France Contemporary Architecture Part II

War damage to monuments and works of art.

According to programingplease, the war of 1939-45 inflicted considerable losses on the French artistic heritage, especially in architecture and sculpture. The paintings and stained glass windows had generally been secured and the damage suffered was caused by theft rather than destruction. It has been estimated that 77 of 90 metropolitan departments were affected and that of around 20,000 buildings classified as historic monuments or registered in the supplementary inventory of historic monuments, nearly 2,000 were destroyed or severely damaged. There are various causes of this damage; and their stories can be divided chronologically into three parts:

a) Campaign of 1940. The German army, carrying out frequent breakthroughs, set fire to cities and villages located at the intersection of important roads with the air force. The cities that constitute bridgeheads have therefore more or less suffered. The following dates back to this period: 1) on the Seine, the damage done to Vernon and Rouen. In Rouen the damage was made more serious by the fact that the Germans did not allow the fire to be put out; in this way the whole district between the Seine and the cathedral, with its ancient houses and churches, was destroyed; 2) on the Loire the damage caused in Gien, Orleans, Elois, Tours.

b) From 1940 to 1944, the damage caused by British and American air raids. The industrial plants of the large cities and the ports of the Atlantic coast were particularly affected: Le Havre, Brest, Saint-Nazaire, Nantes, Bordeaux. Of these cities, Bordeaux was the richest in monuments.

c) Liberation campaigns, 1944-45. In this period the destructions are due to the aerial bombardments of the two sides, carried out as preparation for the ground combat (Rouen is again severely hit) and, above all, to the ground combat itself (destruction by shelling). The two regions that have suffered the most are those in which the fighting lasted the longest: Normandy and Alsace.

From these events it appears that the regions most severely tried were the east, the north and the west of France.

In Normandy, two cities in particular suffered irreparable losses: Rouen and Caen. In Rouen all the old houses near the cathedral, to which they formed a truly unique background, have been torn down. The cathedral itself had very serious injuries. The vaults of the choir and the ambulatory have been broken down; damage that is repairable. More serious is the destruction of the chapels flanking the aisle on the right; on this side, towards the south, the entire facade of the building has been gutted. The main façade suffered the most serious damage; if the Tour de Beurre had only minimal damage, the Tour Saint-Romain, the oldest, was burned inside; the chipped stone crumbles and everything needs to be rebuilt. The church of Saint-Ouen, which was only slightly damaged, could quickly be returned to worship. But the church of Saint-Maclou is a great victim of the war. As in all great Norman churches, one of its most beautiful parts was the lantern tower built on the cross of the transept on four brick pillars. One of the pillars had been hit and the lantern tower began to slowly yield, threatening to overwhelm the whole church and neighboring houses in its fall. A speed race was then engaged between the architect and the impending collapse: a quick and skilful intervention saved Saint-Maclou from complete destruction. Small churches have suffered greater damage. Of the church of S. Vincenzo, one of the oldest in the city, only a few strips of wall remain. The windows had fortunately been dismantled and secured since the start of the war. The church of San Stefano des Tonneliers, one of the jewels of the century. XVI, is also entirely destroyed. Among the civil buildings, the palace of the erudite societies, the ancient seat of the first presidents of the Normandy parliament, was completely set on fire, before their retreat, by the Germans who had installed their telephone exchange there. The Palace of Justice, which was perhaps Rouen’s most popular monument, is no more than a heap of ruins. The palace of Bourgthéroulde, an extremely elegant construction of the early Renaissance, has suffered severely.

In Caen, where the battle raged from 6 June to 15 August 1944, the losses are no less significant. However, the war spared the two great Romanesque abbeys owed to William the Conqueror and his wife Matilde, the Abbey aux Hommes and the Abbey aux Dames. But all around there is nothing but devastation and ruins. In the heart of the city the tall bell tower of S. Pietro was knocked down by a navy howitzer which also broke through the roof and the upper windows of the building. The church of San Giovanni, built in the century. XV in flamboyant style, it was badly mutilated. The church of S. Salvatore, notable for its two naves of equal size and the two apses, suffered less, but the old S. Stefano had the nave gutted and the entire facade demolished. Of the Escoville building, which was considered to be one of the most significant examples of Renaissance-era townhouses in France, there remains only a few ruined sections of walls and a few battered sculptures. Of the Than palace, almost contemporary but of a less developed style, only the façade wall has been saved, and the Monnaie palace has completely disappeared: these were the three masterpieces of Renaissance civil architecture in Caen. Nothing remains of the town hall (17th century) which contained the very rich library of the city. (On the site of the castle dating back to the time of William the Conqueror, there is now a field of ruins. And the old half-timbered houses of the streets Saint-Pierre, Saint-Jean, Montoir Poissonnerie have also disappeared.

Rouen and Caen were not the only victims of the war among the Norman cities. In Cotentin Saint-Lo and Valognes, in Calvados Lisieux and Pont l’Evêque, on the Orne Argentan and Alençon, on the lower Seine, Le Havre and Dieppe have lost their churches and old houses. Particularly painful is the almost total demolition of the abbey church of Lessay (Manche), which was probably the oldest French building with pointed crosses (end of the 11th century).

France Contemporary Architecture 2