We could create a stand along blog on the subject of castle preservation and restoration. The fact that many castles have survived for many hundreds of years with varying degrees of intervention gives them a sense of permanence, but ruins of castles like Richard the Lionheart’s Château Gaillard (pictured above) remind us that survival is often politically motivated and always requires a passionate visionary.
Dan Snow described the challenges faced by visitors and researchers to Malaga’s Gibralfaro Castle, which were subject to improvements made during Franco’s regime. This type of restoration project is motivated by attracting tourists and not necessarily historical preservation.
As mentioned above, Château Gaillard now lies in ruins. We have heard that it was used as a rock quarry at some point in the past to build a nearby abbey or church. I believe this happened was because Chateau Gaillard was build by an English king on French soil. It’s very existence didn’t mesh with the power narrative put forward by the French victors. Thus it wasn’t considered worth preserving, despite the fact when it was built it was considered the finest castle of its age.
The granddaddy of military fortification restoration was Eugène Viollet-le Duc. Perhaps, his most ambitious monument was the walled city of Carcassone, but he also did work on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. He also wrote treatises on French architecture and much of how we imagine castles to be can be ascribed to his nineteenth century romanticism of Gothic architecture.
A Masters thesis written by Francesc Xavier Costa Guix called Viollet-le-Duc’s Restoration of the Cite of Carcassone: a nineteenth century monument describes the challenges inherent in these projects. Is the goal preservation (of the monument) as of the day work commences or the restoration to some point in the historical past? If the decision is to restore, to which period, or even day does one wish to turn back the hands of time? Guix, refers to Viollet-le-Duc’s choice to resurrect the fortress of Carcassone. To that end, all traces of the walled City and its urban function were erased and it stands it permanent readiness for an impending siege.
The problem is not confined to the nineteenth century. The twentieth century, for instance, necessitated a massive reconstruction project at Malbork Castle after it was bombed by advancing Soviet forces in the closing days of World War II. The devastation is almost incomprehensible–but so to is the facade they were able to rebuild, judging by the before and after photos.
However, as a visitor, I was left wondering, but now, what is ‘real’? These mosaics? Are they original? If not, do they reflect what was there before? In essence, the restoration itself, the pride of the Polish people becomes the story. It is no longer just about the castle itself.
This brings us to a twentieth first century case study: Dover Castle. Its managing agency, English Heritage, recently announced that Dover was selected by their visitors as England’s “best castle.” Setting aside the fact that it is a relatively quick train ride from London, even we invoked the Matthew Paris’ thirteenth observation that Dover was the “key to England,” and I recently wrote asking if Dover was the most significant and longest serving fortified site. But ‘best castle’? I do wonder.
Dover does receive hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, but a huge restoration project completed in 2009 likely accounts for some of its popularity. English Heritage spent many years and about 2.5 million pounds to recreate the Great Tower as it would have been on the eve of an important visitor in 1184. The restoration was clearly lovingly researched and carefully undertaken.
It allows the great majority of us and perhaps event the researchers themselves, to understand the majesty of this place in the past. If it inspires young families and their children with a sense of awe at the past, does that not benefit all castles and historical sites?
However, the restoration, and the selection of foam shields and toy bow and arrows available in the gift shop, don’t necessarily help us to understand the multiplicity of experiences of human beings at the time. I would love to seem English Heritage recreate at least one of the wooden shacks that would have been built against the walls to house animals or even soldiers manning the walls of the castle. Even for the one percent of the twelfth century, life could never have been as tidy and sanitized as all this. And my question then is, should we be trying to find the balance?