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  • Adrian J. Boas

On the Fine Art of Restoration


The destruction of Viollet-le-Duc's neo-medieval spire in the Notre Dame de Paris fire, 2019 - Wandrille de Préville [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

My parents once purchased new dining room furniture: a cherry-wood table, chairs and a large glass-windowed display cabinet. It was rather more expensive than they could afford, and my mother was very proud of it. At the time my brother had taken up cigarette smoking, and one day when my parents were fortunately not at home he left a cigarette lying on the side of the cabinet where it burnt a small and shallow groove in the surface. Our initial panic at discovering the damage eventually gave way to rational thought, innovative ideas and resourcefulness. We came up with the solution that oddly enough appears to have done the job - rubbing the damaged area with brown shoe polish. It worked so nicely that, at least, to my recollection, my mother never said anything about it. This was my first delve into the art of restoration.*


The abilities of restorers of glass, metal and ceramics finds from our excavations always impress me. To take a crumbling, amorphous lump of rust, to laboriously clean, glue and preserve it so that for the first time in centuries it can be seen to be an iron spade, is an admirable achievement. The restoration of entire buildings, however, is rather more complex and is often controversial.


"To restore - is to establish something in a complete state - that may never have existed at any given time."* When he wrote these words in 1854 in the introduction to his essay – On Restoration – the French architect, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc seems to have been expressing some reservations regarding what was at the time a common practice, and one that he himself had played a prominent role in. The extensive or entire reconstruction of a ruin was very much in vogue in the nineteenth century, but in modern times restoration has been restricted by various UNESCO conventions and established guidelines.


Le Duc’s restoration of Carcassonne and Chateau de Pierrefonds were well-intended projects aimed at restoring ancient buildings to how, in the eyes of the restorer, they might or should have originally appeared. In our modern, more scientific, and more conservation-minded age, it is understood that this type of over-restoration often results in a loss of authenticity (the recent restoration of Harunia Castle, a small Teutonic fortress in Anatolia, has turned a rather attractive ruin of what was clearly a crusader castle into something that looks more like a modern factory). Restoration nonetheless does answer a lot of questions. Through the act of restoring we are forced to deal with details – what types of building materials were employed, what were the construction techniques and how did the architect resolve structural issues, where were the windows and doors placed, what types of decoration were used.


While an archaeologist excavating a monumental building may need to contain the desire to physically reconstruct, with today's advanced computer-generated programs it has become increasingly possible to recreate in the form of imagery, what is today referred to as virtual restoration. After thirteen years of study at Montfort we have gathered enough information to enable us to begin to raise up on computer screen the missing parts of the castle that Baybars had thrown down in July 1271. We can reconstruct the upper floors, place back where they once stood the vaulting, the stained-glass windows, the archery embrasures, lift up the columns and carvings and return the painting to the walls and ceilings. If not quite as fulfilling as actual physical reconstruction, it is far less expensive and time consuming, it allows for rethinking and change, and it preserves intact the authentic remains. Perhaps, the only downside (which many, observing the Disneyfication of numerous European historical sites would regard as an upside) is that it does not produce tourist sites. It is, in any case, a highly rewarding process and one which at Montfort we have only just begun.




*Although it might generally be better catagorised as a craft, I refer to restoration as an art because, particularly in the past when there were few rules limiting the restorer's work, many instances of building restoration involved not only skilled repair, but a great deal of invented replacement, and necessitated of the restorer aesthetic creative abilities rather than merely learned skills and technical expertise (as for example in the nineteenth century creation of the lamented spire that was lost in the recent Paris fire).

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