On Restoration


Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc



The term Restoration and the thing itself are both modern. To restore a building is not to preserve it, to repair, or rebuild it; it is to re­instate it in a condition of completeness which could never have existed at any given time. It is only since the first quarter of the present century that the idea of restoring buildings of another age has been entertained; and we are not aware that a clear definition of architectural restoration has as yet been given. Perhaps it may be as well to endeavour at the outset to gain an exact notion of what we under­stand, or ought to understand, by a restoration; for it is evident that considerable ambiguity has insensibly gathered about the meaning we attach, or ought to attach, to this operation.

We have said that both the word and the thing itself are modern; and, in fact, no civil­ization, no people of bygone ages, has conceived the idea of making restorations in the sense in which we comprehend them.

In Asia, both in ancient and modern times, when a temple or a palace has become dilapi­dated, another has been, or is now, erected beside it. Its decay is not regarded as a reason for destroying the ancient edifice; it is left to the action of time, which lays hold of it as its rightful possessor, and gradually con­sumes it. The Romans replaced, but did not restore; a proof of which is, that there is no Latin word corresponding with our term “re­storation” in its modern sense. Instaurare, reficere, renovare, do not mean to restore, but to reinstate—to make anew. When the Emperor Hadrian undertook to rehabilitate several public buildings in Ancient Greece and Asia Minor, he proceeded after a fashion against which all the archaeological societies of Europe, had they then existed, would have protested: though he made some claim to antiquarian knowledge. We cannot consider the renovation of the Temple of the Sun at Baalbec as a restoration, but as a rebuilding, in the style then prevailing. The Ptolemies themselves, who affected archaism, did not altogether respect the forms of the buildings of the old dynasties of Egypt, but replaced them accord­ing to the fashion of their own time. As to the Greeks, so far from restoring,⁠—that is to say, from reproducing exactly the forms of the edifices which had suffered decay,⁠—they evi­dently believed it better to give the stamp of the day to repairs that had become necessary. Building a triumphal arch like that of Con­stantine, at Rome, with fragments torn from the Arch of Trajan, is neither a restoration ⁠nor a reconstruction ; it is an act of vandalism—a barbarian pilfering. Nor can the covering with stucco of the architecture of the Temple to Fortuna Virilis, at Rome, be considered as a restoration—it is a mutilation.

The middle ages had no more of the senti­ment of Restoration than the ancients: far from it. If it became necessary to replace a broken capital in an edifice of the twelfth century, it was a capital of the thirteenth, fourteenth, or fifteenth century that was substituted for it. If on a long frieze of crockets of the thirteenth century, a portion, or a single one, should be wanting, it was an ornament in the taste of the day that was inserted. Thus it often hap­pened that before an extremely careful study had been devoted to the styles of various periods, archaeologists were led to regard these modifications as anomalies, and to give a wrong date to fragments which should have been regarded as interpolations in a text.

We might say that it is as unadvisable to restore by reproducing a fac-simile of all that we find in a building, as by presuming to sub­stitute for later forms those which must have existed originally. In the first case, the good faith and sincerity of the artist may lead to the gravest errors, by consecrating what may be called an interpolation; in the second, the substitution of a primary form for an existing one of a later period, also obliterates the traces of a reparation, whose cause, if known, would perhaps have rendered evident the existence of an exceptional arrangement. We shall explain this presently.

Our age has adopted an attitude towards the past in which it stands quite alone among historical ages. It has undertaken to analyze the past, to compare and classify its phenomena, and to construct its veritable history, by fol­lowing step by step the march, the progress, the successive phases of humanity. So re­markable a fact cannot be, as some superficial thinkers suppose, a mere fashion, a caprice, or a weakness, for the phenomenon is a complex one. Cuvier, by his works on comparative anatomy, and by his geological researches, unveiled all at once to the eyes of his con­temporaries the history of the world before the reign of man. Imagination follows him with eagerness along this novel path. Next comes the philologist, who discovers the origin of European languages, all issuing from the same source. The ethnologist extends his labours to the study of races and their apti­tudes. Lastly, comes the archaeologist, who investigating the productions of art from India to Egypt and Europe, compares, dis­cusses, and discriminates them, unmasking their origins and their affiliations; and by the analytical method succeeds gradually in co­-ordinating them according to certain laws. To see in this process a mere caprice, a fashion of the hour, or a state of moral distemper, is to judge hastily of a fact of considerable im­portance. As well might it be asserted that all the facts revealed by science since Newton's time, are the result of a caprice of the human mind. If the fact is considerable as a whole, how can it be destitute of importance in its details? All the labours above referred to are linked together, and co-operate with each other. If the European has reached this phase in the development of the human in­tellect, that while advancing with redoubled speed towards the destinies of the future, and perhaps even because he advances thus rapidly, he feels the necessity of collecting all that belongs to his past,—just as we collect a large library to prepare for future labours,—is it rational to accuse him of being led by a caprice,—an ephemeral phantasy? On the other hand, are not the backward and the blind the very persons who disdain these studies, pre­tending to regard them as useless rubbish? Is not, on the contrary, the dispelling of prejudices and the disinterment of forgotten truths one of the most efficient means of furthering progress?

Should our time have nothing to transmit to future ages but this new method of studying the monuments of the past—whether in the material or the moral sphere—it will have deserved the gratitude of posterity. But we know also that our age is not satisfied with casting a scrutinizing glance behind it; this work of retrospection cannot fail to develop the problems presented by the future and to facilitate their solution. Synthesis follows in the wake of analysis.




This is an excerpt from Viollet-le-Duc’s work. Originally published: London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1875