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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 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.

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18th Century 19th Century History Lost Paris Paris

Lost Paris: The Cimetière des Innocents

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There are lost parts of Paris that grab at your heartstrings. You yearn to rediscover them, to experience what it would have been like be there for a stolen evening. There are parts of lost Paris that should never have been allowed to die, whose absence, whether anyone still feels it or not, is a hole in the fabric of the city. And then there are parts of lost Paris that are much better off staying lost.

Deep in the latter category is the Cimetière des Innocents, that bulging, festering sore that could be seen blighting the face of Paris in the 1730s Turgot map. I often think that the best, if least pleasant, way to understand the history of Paris would be through smell. The precise arrangement and intensity of its patchwork of odours, both wondrous and (more frequently) stomach-churning, would tell you more or less everything you needed to know about the story of the city at any particular moment. But even in this history, even at a stage when one visitor in the eighteenth century described entering Paris as like being ‘sucked into a fetid sewer’, the nasal historian would pick out one stench above all others – the Cimetière des Innocents.

The Turgot map of Paris in the 1870s had a tendency to whitewash the streets of the city, but allowed itself rare and tellng flecks of filth for the Innocents (marked ‘Cimetière’ in the centre of this extract).

Paris’s oldest, largest and most infamous cemetery was found right in the heart of the city, near the bustling Les Halles markets so central to Parisian life. It accepted its first denizens in the 12th century, beginning life as a nice enough graveyard, with individual, orderly burials marked in the proper way. As Paris grew so did the demands on its principal place of burial, which, though the largest in the city, covered an area of just 130 metres by 65. When space ran out, mass burials began to be conducted – up to 1,500 dead could be buried in one pit, before it was closed and a new one dug. One gets the image of the dead of Paris being swept continually under this threadbare carpet, squashed down as best as could be managed, but increasingly given away by ominous bulges, the whole cemetery in my imagination looking like some nightmarish, flotsam-flecked sea frozen at the height of a tempest. But still this ground was expected to swallow more and more bodies. Things reached a grisly nadir in the days of the Terror, when bodies were simply dumped around the edges of the place.

 

The cemtery in 1783 – via Grande Boucherie.

Piles of uninterred body parts are never good for the reputation of a neighbourhood, and that of the Innocents was particularly fearsome. Charnel houses grew up all around the cemetery and worked tirelessly in a vain attempt to clear more space. This did nothing to help the smell, which was as if all the bad smells of the world had gathered in one place to throw a stench party. It was said you could catch a disease simply by walking past the cemetery, provided that is you survived your walk in the first place, unlike the poor shoemaker who fell into one of the burial pits one night in 1776 and was found dead the next day. The Innocents became even more unsavoury by night, when it was taken over by thieves, whores, necromancers and enterprising grave-robbers who sold fresh bodies to medical students. Scratch the simile about the frozen sea – this was more like the bit at the end of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, when you plunge into the debauched, unholy graveyard party.

A charnel house near the cemetery, with the Danse Macabre painted on its walls – via Grande Boucherie.

The situation came to a head in the 1770s, when the common grave of the poor of Paris began to subside, and bodies exploded into the cellars of nearby houses. In 1780 there was a fatal outbreak of disease in the nearby rue de la Lingerie, which scientific thinking of the time ascribed to ‘bad air’. After a long period of heavy rain in the spring of 1780 (when this frozen sea of nightmares unfroze), a line was drawn at last – the Cimetière des Innocents would never bury another soul. The church complained bitterly, peeved at losing the lucrative burial fees, but finally Louis XVI had succeeded in closing the cemetery – one of the greatest things he ever did for Parisians.

So where, you may wonder, are the bodies now? In that uncanny way Paris has, it turned hundreds of years of death and decay into a thriving tourist attraction – the Catacombs. The peace of those resting in the Innocents, if they ever had any, was interrupted when exhumations began in 1786. In an unusually saucy detail, the Wikipedia entry for the cemetery notes that

“Many bodies had incompletely decomposed and had turned into fat (margaric acid). During the exhumation, this fat was collected and subsequently turned into candles and soap”.

Go Wikipedia! The new home for those bodies that escaped a new life in a bathtub was to be Denfert-Rocherau, an abandoned quarry that had provided the stone to build the city in its early days, and whose tunnels had been rediscovered at the end of the 18th century. Not only did this warren offer ample space to house the remains, the tunnels were also rumoured to harbour revolutionaries and insurrectionists, so blocking them with piles of bones served a useful political purpose. Andrew Hussey, in his Paris – The Secret History, highlights the peculiarity of the scenes that ensued in the two years of the exhumation.

The early years of the nineteenth century, the so-called ‘century of light’, were marked by the night-time manoeuvres of corpse-carriers, shifting the bones of the dead from one end of the city to another, trailed by a retinue of priests intoning prayers for the dead.

Master of early photography Nadar made pioneering use of artificial light to capture some of the most evocative images of the catacombs ever taken.

With the closing of the Innocents and all other cemeteries within the city limits, the dead of Paris would now be buried away from the centre, in the then peripheral new cemeteries of Montparnasse, Montmartre and Pére-Lachaise. Facing the reality of death was now no longer an everyday part of of Parisian life – it was pushed out of sight, and in the catacombs arranged in neat, orderly patterns. If you had a mind to one idle Saturday afternoon, you could pay the price of admission and visit the underworld of the catacombs, but if not it need never trouble you. But though death in Paris was now out of sight, the events of the restless 19th century conspired to make sure it was never very far out of mind, and even the new Père Lachaise Cemetery, designed to be the very antithesis of the Innocents, would acquire its own bloody history when 147 Communards were shot there on 28th May 1871.

Next time you’re wandering around Paris and you find yourself complaining about how dreadfully sordid, how unsettlingly like a rat’s nest the Les Halles shopping centre and metro hub is, spare a moment to remember what was here a few centuries ago, in all its grim detail. Just don’t do it during lunch.

Traces Today

The only remaining physical link to the cemetery is the Fontaine des Innocents, in the place Joachim-du-Bellay in the Les Halles district. The fountain, built in the 16th century for the entry into the city of Henri II, once stood against the wall of the cemetery. The fountain itself is worth a visit – it tends to get overlooked, located as it is in one of central Paris’ least attractive enclaves, but up close is a really rather beautiful little survivor of the Renaissance.

Les Halles

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The Fontaine des Innocents by Kmlz on Wikimedia Commons.



The fountain, in its original form, abutting the walls of the cemetery. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources

  • Paris: Biography of a City by Colin Jones Superb, detailed and comprehensive history of the city, from before it was even Paris to modern times.
  • Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey A more social take on the history of Paris, with plenty of saucy detail.
  • Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne Wide-ranging and reliable account, especially good on the 19th century.

 

  • The image used at the top of this article is by Joshua Veitch-Michaelis onWikimedia Commons.

 

 

Categories
18th Century 19th Century Animals French History Historical Places Lost Paris Paris

Lost Paris: The Elephant on the Place de la Bastille

Lost Paris: The Elephant on the Place de la Bastille

Of all the strange monuments that ever appeared on the Parisian skyline (and there have been a few), one of the most outlandish is surely the Elephant that occupied the Place de la Bastille in the wake of the Revolution.

 

The Bastille prison had been despised by Parisians for many reasons, not least among them (as can be clearly appreciated from the zoomable 1730s map of Paris discussed in my last post) its hulking, mouldering, medieval physical presence. After the Bastille fell, there was some debate about what should become of it – after all, the place was a potent and potentially useful symbol, and for a few days the old prison looked like it could become a sort of shrine to that first, audacious act of the Revolution. In the end though, it was simply too much of an anachronism, too much a reminder of an old world to be allowed to exist in the new one. This thought process was certainly hurried along by Pierre-François Palloy, an opportunistic entrepreneur who quickly greased the necessary wheels and secured the rights to begin demolition of the prison. By November of 1789 the structure was largely demolished, and Palloy was doing a roaring trade in trinkets made from the stones of the Bastille (which were also used in the construction of the Pont de la Concorde).

But what could take the place of the mighty Bastille? This was a difficult decision that was not to be answered in the turmoil of the revolutionary years. But when Napoleon came to power, such sensitivity to the nuances of revolutionary history evaporated, and Paris found a new purpose – as a stage to celebrate the glories of his empire, and storehouse for its spoils. Napoleon was impatient to bend the city to these aims, and when the realisation dawned that changing the physical makeup of Paris was a long and difficult task, Napoleon resorted to any means possible in what now seems an urgent, if not desperate, attempt to assert his power and vision. He dreamed of building a 180-foot-high obelisk on the Île de la Cité, but when obstacles arose simply built a paste-board model and placed it on the site. He needed a triumphal arch for the entry of his new Empress, Marie-Louise, but when time ran short he had the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile built from wooden scaffolding and canvas instead.

And on the Place de la Bastille, birthplace of the Revolution, Napoleon’s fantasies settled on a great elephant – a statue so monumental that visitors could climb inside through a staircase in one of its legs, and up to a tower on its back. Presumably the choice of an elephant reflected his ambitions in the East, though one wonders if Napoleon was aware of the architect Charles Ribart’s 1758 plan to build a similar structure, complete with opulent rooms inside, on the site where the Arc de Triomphe now stands.

 

Charles Ribart’s plans for another monumental elephant, 1758.

Napoleon stipulated that the elephant was to be cast in bronze, melted down from cannons captured during his conquests. But as usual, Napoleon’s impatience meant that rather than waiting for this bronze to arrive, a full-scale model was created in plaster and placed on the site. I can find no record of what Parisians made of this strange new resident in their midst, but it seems as odd and alien a feature as ever the Bastille was, and yet what a wonderful vision – another of those peculiar, unexpected and unique sensory experiences Paris has always been so good at creating.

The copper to transform the elephant into a permanent structure never arrived, and as Napoleon’s rule descended into a spiral of defeat and disorder, the plaster structure was left to rot. Victor Hugo evocatively describes the state of the elephant in 1832 in Les Misérables, in which we find Gavroche living in the very belly of the beast.

Twenty years ago, there was still to be seen in the southwest corner of the Place de la Bastille, near the basin of the canal, excavated in the ancient ditch of the fortress-prison, a singular monument, which has already been effaced from the memories of Parisians, and which deserved to leave some trace, for it was the idea of a “member of the Institute, the General-in-chief of the army of Egypt.”

We say monument, although it was only a rough model. But this model itself, a marvellous sketch, the grandiose skeleton of an idea of Napoleon’s, which successive gusts of wind have carried away and thrown, on each occasion, still further from us, had become historical and had acquired a certain definiteness which contrasted with its provisional aspect. It was an elephant forty feet high, constructed of timber and masonry, bearing on its back a tower which resembled a house, formerly painted green by some dauber, and now painted black by heaven, the wind, and time. In this deserted and unprotected corner of the place, the broad brow of the colossus, his trunk, his tusks, his tower, his enormous crupper, his four feet, like columns produced, at night, under the starry heavens, a surprising and terrible form. It was a sort of symbol of popular force. It was sombre, mysterious, and immense. It was some mighty, visible phantom, one knew not what, standing erect beside the invisible spectre of the Bastille.

Few strangers visited this edifice, no passer-by looked at it. It was falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it. “The aediles,” as the expression ran in elegant dialect, had forgotten it ever since 1814. There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen; cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail, tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years, by that slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates the soil of large towns, it stood in a hollow, and it looked as though the ground were giving way beneath it. It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker. There was something about it of the dirt which is on the point of being swept out, and something of the majesty which is on the point of being decapitated. As we have said, at night, its aspect changed. Night is the real element of everything that is dark. As soon as twilight descended, the old elephant became transfigured; he assumed a tranquil and redoubtable appearance in the formidable serenity of the shadows.
Being of the past, he belonged to night; and obscurity was in keeping with his grandeur.

The sick old elephant was only finally demolished in 1842, and legend has it that as the gigantic body crumbled, a plague of rats emerged from inside and, naturally unhappy at the destruction of their home, terrorised the neighbourhood for weeks.

In case you’re wondering (as I did), this plaster pachyderm is not the origin of the phrase ‘white elephant’ – for that story you have to go much further than the Place de la Bastille.

Traces today

Sadly, no trace of the glorious elephant has survived, but it stood where the July Column stand today, in the centre of the Place de la Bastille. Special paving stones in the area mark the outline of the Bastille and a couple of sections of the foundations survive, which can be found in the park on the Square Henri-Galli off the Boulevard Henri IV (see map below) and, rather wonderfully on the line 5 platforms of the Bastille metro station. The marina that runs off the Place de la Bastille was once part of the fort’s ditch.

Bastille/Sully-Morland

Boulevard Henri IV – Vestige of the foundation of the Bastille (see map below). By FLLL on Wikimedia Commons.

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