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Halloween is in the air. But the crypt in this story is different from the ghouls and ghosts you might have just conjured.
The Archeological Crypt on the Île de la Cité is less horror and more history. This underground world is almost a secret — hidden in plain sight just beneath the Parvis Notre-Dame. It is one of the few places in Paris where you can descend just a few steps and travel back 2000 years into the Gallo-Roman world of Lutetia.
Its rebirth was in 1963, as developers were considering an underground parking lot near Notre Dame. As they dug into the area that is now the Parvis, they discovered the foundations of Roman fortifications, including ramparts and thermal baths, as well as the remains of a docking port by the original path of the Seine.
The saying “and the rest is history” couldn’t be more true in this case. For the next seven years, excavations were conducted and, in 1980, the Crypt was opened to share the new discoveries with the public.
After the devastating fire affecting Notre Dame in April 2019, the crypt was closed. Before it could reopen, the toxic lead dust that plagued much of the area around the fire had to be removed from the ruins and the ventilation system. The next problem to be solved was the mold that developed because the ventilations system was closed down for the cleaning process.
The crypt reopened in September of this year with a new exhibit featuring Victor Hugo and Viollet-Le-Duc, two characters with key roles in the ongoing history of honoring Notre Dame.
The Crypt curators wanted to pay homage to Notre Dame, while the cathedral was being saved. Visitors can follow the work of these two prominent men through text, photographs, paintings, daguerreotypes, films, engravings, 3-D models, and posters. Both men had significant influence in the saga of Notre Dame.
A Declining Monument
At the beginning of the 19th century, Notre Dame’s physical state was deteriorating. The French Revolution of 1789 led to significant vandalism on the cathedral. There was even talk of demolishing it rather than investing in its restoration and maintenance. Some thought the gothic style was “barbaric.”
Victor Hugo was attached to “old France.” He lamented the fact that throughout the country, people were always “contemplating or completing the demolition of some national historic monument.”
He was devoted to Notre Dame, called it “a vast symphony in stone,” and suffered as he saw the “innumerable degradations and mutilations both by the ravages of time and the hand of man.”
The 1831 release of Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame was critical to his cause . . . and to the cathedral’s resurgence. The popularity of the book breathed new life into the idea of restoring Notre Dame. And, although we will always remember Quasimodo and Esmeralda, the central figure of the story was always the cathedral itself.
The restoration project (from 1844 to 1864) was led by architect Viollet-le-Duc. He remained faithful to the original design, but added a few creative touches, such as new sculptures (inspired by Hugo’s novel) and the spire that so dramatically collapsed in the 2019 fire and that has caused controversy since about how best to replace it.
As we all watch the restoration of Notre Dame, with its fragile structure surrounded by cranes, scaffolding, and temporary outbuildings to house all the delicate work that must take place, we are reminded in this new exhibit of why this restoration is so important to France and to the world.
Two quotes in the crypt exhibit underscore the significance.
Viollet-le-Duc said, “To restore a building is not to maintain, repair, or recreate it, it is to reclaim a complete state that may never have existed before.”
Hugo said, “The monument is the summary and summation of the human intelligence. Time is the architect, the nation is the builder. Great buildings, like great mountains, are the work of centuries.”
These words have even more meaning today as they serve to link the past, present, and future. We see how civilizations have evolved from the ancient Gallo-Romans through medieval times to the experts who must now interweave science and artistry to restore the cathedral.
This “summary of human intelligence” gives us some assurance that we will see Notre Dame’s rebirth in 2024, as France hopes.
Lead photo credit : The Île de la Cité Archeological Crypt © Meredith Mullins