Lost Paris: Destruction and Renewal on the Île de la Cité

This Lost Paris series has ended up being a tad melancholy, which isn’t really what I intended. More than anything what seems to have come through in the stories of these forgotten places and faded flashes of light in the city’s history is a sense that when you visit Paris today, you’re experiencing the grey headachey morning after, not the wild party of the night before.

There’s a word for this, my friends: codswallop. Oh, granted there certainly did once exist a raucous, rich, collective popular culture in Paris which has simply died, and some truly marvellous places have been lost along the way. But the truth is that somewhere below the wild, beautiful music of life that reverberated around these places, the sorry, mournful base note of human misery played a constant drone. The Old Paris that it’s so easy to look back on with misty eyes was dirty and dehumanising; it shortened the lives of those who lived in it through the disease and violence that bred so effectively there. Housing conditions were commonly squalid, crime was sewn into the fabric of life, exploitation and prostitution were ever-present.

So it’s worth sobering up a little and reflecting on the more positive outcomes of the destruction of Old Paris, as well as the fact that without such total destruction, Paris would lack many of the quintessential features that make it so impossible not to fall in love with today.

The  Île de la Cité is a good example of just this process. It’s often described as one of the primary victims of the changes to Paris wrought by Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann (Prefect of the Seine) in the 1860s and 1870s. Before this time, the Île de la Cité had been altogether different from the place we know today.

The Île de la Cité is the heart of Paris not only geographically – to this day all distances to and from Paris are measured from a spot just in front of Notre-Dame – but also historically, with many historians believing it was on this island that the tribe known as the Parisii first settled from around 250BC. As the city grew the island retained a sacred significance, which was only accentuated by the building of Saint-Étienne cathedral here in the 4th century, to be replaced by Notre-Dame in the 12th.

Despite the presence of these august houses of God, life on the Île de la Cité was anything but holy by the medieval period. It’s hard to imagine what the area must have really been like before the 19th century. Painters seem generally to have kept at a safe distance, where unpleasant or unpicturesque detail could be kept nicely blurred.

A View of the Île de la Cité in 1753, by N. and JB Raguenet, via Paris En Images

Another view by the same artists,  via Paris En Images.

Maps are also of limited use – the instinct of most map-makers has always been to tidy up mess, to create order where there was none. That said, our old friend the  Turgot map (a map no Parisian time traveller should be without), which shows Paris in the 1730s, conveys some sense of the crowded, higgledy-piggledy make-up of the island.

Detail of the Plan de Turgot. Are those bollards in front of Notre-Dame, or a polite row of pigeons? Via Atlas Historique de Paris.

We can see immediately in these images how different the architecture was to anything found in Paris today. If we want to go deeper and understand the feel of the place, accounts of contemporaries are perhaps the best tool, and those who knew the old Île de la Cité paint an evocative picture.

….Mud-coloured houses, broken by a few worm-eaten window frames, which almost touched at the eaves, so narrow were the streets. Black, filthy alleys led to steps even blacker and more filthy, and so steep that one could only climb them with the help of a rope attached to the damp wall by iron brackets…

Eugene Sue, from the novel Les mystères de Paris, published in 1843 (English translation at Project Gutenberg)

The island was characterised by the frequently awkward co-existence of religion and far less spiritual activity. Notre-Dame must have dominated this landscape and produced an even more powerfully awe-inspiring effect than it does today. Up until Haussmann’s renovations, the parvis of Notre-Dame (the square in front of the cathedral) was very small and filled with stalls selling religious trinkets and relics, meaning that the visitor would emerge from the labyrinth of streets surrounding the cathedral (themselves dotted with many other churches, destroyed in the Revolution) and find themself staring almost directly up at the immense towers. The space in front of the west door would often witness the spectacle of condemned men and women begging for God’s mercy, before being taken to the Place de Grève to be burned or broken on the wheel. This served as an unwholesome reminder that lurking in the not inconsiderable shadow of Notre-Dame was a notorious den of thieves, murderers and criminals of every other shade – a late 16th century visitor even described prostitution being conducted in the cathedral itself. Parts of the island were practically off limits to police, and many an unwary pilgrim must have wandered haplessly into trouble.

Also dragging down the neighbourhood was the infamous Hôtel-Dieu, a hoary old hospital, in the loosest sense of how we comprehend the word, that had been in existence since the 7th century. Both sanitation and beds were always in short supply at the Hôtel-Dieu. Startlingly, in the 17th century around a third of all Parisians met their ends in the hospital, and by the time of the Revolution 3 or 4 people were often crammed into one bed.

The old Hôtel-Dieu, from the priceless series of photographs taken by Charles Marville before Haussmann’s work began.

No doubt the Île de la Cité possessed certain piquant charms, and must have been, one way or another, among the livelier parts of the city. Baron Haussmann himself was said to have been frequently found poking around its alleyways in his student days. But Haussmann never allowed sentimentality to stand in the way of a good wrecking ball, even wiping the street where he was born off the map. And the Île de la Cité was precisely the sort of place Napoleon III and his attack dog Haussmann were so keen to erase from the story of Paris. It was dangerous, dirty, uncontrollable and, worst of all, it was a clot in the arteries of the city, preventing the free movement they believed was so central to making Paris the city of the future.

The view from the towers of Notre-Dame, before Haussmann.

I’ll be looking more closely at the motivations of Napoleon III and Haussmann more closely in some future posts, here I’m more concerned with the effects of their changes. The Hôtel-Dieu was demolished and moved to a new building across the river. The parvis of Notre-Dame was cleared and expanded, creating the huge open square we see today. In general, as was the case with much of Haussmann’s schemes, the decluttering of the island opened up a multitude of spectacular views of the cathedral, which became more of a focal point of the centre of Paris than it had been before. So much residential housing was destroyed that the island’s population dropped dramatically. In a delicious and certainly intentional piece of irony, the rat’s nest of crooked, impenetrable and crime-ridden streets were replaced with the city’s central police station.

The Quai des Orfevres and Pont Saint-Michel, before and after Hausmann, again by Marville, via Le Figaro.

From this time forward, the Île de la Cité ceased to be a place to live and became part tourist mecca and part throughfare – a means by which Parisians could quickly traverse the Seine. Many histories of Paris ruefully describe the island of today as an empty, barren place with no life of its own. Sitting at a distance, leafing through a book, it’s easy to agree with them, and to mourn the loss of the ancient soul of Paris.

But when I think back to the times I’ve spent on and around the Île de la Cité, I can’t remember feeling sad or empty. Perhaps there is a slightly chilly, formal feel to the place, but it’s still more beautiful than most cities in the world could ever dream of being. There’s still the magnificence of Notre-Dame itself, standing out so resplendantly in every view across the river, buttresses flying in formation, towers standing firm and defiant. There are still the ancient ruins tucked away in the crypt underneath the parvis – one of the least known highlights of Paris tucked inconspicuously directly beneath one of the best. There’s still the quintessiantially Parisian experience of strolling through the pretty flower market near the Cité metro, the Conciergerie prison, whose most famous inhabitant was Marie Antoinette, the breathtaking elegance of Saint-Sulpice (last remnant of the Capetian palace that once stood on the island).

So somehow, through repeatedly and savagely destroying itself, Paris has reinforced its identity. The idea of Paris has been created through a long series of conscious decisions and many rewrites, creating the commercialised, packaged and glossy product that is Paris today, but never entirely able to wipe out the layers of history that run through the city like lines in a tree trunk. Its mutilations and mistakes are what make it what it is – a fascinating, complex place that’s impossible to pigeonhole. It’s easy (and fun) to long for Lost Paris, Old Paris – the Paris that never was and always will be – but Found Paris, always waiting to be discovered and understood, is far more satisfying.

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The History Carnival: Coming to Culture&Stuff

I’m pleased to announce that in August, I’ll be hosting the 101st edition of the History Carnival, a peripatetic showcase of the very best in history blogging.

Do please send in your nominations – anything will be considered as long as it’s historical, on the web, and pretty gosh-darned fascinating. Whether you wrote it, or just stumbled across it, if you liked it I want to know about it. You have until the end of July to get your nominations in.

To submit a post, either contact me directly or use the handy form on the History Carnival website, where you can also find out more about the whole shebang. Looking forward to perusing your entries!

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Lost Paris: The Arènes de Lutèce, the Surprising Roman Arena in a Sleepy Parisian Square

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This week’s Culture&Stuff post is a little different in that, well, it’s not on Culture&Stuff. Instead, you’ll find it over on Atlas Obscura, a wonderful site I’ve rhapsodised long and hard about before. It’s a compendium of the odd, the quirky and the lesser-known, a global encyclopedia of extraordinary places with extraordinary stories.

I added the details of the Arènes de Lutèce, the reconstructed remains of a Roman arena, dating from Paris’s early origins as a Roman city known as Lutetia. And it’s still sitting bang smack in the middle of Paris and waiting for your visit. I chose to post it there rather than here because it seems a perfect match for the site’s mission to uncover lost treasures under our noses, and I for one think that this particular Parisian oddity is worthy of much more attention. Check out the listing (which, Atlas Obscura being a collaborative effort, may have been edited and added to by others by now) and see if you agree.

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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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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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