VIOLLET-LE-DUC, Eugène-Emmanuel
(b. 1814, Paris, d. 1879, Lausanne)

Biography

French architectural historian/restorer; major theorist of the Gothic in 19th-century France; responsible for the "over-restoration" of many Gothic churches in France.

He attended Fontenay, a school known for its anti-clerical republicanism. He participated in the 1830 revolution. Intent on an architectural career and politically liberal, Viollet-le-Duc decided against study at the conservative École des Beaux-Arts in favour of direct experience in the architect's office of Jean-Jacques-Marie Huvé (1783-1852), and Achille-François-René Leclère (1785-1853). Between 1831 and 1836 he visited the regions of Provence, Normandy, the châteaux of the Loire, as well as the Pyrenees and Languedoc. He married his wife, Elisabeth, in 1834 and secured a professorship of Composition and Ornament at a small independent school, the École de Dessin in Paris.

In 1836 he traveled to Italy where he toured Rome, Sicily, Naples and Venice. He returned to Paris in 1837 and studying at the École. Viollet-le-Duc was appointed auditor to the Conseil des Bâtiments Civils in 1838, under his former teacher, Leclère. The Council controlled all buildings belonging to the State, both their construction and renovation. In 1840 Mérimée, as Inspecteur Général des Monuments Historiques, the commission responsible for assigning restoration projects, nominated Viollet-le-Duc for the restoration of the church of the Madeleine, Vézelay. Viollet-le-Duc replaced the later 13th-century pointed vaults with 12th-century semicircular groin vaults in order to give a sense of unity to the nave, but changing the character of the building.

He continued to work on other restorations of churches, many of which had been damaged in the French Revolution and needed sculptural replacement to return them to their didactic ambiance. In Sainte-Chapelle and in 1844 Notre-Dame de Paris, a commission with his colleague, Jean-Baptiste Lassus, Viollet-le-Duc substituted new sculpture for the old, often moving the old to museums. Notre-Dame marked the first of Viollet-le-Duc extremist interventions in churches, altering building to fit his romantic vision the middle ages. Notre-Dame's famous gargoyles (grotesques), for example, are wholly his inventions. Even in his careful reconstructions, such as recutting sculptural molding (Rheims), 19th-century qualities of these works are apparent. The "restoration" of these buildings solidified Viollet-le-Duc's stature. He began to publish his theories of the Gothic in Annales archéologiques in 1845. In 1846 he worked on Saint-Denis abbey, Avignon between 1860-68, the cathedrals of Amiens (1849-1875), and Rheims (1861-1873) the churches at Poissy (1852-1865) and Sens.

In 1854 he published his influential Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture. A second important work appeared four years later. His Entretiens sur l'architecture and Dictionnaire du mobilier of 1858 contained discussion on goldsmiths' work, musical instruments, jewellery and armor in addition to furniture. His own sketches accompanied the text. Although generally hailed in his own time for these restorations, Viollet-le-Duc had his detractors, including the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Viollet-le-Duc assisted on many commissions of the July Monarchy government (1830-1848), and the 1852 imperial court of Napoleon III, introduced by Mérimée. He maintained a personal architectural practice designing houses, churches and chateaux. Student revolts to his teaching of art history and esthetics at the École des Beaux-Arts resulted in his replacement by Hippolyte Taine in 1864. After his death, his likeness was placed as one of the twelve apostles on the bronze roof sculptures at Notre-Dame.