By Michael Pearson
When Richard Utz, a medievalist and professor and chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, learned of the devastating fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, one of the first things to come to mind was the 1969 documentary series Civilization.
In the opening minutes of the influential series, art historian Sir Kenneth Clark asked, “What is civilization?”
“I don’t know I can’t define it in abstract terms yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it,” he said, turning to the massive building behind him, “and I am looking at it now.”
That building was, of course, Notre Dame, the literal and figurative epicenter of French civilization for more than 850 years, and for untold millions around the world, a beloved link to a lost pre-modern past.
“I call it a time machine, a time machine that gives us the opportunity to touch the past,” Utz said. “And that’s something people need, to be in touch with the past and something that surmounts our own mortality. So it will rise from its ashes.”
It is something of a wonder the cathedral survived mostly intact for as long as it did, with its warren of ancient wooden beams and repeated renovations and additions over the centuries. In fact, this is not the cathedral’s first brush with its own mortality, Utz notes.
The building was looted and stripped of its designation as a church and converted to a “Temple of Reason” during the French Revolution, Utz notes. It again narrowly avoided destruction toward the end of World War II, when German Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz allegedly refused Adolf Hitler’s order to destroy the cathedral along with the rest of the city’s religious and historical landmarks.
French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed the rebuild the cathedral, and Utz does not doubt his words.
“No country spends more on heritage preservation than France,” he said.
How it will be rebuilt, however, remains an intriguing question for Utz. The cathedral could be rebuilt reasonably quickly with modern tools and techniques, such as 3D-printing. Art historian Andrew Tallon’s 3-D laser maps or Assassin’s Creed Unity’s similarly detailed mappings of the cathedral may provide the foundation. Or it could be rebuilt much more slowly using only the pre-modern tools and techniques used to originally raise it.
Such techniques are already in use in France. About two hours to the south of Paris, in Treigny, France, Utz notes, Guédelon castle is being raised using only tools and techniques available for artisans of the Middle Ages.
“We never get a chance to build a cathedral anymore, not the medieval kind. So just like building the castle, this is, to me, a huge opportunity to do something that teaches and unites the nation and the world in participating in this rebuilding.”
The School of Literature, Media, and Communiciation is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.