A Translation of Victor Hugo's 1834 Essay "Guerre Aux Demolisseurs!"
Published in West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. 25:2 (Fall/Winter 2018): 224-48.

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In 1825 the young novelist Victor Hugo published a pamphlet titled “A Note on the Destruction of Monuments in France.” Eight years later he returned to the topic in an extended essay titled “War on the Demolishers!,” originally published in the Revue des Deux Mondes. The two essays were anthologized together under the single title “War on the Demolishers!” in Hugo’s Littérature et philosophie mêlées in 1834. The essays, which appear here for the first time in English, represent an impassioned, acerbic, and wry call to arms in support of the monuments of an era that many of Hugo’s contemporaries dismissed as the “dark ages.”

Hugo was hardly the first to call attention to the wanton destruction of archeological monuments in France. In 1791, under pressure from learned societies and antiquarians, the National Constituent Assembly appointed the archeologist Alexandre Lenoir as the founding director of the Musée des Monuments Français, which opened its doors four years later. In 1794, Lenoir’s fellow revolutionary Henri Grégoire, the bishop of Blois, read a series of scathing reports before the National Convention, protesting the violent iconoclasm of many revolutionaries and defining the wanton destruction of religious heritage as vandalisme, a term he coined to compare the Frenchmen destroying French monuments with the Germanic tribe that had sacked Rome. [1] Lenoir, Grégoire, and others argued frequently and passionately that the revolution could effectively overthrow the ancien régime without needing to entirely obliterate the monuments that the ancien régime had left behind. When revolutionaries did smash the idols of the first estate—most famously in 1793, when the church of Notre-Dame de Paris was rededicated to the “Cult of Reason” and plundered by a mob—Lenoir and others secreted away broken sculptures and artifacts for preservation in the museum.

But in the years of revolution and the Napoleonic conquest that followed, Lenoir’s Musée and other projects devoted to the preservation of French patrimoine became inextricably linked to the French imperial project. French museums, including the newly opened Musée du Louvre, were filled with the spoils of war. In 1797, in an ironic echo of Grégoire’s term vandalisme, Napoleon filled the Musée des Monuments Français with works that he seized from Rome during his campaigns on the Italian peninsula. While medieval artifacts and treasures were preserved, many of the structures of the Middle Ages that dotted the French countryside were left to languish.

Although the defeat of Napoleon and the Bourbon Restoration ended much of the iconoclastic zeal of the French Revolution, it also muted many of the voices who had called for preservation. In 1816 Lenoir’s Musée was forced to return the art Napoleon had seized across Europe, and the program of centralization overseen by the newly reestablished Bourbon kings left the fate of many rural monuments, stripped of their artifacts, in the hands of government functionaries. In 1820 Isidore Justin Taylor and Charles Nodier began a series of illustrated travelogues, the Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’ancienne France. [2] Although the series included a survey of churches and medieval buildings across France, the project was not purely one of archeological preservation. Instead, Nodier and Taylor depicted abandoned churches, ruined abbeys, former manor houses, and the like as the romantic and poetic ruins of a distant past.

It was in this context in 1825 that Hugo published “A Note on the Destruction of Monuments in France,” a pamphlet criticizing the state of monuments across France and calling for a single law to be established to guarantee their preservation. Hugo explicitly singled out monuments overlooked by Nodier and Taylor’s survey: those that lacked romantic appeal and, in particular, buildings that restorers had set about modernizing. Unlike Nodier and Taylor, Hugo argued that these monuments were not merely vestiges of a distant past but served as the foundation of contemporary French society.

The situation would only deteriorate in the years that followed. In 1830 the July Revolution overthrew the Bourbon regime, a transition that Hugo characterized as taking power “from gentlemen who did not know how to write” and giving it to “to peasants who do not know how to read.” The July Revolution, which established Louis-Philippe as the leader of a constitutional monarchy, brought with it a return of the iconoclasm of the Revolution of 1789. Buildings that had merely languished without attention suddenly became the targets of elected officials who again sought to erase the lasting legacies of the ancien régime.

Hugo’s “War on the Demolishers!,” published in 1832 in the Revue des Deux Mondes, was a kind of resuscitation of Henri Grégoire’s reports before the National Convention in 1794. Like Grégoire, Hugo believed that the monuments of the Middle Ages, especially the religious monuments, were not merely the legacy of a feudal system but constituted an indelible part of the contemporary artistic identity of France itself. The year before the essay was published, Hugo had tackled the same subject in his landmark novel Notre-Dame de Paris (frequently translated in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), in which he famously proposed that the printing press had usurped the position of architecture as the primary means for the dissemination of artistic form. The book, which was immensely popular both in French and in English translation, spurred the preservation not only of Notre-Dame itself but of many medieval monuments across Europe and became a foundational text of the Gothic Revival movement.

[1] Grégoire gave three reports before the National Convention in 1794 on the subject: Convention nationale. Instruction publique. Rapport sur les destructions opérées par le vandalisme, et sur les moyens de le réprimer, par Grégoire. Séance du 14 Fructidor, l’an second de la République une et indivisible [August 31, 1794]; Convention nationale. Instruction publique. Second rapport sur le vandalisme, 3 Brumaire, l’an III [October 29, 1794]; Convention nationale. Instruction publique. Troisième rapport sur le vandalisme fait au nom du comité d’instruction publique, par Grégoire [December 11, 1794]. All are reprinted in H. Grégoire, Patrimoine et cité, ed. D. Audrerie (Bordeaux: Éditions Confluences, 1999).

[2] Taylor, Nodier, and several illustrators and engravers published twenty-three volumes in the series, each focused on a particular region of France, between 1820 and 1878.

Edmond Bacot; Château de Martainville, 1852-4; Salted Paper Print from Glass Negative; Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1995; Metropolitan Museum of Art;