Sunday, 23 November 2008

A Question of Perspective

Walking around Paris, it is easy to consider yourself as a kind of time-traveller. If you use your imagination just a little and block out the most ostentatious elements of the 20th and 21st centuries, you can almost believe that you are experiencing exactly the same city as inhabitants from hundreds of years ago. But how do we know exactly how our ancestors saw and experienced the city? Standing on the Parvis of Notre Dame today, we may have the impression that we are stepping in the footprints of visitors from centuries ago, seeing the same things that they observed, but here we would be very much mistaken.

In 1865, the Baron Haussmann completely recreated the parvis and other areas surrounding Notre Dame, tearing down all the medieval buildings that blocked a broad perspective of the Cathedral. The radical changes imposed by Haussmann have always proved controversial, perhaps nowhere more so than here. As the situationist Guy Debord wrote, “..from any standpoint other than that of facilitating police control, Haussmann’s Paris is a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Interestingly for the situationists, Haussmann also built a new police headquarters and law courts on the Ile de la Cité, making it in many ways represent the controversial trinity of the law, the state and religion.

It is the parvis though which has altered our perception of this historic monument. Called a “lake of asphalt” by the French historian Jacques Hillairet, he also notes that the current day parvis is six times bigger today than it was in the middle ages. Hillairet continues, exclaiming that Notre Dame “was originally constructed in order to be seen from the foot of its towers and not from the end of the present empty space. This view minimizes it”. If we look at Google maps, and compare Notre Dame with two other famous cathedrals in France, we see just how radical Haussmann’s renovations were.


In the first picture, we see that the parvis at Notre Dame is at least as long as the church itself. At Reims in the second picture, the parvis is an insignificant oblong form. Finally, at Strasbourg, the imposing gothic cathedral has almost no parvis at all, instead being tightly surrounded on three sides by other buildings.

Was the intention of Haussmann purely one of perspective? In fact, the previous perspective of the cathedral had long since stopped impressing the Parisians. The church had fallen out of popularity at the end of the middle-ages, and was already in a state of severe disrepair when the French Revolution occurred. With the old order temporarily defeated, Notre Dame narrowly avoided being demolished altogether when it was sold off, until further political revolutions finally stopped this from happening. The new revolutionary order did though pull down all the statues carved into the outside of the church and sell off many of its treasures.


Finally, it was Victor Hugo who did much to bring the edifice back into the hearts of the public following the publication of his famous story, Notre Dame de Paris. Haussmann then delivered perhaps what the public of the day wanted, and probably what many tourists today appreciate. When these tourists line up at the end of the Parvis, or the Pont St Michel to take photos though perhaps they are not aware that they are actually photographing history from a very modern perspective.

Further Information:
Following Alain's very interesting comment, I looked again on Google and found the markings he refers to. On this picture below, you can see a narrow road leading up to the church, and just how close to the church the original buildings were. The map beneath dating from the beginning of the 17th Century indicates that the street was called aptly enough, Rue Notre Dame. The map also seems to suggest that the original Hotel Dieu (hospital) was situated on the other side of the parvis, alongside the river.

5 comments:

Alain Q. said...

Adam,

you may have noticed that the sites where these medieval houses and streets used to stand on the parvis, are marked on the ground by different designs of the pavement.

Adam said...

Hi Alain,
No, I wasn't aware of this and hadn't seen any mention made of it anywhere. They are clearly visible using Google maps though, so I've now added this information to my post. Thanks!

nathalie in avignon said...

Adam, I believe there's a sign on the parvis itself mentioning what the white lines are about, I remember seeing them when I visited last summer and found that very interesting. It's good to know that the changes brought about by Haussmann are visible on the ground.

fly said...

"Haussmann's Paris... (is) a discernible shift in the actual location of the axes, from a city organised around traditional quartiers to a metropolis united by the 'fever of capitalism'."

Clearly, his intention was not just one of perspective. ;)

Adam said...

Hi Fly,

I don't disagree with you, but we can at least admire Haussmann's ambition. Like our present day financiers, he bankrupted the city, and it was the future generations who eventually paid for the work he undertook. However, it may seem difficult to imagine today, but the Ile de la Cité was possibly the poorest and most deprived part of Paris in the 19th century. As a conseiller, Lanquetin said, it was (sorry, in French here - anyone care to translate?)"faites de rues et impasses infectes, repaires de la plupart des forçats libérés qui viennent en si grand nombre dans Paris".

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