Eugène Viollet-le-Duc

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (27 January 1814–17 September 1879)

“Viollet-le- Duc was the busiest restorer of France, of cathedrals as well as castles and ancient towns (Pierrefonds and the walls of Carcassonne are perhaps the best-known examples). Ruskin wrote of restoration: ‘Restoration… means the most total destruction which a building can suffer.’ Nor was Viollet-le-Duc even as faithful a restorer as one might have expected. In the Dictionnaire he wrote: ‘To restore a building is not just to preserve it, to repair it, and to remodel it, it is to re-instate it in a complete state such as it may never have been in at any given moment.’ And he acted accordingly. Great scholar that he was, familiar with all the features and all the details of all the phases of medieval architecture, when in 1864–65 it came to lengthening the nave of Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral and to give it a west front, he disregarded the date of the nave — 1340–59 — and made the fagade early to mid-13th century in style.

“Ruskin, of course, was driven to his radical statement by feeling much more deeply than Viollet-le-Duc ever did what it is that moves us in looking at a Gothic building. It is, you have seen, ‘the life as a whole, the spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the workman.’ Remove the surface and you have killed the building. That of course would not apply to a Greek temple or a Palladian mansion of the eighteenth century. But they did not concern either Ruskin or Viollet. So while Viollet went on restoring and remodelling till he died, Ruskin could see a few years before Viollet’s death his principle of preservation instead of restoration coming to full fruition in the establishment of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. The date of the foundation of this society which is still going strong is 1877, and the founder was Ruskin’s greatest pupil, William Morris.”

“The word barbarous has two meanings. It signifies, on the one hand, rude, uncultivated; on the other hand, cruel. A very ‘barbarous’ people may be very gentle, while a very civilised people may be very cruel, and consequently barbarous. Cruelty is an instinct of human nature which civilisation succeeds more or less in suppressing. It is therefore unnecessary to take this form of barbarism into consideration, especially as the arts are not influenced by it. History gives us only too many examples of acts of cruelty committed by nations among whom the arts had reached their highest degree of perfection.”

“In the very middle of the seventeenth century, the Parliaments were still sending to the stake rogues or fools who made pretensions to sorcery, — a piece of cruelty beyond question; yet this century witnessed the erection of Versailles, and the Hótel des Invalides, and possessed poets and artists whose works we never cease to admire. We may then once for all exclude from the discussion the word barbarous in the sense of cruel. It remains for us to consider the term as meaning not civilised. Ought we to conclude from the fact that a nation is uncivilised, or that only faint indications of its future culture are as yet perceptible, that its arts are barbarous? We think not.”

“The point of interest when the arts are in question is, not whether such or such a period in the history of humanity was more or less civilised, — or, if we will, more or less barbarous, — than another; but whether the period under consideration was more or less favourable to the development of the arts.”

“It is certain that the different branches of a civilisation do not shoot forth all at once; — that the development of Institutions, of Governments, of the Sciences, of Letters and the Arts, is not simultaneous.”

“…if one wants a symbol of Atlantic man that distinguishes him from Mediterranean man, a symbol to set against the Greek temple, it is the Viking ship. The Greek temple is static and solid. The ship is mobile and light. Two of the smaller Viking ships, which were used as burial chambers, have survived. One of them, the Gokstad ship, was intended for long voyages and in fact a replica of it crossed the Atlantic in 1894. It looks as unsinkable as a gigantic water-lily. The other, the Oseberg ship, seems to have been more like a ceremonial barge, and was filled with splendid works of craftsmanship. The carving on its prow has that flow of endless line that was still to underlie the great ornamental style we call Romanesque. When one considers the Icelandic sagas, which are among the great books of the world, one must admit that the Norsemen produced a culture. But was it civilisation? The monks of Lindisfarne wouldn’t have said so, nor would Alfred the Great, nor the poor mother trying to settle down with her family on the banks of the Seine.”

Château de Pierrefonds: historical restoration or historical fantasy?



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