Madame de Sévigné


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Madame de Sévigné in Beaubrun brothers style portrait by ? (location unknown to gogm) from

Madame de Sévigné, one of the greatest letter writers in history

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal’s parents died when she was a child. Fortunately, her uncle took her in. It proved to be emotionally fulfilling as they opened their hearts to her, but also intellectually engaging as she received the best education available in 17th century France. Her uncle saw to it that she learned Latin, Italian, and Spanish and her tutors exposed her to the best literature of the era.

Her peers considered her a handsome woman, but she often dismissed her square nose. More powerful than her physical traits, this woman had charisma. Her wit amused people. Her optimism attracted them. And her fierce loyalty helped her forge life-long friendships.

In 1644, at age 18, she married Henry, Marquis de Sévigné. The hope for their future was bright. Henry was as wealthy as she was. He had a positive temperament and a regal bearing. However, their happiness tarnished when Henry was unfaithful. That would have been just a festering wound if the marriage hadn’t come to an abrupt end after seven years when Henry was killed in a duel.

Widow at age 25, with two small children, Madame de Sévigné was overcome with grief. She pulled herself together to find that her husband was also a poor steward of their estate. His profligacy nearly left them penniless. She retired to the country and began to strengthen the weakened piers of her estate. This she did admirably.

When she returned to Paris’ high society, her financial and social status was secure. She never seriously entertained the idea of remarrying and devoted her life to seeing that her son and daughter were well-established.

Even with the critical eye of history, Madam de Sévigné can be lauded as an intelligent woman, a person of integrity, and an adept wit.

Her virtues, no matter how laudable, did not establish her place in history. That is secured by her abundant and sparkling correspondence. She wrote many affectionate letters to life-long friends and family members. With a keen wit, she recorded the vicissitudes of upper class during the reign of Louis XIV. Through her letters you can feel the pulse of the time. She touched on the full range of seventeenth century France, such as fashion (the new fashion of cutting and curling hair), state issues (the threat of war), culture (religious behavior), and current events (the trial of Foquet). She recounts bon mots along side tragedy; quips with faith; fears with affection; and, a thoroughly emotional expression of her love for her friends and family.

Madame de Sévigné certainly stands as one of the greatest writers that practiced the art of correspondence.

The following are several excerpts to give you a feel of the letters of Madame de Sévigné:

Paris, Friday, April 17, 1671

The king is to go [to Chantilly] the 25th of this month, and stay a whole day: the expense will be as great as at the most magnificent triumphs: every curious fancy is received, cost what it will; and it is imagined that it will stand the prince in no less a sum than 40,000 crowns. There will be twenty-five tables of five course each, without reckoning an infinite number of others, for chance-comers. To entertain in this manner is in fact to board and lodge half the kingdom. Every place is furnished; little holes, which served only for watering-pots, are converted into apartments for courtiers. There is to be a thousand crowns’ worth of jonquils alone; judge of the rest by that.

March 15, 1647 to her cousin Count de Bussy Rabutin

You are a pretty fellow, truly, not to have written to me for these two months. Have you forgotten who I am, and the rank I hold in the family? I shall make you remember this, young man; and, if you irritate me, I shall reduce you to the ranks. You know I was on the point of lying in; and you care no more about my health, than if I were still a girl. Well, I have to inform you, and you may storm at the intelligence as much as you please, that I am brought to bed of a son, who shall suck hatred to you with his milk, and that I intend to have a great many more, for the sole purpose of raising you up enemies. You have not the wit, let me tell you, to do as much: you, with your progeny of girls!

But I cannot, after all, conceal my affection; nature will get the better of policy. I had resolved to scold you for your laziness, from the beginning to the end; Sévigné and I both love you very much, and often talk of the pleasure we should have in your company.

Paris, Wednesday, March 18, 1671

An event has just take place, which engrosses the whole conversation of Paris. the king has ordered monsieur de S*** to resign his post, and to quite Paris, immediately. Can you guess the reason? For having cheated at play, and won upwards of five hundred thousand crowns with false cards! The man who made these cards was examined by the king himself: he denied the fact at first; but, upon his majesty’s promising him a pardon, he confessed that he had followed the trade for a long time: it is said, that the affair will not stop here, for that there are several houses with he used to furnish with these cards. It was some time before the king could prevail upon himself to disgrace a man of monsieur de S***’s quality; but as, for several months past, every body that has played with him had been in a manner ruined, he though he could not in conscience do less than bring such a scene of villany to light. S*** was so perfectly master of his adversaries’ game, that he always made sept de le va upon the queen of spades, because he knew the spades lay all in the other packs. The king as constantly lost one and thirty upon clubs, and used to say, clubs never win against spades in this country. This man had given thirty pistoles to madame de la Valliere’s valets de chambre to throw all the cards they had in the house into the river, in the pretence that they were not good, and had introduced his own card maker.

Paris, Friday, March 20, 1671

The other day, as father Desmares was going into the pulpit, a billet was slipped into his hand; and putting on his spectacles, he began to read it aloud it was as follows:

His grace of Paris gives to know’;

To every husband, high and low,

That we their wives with kiss…Alleluja

He read above half of it before he discovered his mistake; every one was read to die laughing. You see we have wits among us.

Friday, Feb. 20 1671

About three o’clock in the morning I was wakened with a cry of Theives! fire! and it seemed so near, and grew so loud, that I had not the least doubt of its being in the house; I even fancied i heard them talking of my little grand-daughter. I imagined she was burned to death, and in that apprehension got up without a light, trembling in such a manner that I could scarcely stand. I ran directly to her room, which is the room that was yours, and found every thing quiet; but I saw Guitaut’s house all in flames, and the fire spreading to madame-de Vauvineux’s. The flames cast a light over our court-yard and that of Guitaut, that made them look shocking. All was out-cry, hurry, and confusion, and the beams and joists falling down, made a dreadful noise. I immediately ordered our doors to be opened, and my people to give assistance. Monsieur de Guitaut sent me a casket of valuables, which I secured in my cabinet, and then went into the street, to gape like the rest. There I found monsieur and madame Guitaut in a manner naked; madame de Vauvineux, the Venetian ambassador, and all his people; with little Vauvineaux, whom they were carrying fast asleep to the ambassador’s house, with a great deal of moveables and plate. As for our house, I knew it was safe as if it had been in an island, but I was greatly concerned for my poor neighbours. Madame Gueton and her brother gave some excellent directions, but we were all in consternation; the fire was so fierce that there was no approaching it, and no one supposed it would cease till it had burnt poor Guitaut’s house entirely down. Guitaut himself was a melancholy object; he was for flying to save his mother, who was in the midst of the flames, as he supposed, in the upper part of the house; but his wife clung about him, and held him as tightly as she could. He was in the greatest distress between the grief of not being able to save his mother, and the fear of injuring his wife, who was nearly five months with child. At last he begged me to lay hold of her, which I did, and he went in search of his mother, who, he found, had passed through the flames and was safe. He then endeavoured to save some papers, but found it impossible to get near the place where they were. At length he came back to the spot where he had left us, and where I had prevailed on his wife to sit down. Some charitable Capuchins worked so well, and so skillfully, that they cut off the communication of the fire. Water was thrown upon the rest that was buring, and at last the battled ceased for want of combatants; but not till several of the best apartments were entirely consumed. It was looked upon as fortunate that any part of the house was saved; though as it is poor Guitaut will lose at least ten thousand crowns; for they propose to rebuild the room that was painted and gilded. There were several fine pictures of M. Le Blanc’s lost, whose house it was, besides tables, looking-glasses, tapestry, and other valuable pieces of furniture. They are greatly concerned about some letters, which I imagine to be those of the prince. By this it was near five o’clock in the morning…

[All the translations come from the first English translation of Madame de Sévigné’s letters in 1811. They can be found here. While the title page does not indicate the translator, I think it is worth noting that the book was “Printed for J. Walker.”]


Eiffel’s Tower


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File:Tour Eiffel Wikimedia Commons.jpgFrance wanted to put on a great show for the centenary of the Revolution when it hosted the World’s Fair in 1889. They would show off its industrial power, scientific advancement, and cultural reach. France last put on a Fair during the reign of Louis-Napoleon in 1867. It was a grand success, but it was organized under a unified and central government. By the 1880s, France was a divided country both politically and culturally. Could a country at odds with itself put on an acceptable show?

The French government needed a central monument to pull it all together. Officials requested proposals. They received over a hundred.

Maurice Koechlin

For years, people all over the world had wanted to attempt to build a tower 300 meters (or a thousand feet), but to date, no one had undertaken the challenge. Maurice Koechlin believed technology could finally answer the challenge and wondered whether it could be the Fair’s centerpiece.

In 1884, he sketched a tower and set his mind to some mathematical calculations. He took into account the weight of the iron as well as the wind resistance. He presented his idea to his boss Gustav Eiffel, but Eiffel demurred. Why waste so much energy on a temporary structure?

Over the next three months, Eiffel’s imagination caught fire as evidence by a patent application submitted by Koechlin and Eiffel for a “scheme rendering it possible to construct metallic piers and pylons more than 300 meters in height” (Brown, For the Soul of France, p.139).

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel

Gustav Eiffel

In their submission to the Fair, Eiffel boasted that the tower would stand twice as tall as the next highest man-made structure in the world. This tower would be an undeniable monument to the stature of the entire French nation. Wasn’t this a testament to scientific progress and the triumph of the mind: a perfect metaphor for the Revolution? Some wondered whether it was a vacuous, meaningless, and ugly monument to pride that could only be compared to the Tower of Babel.

At the time, people had a difficult time evaluating the aesthetic value of the design. The architectural arts had yet to accept iron as an aesthetic material, or even much of a structural material. Many looked at the design for the tower and could find no artistic precedent. At best, it seemed to be a bridge that reached into the sky, to nowhere. Doesn’t a great nation deserve a great monument, in the lasting beauty of stone and marble? Perhaps the engineer should leave monument design to the architects.

Eiffel saw the beauty in the possibility. He touted the unique design that utilized curved edges that would cut through the wind. He spoke of the way the tower bursts from the piers. But, he seemed aware of the lack of precedence for the structure and sought ways to make it practical. It could be used as a lookout in times of war or an observatory in times of peace.

In the end, the tower beat out 106 other proposals to win the contract.

File:Tour Eiffel 1878.jpg

Construction of the Eiffel tower, July 1888

Raising the tower took 26 months, most of which took place high above the Paris streets. The workmen were not easily seen and never heard from the street. The structure’s growth felt more organic than mechanical.

When completed, the tower’s height made it omnipresent in the city. It seemed as if no one could live in the city without an opinion on Eiffel’s tower. And opinion was split.

Even before the tower had reached its height, forty-seven artists and writers sent an open letter to the government protesting the vandalism to the city’s beauty: “Writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the heretofore intact beauty of Paris, French taste has been flouted, French art and history are threatened by the erection in our midst of the useless, monstrous Eiffel Tower, and we protest against it with all our strength and indignation” (Brown, For the Soul of France, p.146).

Vile insults were thrown: France was becoming like…like America! Or even more so! To some, it proved the soulless nature of modernity: commercial, industrial, secular, and lacking aesthetic quality.

Today, Eiffel’s tower is an enduring symbol of Paris and one of the most visited tourist sites in the world.

Maurice Koechlin's first drawing for the Eiffel Tower with comparison monuments drawn to give perspective.

Tours daily from 9:30 am to 11:00 pm. Tickets to the elevator should be purchased online in advance as they run out. A ticket with elevator access to the entire tower, including the summit, costs 14 €. Elevator access only to the second floor costs 8.5 €. Tickets to the stairs can only be bought on site.




The Fleur-de-lys

Through the ages, the lily has been a lasting Christian symbol of purity, most frequently associated with the Virgin Mary. Through her it has been attached to Gabriel (from representations of the annunciation) as well as Joseph her husband. However, it can be found with Catherine of SienaClareEuphemia, and Scholastica. There is an even longer list of male saints that includes Francis of AssisiDominicAntony of Padua, and Philip of Neri (especially as he prays before the vision of the Virgin).

The origins of how the fleur-de-lys (“Flower of the Lily”) became associated with the French monarchy are so tied up in ancient legends that we will likely never know the truth. One legend says that it represent the lily that an angel–or even the Virgin Mary, herself–gave to Clovis (r. 481-511) when he converted to Christianity. Another story claims that Clovis adopted the symbol when waterlilies showed him how to safely cross a river and thus succeed in battle. Less fanciful stories have it that Clovis accepted the lily as the symbol of his post-baptism purity.

Illuminated manuscript from the Bedford Book of Hours (c. 1423), illustrating the legend of King Clovis receiving the fleurs-de-lys.

All of the Clovis/fleur-de-lys myths enter the historical record in the 12th century when the Capetian kings of France were burnishing the monarchy’s legend of being divinely anointed. In any case, there is no historical evidence that French monarchs officially adopted the symbol until the 12th century when either Louis VI (or perhaps Louis VII) became the first French king to use the fleur-de-lys on his shield.

Joan of Arc carried a white banner that showed God blessing the French royal emblem of the fleur-de-lys when she led troops into battle with the English. Not to be out-done in the war of symbolism, English kings used the fleur-de-lys on their own heraldry to emphasize their claim to the French throne. Indeed, it became such a powerful symbol of French royalty none of the Republics of France have adopted the symbol even after the distance of almost 2 centuries since its official use.

Dark Blue Iris Flower 250

The iris is indigenous to France and may be the original inspiration for the fleur-de-lys.

As a symbol of the French monarchy, doubt remains as to what meaning it conveys. The traditional view is that the three petals represent the Holy Trinity. Another reference would suggest that it signifies perfection, light, and life. One historian (Georges Duby) claims it represents the three classes of ancient France: those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed. If you dig deep enough in the bowels of the Internet (and I don’t suggest you do), you will even find a theory that the three petals started out being three frogs of pre-baptized Clovis. One site credibly asserts that in its earliest incarnations, the fleur-de-lys wasn’t a lily at all, but the iris which was indigenous to Gaul and was often called a lily.

French royal arms before 1376 (France ancien): Azure semé-de-lis

French royal arms after 1376 (France moderne): Azure, three fleurs-de-lis

The arms of the Kings of England from 1340 to c.1411, quartering France ancien.

Standard of the French royal family prior to the Revolution in 1789. White was the color of the Bourbon Dynasty.




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Sainte-Chapelle on the Ile de la Cite in Paris, France

Baldwin II, the last emperor of the Latin Empire in Constantinople, didn’t spend much time in his empire…and it wasn’t much of an empire, either. At the time, he controlled little more than a shrinking city. Broke and desperate, Baldwin spent most of his reign traveling the west begging for money and support in his effort to regain lost territory of his weakening realm. The rulers of Europe entertained him, but few offered any significant help.

Baldwin wasn’t without assets, though. He possessed a handful of Christian relics that were valued (monetarily as well as religiously) throughout Europe. One of his most valued pieces was purported to be the Crown of Thorns that the Roman soldiers placed on Christ’s head in mock subservience just before his crucifixion.

Louis IX (r. 1226-1270) of France, largely heralded for his piousness and defense of Christianity (and later sainted), would be interested in acquiring one of the instruments of the Passion. Unfortunately, Baldwin didn’t technically have the Crown. Venetian bankers held the relic as collateral against a large, outstanding loan. With the handsome sum of 135,000 livres (which was roughly 15% of Louis’ sovereign income in a year), Louis brought to France the Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross.

The curtain of stained glass windows in the upper chapel of Sainte-Chapelle

The sales were completed in 1241. In 1246, Louis broke ground on a chapel within his palace complex on the Ile de la Citè as an honored home for his prized relics. The Sainte-Chapelle cost Louis 60,000 livres to build (half the cost of the artifacts it was housing) and was completed in 1248.

By purchasing the relics, Louis had raised the profile of France significantly in Christendom and established Paris as a “New Jerusalem” in the eyes of Europe. Indeed, the acquisitions had established Paris as the second capital of Christianity.

Though little more than an afterthought at the time, Sainte-Chapelle would comprise a meaningful part of Louis’ impressive cultural legacy. The chapel represents the height of the Gothic style of architecture and the quintessential illustration of the Rayonnant style where ponderous mass was given up in favor of skeletal framework that allowed for more ornamentation and larger windows.

The 6,456 sq ft of stained glass windows are one of the most striking aspects of the building. They tell the story of the biblical history of the world culminating in Christ’s passion in the apse. As counterpoint, the rose window at the foot of the chapel represents the Apocalypse, or Christ’s triumphal return.

The window depicting the history of the church’s relics is the only window that is meant to be read boustrophedonically (ed. note: and I would be very, very disappointed if you read it any other way). If that weren’t interesting enough, this window must also be read from the bottom up. Thus, the relics journeyed up to the point of being housed in great kingdom of France.

The ceiling of Sainte-Chapelle's lower chapel

There are a few other notable things about Sainte-Chapelle. The relics were kept in a reliquary placed at the back of the apse and were brought out each Good Friday for public display (they have since been removed to Notre-Dame). On the exterior of the building, the pinnacle is laced with thorns to symbolize the church’s first relic. The church contains two chapels: the lower one for the palace staff and the upper one for the use of the royal family.

Like any building that has stood for over 700 years, Sainte-Chapelle has had its trials. The cedar spire burned down twice. The stained glass windows in the Lower Chapel were removed following a flood when the Seine burst its banks in 1690.

The French Revolutionaries were particularly unforgiving. They saw the building as a symbol of the oppressive interplay of religion and royalty. And who can blame them, with the fleur de lis decorating the chapel? In their zeal, the Revolutionaries removed the organ, scattered the relics, knocked down the spire, and turned the building into a flour depot. The statuary was narrowly rescued by Alexandre Lenoir. The stained glass windows were removed and stored. (They would be removed for safe-keeping again in anticipation of the Nazi invasion during WWII.)

Sainte Chapelle - Paris, France

Sainte-Chapelle's upper chapel

In the 1830s, the building was again converted into a church and restoration commenced under the aegis of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (who was principally responsible for the restoration of the Notre-Dame Cathedral).

Compared to the great Catholic Cathedrals, Sainte-Chapelle is a small building. Constructed only to be a fittingly adorned jewelry box for relics of meaningful religious significance, the church’s beauty makes it a jewel in its own right.

Sources: Discover France, French National Monuments

Architectural Style: Rayonnant Gothic
Completion: 1248
Adult rate : 8,50 € 

A short history of the Jewish people in Paris, France

Hanukkah lamp

Hanukkah lamp, ca 14th century France

Records exist to suggest that Jewish and Syrian traders lived in Paris as early as the Merovingian dynasty. Notwithstanding that long history, oppression dogged Jews in France for a thousand years.

A synagogue was built on the Ile de la Cite in 1119, but was converted into a church seventy years later. The road retained its name–Rue de la Juiverie–until 1834 when it was changed to Rue de la Cite.

Under Louis VII (1137-1180), Parisian Jews enjoyed relative peace and protection. Under his long reign, they prospered. It was even said that they owned half the private property in the city at the time of the king’s death.

Louis VII’s son Philippe Auguste (1180-1223) didn’t not continue his father’s tolerance. French Jewish lore calls Philippe Auguste “that wicked king.” He frequently used the Jewish people to fill his coffers and simultaneously build solidarity with the Church as well as wealthy Parisian debtors. The king arrested all of the Parisian Jews in their synagogues and forced them  to buy their freedom with half their wealth. The move appeared to only whet his appetite. Two years later he expelled the Jews from France and confiscated their property.

In his religious zeal, Saint Louis (1226-1270) burned 24 cartloads of Talmudic manuscripts and forced the Jews to wear a red wheel badge as identification.

Under the reign of Philippe le Bel (1285-1314), things were as bad as ever. In 1288, thirteen Jews were burned at the stake in Troyes. An edict in 1306 authorized the confiscation of their goods before expelling them from France. An edict issued by Charles VI (1380-1422) banished them completely in 1394.

The Jews only gradually returned to France as pressure relaxed.

In 1620, rumors spread throughout France that the Jews were poisoning wells. The accusations reemerge in 1648 to explain the latest outbreak of the plague.

Façade of the Grand synagogue, rue de la Victoire built in 1874

The periodic oppression effectively kept the Jewish population in Paris low. A 1715 list of Jews in the city (still the largest capital in Europe, at least until London would overtake it later in the century) lists only 19 names and would only expand to 500 by the time of the Revolution in 1789. A brief era of the Emancipation began with the French Revolution when the governing council gave Jews civil rights. Official recognition in 1806 spurred immigration. By mid-century, 9,000 Jews had found their home in Paris and they occupied all levels of the social strata, including the pinnacle of wealth.

Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe at the end of the century introduced the city to Yiddish culture. By the advent of WWII, Paris had 160,000 Jews living in its suburbs.

Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus

In 1895, the wrongful imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, split the country. Friends and acquaintances lined up for or against Dreyfus in a polarizing issue that lasted years and forced the Jews to consolidate into Marais, in eastern Paris on the Right Bank.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the city became a gathering point for a cadre of artists that were forging the visual vocabulary for a new kind of art that would become the foundations of the modern movement. The Jewish immigrants included notable artists like Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, Ossip Zadkine, Jacques Lipchitz, and Modigliani and would become known as the École de Paris (The School of Paris). Many of them either settled in Montmartre or in Montparnasse. This group may also represent the beginning of Jewish contribution to Parisian culture and ideas that spanned the 20th Century.

A long history of Parisian anti-Semitism was capped by the brutality that came from the Vichy regime cooperating under Nazi occupation. Segregation was institutionalized, property was confiscated, and vile anti-Semitism dripped from the pages of the city’s newspapers. Institutionalized oppression culminated in July 1942 when police rounded up 12,000 Jews (a majority were women and children) and deported them to Auschwitz. Of the 75,000 Jews that would be deported from France during the Vichy regime only 3,000 survived the war.

After the end of the war, France again became a haven for European Jews, and the population tripled in 25 years. The latter half of the 20th century was a period of safety for Parisian Jews, but it has not lacked conflict (clashes occurred in the wake of the Six Days War in 1967; a 1980 bombing of a synagogue; as well as the xenophobia behind the rise of the National Front party in the 1990s).

Today, Jewish culture in Paris has never been more vital. Paris is the largest Jewish city outside the United States or Israel: over 300,000 Jews call Paris their home.

Fichier:P1020669 Paris III Hôtel de Saint-Aignan Musée d'art et d'histoire du judaisme rwk.JPG

The rich history of European and Parisian Judaism can be found at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme (Museum of Jewish Art and History). The museum is located in the hôtel de Saint-Aignan, a hôtel particulier built in 1650.

It boasts artifacts from throughout Europe in a chronological setting. Many of France’s Jewish pieces have been gathered at the museum. It also houses the Dreyfus archive.

(Sources: Collin Jones’ Paris: The Biography of a City; Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris; and, Jewish Virtual Library.)

Quick Facts from Sacred Destinations about the museum:

Address: 71 rue du Temple, 3e, Paris, France 75003
Phone: 01-53-01-86-60
Metro: Rambuteau
Hours: Mon-Fri 11am-6pm; Sun 10am-6pm (window closes at 5:15pm)
Allow: 2 hours
Cost: Not covered under the Paris Museum Pass. 6.10€ adults, 3.80€ ages 18-26, free for children under 18.
Photos: Allowed



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Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris

Maurice de Sully was born a peasant in Loire in 1120. He studied Latin and architecture until age 17 when he walked to Paris to continue his studies. To survive, he begged food and eked out a living as a manservant to more affluent students. Quickly, though, Sully’s intelligence got him noticed. At age 27, authorities named him as Assistant-Deacon. Three years later he had gained some renown for his sermons. When he was 40, he was appointed Bishop of Paris. (source)

As Bishop, Sully pulled down the ancient Sainte-Étienne which was built in 528 by Childebert. The growing size and importance of Paris required a larger church, not just for status in Paris’ rivalry with Rome, but to accommodate the growing population. The new cathedral would be dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Pope Alexander III laid the first stone in 1163.

The bronze marker in front of Notre-Dame from which the city of Paris is measured.

The site held a prominent place in the history of Paris, even if much of its significance had been forgotten at the time. Even from the earliest days of Lutetia, the site was the center of Paris. Before Sainte-Étienne, the site held the Roman temple to Jupiter. The city had been laid out from a ground marker in front of the cathedral.

The building of the great cathedral was a huge undertaking. New streets had to be cut into the medieval city to bring the stone to the site. Sully’s commitment was total. He would fund much of the construction from revenues generated from his own land around Paris.

Alas, Sully would not see the completion of Notre-Dame, and neither would the next three supervisors. The building wasn’t completed until 1345.

In late Medieval Paris, the narrow, crowded streets next to the Virgin Mary’s church were officially designated an area for prostitutes and became a notorious hovel of vice.

Notre-Dame Cathedral in the 17th Century

For centuries, Parisians ignored Notre-Dame and allowed it to fall into disrepair. In 1789, the atheistic Revolutionaries threatened to raze it to the ground and even put up its stone to auction. Napoleon did his best to restore it when he came to power and crowned himself Emperor in its halls in 1804. Even then, baldachins covered the walls to provide a degree of ornamentation.

Notre-Dame regained considerable fame by the pen–and love–of Victor Hugo who wrote Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in 1831.

Ironically, much of the damage to the building’s history has been laid at the feet of Viollet-le-Duc, the architect made famous by the curious city of Carcassonne. In the 1830s, he led the charge to restore Notre-Dame to its medieval luster. Instead of hewing close to the original style, the restoration became a pastiche of Gothic styles in the same way that Carcassonne was a tokenistic imitation of the Romanesque style. (Follow this link for a more complete discussion of the changes to Notre-Dame over time.)

The cathedral came close to utter ruin during the 1871 Commune when pews were piled up in the nave and doused in petroleum. Fortunately, the spark was not struck.

The Nazi’s threatened destruction again when their defeat in France was assured. Hitler issued an order to destroy the city upon evacuation. If the Third Reich could not have Paris, no one would. A delay in executing the order spared the cathedral, and the city.

Intertwined with the history of Paris, Notre-Dame wasn’t always the most important church in Paris. For much of its history, it appears to have been the after-thought. Parisians seemed to take it for granted. But the cathedral as loomed over the city and its history.

23 interior notre dame Inside Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre-Dame Cathedral, interior

Architectural Style: Gothic
Completion: 1163-1345



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Palais-Royal: built by a Cardinal, house of debauchery and radicalism...and culture

Cardinal Richelieu served as minister of France under Louis XIII (1610-1643). The use of clergy in political management has certain advantages. It could help shore up the moral authority of the state as well as ensure the trust of the largest non-state institution in the realm. Not only that, the clergy tended to be some of the most educated administrators.

In any case, Cardinal Richelieu wielded amazing power in setting the foundations for the absolute monarchy. Never mind the fact that as a  member of the Catholic clergy, he never married and would have no heirs. He still needed a very large palace. So, in 1633 he broke ground on the Palais-Cardinal. The work was completed in 1639.

He might have been a Cardinal, but he was also a Minister. And as such, he was also one of the strongest supporters of the arts in France and oversaw  the construction on his own. He adorned the palace with paintings and sculpture. He assembled a significant library and built a private theater. Being a man of God, he made sure he had a private chapel. Being Chief Minister, he made sure the fittings were solid gold and encrusted with precious stones.

He got just shy of three year’s use out of the palace before he went to meet his Maker. He left the palace to his king and protector, Louis XIII. The palace moved from one royal family to another in a series of events that is really too boring to bother with here. The new owners liked the place, but couldn’t abide the name and changed it to the Palais-Royal. (If nothing else, it kept them from having to explain to every visitor that the Cardinal didn’t live there anymore.)

What is really important at this point is to recognize that the palace ended up being the ancestral home of the house of Orléans, which throughout the 18th century was within a heartbeat of the monarchy.

Louis Philippe Joseph: master of the political miscalculation

Things at the Palais-Royal really got interesting under Louis-Philippe-Joseph, duc d’Orléans (1747-94). With the monarchy safely ensconced at Versailles, the duke sought to establish the palace as a political counterweight to the official government seat. He was a large personality that sought publicity, power, and pleasure without compunction.

His big living had put him in financial straits, so the duke hatched a scheme to turn the palace into something of a strip mall of luxury shops and cafes where wealthy Parisians could gather under his hospitality.

Philippe couldn’t keep his political ambitions in check. By the late 1780s, he had cultivated a radical political dialogue which earned him a period of exile. On the eve of the French Revolution, he had hired a team of men to promote his political cause. As the Revolution stirred up, he thought he could ride it to glory. He renounced his ducal title and adopted the sobriquet Égalité (“equality”).

When the blood of the Revolution flowed in the streets of Paris, Philippe was desperate to prove his egalitarian bona fides. He boldly voted to send his cousin, King Louis XVI, to the guillotine. If the regicide/cousin-cide bought him any time, it was less than a year. He was arrested and taken to the guillotine by a path past his former home: the palace where he courted the very radicalism that would cost him his life.

Today, the Palais-Royal houses the the Conseil d’État, the Constitutional Council, and the Ministry of Culture. At the rear of the garden are the older buildings of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Perhaps a fitting end to Richelieu’s beginning.


Architectural style: French Baroque
Architect: Jacques Lemercier
Completion: 1639

The Flâneur


In the 19th century, the practice arose of aimlessly wandering through the city as a way of experiencing the urban landscape as both a participant as well as a detached observer. The act was the called flânerie and the practitioner was a flâneur.


Louis-Sébastian Mercier

Born out of the mentality of the Enlightenment, the notion took on broad horizons with Louis-Sébatien Mercier. During the years between 1782 and 1788, Mercier published a series of twelve volumes known as Tableau de Paris in which he explores the living, breathing life of the city. He reports on the mundane as well as the sublime.

The age of tourism in the 19th century reinforced the idea that the flâneur need not be Parisian. In one sense, Haussman himself appeared to be remaking the city with the flâneur  in mind as he insisted on symmetry, order, and gorgeous landmarks at the focal point of every boulevard. A pedestrian may come around any corner to experience the breathtaking beauty of human reason and design.

The art of the flâneur is long from dead. In 2001, Edmund White wrote The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris to present his experience in being a flâneur in Paris for 16 years.

It is no accident that Thad Carhart discovered his secret piano atelier by wandering a back street on the Left Bank. He would never have found it on the boulevards. He would never have rediscovered his love of music in a museum gift shop.

Midnight in Paris Poster

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, in the tradition of the flaneur

Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris is nothing if not an expression of the magical things that can come from losing yourself on a walk in Paris. It is both a way of experiencing history, beholding the virtues of the contemporary city, as well as understanding the landscape of one’s own heart.

Paris has a rich history, one of the richest of any city in the world. But the flâneur seeks to find the living city. The true flâneur doesn’t just walk the streets of Paris or seek out its pleasures in a hedonistic pique. He seeks to understand it and drink in its uniqueness. He is one part ethnographer and one part adventurer. The best thing that can happen to him is to find himself lost where he will experience exactly what he would not have expected.

Victor Hugo’s Internment at the Panthéon




Panthéon in Paris, France: monument as political ping pong ball.

While I have formerly written about the Panthéon here, I found this paragraph from Colin Jones’ book Paris: The Biography of a City (p. 281) to be a delightful illustration of how the building was really a ping pong ball in 19th century French politics, the scoring point ended up being the death of the beloved Victor Hugo.

“‘It is not a monument, it’s a thermometer,’ quipped a journalist describing the fluctuating history of the Panthéon. In 1791 the National Assembly had commandeered the Sainte-Geneviève church as the resting-place of great men, and gone on to place the mortal remains of the philosophes Voltaire and Rousseau there. A church as well as a mausoleum from 1806, it was converted back solely into a church by the Restoration government in 1822. The July Monarchy turned it back into a mausoleum in 1831, but Louis Bonaparte made it a church again in 1851. It was the death of Victor Hugo [in 1885] which led the Assembly to reconvert it–definitively, as was to prove–into France’s Panthéon.”

Victor Hugo’s final march to his ultimate resting place in the Panthéon included an eight-hour processional through the streets of Paris. It is estimated that 2 million Parisians lined the streets to see the ‘paupers hearse’ he requested. (They ignored his request to be buried in a pauper’s grave.)

While the government feared the occasion would result in revolutionary radicals staging aggressive demonstrations. But, they never materialized.

The episode illustrates how governments can combine architecture, literature, and pageantry into compelling political theater.

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June 1, 1885. The processional for Victor Hugo's state funeral.

Pont Neuf


File:DSC00679 Ile de la Cite.JPGWhen the open-air Pont Neuf (‘new bridge’) opened in 1606 on the tip of the Ile de la Citè, it was a sensation. Before 1606, cities financed the construction of bridges by selling overhanging houses on them. The Pont Neuf was the first open-air bridge in Paris.

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The painting of the proposed Pont Neuf project that Henri III approved

Henri III started construction on the bridge and Henri IV finished it. The kings financed it out of the royal coffers as a gift to Paris. While instantly taking a liking to the new landmark, the city didn’t give either king credit for his generosity. Parisians never reciprocated the former’s affections (they despised Henri III’s rumored immorality) and never trusted the latter (they couldn’t get over Henri IV’s Huguenot past).

The Pont Neuf was one of the best public spaces in the city at the time. For many years it was the widest and longest bridge in Paris and was the only one that was paved. Crowds constantly filled the bridge. In some ways it introduced the Seine to Parisians who did not make a living on its waters. It would be the site of commerce, political theater, protests, and a stream of charlatans. One German repeated the proverb that there was “not a moment of the day on which one did not see a carriage, a white horse, a priest and a prostitute” (Colin Jones, Paris: The Biography of a City, p. 137).

The bridge quickly became the symbol of Paris much as the Eiffel tower does today. Over time, changes have been made to the bridge and while the basic design has been consistent, none of the original pieces remain after 400 years.

View of Pont Neuf by Jacques Callot in 1630.

Etchings of Paris: The Pont-Neuf, by Charles Meryon, 1853.

Christo - The Pont Neuf Wrapped - Conceptual art - Installation - Other/Unknown theme

In 1985, Christo wrapped the Pont Neuf in nearly a half a million square feet of fabric. It was one of many of Christo's environmental art installations.