- Destruction of Cultural Heritage in 19th-Century France: Old Stones versus Modern Identities by Michael Greenhalgh
The starting point of this detailed study is that, while it may seem counter-intuitive in our own day, in France during the nineteenth century national pride and identity came to a greater extent from the new, the modern, rather than from historical memory, as embodied by ancient constructions. Efforts at preservation of historically significant buildings were thus regularly superseded by the drive for urban modernization. Michael Greenhalgh has documented this destructive trend throughout the country, although there are some important regional variations. Architectural modernization was an objective more forcefully pursued in major cities, especially in the capital: ‘Whereas many towns preserved an earlier core, with developments restricted to where the walls had been, and just outside them, in Paris much more was destroyed; and here, recycling material had been standard practice for centuries’ (p. 208). By contrast, the slower pace of economic development in some regions resulted in the preservation of a higher percentage of the accumulated architectural heritage. Greenhalgh’s book covers issues of definition (heritage / le patrimoine) as well as potential anachronisms, considering how concepts of histoire and mémoire have evolved. Factors other than the simple impetus for urban renewal and modernization are also evaluated, particularly the innovations in military technology that rendered obsolete the traditional fortifications which had long enclosed urban centres. Similarly, new transportation technologies, which stimulated trade and commerce (railways, roads, and canals), led to more pressure to open and link together cities previously surrounded by walls and gates. Paradoxically, the opening of new museums in [End Page 614] major cities had little effect on the cycle of urban destruction and reconstruction. Building materials from previous eras continued to be recycled into new architectural works. This study thus often reads like a depressing litany of seemingly unconscionable acts of historical and cultural vandalism (another historically loaded term whose definition is discussed) that degraded or swept away centuries of architectural heritage. Perhaps more balance would have been achieved if the author had taken into consideration at more length how the removal and/or recycling of ‘old stones’ could have been perceived as socially valid, indeed beneficial, in a country where many densely packed urban areas, with foul-smelling streets lacking air and sunlight, still retained the disadvantages of the medieval period. That said, Greenhalgh’s book will be a useful resource for historians as well as for literary scholars (see for instance Prosper Mérimée’s efforts at preserving architectural ‘grands souvenirs’ (p. 13)). The numerous illustrations reproduced in the book’s closing section will also be of interest.