The blaze that ravaged this city’s 856-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday punctured that illusion.
Over the course of a few hours, a perfectly rendered tableau of stone and wood and glass that seemed fixed and never-changing — as familiar to our grandparents as it would be to our grandchildren — was swallowed in an inferno of smoke and flame.
It was, the French cultural historian Stéphane Gerson said Tuesday, “the most poignant reminder, in this brittle age of ours, that nothing, not even our highest cultural achievements, are eternal.”
For the Europe of 2019, no reminder was necessary. There might have been moments in history when Europeans themselves were seduced by the promise of perpetuity. But this is not one of them.
In Europe’s politics, demographics and relations with the rest of the world, there is little these days that could be mistaken for stasis.
Each election brings fresh turmoil. Each migrant boat careening toward shore offers new questions about what kind of society Europe wants to be. Each rumble and rip in transatlantic ties gives reason to ponder the fine line between enemy and friend.
The flames that licked the spire of Notre Dame, and ultimately brought it crashing down, were just the most vivid illustration of a truth Europeans have come to know through hard experience: The continent is forever falling apart. And it’s forever being rebuilt.
That recognition helps explain why the mood in Paris on Tuesday was far from despondent, even though the city had watched in horror just hours earlier as its beating heart burned.
President Emmanuel Macron hadn’t even waited for the flames to stop their spread Monday night before declaring that Notre Dame would be rebuilt.
“Of course it will be,” said Benjamin Mouton.
That response was typical Tuesday of the Parisian take. But Mouton is hardly the typical Parisian.
He was chief architect at Notre Dame for 13 years and knows every inch. He knows that an extraordinary trove of construction plans and measurements are on file and can be accessed in service of a reconstruction. He also knows that the cathedral so fixed in the popular imagination is a relatively modern iteration of the ancient structure.
Through the centuries, it’s been updated, amended, degraded and defiled. The spire that crashed so spectacularly on Monday was added relatively recently, just a century and a half ago, after a period of profound neglect.
What will follow now, Mouton said, is a painstaking restoration. It will take a year or two just to conduct studies and make a plan. No one knows how many years the work itself will last.
“It’s not necessary to go too fast,” he said.
Macron on Tuesday evening said he hoped the cathedral would be reconstructed within five years.
“Throughout our history, we have built cities, ports, churches,” he told the nation in a televised address. “Many have burned or been destroyed, by wars, revolutions, the mistakes of men. Each time, we have rebuilt.”
In the case of Notre Dame, he said, France would make it “even more beautiful.”
The president probably would have found agreement Tuesday among the thick crowds that encircled the singed and stricken cathedral, getting as close as police would allow.
With all the money raised — 600 million euros, or about $675 million, as of late Tuesday afternoon — Laurent Galle was sure that the building could be restored to its former glory.
When he saw Notre Dame in flames on television Monday night, he despaired. But on Tuesday, seeing the building for himself — the stone exterior blackened but still very much intact — gave him hope.
“It looks better than I expected,” said the 47-year-old, who owns a construction firm.
The surprise for Galle was not that Notre Dame had caught fire. It was that such a calamitous blaze hadn’t occurred before in nearly nine centuries of history.
Elsewhere in Europe on Tuesday, there were more attempts to keep the fire in perspective — and to give lovers of Notre Dame hope that Monday’s fire was little more than a temporary setback in a long history that still has many chapters yet to go.
“It’s not the end of the world,” European Council President Donald Tusk told reporters.
He noted that 90 percent of his city — Gdansk, Poland — was destroyed in the Second World War. And still the city had been rebuilt.
In Germany, such stories are common. So much of the country was leveled by Allied bombing and street-to-street combat. Much was lost forever. But much was also reborn.
Dresden — firebombed beyond all recognition in 1945 — today boasts a skyline punctuated by Gothic spires restored decades after the damage.
Gabi Dolff-Bonekämper, a professor of conservation at Technical University Berlin, said Dresden’s example and others offer hope for Paris.
Notre Dame can seem as if it “has always been there,” she said.
It wasn’t, and it won’t be.
But for now, it’s possible to restore the cathedral, offering its admirers around the world at least a little stability in unstable times.
“To see this building burn is deeply touching and somehow mobilizes much more feeling than you thought you would have for a building,” she said. “Of course you have to rebuild.”
Luisa Beck in Berlin and Christophe Chabert and James McAuley in Paris contributed to this report.