Art & Architecture

article | Reading time7 min

Viollet-le-Duc's restoration

In the XIXᵉ century, the medieval city of Carcassonne, then in ruins, underwent the largest restoration project in Europe. Watch as this unique place in the world regains all its splendor under the direction of architect Viollet-le-Duc!

An abandoned fortress

During the 13th century, Carcassonne was transformed into a military fortress. Its tactical location in the heart of Languedoc put it in the front line against France's rival kingdom of Aragon. In 1635, war broke out between the French and Spanish, ending in 1659 with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees. The two countries were now at peace, and Carcassonne lost its strategic importance. This marked the beginning of a long decline, which saw the medieval city depopulated in favor of the bastide Saint-Louis, on the other bank of the Aude...

Basilique Saint-Nazaire et Saint-Celse
Ancienne cathédrale

© Geoffroy Mathieu / Centre des monuments nationaux

Encountering Viollet-le-Duc

We're now in the 19th century, where a key figure awaits us: Eugène Viollet-le-Duc!

Born in Paris in 1814, this cultured and passionate architect became a restorer in 1840. Prosper Mérimée, Inspector General of Historic Monuments, entrusted him with the Vézelay basilica project. It was the start of a great career! Viollet-le Duc was enthusiastic aboutGothic architecture and the Middle Ages, which were enjoying a revival in the Romantic period of the 19th century. And, in 1843, he supervised work on Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris! He went on to work on other iconic monuments, such as the Château de Pierrefonds, the Basilique Saint-Denis and Amiens Cathedral.

For the moment, however, it's 1844 and he's just been given a new assignment, in the south of France. For the past 9 years, a local archaeologist, Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, has been multiplying his studies and efforts to demonstrate the historical value of an ancient Cité and its fortifications. A magnificent place, it seems, for which Mérimée fell in love at first sight. Did you guess? Let's head for Carcassonne!

Restauration selon Viollet-le-Duc
Gargouille imaginée par Viollet-le-Duc

© Laurent Gueneau / Centre des monuments nationaux

The medieval city in 1844

Let's join Viollet-le-Duc to discover the medieval city with him. Alas, a sad spectacle awaits us. The château, the ramparts, the towers... everything is in disrepair. Worse still, the walls have been dismantled and used as stone quarries by local masons! Finally, the lices were invaded by squalid dwellings, shelters for the city's poorest inhabitants. The task ahead was immense...

Thanks to the tenacity of Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire was listed as a historic monument in 1840. Viollet-le-Duc began with the basilica. He carried out a meticulous analysis of the building and surrounded himself with numerous craftsmen, including masons and master glassmakers. Work continued until 1864!

Lices Carcassonne
Lices aménagées entre les deux enceintes

© Laurent Gueneau / Centre des monuments nationaux

A titanic project

In 1849, while work on the basilica progressed, the rest of the medieval town was also classified as a historic monument. Three years later, in 1852, restoration work began. Viollet-le-Duc first had the houses cluttering up the lices removed. He then tackled the part of the inner wall running from the western end to the château. He also worked on the towers, which he had covered, and on the Narbonnaise gate. Fortifications are generally only damaged at the top. So it's the upper sections that need the most attention: crenellations, vaulting and roofing.

Dependent on the funds allocated to it, the project could only be carried out in stages. Viollet-le-Duc supervised the project from a distance, visiting the site only once a year. So, from 1864 to 1867, work shifted to the southern front and the outer wall. The Porte Saint-Nazaire was restored, as were the neighboring towers. Between 1870 and 1871, work was interrupted once again by the Franco-German war. Operations then resumed again, this time on the north side, with the Roman towers, the Saint-Louis barbican and the Tréseau tower. Little by little, the city of Carcassonne was restored to its former glory!

Tour du Tresau Carcassonne
La Tour du Trésau

© Patrick Cadet / Centre des monuments nationaux

A very personal style

Watercolor plans, pen-and-ink sketches, examination of remains and archives... Viollet-le-Duc masters his subject like no other! Yet his achievements are far from unanimously acclaimed! It has to be said that he did not hesitate to take a few liberties with historical reality... which sometimes led to surprising choices.

"Restoring a building is not about maintaining it, repairing it or redoing it, it's about restoring it to a complete state that may never have existed at any given time", he declares. Enough to make historians shudder with horror! But the architect doesn't care: what he wants is to restore the Cité as it might have appeared at the end of the 13th century. That's why, for example, he added a drawbridge to the Narbonnaise gate.

But the most controversial element at the time was undoubtedly his treatment of the roofs. Instead of the flat tiles typical of the region, he used slate lauzes. His detractors, like the historian Hippolyte Taine, cried scandal! It's true that the use of flat tiles is mentioned in an ancient text about Carcassonne. However, slate is also found in the Montagne Noire, less than 50 kilometers away. So it's not such a strange choice...

Viollet-le-Duc died in 1879, and Paul Boeswillwald took over the Carcassonne project. This remains the most important project undertaken by the architect, who devoted almost 50 years of his life to it! Although his transformations were criticized until the 1960s, today they are an integral part of the face of the Cité, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.

It's your turn to take a tour of this magnificent site, which seems to have stepped straight out of a medieval novel!

Porte Narbonnaise Carcassonne
La Porte Narbonnaise

© Geoffroy Mathieu /Centre des monuments nationaux

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