Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Rue Maitre Albert

Despite overlooking Notre Dame, the Rue Maitre Albert sees little footfall from the tourist herds who prefer to trek up and down the Rue Saint Jacques or the Boulevard Saint Michel. They are missing little of apparent physical interest, but in mythogeographical terms, this small street is a goldmine!

What significance is there in a name? The Maitre Albert had several! As a European wanderer who was initially born in Germany but who spent time in Italy and France, he picked up many sobriquets. Was he Albrecht Von Bollstadt? Albertus Magnus? Albert de Cologne or Albert le Grand? Or none of these? In fact, it seems that his real name was Albertus de Groot, literally Albert the Great, an accident of birth which earned him the translations of ‘le Grand’ and ‘Magnus’ which contemporaries believed actually related to his achievements in the worlds of science and theology.

What is not in doubt however is the fact that he was a great man. Born sometime around the beginning of the 13th century, he moved to France to become a teacher at the University of Paris. He introduced Greek and Arabic teachings to the school, particularly the works of Aristotle, and produced many tomes on animals, plants and minerals. He later became a Bishop back in Germany and was declared a Saint in 1931 (the Patron Saint of Natural Scientists).

The crooked street which today bears his name, and where it is believed he lived, has been a thoroughfare in Paris for many hundreds of years. When he lived here it would have been an unnamed path, a collection of houses that lead up from the river to the Place Maubert where he gave his lessons to students seated on bales of straw. No traces of his house remain today, and all that has been left behind here are the myths.

Just as his identity is multifarious, so is Albert's reputation. Others have appropriated his story, leaving it almost impossible today for us to decide what is true and what is invented. It is perhaps this aspect that so interested the surrealists who made Albert le Grand into one of their heroes. The story that particularly fascinated them was the legend that Albert created a metallic automaton or android who could speak and reply to questions. The French artist Georges Hugnet created a decalcomania portrait of the robot, which legend has it was destroyed by Albert’s student, Thomas Aquinas.

What else is left behind in this street once known as Rue Perdue (or the Lost Street)? Albert le Grand is sometimes referred to as a magician or alchemist, mainly due to his interest in the sciences which went beyond the normal theologically accepted limits at the time. Much of this reputation comes from a book that was very popular in the 19th century called ‘Le Grand Albert’ which dealt with magic and the occult and which was believed to have originated from the writings of Albert le Grand. It was not his work, but he did write about alchemy “the alchemist will be discreet and silent. He will never reveal the result of his experiments. He will live far from men in a house where there are two or three rooms to be exclusively used for his research" (Albert le Grand, Alkimia)

Did he have such a place here? On the corner of the street is a restaurant called ‘L’Atelier de Maitre Albert’. Inside this restaurant there is a large fire place, thick stone walls and an atmosphere from centuries past, but no mention of alchemy, magic or the occult. In fact there is no mention of Albert le Grand at all. Instead this is a temple to the glory of the well-known chef Guy Savoy, and this is his atelier.

At the other end of the street is the Place Maubert. Some say that Maubert is a contraction of Maitre Albert, but again this remains speculation. What is known however is that it was the site of executions of many printers in the 16th century, as is helpfully shown in the map below from the same period (position of the Rue Maitre Albert in red).

So if you find yourself in this part of Paris, make sure you take a detour down this street. At one end, the rotisserie restaurant and at the other the site where they hanged printers and burned their books. In the middle, an enigma, a scholar, an experimenter and a man who was constantly looking to transform raw information into golden facts.

9 comments:

House Hunting in Paris said...

Fascinating! Do you have any suggestions for books (in French or in English) that talk about the origins of Parisian street names like you do in this post? Thanks!

ArtSparker said...

Strange, as if the poor printers were paying for Albertus' delving into the unhallowed.

Peter said...

Mythogeographical … a nice term. I guess many streets in Paris could be concerned by this kind of exploration, which you do so well ! Impressed! I firmly believe that Maubert must be explained by Magister Albertus. This was obviously where he gave his lectures.

designslinger.com said...

Whether truth or myth, the story is fascinating, from Albert to the poor printers.
You're a highly skilled mythogeographer.

Jim

Adam said...

HHiP: This website has very complete descriptions of many streets, but doesn't cover all of them. Wikipedia is always a good resource too (full list of street names here), but as usual make sure you double check the information given there!

Badaude said...

Completely fascinating. I wondered about the origin of the name when I ate at the Guy Savoy restaurant (one of the best dinners I had in Paris last year). Wonder whether I was eating in Albert's ex-lab...

Adam said...

Badaude: I fully expected the restaurant to make some reference to the story, particularly with the chosen name 'L'Atelier', but no mention is made of it at all. There is a rather strange message though that could make us think of the burnings at the Place Maubert - "Come discover the fire in our beautiful fireplace"!

House Hunting in Paris said...

Today at Drouot I won a lot of L'illustration issues from the 1920s and 1930s. I just found an article in a 1938 issue called "Les Rues Menacées." Photographed is the Rue Maître-Albert with this caption: "Quartier Saint-Jacques. Autrefois rue Perdue. Son nom lui vient du dominicain Albert-le-Grand qui enseignait au XIIIe siècle sur la place Maubert." Just as Peter commented! This 1938 issue is all about Paris development and projects - did you know that had originally planned to put an elephant fountain at place de la Bastille?! Now back to my reading...

Adam said...

HHiP: Those magazines sound fascinating. I really need to start getting hold of some old magazines, maps and guide books!

An elephant fountain at the Bastille? I guess that would have been a white one..

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