It’s hard to believe that very soon, we’ll be coming up on the one-year anniversary of the devastating fire that nearly destroyed the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019. The good news is that visitors may soon be able to get physically closer to the church than they have been able to do since last year’s devastating fire. The bad news is, just as the authorities think they have solved one problem, they encounter another. If you’ve been keeping up with the news out of Paris, as I have, this is beginning to seem like the regular state of affairs on this very complicated restoration project.
In testimony before the French General Assembly last week, officials gave an update on the state of their efforts to shore up and clean the building, and announced their hope that they would be able to open the square in front of Notre Dame to visitors in the very near future. Lead abatement appears to have been mostly successful, and obviously the French government has an interest in ensuring that tourists return as soon as possible. That being said, I do wonder whether this statement is a bit foolhardy given the particular circumstances which restorers are having to deal with here.
Subscribers and regular readers will recall my explaining how initially, no one seems to have given much thought to the fact that burning hundreds of pounds of lead in the middle of downtown Paris was probably not a good thing. The realization that the lead particulates constituted a serious health and environmental risk dawned slowly, but once it did, authorities had to start cleaning up not only the church and its immediate surroundings, but also public areas such as parks and schools that were, in some cases, found to contain extremely high levels of lead. That process seems to be coming to an end, but unfortunately it doesn’t mean that the problem is completely resolved.
Like most Gothic buildings, Notre Dame is riddled with intentional nooks and crannies, such as niches, blind arcades, spaces behind columns and statuary, and so on. In addition, many of the surfaces which make up the building are composed of porous materials. Dust of all kinds, including lead dust, likes to settle in these places. If you’ve ever tried to clean an ornate or complicated bit of carving, you get the picture.
What does this mean for the Cathedral? As ArtNet explains, you can’t just power-wash this sort of dust into the sewer and the Seine. “[S]ome lead particles have settled into the porous surface of the cathedral, and it is difficult to access these small holes. Experts are now experimenting with a new method, which involves pouring a transparent resin onto the site to remove lead particles from those difficult-to-access spaces.”
Between this rather difficult wrinkle, and the very complicated task of removing over 200 tons of steel scaffolding – which was fused together into a tangled mass during the fire – there is a lot to worry about here. That being said, there are some pieces of good news that we can keep in mind. The Cathedral’s magnificent organ was spared, and once it’s safe to start doing so, workers will begin dismantling it, so that all of its roughly 7,800 pipes, five keyboards, and 100+ stops can be cleaned of lead, soot, and debris. In addition, the magnificently ornate 18th century carved oak choir stalls were also saved. These will also need to be removed, cleaned of lead and other debris, and reinstalled. In both cases, scientists, historians, and the like will no doubt take full advantage of documenting and understanding the methods used to create these objects.
As to when any of that re-installation could possibly take place however, no one really knows. Some experts have been not-so-quietly telling the art press for months now that they don’t think the site itself will be safe for visitors to enter for at least another three years, and reconstruction will likely take much longer than that. President Macron’s goal of having Notre Dame rebuilt in five years seems, as to me it always has, an unrealistic, politically-motivated, empty promise. Hopefully the political pressure to complete the repairs will not outweigh the important, and more long-lasting, duty of those in charge of the restoration to do the job right the first time.