Lisbon earthquake

Catastrophic Lisbon earthquake of 1755

The city of Lisbon was for centuries the gateway to the Americas, Africa and Europe. A cosmopolitan city of palaces, opulent churches and people from all corners of the globe. In front of the royal residence, was the river Tagus clogged with ships bearing spices, precious metals and….slaves. But this picture of unbridled wealth came to a sudden end in November 1755 when the city was hit by an earthquake, tsunami and fire.

The day when hell rained down on Lisbon was the 1st November. This was All Saints Day when the city’s mainly Catholic population was in church. By all accounts it was a sunny and very pleasant morning when at 9am, citizens heard an ominous subterranean thunder. Lisbon shook for about three minutes with buildings collapsing everywhere and people crushed beneath the rubble.

Then the sea retreated far from the harbour. It returned with an immense wave of about fifty to sixty feet in height. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people had rushed to the harbour to escape toppling structures in the downtown area. But sadly, they’d dashed headlong into the tsunami.

DISCOVER: Aftermath of the fire at Notre Dame in Paris

The scene in churches across the city was utter carnage. At the Igreja do Carmo, a massive convent, overlooking the city, hundreds of worshippers died during mass when the church roof collapsed on their heads. The ruins have been kept to the present day as a grim reminder of what happened.

Because so many churches had candles burning that day, fires spread very quickly. It was also claimed that robbers and other criminals engaged in widespread arson to distract from acts of theft. Whether deliberately caused or not, the inferno raged in the city for six days. In every corner of Lisbon there were half-burnt bodies lying around for long afterwards.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

The Lisbon earthquake literally rocked 18th century opinion. On one side, it bolstered the arguments of those who saw a divine hand in natural events. Lisbon was being punished for its hubris. On the other side were the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. People like Voltaire who penned a sarcastic satire titled Candide where he mocked the idea that we lived in the best of all possible worlds – as the horror in Lisbon only too clearly evidenced.

On the plus side, the Lisbon earthquake gave a big boost to the study of earthquakes leading to our modern day understanding of these deadly phenomena.

Notre Dame – seizing an opportunity from a tragedy

I’ve spent a lot of time in Paris this year and made two visits to Notre Dame in February and March. It made me sick to my stomach to see the cathedral in flames yesterday. But almost immediately, having immersed myself in the history of Notre Dame, I recognised an opportunity that could arise from this tragedy.

Getting rid of 19th century “improvements”

It may be too soon to say this, but I’ll stick my neck out and take the risk. Notre Dame has been subject to some major changes in its 800 year history.  In the 17th century, classical pillars were added to the nave and stained glass replaced by plain glass. But it was the 19th century and a revival of interest in the medieval Gothic that led some to some very controversial changes to buildings like Notre Dame.

Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) was an architect who set out to tart up medieval buildings in France that had either fallen into disrepair or been damaged during the French Revolution of 1789. He came under fire from critics at the time for removing the 17th century classical elements put up under Louis XIV, re-introducing (as he saw it) loads of grotesque gargoyles and re-building the central spire – removed as unsafe in the 18th century.

Eugene_viollet_le_duc

Viollet-le-Duc

It was this spire that collapsed during the fire yesterday. Also destroyed would have been stained glass put in by Viollet-le-Duc and other “restorations”.  The question that should now be reviewed again is whether his changes were in keeping with the original cathedral or a 19th century Romantic era idea of the Middle Ages.

The English Gothic revivalist architect Augustus Pugin seems to have despised Viollet-le-Duc calling him a “monster of architectural depravity”.  He has been rehabilitated to a degree in recent decades, particularly as his intervention stopped some medieval churches from literally toppling over.

But it’s worth considering whether everything he did to Notre Dame – some of which may now have been reduced to ashes – needs to be reconstructed as before. Might this be an opportunity to take the cathedral back to its real medieval appearance – and not Viollet-le-Duc’s imagining?

My visits to Notre Dame this year

I visited Notre Dame twice this year and here are some of my photos from inside the building – sad to look at them now. More interestingly, a digital mapping of Notre Dame was conducted recently and it revealed the need for major repairs. Wired magazine has just run a timely article on this you can read HERE.