In April 2019, Notre Dame burned. Its tower collapsed in and the 800-year-old oak beams blazed to charcoal while the world watched live. Many were shocked to learn that it was the cathedral’s first major fire in its long life. It survived both World Wars and two major civil wars without being put to the torch, but that’s not to say it was never at risk before.
In the early 1800s, Paris was planning to demolish the cathedral. It had been badly damaged by vandalism, and there wasn’t the public interest to devote resources to rebuild it–until Victor Hugo stepped in.
The author, as yet barely known in Paris, wrote a pamphlet in 1825 calling for “war against the demolishers.” He then sat down to write and publish “Notre Dame De Paris. 1482,” his richly descriptive novel set in and around the cathedral. You know it better as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and it was published in 1831.
Despite a grim and occasionally vicious narrative style, the city was enchanted by the book, and it swung public sentiment for the preservation not just of Notre Dame de Paris, but of many crumbling French cathedrals.
Aside from his writing, which has nearly all survived to modern popularity, Hugo was known for his art. He drew and painted in small scale, wandering between meticulous architectural studies and wild caricatures of his friends. Van Gogh was an admirer of his work, as was Sigmund Freud. He didn’t go public with his work, but many of his over 4000 drawings were preserved.
The crypt of Notre Dame, which was filled with lead dust and ash by the fire, has been cleaned, and is about to become the first part of the edifice to reopen to the public. Within will be displayed an exhibition paying homage to Hugo, and to Eugene Viollet-Le-Duc, the man inspired by his novel to rebuild the icon of Paris. Art and notes by both men will be on display, some of it for the first time in over a century.
The crypt, which opens in the courtyard before the cathedral, is open to the public now, and will display this exhibit through the end of 2022.