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Maurice de Pange Lecture: Agnès Poirier



Maurice de Pange Lecture: Agnès Poirier

15 November 2021

Agnès Poirier presented her latest book, Notre-Dame: The Soul of France

In a scintillating talk in the Maurice de Pange Lecture series, author and journalist Agnès Poirier presented her latest book, Notre-Dame: The Soul of France, and discussed the building’s variegated past, last year’s devastating fire, which nearly obliterated it, and what the future holds for the cathedral.

On the evening of 15th April 2019, Agnès Poirier was preparing a report for the BBC on President Macron’s response to the gilets jaunes protests when she saw, from the window of her flat, columns of smoke rising from the cathedral. Like thousands of other people who were present at the scene, she was transfixed at the sight of the burning building. ‘It felt very strange,’ she said. ‘It was almost beautiful’. Despite not being Catholic, Agnès experienced a deep rush of emotion: what was going up in flames was not just a Paris monument, but one of the landmarks of humanity.

Notre-Dame has always been very special for Parisians. Since the time of its construction, which occurred between 1163 and 1260 thanks to contributions from people from every walk of life, the cathedral has been much more than a religious building. It was a place for everyone, for the whole community, not just for worshippers – it was the focal point of Paris. Even during the French Revolution, when it was seized from the Church and transformed into a ‘Temple of Reason’, the citizens of Paris went to Notre-Dame to celebrate their greatest victories and achievements.

Notre-Dame’s existence has been in danger before. In 1548, a group of rioting Huguenots defaced some of its statues, as they considered them idolatrous. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the cathedral was in such a state of disrepair that major renovation works, which lasted twenty years – from 1844 to 1864 – at the cost of more than twelve million francs, had to be carried out. It is largely thanks to the efforts of one man – Victor Hugo – that Notre-Dame still stands today. Hugo was not only a celebrated poet and novelist, but he also had a strong interest in architecture and was a great admirer of the cathedral: the phenomenal success of his 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), reawakened popular appreciation of the building and gave impetus to the restoration project.

Some of the richest families of France – the Pinaults, the Arnaults, the Bettencourts – have provided large donations, often trying to upstage each other, to help restore the cathedral to its former glory. It is only fitting that the burden of repairing a building that was paid for originally by the people of Paris should not be shouldered again by the townsfolk. Some of the initial madcap proposals, such as a swimming-pool roof or a titanium spire, have luckily been abandoned, and the new restoration project is now in the safe hands of history experts and architects, with works scheduled to be completed by 2024, in time for the Paris Olympics. The future of Notre-Dame looks bright again.

It was a real pleasure and privilege to listen to Agnès Poirier’s informative and uplifting talk.

Eleonora Gallenzi
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Maurice de Pange Lecture: Agnès Poirier

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