Notre-Dame de Paris, the world-famous landmark in the heart of the city of Paris, suffered a spectacular fire last Monday. The grand spire, and the roof over the nave have burned, leaving the stone walls of the structure thankfully intact. Current speculation is that the blaze was sparked by an electrical fault in the rigging and scaffolding being used in an ongoing restoration of the cathedral.

It actually looks far worse than it is. Fortunately much of the grand cathedral is made of stone, not wood, so it still stands. None the less, French President Emmanuel Macron has promised the cathedral will be fully restored.

Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral began construction in 1160. It is named for and dedicated to St. Mary, and it is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. The famous rose windows were not damaged in the fire.

Disney (and others) To the Rescue

In 1996, Disney made its 34th full-length animated feature, an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was nominated for Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards. It grossed over $325 million worldwide. The actual Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral caught fire April 15, 2019 during renovations. It burned for over half a day, destroying the spire and roof, and most of the wooden parts of the structure inside.

The Guardian reported “more than €650m (£562m) was raised in a few hours on Tuesday as French tycoons and global corporations announced they would donate to the restoration campaign launched by [Macron].” That’s roughly 734 million in American dollars. Disney has pledged $5 million to the rebuilding effort, less than 2% of what the movie grossed.

{image via Disney}

Robert A. Iger, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Walt Disney Company announced “Notre-Dame is a beacon of hope and beauty that has defined the heart of Paris and the soul of France for centuries, inspiring awe and reverence for its art and architecture and for its enduring place in human history. The Walt Disney Company stands with our friends and neighbors in the community, offering our heartfelt support as well as a $5 million donation for the restoration of this irreplaceable masterpiece.”

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Things Aren’t as Bleak as They Seem

In the past two decades, technology has been put to use in the attempt to preserve fragile or endangered historical structures for posterity. Fortunately, Notre Dame is one of those structures. It had already been digitally scanned in great detail by an American art historian named Andrew Tallon, a professor at Vassar College. Some years ago, he and his team used what are called LIDAR laser scanners to capture over a billion points of data from the cathedral. Each point represents a detail in 3-D space which, stitched together in software, can be used to create a staggeringly detailed 3-D model, capturing details down to less than a square inch in some cases.

Tallon (he passed away last year) learned much from the detailed scans – and so did the people who run they church. His models revealed that Notre Dame was crumbling, so much so that urgent restoration work was needed to maintain its structural integrity. That restoration was begun last year and, although investigations are still underway, there is reportedly a suspicion that Monday’s fire was due to an accident involving that reconstruction effort.

What the fire took was also part of the scans, and while it may not be possible to rebuild the roof as it was (there are no trees in France tall enough for the timbers that would be needed as there were when it was originally built), they will likely be of substantial value in restoring the landmark to its former glory.

More Help to Come From an Unlikely Source: A Videogame

In 2014, the game Assassin’s Creed: Unity was released, and in it is something remarkable – a complete recreation of the cathedral at Notre Dame! It was created as the environment for the game. The in-game interior and exterior of the cathedral took 14 months of produciton, and three weeks to dress its interior according to the era of the French Revoluion. The result is a fully explorable 90% scale model of the original.

This is important in three ways – first, for the next week (until April 25) PC users will be able to download Assassin’s Creed Unity for free. This entry into the franchise lets players explore late 18th-century Paris during the French revolution, including a recreation of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Second, the game developer Ubisoft is donating €500,000 to the reconstruction of the iconic landmark directly. The most important contribution, though, may come in the form of the research they did. The game model is accurate down to the placement of individual bricks and stones, and may turn out to be vital to the reconstruction efforts.

“Ubisoft wants to give all gamers the chance to experience the majesty and beauty of the cathedral”, the publisher’s statement reads. “You can download Assassin’s Creed Unity on PC for free here, and you’ll own it forever in your Uplay games library.”

Assassin’s Creed Unity’s depiction of the Notre Dame cathedral [Image credit: Ubisoft]

Assassin’s Creed Unity is available for free download for PC users from “April 18th at 00:00 to April 25th at 17:00 (your local time)” and can be accessed via this page.

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