Precise, revered, vital: Tallon’s work may save Notre-Dame

Late Assistant Professor of Art Andrew Tallon’s spatial models of Notre-Dame give force to restoration plans after the fire. In Paris and beyond, the laser-exacting images that Tallon created have garnered international attention and applause. Courtesy of Craig W. Stapert

“Nice to have an apartment across the street there, to watch the building as it changes,” muttered Andrew Tallon in a 2017 video, guiding a camera along the roof of Notre-Dame. He looks disconcerted as he points out the disrepair: a broken pinnacle, the remains of a gargoyle (a lead pipe sticks out of what used to be its head), a flying buttress with water damage. Little did Tallon know that years later, he would represent all hopes for a newly restored Notre-Dame.

Now back to that cloudless day in Paris; we can hear construction work and sirens at street level, the sounds of the city. Tallon, who was an Associate Professor of Art at Vassar, discusses the structures and material of Notre-Dame intimately: the oxidized limestone and the structural importance of pinnacles. He worries over the damage like a parent. “What I hope you can see by walking through this forest of stones is that they’re suffering,” he says. “That through exposure to water, through exposure to atmospheric pollution, they need some attention. And they’re gonna get some attention, because there is a restoration campaign afoot right now.”

The art historian is talking about Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris, which he co-founded in the U.S. The Archbishop of Paris and the Diocese of Paris created the charity after the French Ministry of Culture stopped financing repairs to the cathedral. Tallon sounds hesitant when he says restoration is underway. Years after he filmed the vlog, disaster would catalyze preservation efforts.

The Apr. 15 fire attracted the attention of audiences around the world, and alongside with the cathedral in much of the news coverage was Tallon’s name. He died just months before the fire, in November (“Andrew J. Tallon,” The Poughkeepsie Journal).

In the days after the fire, donations reached $1 billion, which the French government encouraged: President Emmanuel Macron promised to “rebuild the cathedral more beautiful than ever” in just five years (“Notre Dame: experts explain why Macron’s five-year restoration deadline is impossible,” The Art Newspaper, 04.26.2019).

This five-year plan is dubious. Beyond the heat and water damage, talks of repairs raise a number of issues about artistic and religious betrayal, and the varying purity of plans for Notre-Dame’s future. Macron’s government announced an international architectural competition for a new spire “adapted to the techniques and challenges of our time,” generating controversy over whether to rebuild the cathedral as it was or modernize a building that was a major cultural center before there even was a Paris. Some fear that Macron is sacrificing structural integrity for speedy reconstruction, especially with the Paris Olympic Games approaching.

The building, however, is no stranger to change. Tallon explains in his video that Notre-Dame underwent a major restoration in the 19th century, when Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” drew attention to the crumbling state of the cathedral. Like Tallon, Hugo shows a parental worry over the decay, albeit in fictional form. “Beside each wrinkle on the face of this old queen of our cathedrals,” he writes, “you will find a scar” (“Notre Dame Cathedral Is Crumbling. Who Will Help Save It?,” Time, 04.15.2019). But the 1844 restoration involved low-quality stone and cement, creating a host of recent structural problems.

Considering the heat and water damage, it might take a decade, but Tallon’s efforts will expedite repairs—or, rather, he will make them possible. In 2015 he created a painstakingly detailed digital model of the cathedral with lasers, providing a near-perfect replica (“Four years ago, an art historian used lasers to digitally map Notre Dame Cathedral. His work could help save it,” CNN, 04.17.2019).

The Vassar community recalled these renderings after the fire. On Monday, Apr. 22, the Department of Medieval Studies, with the support of the Religion and French and Francophone Studies departments, hosted a pop-up conversation about Notre-Dame at Taylor Hall. Professor of Art Molly Nesbit called the conversation “[A] way to call up our dear departed Andrew Tallon, whose work grounds everyone’s understanding of Gothic architecture, especially at Vassar.”

Professor of Religion Marc Epstein also revealed a personal connection to the cathedral: There is a picture book called “Adelaide” by Tomi Ungerer about a kangaroo with wings who visits Notre-Dame. This was Epstein’s first time seeing the building. The kangaroo marvels at the gargoyles. “We all look for ourselves even in buildings as iconic as the Notre-Dame,” he reflected.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Art Lindsay Cook said her first experience of Notre-Dame was clipping out its image in elementary school. Cook discussed her research on its architectural and institutional history, walking us through structural details with an enthusiasm that rivals that of Tallon and Hugo. As she displayed a panorama of the building, the Chapel tolled in the distance—the whole room seemed to mourn.

Cook clarified that buildings change and they are meant to change. The history of Notre-Dame is a series of upheavals and restorations: the emergence of Christendom, the French Revolution, two world wars, the recent blaze. In the early 13th century, masons updated the windows to match contemporary tastes. Anti-clerical Enlightenment ideals inspired a translucent, brighter glass design. Cook said the goal of the 19th-century restoration was to “put back the building in a way that it may never have looked in the first place.” Concerning the Paris cathedral, preservation always aimed at alteration.

Change is inevitable in the face of disasters, erosion, political turmoil and variable aesthetic tastes, making his renderings as important as good upkeep.

After Hugo published “Hunchback,” Parisians took photos and made plaster models, which now serve as historical records. Tallon’s model, with its billions of laser-measured points, is the most meticulous of these records, boding well for the future of Notre-Dame.

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