Conservation in style and aesthetic unity

Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) was a French architect, conservation expert and architectural theorist whose role is mostly associated with the neo-Medieval movement, a cultural trend which was born in Europe in the early decades of the 19th century and prompted among other things a revival of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. As a friend of the first Inspector General of Historical Monuments of France, Ludovic Vitet, and his successor Prosper Mérimée, from a very young age Viollet-le-Duc took part in the debate on conservation of national monuments, mostly dating from the Middle Ages, which had suffered the damages and ravages of the French Revolution. He was responsible for shaping the conservation theory, in style, which dominated the international stage for most of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th century. His theories are based on the idea that the value of a monument rests upon its forms and styles, which conservation must strive to recover. This became possible thanks to the history of architecture, classification of buildings by school and period, together with their analogical-comparative study, ideas promoted by Viollet-le-Duc and his followers. The underlying belief is that contemporary architecture can improve and perfect a building and the work of the original architect, given its access to more information and more in-depth and widespread knowledge of the period.

With Vitet and Mérimée as mentors, in 1838 Viollet-le-Duc was appointed auditor for the Commission and from 1840 was commissioned multiple conservation projects throughout France. Among these it is worth highlighting the city of Carcassonne, a ruined Roman military enclave which had been stratified over the centuries. This was a double complex with 3 km of walls in which 52 towers and several buildings including the Porte Narbonnaise and Église Sainte-Nazaire. La Cité, a strategic enclave joining the Atlantic and Mediterranean via Toulouse, is characterized by the imprints of Gauls, Romans, Visigoths and different French medieval periods, primarily the 13th century.

For over twenty years Viollet-le-Duc worked on the full stylistic reconstruction of the complex. This is hardly surprising since he believed that when rebuilding an incomplete construction, architects were obliged to carry out a painstaking prior study to apply the original spirit of the work to the incomplete or missing section. He held that the building had to achieve an ideal stylistic unity suited to the hypothetical concept of the original creator. This resulted in a curious creative pastiche of towers, battlements and reconstructions combined with passionate romantic regenerative triumphalism in search of a "perfect whole", where the achievements of medieval construction were intertwined with the technical advances of the architecture of the time.

Ruins, patinas and the passage of time

The English intellectual John Ruskin (1819-1900) was the leader of the anti-conservation movement. Although at times misunderstood in his lifetime, some of the main ideas put forward by Ruskin and his student William Morris are now considered crucial in the modern conservation of cultural heritage. Minimal intervention, the idea that buildings do not belong to us but are owned by both our ancestors and descendants so that we therefore have a moral obligation to protect them and guarantee their daily upkeep, encompasses a more respectful attitude towards the monument which nevertheless was linked to the romantic notion of ruin, picturesque and sublime which was characteristic of the 19th century in its apogee.

In 1877, guided by Ruskin and Morris, a small group of enthusiastic pioneers implemented these ideas, setting up the first movement for building conservation in England. This organization, SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), still exists to this day. The original ideas of this Society, expressed in its Manifesto, have guided conservation work both in the United Kingdom and abroad, most notably in the case of the protection of the complex of San Marco in Venice. In this context, the international committee of the SPAB rejected the stylistic proposals of the Italian architect Giovanni Battista Meduna (1800-1886), who had kept a keen eye on the reconstruction and restoration of Venice (with experiences in the Teatro La Fenice, Ca' d´Oro and Chiesa di San Silvestro). This action attracted widespread international attention aiming to protect what was known as the “Piazzetta” of San Marco, the side of the Byzantine basilica in the Gothic style through restoration and the subsequent additions of works of art looted in wars by the Republic. Meduna wanted to eliminate layers and additions but ultimately public and political opinion put a stop to this, supporting conservation principles.

The impossibility of equilibrium between positions?

The Italian architect Camillo Boito (1836-1914) was the author of a 'third way' between the extremes of reconstructionist excesses of stylistic conservationists and the radical anti-restoration movement which would rather let a building disappeared before carrying out an intervention on it. With his theory of scientific conservation Camillo Boito contributed some of the elements which would become key in 21st-century conservation: the primacy of conservation over restoration, the legitimacy of restoration understood as minimum necessary interventions, the obligation to preserve monuments’ authenticity by respecting all their stages and the visual distinction of the new materials added in the intervention. Boito’s proposals harked back to discipline, the use of linguistic analysis and textual criticism, in order to correctly reconstruct and interpret texts or documents. Boito defended the right to restore an old building using new elements in order to guarantee a clear overall interpretation, although new articles were to be reflected using diacritics, used to make a word stand out from the context in which it is found (marks, quotes, italics). This parallel between restoration and philology was based on two main principles: the distinction of the intervention (that is, restoration had to make it possible to distinguish new pieces from the older ones) and the publicity of the intervention (the restoration carried out had to be widely publicized so as not to add falseness to the building intervened). An interesting action carried out by Boito was the restoration of Porta Ticinese in Milan (1861), part of the old city walls. Boito eliminated the buildings which had been superimposed in stages following the Middle Ages, emphasizing the two side arches. He also added partial finishes to the two brick towers in an intervention which could be recognized thanks to the colour and texture of elements, joints, details and simplified forms. The project also restored pointed arch windows and rejointed the brick in several places, leaving it bare.

Last modified: Monday, 23 October 2023, 4:09 PM