Unholy row over revamp of Chartres Cathedral

An almighty rumpus has broken out over the restoration of France's medieval landmark, Chartres Cathedral.

Unholy row over revamp of Chartres Cathedral
Photo: AFP

State-funded work to return the interior of the towering 13th-century cathedral to its original creamy white hues has sparked a howl of protest from as far away as the US.

Even the discovery of original decor has failed to placate shocked architecture lovers across the Atlantic who have slammed the makeover as “irresponsible”.

The UNESCO World Heritage listed masterpiece, renowned for its blue stained-glass windows, is one of Europe's best preserved churches and a magnet for pilgrims and architecture lovers.

But “the notion that we can recreate the exact quality of the building when it was new by such artificial means is as wrongheaded as an ageing actress thinking she can recapture her lost youth by having a facelift,” said US architecture specialist Martin Filler

He feels so strongly that he took to the pages of the prestigious New York Review of Books in late 2014 to vent his anger.

Launched in 2008, the project aims to restore the cathedral to its full former glory at the time of its consecration from under the age-old layers of soot and dust that had given it its more familiar blackened appearance.

Fake stones on sidings, mainly coloured in pale ochre, and columns and arches highlighted in white have come to light as the cleaning has progressed.

Restorers have even discovered a trace of the 1789 French Revolution with the words “republic” and “constitution” written in the soaring nave area of the cathedral, 80 kilometres (50 miles) southwest of Paris.

'Irresponsible restoration'

Filler said he was mostly “shocked” by the organisers' disregard for established guidelines.

“What is most shocking about the changes at Chartres is that they completely ignore the universally accepted guidelines established by the Charter of Venice more than 50 years ago, ” he complained in an interview with AFP by email.

Their most important principles, he continued, are that “no harm be done to a landmark in its restoration and that all changes must be reversible”.

“Although the interiors of Chartres were initially lighter, they have not been seen in that condition for many centuries,” Filler said.

Another US-based critic and Gothic art fan, Stefan Evans, has initiated an online petition which has gathered several hundred names.

“Irresponsible restoration is erasing history from the Gothic masterpiece,” it says, complaining that historically inaccurate paint and filling material was being used in a setting with 800 year-old windows and floors.

Evans, a physics PhD student at Arizona University, said it had been “heartbreaking” to see the transformation inside the cathedral during a visit to Chartres earlier this year.

'Not on a whim'

But France's state authorities for culture, who are carrying out and funding the 20-million-euro ($23 million) restoration, say they have not been directly contacted by the critics and are only aware of their arguments via press reports.

“We don't wish to enter into the debate,” the regional management of cultural affairs told AFP, adding that all the restoration works had been thought out by a number of experts.

“We didn't act on a whim,” it stressed, inviting naysayers to come and see for themselves what has been done.

The cathedral in the form it is in today, including the wall paintings, was built in a just-over 30 year period, ending in 1225.

Restoration work is focused on two choir chapels. “Seven spans and 14 bay windows are in the process of being restored, of which the first part is just finished,” engineer Daniel Alazard, who is working on the project, told AFP.

The nave's overhaul is expected to be finished at the end of next year while the transept is also lined up for restoration.

And the cathedral's famous blue stained-glass windows are also on the agenda.

“The glass panes are dirty on the inside due to pollution and smoke but also due to patinas applied during restorations in the 19th century,” Alazard said.

“We have great difficulty in removing them to make them really transparent again.”

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.