Sunday 29 January 2017

The lost world at the heart of Paris

Although it is difficult to plot the centre of a city coiled into 20 different arrondissements, geographically the spot wouldn’t be too far away from the Place du Chatêlet. Despite this centrality, the square and its surrounding streets wear an air of melancholic emptiness, as if imprisoned by their stifling past.
Paris is not short of celebratory statues and columns, or fountains that rarely spout water. The fontaine du Palmier on the Place du Chatêlet is a typical example - another monument that serves little purpose today beyond marking a point on a map. As with several other city monoliths, you can be fairly sure that it celebrates Napoleonic victories without knowing anything about the object (and that it obstinately remained anchored in the city despite the later Napoleonic defeats).

It takes its name from the palm leaves being held by the statue of Victory at the top of the column, and was completed by the sculptor Louis-Simon Boizot in 1808. The victories were those of the Emperor in Italy, Egypt and Poland, but the monument has changed greatly since then. Even the winged lady is a copy, added in 1898 (the original is in the Musée Carnavalet).

It was of course during the Second Empire - and the rule of Napoleon III, Bonaparte's nephew - that it was transformed and enlarged, with serial fountain specialist Gabriel Davioud adding the spouting sphinxes. Davioud also designed the twin theatres - the theatre du Châtelet and the theatre de la Ville - which took up position either side of the fountain in 1862.

The fountain and the theatre de la Ville, with the Tour Saint Jacques in the background.

On the fountain celebrating invasions, another famous 'Invader'.

The original reason for the column was not so much to celebrate some fairly inconsequential victories, but instead to fill a gap in the city that appeared after the destruction of the hated Grand Châtelet at the beginning of the 19th century. The construction could date its origins back nearly a thousand years when it helped the city fight off Viking invasions, but the succession of buildings that followed on the spot were always dark, dismal and invariably linked to punishment and death.

Its very presence made the district, in the words of historian Jacques Hillairet, “l’endroit le plus fétide de la capitale” (the rankest part of the capital). Despite providing a home originally for the Paris 'Prévôt', the most powerful person in the city after the king, it became infamous as a prison and the city morgue. The prison contained a number of secret torture cells, all with terrifying names. Alongside, the morgue contained a window where the most recent cadavres were displayed in the hope that someone would be able to identify them. These were either people fished out of the river or murder victims (of which there were “une quinzaine par nuit au XVIIIe siècle” notes Hillairet casually). 

Today's Place du Chatêlet is not just a direct replacement of the historic prison. When Napoleon III and the Baron Haussmann rebuilt the city (which included the new square and the twin theatres), they also tore down a rabbit warren of small, medieval streets that surrounded the building (all with suitably medieval names - rue du Pied de Boeuf, rue de la Tuerie, rue Trop-Va-Qui-Dure, Rue Pierre à Poisson...).

One of these, the Rue de la Vieille-Lanterne, had obtained a certain infamy of its own a few years before its destruction. In the night of January 26 1855, the poet Gérard de Nerval hanged himself from a grill in this narrow, sombre passageway. In the etching of the street displayed here (with the grill on the right), note the column and the statue of Victory in the background.

The Rue de la Vieille-Lanterne was situated approximately where the theatre de la Ville stands today (and the site of de Nerval's death allegedly where the prompter stands today), adding another layer of morbidity to today's cheerless square.

Few people choose to spend any length of time at the Place du Chatêlet, or in any of the surrounding streets, but Napoleon III and Haussmann's original plan had been to make it an integral part of one of the ciy's most important thoroughfares. A curious trace of this aborted ambition remains today.

Named Avenue Victoria following a visit to Paris by the British queen to the city in 1855 during the Crimean war, it marches out broadly, proudly and ultimately pointlessly from the city's Hotel de Ville. The short section beyond the Place du Chatêlet is particularly odd - a one-way street with room for three rows of cars.

Looking at the stretch on a map of today's city, it is clear what the plan was. The Avenue Victoria would join together the Louvre and the Hotel de Ville, giving impressive vistas of both from either end. For the Baron Haussmann though, there was one large problem - the Saint Germain l'Auxerrois church.

In red, the portion of the Avenue Victoria never built.

For the city planners, the church had no specific architectural significance or value, and was cleared for demolition. The Baron Haussmann though put an end to the plans, explaining his reasons in a letter to Minister of State Achille Fould: 
« Je n'’ai pas plus que vous le culte des vieilles pierres lorsqu’elles ne sont pas animées d'’un souffle artistique ; mais Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois rappelle une date que j'’exècre comme protestant, et que par cela même je ne me sens pas libre d’'effacer du sol parisien comme préfet »
Put very simply, Haussmann was not a fan of old buildings for the sake of it, but more important than any architectural or artistic merit was the siginficance of the building. Legend had it that St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in Paris in 1572, when upwards of 10,000 Protestants were killed in the city and across France, began when a signal was given - the ringing of the bells of the Saint Germain l'Auxerrois church. It was a date that Haussmann - a Protestant himself - hated, but his religion also prevented him from ordering the demolition of the church. In his mind, the people of Paris would see it not as an embelishment of the city, but rather as an act of vengeance.  

The church was saved, as were many of the medieval streets behind it. The famous but now closed 'La Samaritaine' department store was able to fill part of this axis, but most of the other ancient stunted and twisted roads seem never to have developed any particular life or animation, as if they have been permanently punished for resisting the Haussmannian redevelopment.

In the middle ages and beyond, these were the streets of goldsmiths and abattoirs, salt stores and washerwomen. Along the Seine on the Quai de la Mégisserie which runs alongside, a commerce in flowers, plants and animals has developed and thrived, but these streets contain few points to grab your attention, and almost no shops, galleries or restaurants to encourage footfall.

Instead there is an almost eerie calm. With the commercial din of the Rue de Rivoli just to the north, it provides a welcome and unexpected haven of silence. You might find it a good place to relax and reflect - if the walls don't whisper dark tales to you of torture and death...    


Steve Soper said...

Always insightful, always enlightening and always entertaining -- thanks and merci beaucoup!

SQW103 said...

Indeed, I was wandering through these streets yesterday morning, so find this particularly interesting. Thank you for being so generous with your insights.

Hels said...

Great post.

I must admit that I didn't realise that Haussmann was a Protestant, given that he was a] from a noble family and b] given the most important task in Paris by Napoleon III. So that certainly could make a difference to his decision-making.

However everyone knew that the St Bartholomew's Day massacre in Paris in 1572 was horrendous, when thousands of Protestants were killed in the city and across France. And they probably knew the connection with the ringing of the bells of the Saint Germain l'Auxerrois church. So I am not sure if ordinary Catholic Parisians would wanted Saint Germain l'Auxerrois church to be destroyed and blotted from history or renovated and made more beautiful.

Hels said...

Forgot to say that I have created a link to "Paris and Baron Haussmann: what happened to the city's gorgeous arcades?"

many thanks

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Twitter Instagram Write Bookmark this page More

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes | Premium Wordpress Themes