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Ding, Dong! New bells to ring in 850th anniversary of Notre Dame

posted 19 Oct 2012, 05:56 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 19 Oct 2012, 05:56 ]

It's back to the drawing board as the world-famous bells of Paris's Notre Dame cathedral are given a 21st century remodelling.

VILLEDIEU LES POELES, FRANCE (OCTOBER 17, 2012) (REUTERS) - Stars of the silver screen and of classic literature, the world-famous bells of Notre Dame de Paris have been all but silent since February this year.

The set of four in place since the 1850s were judged unfit for purpose, removed and put into storage eight months ago, leaving one lone bell to toll for the throngs of tourists crowded in the square below.

A French bell foundry several hundred kilometres from Paris was chosen to design and make their eight replacements, set to be finished in time to ring in the 850th anniversary of the cathedral next year.

The company in question, Cornille Havard, produces and exports bells all round the world and its owner is Paul Bergamo.

"Notre Dame, which is France's greatest church, don't forget, didn't have a bell which did justice to the building. Everyone knows that, everyone turns a blind eye to it. And it took a great event, in the form of the 850th anniversary of Notre Dame, to be able to put such a project in place," Bergamo told Reuters TV from the workshop of the foundry whose two furnaces have been producing bells for over 150 years.

The foundry prides itself on combining medieval techniques with 21st century gadgetry. Molten bronze is poured into moulds made of clay and horse manure, but they are designed using computer imaging which adjusts the size and thickness of each bell according to the precise rules of harmony.

For Bergamo, it is not a question of tradition for tradition's sake.

"We try to use the best technology and the best traditional methods. In other words, if the traditional techniques are good -- as with moulding with clay and horse manure -- we keep it, which allows us to have a finish such as the one we have on the bell behind me. But on the other hand, in terms of the sound, for the preparatory studies of the bell profiles which give it its sound, we use lots of computer technology," he said.

Perhaps surprisingly for an object which will spend almost all of its working life hidden from view, Bergamo stresses the importance of how each bell looks, saying he wants parishioners to feel a personal connection with them. They are set to go on display early in 2013 in the cathedral's nave before they are installed for good up in the belfry.

Each one is named after an important figure in the religious history of Paris. Accordingly, the design reflects the personality of each bell's namesake -- images of Notre Dame itself circle the base of 'Maurice', dedicated to the current cathedral's founder, the 12th century Bishop of ParisMaurice de Sully.

Designed by French artist Virginie Bassetti, almost all decoration is done by hand in the mould itself so that the bell takes shape already patterned.

When the mould is finally peeled off, and the powdery clay brushed away, the name of the person for whom the bell tolls is revealed.

Given their almost mythic status, Bergamo's team could be forgiven for being intimidated by such a project but he says he was inspired by the weight of the cathedral's history.

"There was inspiration, of course, from Victor Hugo and the Notre Dame archives, but there was also a wish to do the best we could, not only me but the whole team, including the customer. To make the best we could in terms of music, in terms of aesthetic, and to keep it contemporary," he said.

He added that the cathedral is a living space and should embrace the modern without being stuck in the past.

As well as the eight bells produced by Cornille Havard, an additional bell is to be made by a Dutch foundry -- a nod to the international reach of Notre Dame.

A renowned set of bells had been in place in the cathedral in pre-revolutionary Francebut they were removed and melted down in the late 18th century. Only the largest, the 13-tonne Emmanuel, was spared the furnace and eventually returned to its rightful home in the cathedral's north tower by Napoleon Bonaparte in the 19th century where it still peals today, the last survivor of the ancien regime. The new bells have been designed with Emmanuel in mind.

Cornille Havard have exported bells to far-flung destinations including coptic churches inEgypt and St George's Cathedral in BeirutLebanon.

Whilst the pretty village of Villedieu les Poeles, nestled in a corner of rural Normandy, has been bashing out bells since the middle ages, the foundry's real heyday was heralded by the arrival of the railways which allowed heavy bells and even heavier raw materials to be transported to and from the furnaces. Before, travelling bell-makers were forced to set up makeshift workshops at the bottom of the bell-tower in question.

The new bells will be blessed by the Cardinal on February 2 and will ring for the first time on March 23.