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Should old buildings be left in ruins or rebuilt? Does restoration bring beauty back to life or is it a betrayal of truth? We’re confronted with these questions more than ever as digital technology makes it ever more practical to repair or replicate lost masterpieces. From the possibility of resurrecting the tragic ruins of Palmyra to the more comedic tale of English Heritage upsetting Cornish antiquarians by carving Merlin’s face near Tintagel Castle, restoration is an electric issue.
I like ruins. I grew up a long way from London’s art galleries but very close to some of the finest medieval castles in Europe. The raw, real stone of Conwy Castle is to my eyes more moving than a tarted up “restored” castle might be. Keep ruins as they are, I say – don’t rebuild them. Or at least that’s what I thought before I had a close encounter this summer with the genius of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.
To climb the stone spiral staircase hidden inside the walls of Notre Dame in Paris and emerge onto a gothic parapet high above the river Seine is to enter Viollet-le-Duc’s wondrous world. Grimacing gargoyles – or chimeres – crouch and squat all around you, their bulging stone eyes gazing on the city far below.
What medieval mind invented these hideous yet pitiable monsters? In fact, they are not medieval at all. The spectacular gargoyles that swarm the heights of Notre Dame sprang from the mind of Viollet-le-Duc, who could not resist adding his own demonic touch when restoring this great building in the 19th century. Was it a crime against taste or truth? No, it was an act of love and imagination. […]