole world. He longed for no other flowering trees than the colorful windows that were always blooming, no other shade than that of the stone foliage that entwined itself around the Saxon capitals laden with birds. He longed for no other mountains than the mighty towers of the church, no other ocean than the roaring Paris at their feet.” 3

The cathedral is not simply the setting of a novel plot. No, it virtually forces itself upon the reader, wooing him with all its splendor, its beauty – and also its gloom. She pushes herself into the foreground again and again. It virtually merges with the plot. Without this unique building, Hugo could never have told this story so grandly. Notre-Dame is the pivotal point, is the fateful place where most of the action takes place and where everything ends. It is therefore not surprising that the title in the original French version is still simply Notre-Dame de Paris. It was only a few decades later, in some German, but also other language translations, that the somewhat unfortunate title The Hunchback of Notre Dame became common not only for the book, but also for various other artistic adaptations. As a result, however, the actual protagonist of the novel – the cathedral with its role in the text as a whole and its architectural or historic preservation concerns – was abundantly lost from focus.  It had to make way for an unfortunately titled reduction of the novel’s content, which would certainly not have been in the author’s original intention.

The cathedral was built in the period from 1163 to 1345, in the transition from Romanesque to Gothic: “These buildings of the transitional period […] represent a point of development of art, which without them would have found no lasting expression. […] Notre-Dame is a particularly strange monument of this transitional style. Every surface, every stone of this venerable building speaks not only of the history of Landes, but also of the history of art and science. “4

Kathedrale Notre Dame de Paris, ©Estetika_foto

Anyone who has ever visited this breathtaking building could hardly escape its breathtaking impression. One could now reproduce here the entire six pages of this literary outcry of Hugo, inserted in the novel, about the sins of restoration and destruction committed on the building for centuries, but the introduction to the first chapter of the third book may suffice here:

“Notre-Dame is certainly still today a majestic, sublime building. But even if it has been beautifully preserved as it ages, it is difficult to suppress indignation at the innumerable mutilations and damages that time and man have unanimously perpetrated on this venerable edifice. […] If we had the leisure to examine with the reader the various traces of destruction on the church one by one, it would become apparent that time has the least share in it, but the worst share is that of men and especially the disciples of art. “5

And Hugo did not hide his opinion about the cityscape of Paris of his time:

“The city today has no general character. It is a collection of patterns of several centuries; but the most beautiful patterns have disappeared. […] The historical significance of its buildings is becoming more and more blurred. The monuments of old times are becoming more and more rare, and it seems that the new houses are devouring them. “6

Victor Hugo himself had been grappling with the problem of appropriate monument preservation of the architectural heritage of that long-gone era several years before Notre-Dame of Paris appeared. As Martin Rohde notes, as early as 1825 the author had publicly “revolted at the uncertain fate to which French artistic monuments were being abandoned, and called for a law on the protection of monuments that would put a stop to the destruction.” 7

In 1832, this appeal appeared in an expanded form under the title Guerre aux Démolisseurs (Fight the Destroyers) in the magazine Revue des deux Mondes and was well received. Hugo called on private owners, institutions and the state to take on the preservation of the country’s medieval architectural heritage with the necessary historic preservation caution and intelligence.8 In doing so, he emphasized – sometimes with biting irony – that the necessary restoration measures should be carried out carefully and on a scientific basis:

“Repair these beautiful and grave buildings. Repair them with care and intelligence and practicality. You have around you men of science and good taste who can instruct you in this work. Above all, architect-restorers should be extremely economical with their imagination. “9

And indeed, just ten years after the book’s publication, extensive restoration work began on the building-an undertaking that, it is now generally acknowledged, would never have been undertaken so quickly without Victor Hugo’s celebrity and tireless dedication. One can hardly find an account of the building history of the cathedral in which Victor Hugo and his book are not mentioned as the driving force behind the preservation of this building.

Victor Hugo, ©Nicku

Throughout his life, he remained an active member of various commissions concerned with the protection and preservation of monuments in France.10

Thus, the entire novel Notre-Dame of Paris is and remains – in addition to many other no less important substantive themes – also an impressive literary document against the structural destruction of our cultural and historical past; and it would be quite wrong to reduce this literary work only to the romanticized fiction – however ravishingly told it may be.

As we all probably witnessed with horror on April 15, 2019, in the reports of the cathedral fire, much building fabric and art became a victim of the flames. One can only hope that the reconstruction in the 21st century will be guided by the old building plans … 11

Post Scriptum

This short contribution to the novel and its author would undoubtedly need many detailed explanations, especially by art historians. My comments are intended only as a reminder of one of the most famous books of world literature, but above all of this extraordinary author, who has been socially and politically engaged beyond the literary ivory tower throughout his life. Perhaps one or the other reader of this article will be inspired to pick up the book again in order to “rediscover” it under the above aspects – or even to read it for the first time!

1 Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame von Paris, Insel Verlag 1977, S. 136

2 Ebd.: 7 ff.

3 Ebd.: 169

4 Ebd.: 135

5 Ebd.: 131

6 Ebd.: 152

7 Martin Rohde, Theorien und Doktrinen der französischen Denkmalpflege im 19. Jahrhundert und die Rolle der Société française d’Archéologie und des, Bulletin Monumental‘ bei ihrer Entstehung, Freiburg 2016, S. 71.

8 Ebd.: 71

9 Ebd.: 71

10 Ebd.: 72

11 Lesenswert zur aktuellen Restaurationsgeschichte der Kathedrale:

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