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17th Century 18th Century 19th Century Historical Places History Lost Paris Medieval Paris

Lost Paris: The Dark (and Dirty) History of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont

There are certain places in the world where sadness collects and seeps into the ground; certain gnarls, certain pockmarks, certain flaws that crept in during the formation of the face of the earth, which can never heal.

Here is a picture of one of them.

The Parc des Buttes Chaumont, by Jean-Louis Vandevivère via Wikimedia Commons.

Alright, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont may not look the part today. In fact, it’s probably my favourite park in Paris, and a beautiful spot for a peaceful picnic or a lazy afternoon in the sun. But don’t let appearances fool you – this place is a pretty strong contender for most godforsaken spot in all of Paris, historically speaking.

If you will get hung up on the visual aids, perhaps this one will help.

© Albert Harlingue / Roger-Viollet

Now we’re talking. Something tells me this chap isn’t here for a picnic. For you see the Parc des Buttes Chaumont occupies the spot where once the infamous gallows of Montfaucon stood. First built in the early 13th century by Saint Louis, this proved such an excellent spot for a hanging that in the 1320s Charles IV demolished the rather amateurish gibbet that been used here, and replaced it with the blood-curdling monstrosity you see above – a 16 metre-high stone structure, allowing of course for more hangings but also for the more efficient display of the corpses of the executed. Situated on a prominent hill, the gibbet could be seen for miles around, and here lifeless bodies could be left for two or three years, bearing less and less resemblance to humanity as crows and wolves gnawed on their bones. As grisly as this warning to those considering a career in crime no doubt was, it doesn’t seem to have been particularly effective, because the gibbet didn’t finally close until 1627.

Montfaucon gibbet in the medieval period.

A bad start in life – you’ll concede – for this particular part of Paris, but a troubled adolescence perhaps, a prelude to happier days? Nope. Happiness would have to wait. The curriculum vitae of this area reads like a descent through the seven circles of hell. First it became a dumping ground for all the ripe sewage of Paris. Then it graduated to a life as a knackers’ yard, where in good years 15,000 unfortunate horses could be sent to meet their makers. The sinister efficiency of Montfaucon meant that these frightening activities spawned horrifying sub-industries of their own. The sewage was processed into a fine powder and sold to gardeners, who sprinkled it over their tulips. The horse hides were sold to tanners (whose own foul stench was legendary), and the festering horse guts were used to breed maggots for fishing.

Miraculously, beneath these layers of filth were found deposits of beautiful white plaster of Paris, so tunnels were driven deep into the ground, adding further to the pock-marked, extra-terrestrial effect of the landscape. Gangs of thieves and bandits soon occupied these tunnels (as they seemed to do in any space left open in Paris for any length of time – like a liquid flowing to fill its container).

The area in 1852, in a photograph by Henri Le Secq.

It’s a mark of the breathtaking audacity of Napoleon III (who was an ardent admirer of London’s great open parks and longed to bring the idea to Paris) and Haussmann that they looked at this terrible place, with its toxic history, and decided to reverse it at a stroke. The gouges in the landscape would make perfect lakes for boating and a romantic grotto, and the area’s natural elevation could be used to display not rotting corpses, but a picturesque temple. And so, in the 1860s, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont was engineered, and history was, quite deliberately, wiped out.

But a past this dark refuses to release its grip without a fight. When the light-headed dreams of Napoleon and Haussmann came crashing down, violence very quickly returned to the Parc des Buttes Chaumonts as in 1871 Communards occupied the park until the government shelled them into submission from the heights of Montmartre. And even today, one of the bridges leading to the temple is referred to, with chilling casualness, as the ‘suicide bridge’.

The ‘suicide bridge’, by austinevan via Flickr.

I don’t believe in the concept of evil, and of course the idea of curses is thoroughly alien to serious history. But it’s hard to avoid the impression that some deeply ill fate hung over this place for much of its history. But then, it’s so beautiful now, such a delightful place for a stroll – there can’t really be anything sinister at work there, can there? Quick, another visual aid – happy thoughts, happy thoughts!

The park, in happier times. © Roger-Viollet

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  • Paris: Biography of a City by Colin Jones This post is heavily indebted to this wonderful book – I’ve recommended it until I’m blue in the face. If you don’t have it, buy it.
  • Paris en images – a fantastic online resource for historical images of Paris, even if they charge for everything other than measly low-res images!
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17th Century 18th Century Historical Places History Lost Paris Paris Royal History

Lost Paris: A Night at the Palais-Royal

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It’s a July evening in 1786 and you’re visiting Paris for the first time. Perhaps you’re staying with an elderly aunt. You’re quite fond of the old goose really, and to give her her due, she’s been an expert guide to most of the sights of Paris you’ve always dreamt about. But she is a creature of unswerving habit, eating early and packing herself off to bed well before the sun, leaving long nights to fill by yourself. As soon as your beloved tante has retired upstairs and you’re free to leave the house, there’s only one place you want to go – the Palais-Royal.

You’ll have heard lots of rumours about the Palais-Royal – in fact, it’s probably the only thing a lot of people talk about when the subject of Paris comes up. You’ll have heard them cluck about it, in the same way that in years to come they’ll cluck about the Moulin Rouge, and explain to you that the Palais-Royal is a wicked place that proves there’s nothing in Paris but sin. “In a royal palace too”, they’ll say, “the boyhood home of Louis XIV no less!”.

And in a way, they’re right. There is a lot of sin at the Palais-Royal, dilutable to suit all budgets, and available in whatever flavour you happen to prefer. But there’s so much more besides.

With a mixture of curiosity, excitement and nervousness you wind your way through the streets towards the building at the heart of royal Paris, right opposite the Louvre and next to the Opera. The cluckers were right, too, that this was once a tranquil royal palace, quite suitable for leisurely strolls, and a spot for the well-to-do of the city to see and be seen.

The plan de Turgot gives a good impression of the Palais-Royal before the changes of the 1780s – the sort of manicured, orderly place of which no-one could have disapproved.

The Palais would have stayed that way, were it not for one inescapable problem; the same problem which, when it comes down to it, was behind almost every action taken by royalty and high nobility in the 17th and 18th centuries. That problem was that they were constantly strapped for cash. The Orléans family, which owned the palace, had been forced to convert the gardens into a sort of shopping centre in the early 1780s onwards, adding pavilions for shops and cafés, and enclosing the gardens with new streets. Respectable Parisians were absolutely scandalised at these plans to throw the gates open to the hoi polloi and sully the place with the stain of commerce. The poor Duc d’Orleans was lampooned in songs and plays, and booed openly on the streets. Even the king mocked his cousin’s new career as a ‘shopkeeper’. Parisians had decided they hated the new Palais-Royal and always would.

Parisians are – not just in cliché but in historical fact – a fickle bunch.

By 1794, they’d decided that in fact they loved the new Palais-Royal, and always had. It didn’t matter that some of the more ambitious schemes for the redevelopment had come to nothing due to lack of cash, and as a result what greeted the visitor was rows of sordid, muddy tents (known popularly as the Camp of the Tartars). It didn’t matter that almost straight away these tents became a notorious hang-out for thieves, swindlers and prostitutes. The Palais was a runaway success, which every Parisian – even those who’d bewailed the loss of the polite walking ground – came to in their droves. The reason for this apparently mystifying about-turn is that strangely, inside the home of one of the most powerful establishment figures in France, an amazingly rich and varied popular culture had quickly taken root, which carried on the communal tradition of the Pont Neuf and the now vertiginously declining annual fairs – for which Parisians of this time undoubtedly had a need as fundamental as breathing.

So, you, back in the role of our wide-eyed tourist, follow the pulsating glow and the amazing cocophony of sounds until you find yourself inside the Palais. At this point, the Palais became a dizzying ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story.

– It really is the sin you’re after, and you want to meet one of the famously obliging Parisiennes. Perhaps clutching a copy of Almanach des adresses des desnoiselles of Paris de tout genre et de toutes de les classes, a published guide which gives full details on what’s available, you find a girl to suit your budget and your proclivities, and head to the corresponding café. Perhaps you’re here to visit one of the sosies de vedette – a speciality of the Palais – girls who dress up as celebrities of the day, especially opera stars and actresses. It’s unlikely that anyone will judge you. There are 2,000 prostitutes to be found in the Palais at any time of day, and a steady stream of customers. Most of the men of Paris have probably indulged at one time or another.

– You could never face your aunt over breakfast in the morning if you dallied in any of that, thank you very much, so you sidestep the prostitutes. You’re here for the spectacles. You want to see the ombres chinoises, a popular shadow show where tempests, cascades, shipwrecks, and the forges of vulcan are conjured before your very eyes. You want to see the Petits Comédiens, where to circumvent the Comédie-Italienne’s monopoly on stage performance, small children are employed to stand on stage and move their mouths precisely in time with adult actors who sing songs and deliver speeches unseen from off stage. Maybe you want to go to a first night in another theatre, and enjoy the rumpus as rival playwrights come to shout insults and drown out the piece being performed. Like it or not, you can’t avoid seeing Paul Butterbrodt, the 400-pound man, and you might as well drop the few coins necessary to see the miraculously preserved corpse of Zulima (who died 200 years ago), or enter Monsieur Curtis’s waxwork museum, where a reproduction of Marie-Antoinette and her family is the prize exhibit. But what fills you with the most child-like glee is undoubtedly the balloons, which are all the rage at the palais. Tonight, a balloon that’s shaped like a galleon and 26 feet long is bobbing above the Palais. A few weeks ago, it was a lifesize dirigible horse, ridden by a chevalier over their awed heads of the gawpers below.

– You’re a learned soul and demand something more edifying than petty entertainment. You could witness one of the many automaton displays, or watch the universe turn on its axes in Sieur Belon’s mechanical model of the solar system. You could go to a demonstration of scientific experiments. You’ll find these attractions right next to the cheap theatres and cafés, and may be surprised that the queue outside them is just as long. In Paris, the line between magic and science remains blurred, and both are delivered with equal amounts of razzmatazz. There’s a mania for all things new and genuine wonder in scientific discovery. Here at the Palais, there’s even the Musée de Comte d’Artois, a serious institution frequented by some of the great names in contemporary science, and open to any male deemed ‘respectable’. There’s the Club des Planteurs ou Societe des Colons, open only to colonial pioneers, and the Club du Salon des Arts, where members can play chess or peruse opera scores. The Societé Olympique is a sort of League of Extraordinary Gentlepeople, where the criteria for joining seems to have been simply that you were somehow amazing (three Princesses of the Blood were card-carrying members). The Masons are here, of course, and there’s the Societé Philharmonique, a musicians’ club which annoyed the other clubs by constantly making a racket.

– You’re here to shop. Not a bad motive for travelling to these parts, as in the little boutiques one can buy bear grease (for thinning hair), fans, ink, books (including some forbidden and filthy ones), telescopes, opera glasses, stolen dogs, fold-up rubber raincoats, royal lottery tickets, enchanting glowing phosphorous trapped in glass bottles, and a thousand and one other delights.

– You’re here to drink. I admire your honesty. Pick a café – there are lots around – and order any beverage your addled mind can think of. The most famous is the Café de Foy, where, along with your refreshment, you’ll find willing ears for any kind of talk – and, increasingly, it’s political chatter that you’ll hear buzzing around you. One day soon, Camille Desmoulins will jump onto one of these very tables and ignite the revolution, and even the palace’s owner, Philippe d’Orléans will get swept up in the excitment fizzing about in his own backyard, style himself Philippe Égalité and go down in history as the man who voted his own cousin, the King, to the guillotine. But not yet. For now, the politics is whispered, and drowned out by the din of people having fun.

However you chose to spend your night at the Palais-Royal, you’re sure to remember it long after the indigestion of your breakfast with auntie has faded. Nowhere else in the world can offer the kaleidoscopic range of entertainments and stimulations. Nowhere else seems to stimulate every nerve in your body in quite the same way. A Russian who visited in 1790 called it ‘the heart, the soul, the brain, the very synopsis of Paris’. It’s for precisely this reason that the revolution was cradled here, because ironically, within the walls of a palace, the ancien régime hadn’t held sway for a while now. Here, a specifically Parisian form of democracy – both ancient and breathtakingly modern – was the governing force. Here, where there was relatively little reverence for the traditional class system, the church or high nobility, any idea could succeed if it excited the hearts and minds of enough people, and any voice could be heard if it was powerful and interesting enough to rise above the racket. Soon, the king himself would come to resemble one of those children with mouths gaping like fish as others provided his words, and the people of Paris would find the courage to shout from the audience that they’d seen this tired old play before, and it was time for a new and more thrilling spectacle.

Traces Today

In 21st century Paris, the Palais is still a wonder, but for totally opposite reasons. It will often be quiet even on very busy days in Paris, and sitting inside at one of the cafés it’s very easy to forget that you’re in the city at all. There’s a sad, morning-after feeling, coupled with the romance of faded grandeur.

There’s one relic of the scientific mania that gripped the palais in its heyday. In the gardens is a small canon, once fitted with a lens which caused it to fire every day at noon. Its a strange little survivor, but perhaps if you contemplate the eccentricity of this oddity, and multiply that by a thousand, and picture the whole Palais full of such wonders all competing for your attention, you might get close to some sense of what the Palais was like in its prime.

The canon at the Palais-Royal

The canon at the Palais-Royal, by dalbera via flickr.


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 The photo used at the top of this article is by DomiKetu via Flickr.

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17th Century 18th Century French History Historical Places History Lost Paris Medieval Paris

Lost Paris: All the Fun of the Fairs

February in medieval Paris can’t have been much fun. When the sun went south for the winter, the city must have been a gloomy place, returning to its prehistoric origins as a swamp (the city’s Roman name, Lutetia, derives from lutum, Latin for mud, according to one persuasive theory) and life for your average Parisian must have been painted an unappealing shade of dull, dirty brown. So it was with great excitement that the people of Paris awaited the coming of the annual Saint-Germain fair – quite literally a burst of light in the darkness, and an intoxicating, sensual shot in the arm to see them through to the first days of spring.

The Foire Saint Germain fair in 1763

In this picture of the fair, a miniature painted by Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe in 1763 now in the superb Wallace Collection, it’s the beautiful, warm light that draws you in to a world of wonders and theatrically illuminates the many spectacles of the experience. It’s one of those paintings you just want to jump into.

Together with religious festivals, the great fairs formed the foundations of the social life of the city in the medieval and early modern period, and, like the giddy thrill of a walk on the Pont Neuf (see my last post), almost everyone in Paris would at some stage have attended the fairs, the grandest rubbing shoulders (and quite possibly other body parts) with the humblest. There were two key annual fairs in Paris, the Saint-Germain (on the same site as the present covered market, off the Boulevard Saint-Germain), which first appears in the record in 1176, and the Saint-Laurent (roughly where the Gare de l’Est is today), its younger brother born in 1344. The Saint-Germain fair was traditionally open from 3rd February until Palm Sunday, and the Saint-Laurent from late July until the feast day of Saint Michel in September, though both were frequently extended. Though both fairs were popular, the Saint-Laurent was more well-behaved and respectable and less fun, and if you gave any Parisian the choice between the two they’d always plump for the Saint-Germain – and it’s this one I’ll be focusing on in this post.

View of the fair in the Merian (1615) and Turgot (1730s) maps of Paris.

Both fairs were started by monks in the middle ages less as entertainments than as a means of providing shelter and sustenance for pilgrims who came to honour the abbeys’ relics on particular days in the church calendar. Saint-Germain-des-Prés holds a particularly interesting place in the history of the city, existing as almost a separate entity from the rest of Paris up until the late 17th century. In the medieval period, the Abbey was outside the walls of the city, and owned a huge chunk of the land on the left bank, corresponding today to an area  from the Luxembourg Palace to the site of the Eiffel Tower. The abbots were powerful feudal lords, usually with royal blood, and like other abbeys in the city, Saint-Germain was outside the jurisdiction of the Parisian authorities. Not only that, but the entire abbey was surrounded by a great ditch and a thick, fortified wall, making it essentially its own little world where interesting and unusual activities flourished. The long arm of Parisian law did not stretch as far as Saint-Germain (which had its own courts, prison and gallows), so opportunistic criminals could seek refuge here and escape punishment if the monks proved amenable (and, one gets the impression, the monks of Saint-Germain could be extremely amenable if their palms were crossed with sufficient precious metals). The powerful and usually ultra-conservative guilds that controlled all arts and crafts in the city also had no influence in the abbey, which meant that the abbey benefited from the creative juices of talented foreign artists, who were forbidden to work in Paris proper by the guilds.

The  Saint-Germain fair was perhaps the most visible and wonderful manifestation of this strange jurisdictional bubble -a topsy-turvy world of indulgence, liberty and -yes – sin, which would have been frowned upon by Parisian society under normal circumstances, taking place not only in the shadow of one of the most holy churches in France, but in Lent no less! To understand what the fairs became once they moved away from merely serving the needs of pilgrims, it’s necessary to comprehend the curious doublethink that defined society in the early modern period, especially I think in Paris. This was a world at once still bound to religion and fearful of hell and damnation, and yet highly attuned to the fragility of life and the ever-present spectre of death, willing to mine every rare opportunity for every ounce of pleasure it would yield. It was also a very outward-looking society, fascinated by the new world opening up and the undreamt of wonders it contained, as well by rapid developments in the sciences. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the horizons of knowledge and exploration seemed unlimited – anything, suddenly, was possible, and excitement over every new discovery created a feeling of liberation, rather than the weighty, nagging knowledge of everything we don’t and can’t know which can often bog down the popular perception of science today. Parisians were hungry for the new – to see it, taste it, show it off – and the Saint-Germain fair offered them the chance to do just this.

A view of the fair in the 18th century, by Jollain.

Let’s visit the fair in the 17th century. By now, it covers a huge area and its centre is two huge pavilions, spanned by a roof  and sunk 6 to 8 feet into the earth. Simply entering these strange subterranean palaces could be a challenge, but thankfully there was generally such a crush of people cramming in alongside you that it would have been impossible to fall over. As your eyes adjust to the glow of lamplight, your nose begins to detect ripples of wonderful aromas. Almost everything you could dream of eating and drinking was available here – delicate pastries, pungently spiced breads, jams, waffles, fruit, confections, beer, hard cider, hippocras and eau-de-vie. If you can pick them out in the crowd, you might be able to buy a coffee from the two Armenians who worked the fairs from the early 1670s, or an exotic liquor infused from herbs and spices from Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, the Sicilian who in 1686 will parlay his success at the fairs into his very own establishment that will one day be known as the the Café Procope.

If you’re not in need of a nap after all those treats,and fancy some shopping, you can buy anything and everything a chap can unfold (excuse my Bedknobs and Broomsticks reference) at the market. You can see some of them in the miniature above – glinting Venetian mirrors, paintings and sculptures, together with heady perfumes, moroccan leather, gloves and knives. The paintings were often created by the artists working under the protection of the abbey, free from the guilds of Paris. The only problem was, in order to get their paintings from the abbey to the fair, the artists had to cross streets that were under the jurisdiction of the Paris guilds, whose heavies could stop them and seize and destroy their work. This led to elaborate subterfuge and smuggling, and a constant battle between the artists and the guilds. You could also, increasingly in the 18th century, buy popular optical devices and mechanical automatons to experience the wonders of modern science for yourself, and impress your friends.

A finely balanced and at times symbiotic ecosystem existed at the fair in which every desire of the visitor could be catered to the very instant he became aware of it, and money flowed liquidly from hand to hand, circulating round the pavilions in great tides and whispering eddies. So if gambling tickles your fancy tonight, you can put a coin in someone’s pocket and try your luck at cards or dice, or on the spinning wheel. If you’re lucky enough to win (the games are often rigged), there’s always a thief on hand to cut the fabric of your pocket and relieve you of the burden. Flush with his success, the thief decides to stroll towards the cabarets. On the way he walks past the little theatres, each with their own balcony outside where the actors put on free shows as a sort of a trailer for what can be seen inside (which again can be seen in the miniature). Tight-rope walkers teeter on ropes overhead, and acrobats shock the unwary by leaping suddenly and dramatically into the air. The thief stops at an animal attraction – not, this time, the ‘scholarly’ deer who can guess people’s age, or the rats trained to do ballet, or the ‘white bear from the icy sea’ from Monsieur Ruggieri’s  menagerie – but a monkey playing the hurdy gurdy which caused a great sensation at the fair. The thief throws a coin into a tin and the monkey begins to play an allemande very elegantly, then someone throws a nut and the creature scampers away to get it, but the music keeps playing. The thief yells at the charlatan keeper of the monkey for duping him, and gives chase, knocking over the tin and scattering his takings. A group of well-to-do boys pounce on the coins and run off to see one of the puppeteers – some so good they’re rumoured to be magicians commanding the devil’s minions – and thus the stream of cash continues to flow around the fair.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about the fairs is the degree of sexual permissiveness to be found there – which is more commonly associated with later periods in Paris’s history, and we’d blush at even today. Prostitution mainly centred around the cabarets, where sexual encounters took place on a large scale, and openly in booths, or in rooms rented our in nearby houses. The cabarets were frequently in trouble with the police and commissaires charged with the impossible task of keeping order at the fairs, but they never succeeded in shutting them down.

And yet, with all the chicanery, fights and prostitution, the fairs remained a respectable place for all classes of society to go – even high-ranking ladies could be seen there, turning a blind eye to the insults thrown by commoners as they jostled in the crowd. At the fair, the line between fantasy and real life was wilfully blurred – rules were left at the walls of the abbey and theatre spilled out onto the streets.

In the 18th century, the fairs, which had entertained Parisians for 600 years, began to decline, and this was hastened by a fire which destroyed the fair at Saint-Germain in 1762 – a blow from which it seems never to have recovered. Something of the spirit of the fairs was maintained, however, and found a new home at the Palais Royal – which I’ll be exploring in my next post.

Fire at Saint-Germain fair in 1762

The fire of 1762, from a roughly contemporary engraving

Another view of the fire, from a painting by Pierre-Antoine Demachy which recently sold at auction in Paris. Thanks to reader Marc Philippe for telling me about this.

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17th Century 18th Century Historical Places History Lost Paris Paris Uncategorized

Lost Paris: The Pont Neuf, ‘the Eiffel tower of the Ancien Régime’

In the next three posts in the Lost Paris series, I’m going to be looking at the Pont Neuf, the fair held annually at Saint-Germain, and the Palais Royal. Though two of these three still exist, and are probably high on any visitor’s must-see list, what they are today is but a shadow of what they have been. In the 17th and 18th centuries these places were genuine melting pots, where people of all social ranks came together, and culture of all kinds collided and coalesced. This electrifying atmosphere defined what it was to be a Parisian in that era, and though it’s still possible to get a sense of the flavours and textures of this street life, it’s hard to really understand it because in our modern, fractured society – where the most popular culture is generally consumed in our own homes, or sitting in silence in the dark at a theatre or cinema – I can think of no real equivalent.

When it comes to the Pont Neuf, this coming together, both in a physical and social sense, was precisely the point. The bridge is heavily associated with Henri IV, though in fact its construction was begun by Henri III in 1578, then halted in 1588 in the turmoil of the Wars of Religion. When Henri IV eventually emerged as the victor of that war in 1598, one of his first priorities was to rebuild Paris and end the bitter division and crippling uncertainty that had festered during almost 40 years of intermittent conflict. The bridge, connecting the left and right banks of the Seine via the Île de la Cité, was necessary in a strictly practical sense because the existing Pont Notre-Dame was desperately overloaded. The new bridge would get Paris moving again, but just as importantly would also send a powerful symbolic message to the country and the world that the war was over and the new king was looking to the future. Legend has it that Henri IV visited the unfinished bridge during its construction, and impressed the workmen by effortlessly leaping the vast gaps between the pillars standing in the river. The sight must have been hugely reassuring to Parisians – following a string of at best ineffectual and at worst disastrously weak monarchs – and an enduring love affair between the people and Henri took root.

The brand new Pont Neuf in 1615, from the Plan de Merian.

The new bridge was unusual in several respects. At 28 metres wide it was not only the broadest bridge in Europe at the time, it was also far wider than any other Parisian street, and – luxury of luxuries in a city where most streets were narrow and many still unpaved – even had a pavement. Unlike other bridges in the city, the Pont Neuf was built without the clutter of residential housing, so it offered sweeping views over the Seine and towards the Louvre and Tuileries palaces. And, let’s face it, the Pont Neuf is a looker, posing coquettishly and making itself look beautiful in almost every picture you see of it. Very quickly the bridge came to be represent Paris to the world, featured in endless prints and paintings, and coming to be, in the words of Colin Jones, ‘the Eiffel tower of the Ancien Régime’.

The always seductive Pont Neuf in 1881. If this doesn’t make you sigh and murmur ‘Ah, Paris!’, you have a turnip instead of a heart. By Todor Atanassov via Wikimedia Commons.

But things happened on the Pont Neuf that you’ll never see at the Eiffel tower, because while people go to the tower to look out at all of Paris, all of Paris came to the bridge to look at itself. Floating there, in the amphitheatre of the Seine, the wide, open platform of the Pont Neuf was a stage where the most outrageous and wonderful street theatre was performed.

Walking towards the bridge in the 17th century, you would probably have heard it before you saw it. The characteristic sound of the Pont Neuf was a cacophony of cries (known as the cris de Paris) from the many vendors who plied their trade there, selling a bewildering array of products. Your ears might be assailed by offers of cakes, oysters, oranges (regarded as a naughty, sensual pleasure at the time), coffee, dogs, face powder, wooden legs, glass eyes or false teeth. Then there were the singers – usually dressed in some outlandish costume – who sang about everything from celebrities to murders and hangings. The more close to the knuckle stuff – the songs about the kings and his mistresses – couldn’t be sung openly on the bridge, but if you tipped the singer a wink he might furtively open up his coat and sell you a handwritten copy. Singers who overstepped the mark were threatened with the galleys or imprisonment (and some performers, such as the comedian Gros Guillaume, did indeed end their days in jail) but, just like today, such controversy was great for business. One singer, who was forced to flee the country to escape arrest, later estimated that the scandal had been worth 30,000 livres in sales of his music. Some of the songs were written by the beggars, who clustered around the foot of the Henry IV statue, and made it their business to know everything that went on in the city. Tantalisingly, some songs about nobles and famous courtiers even contained salacious details that only insiders would know – suggesting that other nobles and courtiers were writing songs for performance at the bridge, to spread bitchy gossip or do down their rivals.

Then there were the charlatans. Some offered phoenix fat or vials of the soil of Bethlehem, but most were quacks peddling some kind of miraculous medicine. In order to promote their wares, the charlatans offered elaborate shows for free to passers-by, a forerunner of the infomercial, in which they would engage in knockabout routines and comedy, dances, monkey acts, acrobatics and music, interspersed with ad breaks where they directly plugged their products. Generally one member of their entourage would be blacked up and dressed in some exotic costume, from the far-off mysterious land whence the potion was said to originate. One sold bottled water from the Seine which promised to extend a person’s life to the age of 150. Though this would surely be the first recorded incident of Seine water prolonging life in the 17th century, it pales in comparison to the secrets for sale from another mountebank, who offered 5,000 years of life and training in how to become invisble.

Two of the most famous of these salespeople were Taborin and Mondor, who operated in the 1620s. Their sketches always involved Taborin playing the part of a dull dimwit to Mondor’s educated cleverclogs, peppered with frequent plugs for their own medical elixir. The pair became such a part of popular culture that they were said to have inspired Molière’s 1671 farce Les Fourberies de Scapin.

Perhaps the most grisly, if morbidly fascinating, act to watch would have been the tooth-pullers. Le Grand Thomas, another of the bridge’s most legendary figures in the 1710s and 20s, was a giant of a man who performed death-defying feats of dentistry near the statue of Henri IV. He yanked out problem teeth with such gusto that he was sometimes said to lift patients several feet off the ground. Being a charitable man, he sometimes did this for free, and even arranged great feasts for the poor on the bridge. His fame spread far and wide, and he was even granted an audience with the king at Versailles.

 

It wasn’t all fun and games at the bridge. As well as the ever-present prostitutes, the Pont Neuf was frequented by thieves and pickpockets, and was known as an excellent spot for a murder, as the deed could be done in a flash and the perpetrator could then escape quickly under the low parapets. And it certainly wasn’t a place for a stroll after a few drinks, as press gangs were liable to nab any drunkard they found.

Although often described today as the oldest bridge in Paris, there isn’t in fact a single stone remaining from the original construction. The gargoyles that currently adorn the bridge are from the 1850s, and the statue of Henri IV that currently resides on the bridge is a replica – the original was melted down in the Revolution (though one of the horse’s feet survived and can be seen in the Musee Carnavalet).

The installation of the new statue of Henri IV in 1818.

More importantly, the atmosphere that once fizzed around the bridge is irrecoverably lost. The bridge began a slow decline in the 1770s when stalls were banned and replaced with tidier, safer little shops.

One of the new, more respectable boutiques on the Pont Neuf in 1848, after an engraving by AP Marshall. Nobody looks like they’re having fun here, do they? Even these places were removed in the 1850s.

The cries that once seemed to be the very soundtrack of Parisian life have now been replaced by the drone of cars and the snaps of camera shutters. The Pont Neuf has reverted to being like any other bridge; not so much a destination as a means of getting from one side of the river to the other. Benjamin Franklin said he never understood Parisians until he had been to the Pont Neuf, and Louis-Sébastien Mercier said that the Pont Neuf was ‘to the city what the heart is the body’.  Though there are in the Paris of today far better places to buy medicines or have some dentistry done, there’s nowhere quite like the Pont Neuf, where all Paris came together, and the very best and very worst of everything the city could be found form in the symphony of cries, song, laughter and screams that drifted from the bridge over the ancient Seine.

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19th Century 20th Century Film French History Historical Places Paris Theatre Uncategorized

Did Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love Ever Really Reign at the Moulin Rouge?

Yesterday found me watching Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!. This, I must confess, is not an entirely uncommon occurrence. In fact, were I to feed all my innermost preferences into some kind of film-making robot and send it off for a few months, it’d probably come back with something very like Moulin Rouge! in the can. Belle Époque Paris? Check. Musical (including Sound of Music references)? Check. Naively simple yet cheaply affecting love story? Check. Absurdly lavish set and costume? Double check. With a bottle of French wine and perhaps a good cheese board and an oozing saucisson, it’s an indulgent guilty pleasure – especially with the simply ravishing Blu-ray.

This time though, as I was watching it, I wondered whether there was any truth in the story and its intoxicating portrayal of the Moulin Rouge itself. Was there ever a group of explosively creative, Bohemian artists, animated by the chance to live out their four tenets – Truth, Beauty, Freedom and above all things Love – who found their home beneath the scarlet sails of the iconic windmill?

The short answer, I’m afraid, is no. The Moulin Rouge was driven by, above all things, commercial success, and if it a giant illuminated sign had hung over the place, it would not, as in the film, have read ‘L’amour’, but rather ‘Cancan’. Contrary to some legends, the dance was not invented at the Moulin Rouge. Cancan had existed since the 1830s (originating not in Montmartre but in Montparnasse), but in its life before the Moulin Rouge it was a far more respectable affair – a little rowdy perhaps, with just a soupçon of reckless abandon, but essentially just a high-kicking, high-spirited dance for couples in working class ballrooms, with little to no flashing of knickers. When the Moulin Rouge opened its doors 1889, it took this tamely ribald little jig, supercharged it, yanked it out of those tucked away ballrooms and put it on stage for all the world to see. The reason for this change was a practical one – the dancers of the early Moulin Rouge were courtesans, and so this dance (showing off their legs, undergarments and, as time went on, a lot more) served as an advertisement for their services. The film does a good job of re-choreographing the cancan for the modern age, recapturing a sense of how shockingly physical and dangerous the Moulin Rouge’s version of the dance must have seemed in the 1890s, in contrast to the ploddy, clichéd affair it can seem today.

The cancan quickly became a sensation, with certain sections of society flocking to the Moulin Rouge to enjoy it, and certain sections flocking equally breathlessly to be scandalised. One writer in the 1890s described

the old English ladies and the young misses wrapped up in warm furs even in the midst of summer and who always sit in the front row in order better to ascertain the immorality of the French dancers [and who] cover their faces when it is over and then utter their properly indignant ‘Shockings!’.

Once word of the cancan had spread it was all anyone wanted to see, and so though the cabaret has played host to a string of legendary performers, the film’s troupe of groundbreaking thespians would in reality have had little to do. As the initial shock of the cancan wore off, the dance became more crude and explicit, so while ‘freedom’ and ‘love’ abounded at the Cabaret, it was not exactly of the romantic type.

But what about Toulouse-Lautrec – the poster boy for Bohemia? Didn’t he have his own table there, where he’d be found night after night sketching? Well, yes he did. He was originally commissioned to create posters for the venue in 1891, and he went on to feature the cabaret in many of his paintings.

It strikes me that there’s a big difference between the tone and atmosphere of this famous poster, capturing so much of the Belle Époque joie de vivre we still associate with the place, and that of his other representations of the place.

Self-portrait Au Moulin Rouge, 1892

In these images, joie de vivre seems to be to be utterly absent. There’s something at once stiflingly bourgeois and ghastly going on here. The deathly face in the image above isn’t at the height of ecstacy, it isn’t even under the spell of some chemical – it’s the reflection of a soul that yearns to be somewhere else.

Toulouse-Lautrec two women dancing
Au Moulin Rouge: Les deuxvalseuses, 1892

La danse au Moulin Rouge, 1890

In these two images there’s more of the office Christmas party than the freewheeling melting pot seen in the film. In Les deuxvalseuses two slightly tipsy but otherwise ordinary (not to say dull) women engage in a waltz of all things, the very opposite of the scandalising cancan. And in Le Danse, the drunk girl at the party lifts her skirts and dances with life and vigour (a figure identical to the one in the poster), but everyone else looks uncomfortable and bored. Top-hatted men circle the dance floor not joining in, not even enjoying the spectacle, but it seems tut-tutting, or discussing the weather. The woman in the pink dress is almost asleep. There’s an overwhelming brownness to the whole thing. It isn’t a place I’d want to be.

It would be wrong to project too much of what the Moulin Rouge is today onto what it was then – to imagine the top-hatted men as merely the equivalents of the coachloads of businessmen and bewildered tourists who turn up at the place today. For one thing, I’m sure it didn’t cost over a hundred Euros then. But there is a sense in these pictures of danger and adventurousness being dished up on demand for the mundane, who enjoyed their ‘Shockings!’, and the feeling that they were participating in the demimonde of Montmartre for the evening – almost as if they went on a Safari, gasped at the wildlife, and could then return to their humdrum lives.

This sense is only confirmed when you reflect that there were other clubs in the area that were more the Moulin Rouge of our imagination than the Moulin Rouge itself. In the 1870s the Nouvelle-Athènes club was a favourite haunt of Zola, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Huysmans and Degas. Le Chat Noir, which opened on the Boulevard Rochechouart in 1881 (and of course had its own poster by Toulouse-Lautrec) was started by the failed painter Rodolphe Salis, and its lifesource was the group of artists known as the ‘Hydropathes’ (because they were constantly thirsty). The Hydropathes provided the entertainment for the club, staging shadow plays or dramas, satires, songs, sketches, and insulting the audience as they entered. Le Chat Noir even had its own newspaper. Much closer, then, to Baz Luhrmann’s portrayal of the Moulin Rouge, in every respect other than the ardent right wing politics the Hydropathes were famous for. The Lapin Agile became popular with artists after 1903, with Picasso only the most luminous star to prop up its bar.

The Moulin Rouge of the film is then a distillation of the spirit of the Belle Époque (more potent even than absinthe). While it’s by no means an accurate depiction of the historical Moulin Rouge, it isn’t trying to be, and it succeeds admirably in simulating the giddy, heady thrill of a night out in turn-of-the-century Montmartre, minus some of the more sordid realities paying for sex and the surprise of finding a conservative polemic as the night’s entertainment. The hero Christian’s undying quest for L’Amour marks him out in the film, as it would have done in the Montmartre of 1900, where love was the only pleasure not readily available, differently from now a days that you can find a partner and enjoy love, and even get accessories for this, at sites at TheToy online.  And there’s one last thing the film gets right – there really was a gigantic elephant in the gardens of the Moulin Rouge, which, as I discovered in this post from the Lost Paris series, is a bit of a theme in Parisian history. At the present time today, a shop like Spank The Monkey has a range of male sex toys at a budget that suit everyone to enjoy alone or with a partner.


The Elephant in the gardens of the Moulin Rouge, around 1900. The elephant was said to contain an opium den.