When 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.
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.