Renaissance Rouen: it was spared from fire, but its martyr was not

IN the medieval section of Rouen, the 20th century dominates on the ground level, which is mostly shops with wall-to-wall plate-glass windows. But look up, and the city is a half-timbered heaven: rows and rows of fa,cades of yellowing plaster cross-hatched by ancient-looking wooden beams. The edges of these buildings are all staggered lines; they look as if they're holding each other up. And narrow streets are made to seem narrower by the medieval fondness for overhanging stories.

A woman known to me as Madame Pinier, who was giving me a tour of the highlights of Rouen, says the overhanging stories were a medieval tax dodge, because property taxes in those days were calculated by the size of the ground floor. After 1520, she adds, new buildings had to have flat fa,cades, which accomplished the purpose of letting in more air and sun, but aren't as quaint, of course.

The old section of Rouen is extensive, especially when you consider that 80 percent of its half-timbered houses were destroyed during World War II. You find yourself being grateful for whatever is left of it.

Particularly, you're grateful for the sparing of the glorious Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame, in the heart of the old section. This is the cathedral Monet was so fond of. Mme. Pinier says it's a joke around the city that Monet painted the cathedral 30 times, and 50 of the paintings are in America.

Each painting was supposed to show the cathedral in a different light; Monet would set all his canvases up in the morning and dash from one to the next as the light shifted, she says.

We look at the cathedral for a while. Its tall, narrow, lacy fa,cade gives its hefty mass a weightless look.

Pollution is especially severe in this industrial town; though the upper spires are almost white, the three portals are encrusted with black soot, hardened to a matte finish, with a dusting of loose soot for good measure.

The cathedral exterior, explains Pinier, is early, flamboyant, and rayonnant Gothic. On this gray day, the light is flat and unchanging; it's hard to imagine where Monet's shining lavendars and blues came from.

We stand in front while she explains that Rouen was a large city in Roman times, but unfortified. As the Roman Empire weakened, it was abandoned. This left the field open to the Vikings, who conquered the area and gave Normandy its name, which comes from ``men of the north.''

After Duke William of Normandy conquered England, these Norwegian and Danish scavengers were kings as well. The cathedral was built at the end of the 12th century, and the beginning of the 13th; Henry Plantagenet was on the British throne at the time, Pinier notes.

Inside, the cathedral gives you the usual cathedral feeling of hushed and lofty space. It lacks 13th-century windows, however - except for one or two, which point up what you're missing. But as a bonus, the mostly clear glass shows off the cathedral's beautiful architecture.

As you move from entrance to altar, the number of levels of pillars along the nave changes, very subtly, from four to three, as the Gothic style evolved toward ever finer and lighter vertical lines. Three levels are more ``elanc'e,'' Pinier points out. She says the word ``elanc'e'' is not translatable; it means a kind of energetic thinness.

``All the famous Gothic churches have three levels, not four,'' she says. ``St. Chapelle, built at the very end of the Gothic period, has only two levels.''

The cathedral did not escape World War II unscathed; a bomb that almost destroyed it fell June 1, 1944.

The right aisle (as you face the chancel) collapsed except for one chapel and its flying buttress. If you look carefully, you see that the pillars in the middle chapel, the one that held, are shiny and worn by the centuries, while the others in that aisle are fresh from the stonemason's chisel.

Pinier also pointed out the cathedral's distinctive central lantern tower: ``Just to give light - very typical of Normandy.''

The outside of the cathedral needs cleaning rather desperately, but cleaning would eventually wear the stones away. The statues are being copied in a workshop attached to the cathedral, so at least a record will be kept.

Go out the side door and you'll see the workshop; you can peer through the windows at little worn looking statues sitting this way and that on dusty tables.

Altogether, there's a lot to see in Rouen. A curiosity is the medieval osiery, or mausoleum. After 1798, it was not permitted to have a cemetery in town, so no more osieries were built; most of those that existed have been demolished. This one has been a school since the 18th century; carved symbols of bones and sculls and shovels adorn - if that's the word - the wooden timbers.

Another famous attraction of Rouen is the Gros Horloge, or great clock, in the center of town. Built during the Renaissance, this clock has only one hand, which remains motionless, while the dial moves, a hangover from the sundial, says Pinier.

The best part are the brass symbols for the day of the week; the relevant one appears through a little window. When I was there, the design was a chariot with golden horses (jeudi or Joves day, for Thursday.) At noon, Venus for vendredi will appear, according to Pinier.

Rouen also has the church of St. Maclou, a High Gothic wonder, and the Palais de Justice, whose eerie pointed spires, with those of the cathedral, can be seen from all over town.

Things that are left over from the Middle Ages seem to us so quaint and charming that it's hard to remember what was going on at the time; people then lived a harsh existence, and you sense that here in Rouen.

Partly, that's because the city has more the feel of a working town than a stage set; cheap shoes are for sale, randomly stacked on tables, next to the Gros Horloge; and the throngs of people, neon signs, beggars, somehow made me feel more, not less, in the Middle Ages.

But the main reason for its rather downbeat quality is that this was the location of the trial and execution for heresy of Joan of Arc, a story that gives you a chill.

If you look through the arch under the Gros Horloge at the market place, the first thing you'll notice is the ultramodern Eglise de Jeanne d'Arc, in the center of the square. Its eccentric sloping roofs, like witches' hats, look otherworldly next to the erratic fronts of the half-timbered houses surrounding it. This is still the market square; a man was selling buckets of cut flowers under the swooping eaves.

The houses were brought to this site from other parts of the city, since the architect didn't want Joan of Arc's church to be surrounded by modern buildings; this area was completely flattened during World War II.

Also, the level of the central square was lowered, so the gigantic stone cross-stake next to the church is on the exact spot where Joan was executed, not three feet above it.

``We know where the stake was, because it was discussed in the archives,'' says Pinier. ``There was a wall [behind it] to protect houses from the fires of the stakes.''

Two concrete rectangles in the pavement, about 10 yards away, mark the spot where the judges stood during the execution.

``Between the 15th and 19th centuries, nobody thought of Joan of Arc. Nobody took care of her memory,'' says Pinier. ``France needed heroes after two wars, the War of 1870 and World War I.

``Joan of Arc came from the disputed territory of Lorraine; France needed a hero from that province.''

In 1908, Anatole France wrote a book about Joan that brought her to attention, says Pinier, pointing out the irony of all this: ``She was a mystic; not at all nationalist.''

Joan's trial - ``a trial just as rigged as General Ver's trial in the Philippines,'' a friend of mine said hotly - took place around the corner from the cathedral, where she gave those perceptive, brave, intelligent answers that astonish still.

And if you want to harrow your feelings even further, there's the sinister Tour Jeanne d'Arc - not the actual tower Joan was imprisoned in, but part of the same building, and probably similar.

But there are more relaxing ways of ending your day in Rouen. I said farewell to Pinier and headed off to see the one Monet painting of the Rouen cathedral that resides right here in the city's Musee des Beaux Arts.

I asked the museum guard to direct me and he smiled, as if he was asked this often.

First, I looked at the painting and said, ``Hm, much too lavendar.'' But then I kept backing away, and the painting resolved into just what I had seen earlier: glowing gray stone against gray sky.

If you go

Rouen is located on the Seine River, about 40 miles northwest of Paris closer to the port of Le Havre. For more details contact the French Government Tourist Office, 610 Fifth Ave., N.Y., N.Y. 10020. 212-757-1125.

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