PARIS • The archaeological crypt of Notre-Dame reopens today with an exhibition retracing the cathedral's turbulent history, nearly 18 months after it was ravaged by fire.
The blaze in April last year toppled the cathedral's spire and destroyed much of the roof of what is one of France's most cherished national treasures.
The crypt, situated below the square in front of the cathedral and containing the remains of fortifications and thermal baths, had to be cleaned of lead dust - an arduous job that took more than a year before visitors could be allowed back in.
The exhibition pays homage to French writer Victor Hugo and architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the two men behind the resurrection of the cathedral in the 19th century.
FORBIDDING AND DANGEROUS
Hugo's novel The Hunchback Of Notre-Dame, published in 1831, was instrumental in winning public backing for the restoration of the monument, which had been left in a state of abandon and decay.
"The exhibition starts with how the cathedral looked at the time the novel was published," said Mr Vincent Gille, a curator at the Victor Hugo museum in Paris.
"It was a frightfully forbidding and dangerous building which bore no resemblance to a radiant and shining cathedral," he added, pointing to several of Hugo's sketches as evidence.
The exhibition consists mostly of photographs, drawings, paintings and film excerpts illustrating the world's fascination with the cathedral, from its historical beginnings to modern-day animated feature films.
WAR AGAINST THE DEMOLISHERS
Notre-Dame was badly damaged by vandalism in the early 19th century. Indifferent city authorities were planning to tear it down when Hugo called for "war against the demolishers" in a pamphlet published in 1825.
"There is perhaps not a single city in France today that is not thinking about, beginning or completing the destruction of some national monument," he wrote.
After the publication of Hugo's novel, the exhibition shows, the French public swung behind the idea that Notre-Dame was worth saving. It gave crucial support to Viollet-le-Duc's work on the cathedral between 1844 and 1864, which laid the foundations of the national-monument status it enjoys today.
The inspiration for some of the cathedral's features, such as the malevolent chimeras overlooking Paris, came directly from Hugo's novel - which had also, eerily, described a devastating fire.
Organisers see the exhibition as the first step towards a return to normal for the crypt's museum, which before the fire welcomed some 170,000 visitors a year.
"The project started very soon after the fire and was motivated by the wish to honour the cathedral," curator Anne de Mondenard said.
Work on Notre-Dame's reconstruction after last year's fire has been plagued by delays due to bad weather, concerns over lead pollution and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic.
It was only in early June that workers began the delicate task of removing tonnes of metal scaffolding that had melted together in the fire - renovation work had been under way when the blaze struck.
French President Emmanuel Macron gave his blessing in July to a faithful reconstruction of the cathedral's spire, in a change of heart after previously calling for a "contemporary" touch.