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Mont archangel restored and it is all in a day’s work

A glittering Archangel Michael is back on top of Mont-Saint-Michel abbey after being taken to Dordogne for a two-month restoration when it was repaired and regilded by one of France’s leading heritage teams.

6 June 2016
By Jane Hanks

The sculpture was lifted into place in a heli­copter airlift after the restoration by Socra, at Marsac-sur-l’Isle near Périgueux.

It is one of a small number of firms carrying out restorations on some of the country’s most pres­tigious artworks and historic buildings.

Socra is in an uninspiring corrugated metal-clad unit that looks like any other on the modern industrial estate but inside it houses an Aladdin’s cave of treasures.

Stone sculptures in one corner, a huge bronze statue from Tours lying face down in another, a brightly coloured mosaic on a wall and, when I visited, the helmet of Mont-Saint-Michel’s archangel Michael was on a workbench. Nearby, the 500kg, four-metre bronze statue was lying at an angle, held off the ground by chains.

It had been removed from the top of Mont-Saint-Michel by a skilled helicopter team in a delicate operation watched from the ground by hundreds of visitors to the Unesco World Heritage Site. It was then transferred to a lorry which brought it to the Dordogne, where it was greeted by local people who wanted to get a glimpse of a national monument that is normally only seen from a distance.

“I couldn’t resist coming. I knew it was arriving and it is magnificent. Very moving,” said one.

The statue was completely renovated 30 years ago. This time, the task was to clean it up, polish out any scratches and marks, add four coats of protective paint and then add gold leaf, painted on by a specialist, to restore it to its former glory.

“We can see the Archangel Michael really does its job of protecting Mont-Saint-Michel, not only symbolically but also in a practical way,” Socra’s director Patrick Palem said.

“We can see the marks on the tips of the wings and the sword left by thunderstorms as the statue acts as an effective lightning conductor.”

He also pointed out the amazing detail on the statue: “People ask why there is so much finesse on something that is hardly ever going to be seen from close up - but it was an exact copy of a smaller model.

“The archangel is represented with sword in hand, ready to fight off the dragon of legend and you may notice that the scabbard is on the same side as his sword hand which would make it impossible for him to put it away.

“This is a deliberate piece of symbolism to show that he will never sheath his sword and is always there to protect Mont-Saint-Michel. Notice too the tiny shield, indicating he was in no need of protection from enemies.”

The statue was made in 1897 by Emmanuel Frémiet. There are two copies, one in the Musée d’Orsay and another — which Socra has already restored — on the church of Saint Michel des Batignolles in Paris.

Socra’s work on the Mont-Saint-Michel statue has attracted considerable media attention but Mr Palem said it was not one of the most complicated or longest restorations they have had in the workshop. He said they had a wide range of skills among their 30 employees and could turn their hand to different types of projects, notably in stone, metal and mosaic.

The company was founded in 1964 in the Dordogne, where its first job was to create the original replica of the Lascaux caves.

It is not working on Lascaux IV, due to open in December, but did oversee and co-ordinate the replica of the Chauvet caves in the Ardèche which opened to the public a year ago.

One of its specialisations is the restoration of bronze, copper and iron structures. The company uses a number of techniques to solder, sand, and repair — using resins and polish to bring monuments in town centres and well-known buildings back to their former glory. They have worked on many icons in Paris, including the fountains at place de la Concorde, and the Statue of Liberty.

When I visited, there were statues in crates ready to be returned to the Opéra Garnier. Meanwhile, at Tours, the dome of the Basilique Saint Martin is covered in a huge sheet as it is missing the imposing statue of its patron saint. It is in Socra’s Dordogne workshops, awaiting restoration.

The company’s stone sculpture-restoring techniques have been used in the Louvre, the Cathedral at Bourges and the Cathedral at Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne, among others. They clean stone using lasers, carry out desalinisation by electrolysis and, where necessary, replace missing details using a plaster made of reconstituted stone.

Officials at the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur at Montmartre turned to the experts at Socra when the detail in the mosaics could no longer be seen under the layers of grime created by the breath of hundreds of thousands of visitors and wax from candles.

It took a team two months to clean. Missing tiles were replaced by small pieces of glass in colours identical to the original.

“Our policy in France is to restore rather than to replace where possible,” said Mr Palem. “It’s different in other countries. We work on overseas contracts and we have recently completed a mosaic in Uzbekistan where we copied an original in modern materials rather than restore, which is cheaper to do. “In our team, we have people with varying skills and backgrounds — engineers, architects, craftsmen and people from fine arts.

“We also have a volunteer who was an aesthetician but is skilled and loves coming here to work on stone figures rather than human faces.

“Our stoneworkers are mainly recruited from Italy, where they have better training than in France.”

Mr Palem warned that there is a smaller pool of people trained to work in this field: “We are losing an important part of our savoir-faire as less money is put into restoring our heritage. There are fewer students taking up relevant studies because there are fewer job prospects.

“The budget set aside by the government for the restoration of public monuments is ridiculous — around €300m, which is about half the amount allocated 10 years ago.

“It shows in the type of work we are getting now — 70% is privately funded whereas five years ago the reverse was the case and 80% came from public funding.”

Socra’s biggest project at present is a €4.5m contract to restore the art nouveau façade of the former grand department store, La Samaritaine. The work will continue into 2017 and is funded by the French luxury goods company, LVMH, which is renovating the store after it was closed in 2005 for safety reasons.

Mr Palem said preserving France’s heritage is essential: “Tourism is vital to France’s economy and making sure our monuments are maintained makes us more attractive to visitors.

“I also think that the French population is very attached to our heritage. We recently restored a statue of Napoleon on horseback for Cherbourg and local people were so interested that we had coachloads coming all the way from Normandy to visit their statue in our workshops.

“There was even a ‘guess the weight’ competition with a weekend in the Périgord as first prize. There is national pride in our heritage.”

It is possible to visit Socra via tours organised by Périgueux tourist office.

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