In the aftermath of the tragedy that recently destroyed part of the emblematic Notre-Dame Cathedral of Paris, a reflection on the restoration and reconstruction of the artistic heritage is necessary.
Other questions are raised, such as the investigation of the source of the accident that occurred during the restoration works, simply so that similar situations can be prevented. Faced with a situation that seems unacceptable at first sight, we ask ourselves to what extent the security of our patrimony is properly preserved.
It seems obvious to us that no matter how good the prevention measures are, the unthinkable can always happen.
After tracking the damage suffered, we wonder what to do to a monument of this importance after its partial destruction.
How to approach the emblematic building, symbol of our millennial culture, can be the biggest and the least unanimous question that will keep art historians, architects and decision makers in general busy in the near future.
Restoration and Reconstruction, Concepts under Construction
The production of art is inherent to the human being and therefore constant throughout its existence. However, our understanding of the production of functional or artistic artefacts and our aesthetic sense varies according to the formal and ideological contexts.
The concepts of monument, heritage and restoration are relatively recent. They’ve suffered changes and adaptations throughout the time and despite the international norms, there is no consensus.
Restoring means to replace what’s missing, what has been lost due to mistreatment, an accident or simply due to the passage of time that ages the materials that constitute the works of art. In other words, it is an act that aims to prolong the life of a piece by restoring its lost original qualities, but always maintaining its authenticity.
Restoration theories have been perfected. Today’s intervention on a piece is radically different to what would be done a century ago and probably different from what will be done in the future. That’s why interventions for the restoration and reconstruction of the artistic heritage are usually removable, which guarantees the integrity of the restored object.
However, it is not only the restoration methodologies that are called into question. The relevance, as well as the resources for the conservation of the patrimony for the preservation of the memory and symbols that define us as a culture or nation are also discussed.
Changes, Add-ons, Reuses
Until the 18th century, in the western civilisation, the art works, whether they were buildings or movable pieces, were freely changed without even realising that a memory or a generational testimony would be destroyed…
Seeing that a building would take many years to be built, its plan would be altered according to taste. Even long after it was finished decorative additions, radical transformations of façades or interiors that changed its character were made.
The changes were not only intended to cover losses caused by catastrophes or the passage of time, but were done with the intention of leaving a mark, adding value to a piece that was recognised as important.
Of the many examples that we could mention, we highlight the case of the Church of Santa Maria de Belém, where we can evidently see a stylistic difference between the body of the church and the main chapel.
Over time the buildings also undergo adaptations due to new uses. These are the cases of mosques that became churches after the Christian conquest and of unoccupied convents that became quarters or hospitals with the extinction of the religious orders in the 19th century.
Ruined buildings by abandonment or catastrophe, like the earthquake of 1755, served as quarries for materials for new constructions. Reusing and resource saving were common practice.
These practices were vulgar until the notion of heritage and of historic or cultural testimony started gaining shape. It’s at this time that the need and concept of restoration and reconstruction of the artistic heritage emerges.
The Concept of Historic and Cultural Heritage
The Renaissance period looked at the artistic production of the classical antiquity, studied it and recreated it, but its intervention wasn’t protective. The sculptures that were once painted were washed until they presented the white purity of the stone, the gaps were filled, the buildings were stripped of their sculptures to integrate modern constructions or constitute the first collections of art that were in vogue at the time.
Later on, the Neoclassicism became interested in ancient art again, but this time the approach was different. The scientific interest motivated the first archaeological excavations. The attention was turned to the classicism of Greece, as well as for the then discovered Pompeii and for Egypt.
It was in the 18th century with Winckelmann (1717-1768) that the History of Art was born. Theories were developed, styles were defined, museums were created.
To this gradual awareness of our heritage was added in 1789 an event that marked the world, the French revolution. The end of the Ancien Régime and the dawning of a new era brought to society fundamental universal values, but also, at first, the violent destruction of historical patrimony that was not then understood as a common good.
It was necessary the prompt intervention of the State in order to clarify the lower classes the cultural and universal importance of artistic and documentary productions. The need to protect and recover this heritage allowed the discussion and development of conservation, restoration and reconstruction theories.
The First Restorations and the “Purity” of Styles
One of the most radical restoration theories was developed in Italy and advocated the elimination of all interventions carried out in a building over time. It aimed to preserve only the original structures and styles, that is what was in its most “pure” and primitive state.
This dangerous theory was responsible for the destruction of countless artistic productions from different eras. The monuments were, like their urban surroundings, stripped of their layers and “life experiences”. They were then presented, artificially, as testimonies of a project that stayed, apparently, immaculate over time.
These theories were similar to the one of the famous French architect, critic and theorist Viollet-de-Luc (1814-1879). However, this connoisseur of medieval art took his restoration projects even further, reproducing or reinventing what he understood to be the first artist’s idea. Always in search of a style’s ideal, Viollet added and fantasised with such quality that today only the specialists can distinguish between the original and what resulted from his immense creativity.
The Portuguese monuments were victims of these theories later on, with particular incidence during the dictatorship of Estado Novo (nationalist corporatist authoritarian regime installed in Portugal from 1933 to 1974). In the 1940s the Direcção Geral de Edifícios e Monumentos Nacionais (DGEMN) was created and intervened in countless buildings, stripping them of their “experiences” with the ideological aim of honouring two concrete periods of Portugal’s history: the formation of nationality and the maritime expansion. In Lisbon the radical transformation of the S. Jorge Castle is an example of this, having among other patrimony the first exemplar of Portuguese pavement been lost.
The New Theories of Restoration and Reconstruction of the Artistic Heritage
While France witnessed the “reestablishment” of styles, in England, despite some similar interventions, an opposing theory by John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-96) emerged, defending that buildings should simply not undergo any interventions. It argues that if buildings are well maintained, restoration can be avoided and it is important to use only the artisanal techniques, rejecting new construction techniques or new materials.
After that a new theory emerged in Italy that balanced these more radical theories. With the architect and historian Camillo Boito (1836-1914) we’re able to find respect for the history of the buildings and defense of the preservation of all their parts.
Boito defended that restorations should be performed only when necessary, and should be perceptible so as not to deceive the observer, thus opposing radically the stylistic restorations which in his opinion did not preserve but falsify. All the work should be thoroughly documented and the date and reference of the intervention made known in the building itself.
This will be the basis of the methodologies that have since been implemented internationally. Adaptations, reformulations and improvements were introduced until the great conference of 1931, which brought together 21 countries and from which the Athens Charter resulted.
Postwar Restoration and Reconstruction
The destruction of important monuments and buildings in general in Europe caused by the implacable World War II raised other issues.
Given the total or partial destruction of countless buildings with artistic and cultural value, how should their restoration be approached? In this case, it wouldn’t be possible to minimise the interventions like the Athens Charter defended.
Cesari Brandi (1906-1988) proposed the Critical Restoration in which each piece had to be analysed individually. If the loss does not have artistic value it can be reconstructed, and the reconstruction must respect the spatiality of the monument but not its formal aspects. If it has artistic value, the temptation to produce a copy must be resisted.
The governments had several options regarding the postwar restoration and reconstruction of the artistic heritage. Much of the effort consisted in reproducing as accurately as possible what had disappeared. The need for reference points in order to restore normality has probably determined this. However, some of the monuments were kept as ruins often associated with new constructions as memorials of a period that one does not wish to repeat.
Over the course of time multidisciplinary discussions in international congresses have established rules imposed through documents such as the Hague Charter in 1954, the Venice Charter in 1964, the Declaration of Amsterdam in 1975, the Krakow Charter in 2000… These were key contributions to the enlargement of the definition of concepts such as monument, urban or rural architectural heritage, natural landscapes, historical centers, among others, as well as the rules for their recognition and preservation.
From then on the documents that aim to establish rules in specific cases, such as the cases of the conservation and restoration of wall paintings, the protection of craft occupations and the definition of the training and skills of professionals in the sector are countless.