Norcia again

“If it falls down, it will have to be mended.”

The words are recalled from a French Canadian builder, and pertained to a chimney, not the whole house. A mason of worldly understanding and broad reading, he was not commenting upon his own work. I learnt that the words, in their original French, were from some Quebec City building instruction of the seventeenth century. (The drollness was probably intended.) That’s about as close as we get to the Middle Ages, in Canada, and it is indeed fascinating to look into the builders’ practices, and the codes and regulations which applied to them, three and four centuries ago, as Peter Moogk did in his fine volume, Building a House in New France (1977).

It is a mistake, incidentally, to think that they were libertarian in the past. Towns, back as far as we can see, were always run about with building restrictions; and craft guilds were once quite particular in seeing regulations enforced. Today we have national building codes, which are so general as to be ridiculous; and cities have by-laws that can be bought off. Freedom doesn’t come with loose laws. Rather it comes with laws that are precise and constant. But that is just an aside.

We were working on some old house I had bought in Kingston, Ontario. It was a true fixer-upper, in four storeys of limestone. The work cost me more than the house, as I was determined to restore it properly. This involved much amateur archaeology, as well as rebuilding. Over a year or two, I became closely acquainted not only with the ways of contemporary builders, but also with those of the 1840s and the decades in between. My chief lesson was of the importance of inspection: that it is unwise to leave any workman entirely to his own estimation of the soundness of his work. Encouragement is good, too, but inspection is crucial. And this would have been as true in 1841, as it was a sesquicentury later.

Now, to my limited understanding, the northern French traditions, carried to the New World, also provided that work be guaranteed for twenty years after it was completed. So that, if after a decade or so, the roof leaks, the roofer must repair it at his own expense. If the chimney cracks — well, the New World was “progressively” cutting corners. The idea of “contract law,” and court enforcement, was developing in new ways, and a clever workman would propose contracts in which the twenty years of fading “tradition” was quietly replaced with e.g. “one year plus one day,” and did not apply to “acts of God.” (To lawyers, those are always mendacious.) So that, by the time poor workmanship were discovered, the home owner could fix it himself.

There are natural limits, to human life. I’m aware, from reading splendid authors such as John Harvey, that long before the Reformation, decendants of a builder might find themselves embarrassed by their ancestors’ little foibles, when these were exposed. Standards, gentle reader must understand, have been in decline for some time now.

I’m looking at pictures of the damage to Norcia in Italy, from the latest earthquake over the weekend. It would seem that, except much of the façade, and the wobbly remains of a bell-tower, the Basilica of Saint Benedict is now … down. I flinch, at the fine art now mixed in the rubble.

No one was killed, this time, thanks to repeated warnings from the groaning earth; but it was touch-and-go. The sight of Saint Clare nuns emerging from a cloister, in which they had been for many years secluded, was to me especially heart-rending. The town looks much the worse from this latest six-point-six shaking, centred near the surface only a few miles away; and the geologists have every reason to expect more is coming from the local faults, as they (the stone faults, not the agile geologists) seek a new equilibrium within the crush zone between the continental plates of Europe and Africa.

As five centuries have passed, I doubt we can hold the builders responsible. Nor could they be thought entirely to blame: the buildings did hold up through the last few thousand shocks and aftershocks, in that quake-prone region. There are limits to all materials and joins. One might design a building that would survive turning sideways, or upside down; but it would look too much like a ferris wheel. The good news is that with the quakes continuing, we might take our time, planning the reconstruction. So we’ll have the opportunity to think it through.

But it will have to come. Everything must eventually be restored, much as it was before, though to an even better standard to resist all these geological convulsions. The thought gives one a certain satisfaction, at a time when one needs also to restore morale. Surely we can build it again, even better than it was before, and even more secure against the whims of nature. And more beautiful, except the loss of some patina; but that will eventually grow back. It is exciting to think how we are going to do this; and how much craft we will re-learn in the process.

This thought applies to all the facilities of Holy Church, moral, material, intellectual, and spiritual: that, “if it falls down, it will have to be mended.”