This is a modified excerpt from a larger article I’m writing about Victor Hugo and Notre Dame Cathedral. I’m posting this excerpt here because I have dug up all kinds of delicious details that I think will also interest this blog’s readers, including the outraged epithets hurled by French writer Guy de Maupassant and many other writers, artists, and architects in protest against the planned erection of La Tour Eiffel (the Eiffel Tower). The tower was built over their protests in 1889, four years after Victor Hugo died and only twenty-five years after the restoration that had been inspired by Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris was completed. Not to be missed are the amusing great lengths Guy de Maupassant went to so he could avoid looking at his “iron arch nemesis” the tower and its proliferating copies displayed in shop windows—which confronted him wherever he went in Paris.
In this photo (© AG photographe) taken during the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in Paris on April 15, 2019, the Eiffel Tower seems quite close to the cathedral even though the two structures are 2.6 miles apart. After this photo was shared on Instagram by celebrity Kris Jenner, Snopes.com checked and verified the photo was not photoshopped. The site explained that the two “old dames” (“les vielles dames” as the photographer captioned them in a similar photo he took a few days before the fire), seem so close because the photo was shot with an extraordinarily large 600mm, hyper-telephoto, zoom lens, and telephoto lenses compress distances so that background and foreground elements appear much closer together than they actually are.
The photographer took the shot from the Porte de Vincennes, an eastern borough of Paris, 3.5 miles east of Notre Dame, and in the image the cathedral was in the right of the frame with the Eiffel Tower to the left, actually 2.6 miles further west behind it.
Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower were photographed together of course because they are the two most recognizable features of the Paris skyline.
I think a written comparison and contrast between these two structures can give us a striking snapshot of another sort, of how far apart the ideals of royalist Catholic France in the middle ages—which gave birth to Notre-Dame Cathedral—were from the ideals of post-revolutionary France—which gave birth to the Eiffel Tower.
In the twelfth century, Maurice de Sully, Bishop of Paris, with the support of King Louis VII, began to construct Notre-Dame in the newly emerging, quintessentially French, Gothic architectural style. Their goal was to create a cathedral worthy of the cultural capital of France.
Notre Dame was built above all to be a house of worship, for the glory of God and the glory of His holy mother.
And, as Hugo wrote in Book III of the novel he wrote to alert the people of France to the sad disintegration of the cathedral (which was titled Notre-Dame de Paris in French), before the architects of a church can express any of their lofty ideas, they must first satisfy “the service of religion,”—which is the raison d’être for which any church is constructed. It puzzles me how strongly Victor Hugo loved the Gothic churches of the Middle Ages when he despised the religion that inspired those churches. How could he have not realized that without the Catholic beliefs and liturgical practices that inspired and shaped these buildings dedicated to the worship of God, they would never have existed at all?
In 1162, Pope Alexander III laid the cornerstone. With modifications to the design along the way as discoveries were made that enabled the walls of the Gothic structure to become ever thinner, the vaults ever higher, and the windows ever larger and more spectacular, the cathedral was largely complete by 1272.
After the cathedral’s increasing disintegration and desecration over the years motivated Hugo to publish Notre-Dame de Paris in 1831, restoration was begun around 1844 and was completed in 1864. Notre Dame topped by Violette Le Duc’s new spire was three-hundred feet high, which made it the tallest structure in Paris—but only for a relatively short time.
It was startling to me that the cathedral with its new spire dominated the Paris skyline for only twenty-five years —until Gustave Eiffel’s firm built the 1,000 foot tall Eiffel Tower in 1889.
The first drawing of the Eiffel Tower (titled “Pylon of 300 m of Height”) by Maurice Koechlin, a design engineer for Eiffel’s firm, included an audacious side by side height comparison with the Statue of Liberty, the Arc de Triomphe, three obelisks, and a five-story apartment building stacked on top of Notre Dame Cathedral.
Eiffel’s firm had been previously renowned for its iron railway bridges, among other significant constructions. The tower can be seen as actually four upright iron bridges leaning against each other and joined at the top—its only purpose being to show off that engineering had advanced so far as to make it possible to construct a structure higher than any structure ever built before.
The Eiffel Tower was commissioned to be built as the entrance arch for the Exposition Universelle, the World’s Fair of 1889, celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the start of the 1789 French Revolution—which lamentably was a major event in the dechristianization of Europe.
Part of the plan was to demolish the tower after only twenty years. Eiffel himself put up half the necessary capital, and he was granted by contract all income from the commercial exploitation of the tower during the exhibition and for the projected twenty years of its existence.
The Eiffel Tower thereby became the world’s first major monument with no real purpose, similar to how the Seinfeld sitcom a little over a hundred years later became the first TV show about nothing.
The tower’s origins as an ephemeral structure to wow tourists and to make money for its builder provides another interesting comparison with Notre-Dame cathedral, which had already stood for over seven hundred years by that time, and like all other cathedrals was built for the ages.
The prospect of the Eiffel Tower’s construction outraged many. A petition titled “Artists against the Eiffel Tower” was published on February 14, 1887. Signed by Charles Gounod, Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Garnier and many others, it began, “We come, we writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, to protest with all our strength and all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, in the name of the threatened French art and history, against the erection in the very heart of our capital, of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which the malignancy of the public, often imprinted with a good sense and the spirit for justice, has already baptized with the name ‘Tower of Babel’” They referred to it a “giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack . . . a hateful of column of bolted sheet metal.” Their protest did no good, the contract was already signed, and construction had already commenced.
Guy de Maupassant, the French writer who was among the signers of the protest, couldn’t stand the sight of his “iron arch nemesis.” He wrote that he would often eat his lunch at the tower’s base restaurant, just because “inside the restaurant was one of the few places where I could sit and not actually see the Tower!” He opened the first chapter “Weariness” in his travel story La Vie Errante, or In Vagabondia, with these words. “I left Paris, and France too, on account of the Eiffel Tower.”
But eventually the world became used to the Eiffel Tower towering over Paris. It is now widely considered to be a remarkable piece of structural art. And so it happened that the Parisian Tower of Eiffel, whose sole raison d’être was to temporarily wow the tourists at a World’s Fair and pave the way for Gustav Eiffel’s engineering firm to make a lot of money to great acclaim, became the enduring symbol of post-Christian Paris.
I have to ask, Il semble quelque un petit peu étrange, vous ne trouvez pas? (It seems a little bit bizarre, don’t you think?)
The tower is the most-visited paid monument in the world, with about seven million visitors a year. As another point of contrast, entrance to Notre Dame is free, and it draws sixteen million visitors a year.
In another bizarre twist, the official website “Tour Eiffel Paris” boasts of it as a Tower of Babel because it has been visited by 250 million tourists from all over the world. Whoever wrote that boast seems to not understand the actual meaning of the term or have heard that the people of Paris called it a Tower of Babel when it was first planned, as an insult. It is even more bizarre, although perhaps to be expected in this age of Bible illiteracy, the website’s author also seems not to know that the erection of the original Tower of Babel was not considered a thing to brag about. See: Genesis 11.