Flamboyant Gothic
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Rue de Rivoli is one of Paris' main boulevards. It passes by city hall, the Louvre museum, and also the Tour Saint Jacques- originally the steeple of a church built in the 16th century.

These days, the tower's covered in a white shell. In May the top was uncovered. Gargoyles stare down to the street below, and if you strain your eyes, you can see hints of intricate detail on the walls

In 2006, the city of Paris embarked on a massive restoration of the tower. It was literally falling into pieces. Emilie Masse is a restorer who worked on the tower this summer. She gives a tour of the worksite

[elevator sounds]

We start at the top, accessible by elevator in scaffolding

[elevator sounds]

At the top, Masse points out the statues:

Masse: Au sommet de la tour on a Saint Jacques le majeur...

There is Saint Jacques, or Saint James- surrounded by the Tetramorph, or the symbols of four evangelists:

Masse: Donc on a le taureau de Saint Luc...

The Bull of Saint Luke, Saint Marc's lion, Saint John's Eagle, and the angel of Saint Matthew.

Masse: ... L'ange de Saint Mattheiu

The walls are covered with intricately carved animals, flowers and geometric shapes. All this 30 meters up in the air- barely visible from the ground.

Before anything can be restored or repaired, the stones must be cleaned. They are black with soot and pollution. Masse explains that they're cleaned by micro-abrasionóstreams of fine sand to blast off the encrusted dirt

Masse: Il y a des choses on peut pas faire au sablage, parce-que le sablage c'est trop corrosive

Some things can't be cleaned with this method, though- because it's too corrosive. So they use lasers.

Masse: Ca fait "tac tac tact tac tac"

Masse makes the sound of the laser. It's a beam, a couple of millimeters thick that dislodges the dirt. Many of the stones are being replaced with new ones. They are measured, then taken out. Stone carvers like Lucien Mazet cut them to size:

Mazet: Il y a pas de machines, c'est un chantier sans machines- on travail comme les anciens

He explains that the site has no machines. Everything is done old fashioned, with hand toolsóchisels...

[chisel sound]

...and hand saws

[saw sound]

Once the stones are fit into the wall, the sculptors carve the details. They study the old ones, and come up with an appropriate replacement.

Duvignacq [translation]: It's a rare and unique example of the flamboyant Gothic style...

Joel Duvignacq is in charge of this restoration and maintenance Paris' cultural and historical buildings.

Duvignacq [translation]: The fact that it's flamboyant means it has an unusual amount of detail. And for the sculptors- working on convoluted surfaces with such complex shapes- it's a challenge.

The tower was the steeple of a 16th century church. During the Revolution the church was dismantled, but the steeple was saved. In the 1850s, during the Baron Haussmann's massive renewal of Paris, the tower was turned into a landmark, and a public garden was built around the base. All that, plus several renovations during the 20th century- The sculptors have a lot of eras to think about:

Duvignacq [translation]: They all had to immerse themselves for several months in the richness of the decorations, which are varied, from both the 16th and 19th centuries. As much as possible, we're trying to preserve all those elements. And we bring a 21st century touch. Those who come after us- I hope they'll also respect the 21st century.

The stones that aren't replaced are restored:

Masse : Alors ca, elle est pas restore...

Emilie Masse shows one that hasn't been worked on yet.

[crumbling sounds]

It crumbles in as she brushes it with her hand. She explains there are cracks where water can get in which, when it freezes, will crack the stone even more.

Masse: Il faut les purger...

Masse explains that to restore a stone, she first removes all the lose bits. Then the stone is impregnated with a glue to bind it, and the surface is covered with a protective mortar.

The project budget is eight million euros, funded half by the city, and half by the state. Expensive, yes, but important, says Duvignacq [translation]:

Duvignacq [translation]: Paris would not be Paris without the Tower- It's part of the history- For me it's actually a political symbol: A strong symbol of the city-planning of the second empire- A strong affirmation of Parisian identity. This isn't just the Tower, but in general the planning of that era that's lasted until today.

Today, if you go into the garden at the base of the tower, you can look through windows onto the worksite

Duvignacq [translation]: When you print "8 million euros" on a sign on a worksite, people say it's too expensive. They don't understand why it costs so much. When they see the way people are working, they understand that it's done by hand. You can't clean these stones with a pressure washer. It's painstaking work

The renovations will run until spring of 2009. The scaffolding will be progressively removed, top down, and the tower will gradually emerge.


This piece aired September 2, 2007 on RFI.


Producer: Sarah Elzas
Recorded in Paris, France
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