A Stroll on the Left Bank
Métro to GARE
Notice how the Métro, at this point high in the air, simply punches its way through the old façade.
Leave the station and cross the BOULEVARD DE L’HÔPITAL.
The hospital in question is to your LEFT. Its official title is the GROUPE HOSPITALIÈRE DE LA PITIÉ-SALPÉTRIÈRE – one of those Parisian names that contains a potted history of the building. We are just across the river from the BASSIN DE L’ARSÉNAL, and indeed there used to be a considerable arsenal in this district. The ingredients for gunpowder need, for obvious reasons, to be stored separately, and it was the saltpetre store that Louis XIII had pulled down to make way for his PITIÉ – a workhouse basically, rather than a hospital. It was divided into four sections; for old girls, good girls, bad girls and mad girls. Only old girls were allowed to have their husbands with them; each of 250 couples had a tiny cubicle in one of three dormitories. The good girls – 1600 of them – did the work of the place and slept, five to a bed, in more dormitories. Not surprisingly, infectious diseases carried off quite a few of them every week. The bad girls lived on bread and water, slept on a thin straw mattress – each! – and were allowed one blanket. Bad bad girls were confined in a dungeon four feet high, wide and long. After a law of 1684 any husband displeased with his wife or father with his daughter, could send her of to join them. Them were the days. The mad girls lived in the basement by the river, which was nice and cool in the summer, but in winter the sewers flooded, the basement got a trifle damp, and the rats moved in.
Just before the Revolution there were 8,000 people in all living in this charmingly charitable institution. In 1792 the revolutionaries decided to let the bad girls out, but 45 of the good and mad were massacred in the process.
The CHAPEL, under a fine octagonal dome dating from the time of Louis XIV, has four separate naves, so that the old, the good, the bad and the mad could worship together without actually meeting.
The place became a Hospital under the First Empire, early in the 19th Century.
Ahead of you is something much nicer: the JARDIN DES PLANTES, Walk in and turn left along the main avenue.
Pretty, innit? – in a severe, classical French way.
This, too, was founded under Louis XIII, as the JARDIN ROYAL DES HERBES MÉDICINALES. It was started by the King’s doctors, Hérouard and La Brosse, and became a school for pharmacists, with 2,500 different plants. From 1650 it was open to the Public.
It was in the Eighteenth Century that the garden expanded to its present extent, when the great naturalist BUFFON was in charge for fifty years. It became the JARDIN BOTANIQUE DE PARIS, and plants were imported from all over the world. One or two of the trees date from that time. After the Revolution the ZOO was opened, using what had been the King’s private collection of animals, and the place, no longer purely
botanical, was renamed the MUSÉUM D’HISTOIRE NATURELLE – still its official title. Parisians of course, take no notice of anything official and continue to call it the Jardin des Plantes. More animals arrived in 1795, looted from the royal zoo of Holland. The elephants were a sensation.
There are many buildings in the park, several of them Museums. At the entrance are the galleries of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy, containing nothing but bones; downstairs a large selection of present-day animal skeletons, including Man, Woman and Child, and upstairs fossilised bones including a cast of the American Diplodocus and a fine collection of the larger dinosaurs.
Over to your right (if you’re walking down the main avenue) is the ZOO.
It’s an old-fashioned zoo, being very cramped for space, but has an excellent reptile house. The crocodiles, displayed behind curly 19th-century ironwork, are worth a visit; very large and very toothy. The big, modern zoo is, of course, at Vincennes, but that’s officially a branch of this one and specialises in large mammals and birds; the rest are here. Lovely snakes, horrible insects. A selection, too, of camels, deer and so on. France’s first giraffe was brought here in 1827, a present from the Pasha of Egypt. This was the same Pasha who gave Obelisks to the Kings of France and England. As the English lost Cleopatra’s needle at sea and broke it on land, it will come as no surprise to learn that the English giraffe died in transit.
At the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 the zoo had a bad time. Napoleon III, under the impression that his army was the best in the world, declared war on Prussia and discovered how wrong he was. Within weeks the Prussians were at the gates of Paris, which they besieged for six months. By the end of that time the population was a bit hungry. There were no sparrows left, and rats and mice were selling for a good price to anyone who could stand them So at Christmas 1870 the zoo went to the dinner table. Roast bear was popular, elephant considered tough, and snakes made excellent hors d’oeuvres.
Enough of this gastronomy. At the end of the garden furthest from where you came in is a lecture-hall and a nice children’s playground (see-saws especially recommended), and behind that a hill with a spiral path, optimistically called a labyrinth, winding up it. At the top is a tree – a Cedar of Lebanon brought to France by the naturalist Bernard de Jussieu. Legend hath it that the precious seedling travelled all the way in Jussieu’s hat. Actually, Bernard de Jussieu never went near Lebanon; he bought the plant in England (Kew, where else?) and the pot broke at the entrance to the garden. The tree spent about five minutes in the famous hat before being planted.
Ah well, it was a good legend while it lasted.
Leave the Jardin des Plantes by the entrance at the corner of RUE CUVIER and RUE GEOFFROY DE SAINT-HILAIRE.
Just here there used to be an Institution for poor little girls and boys. The boys could be hired as mourners for funerals; 50 centimes each for the first dozen, 20 centimes each after that, all guaranteed to weep piteously. The same establishment also cared for Fallen Women. Must have been quite a place.
Down the street to your left is the Paris Mosque.
Also just here there used – until 100 years ago – to be a Toad Market. You could buy toads by the barrel, singly or in handfuls. Who, I hear you ask, wants toads? Well, gardeners for a start, especially English ones; they eat slugs and centipedes and other creepy-crawlies. The export trade was also stimulated by the habit of young English ladies of keeping toads as pets. Honest, the English only started calling the French Frogs because they called us toads; and both sides used the same word – CRAPAUD. Fortune-tellers liked toads as well; they cut them open and told the future from their entrails. No, I am not making all this up.
In front of you is RUE LACÉPÈDE, but the story about that street concerns the other end, which we’ll come to later. For now, go along it only as far as the RUE DE NAVARRE, into which we turn right. This bears sharply to the left, and opposite the bend is the entrance to the ARÈNES DE LUTÈCE.
This, of course, is the Roman Amphitheatre of the town of LUTETIA, where the PARISII lived. It’s a dual-purpose arena, circular but with a stage at one end, so you can have either plays or gladiators, pageants or Christian v. Lions. It appears to have been built shortly before the Romans declined, fell and were chucked out. After that it became a pagan cemetery, and then fell into disuse and was lost. How you lose a place fifty metres across and five high is a mystery, but the Dark Ages were good at that sort of thing. It was discovered again in 1885 when the foundations were being dug for the Rue Monge, which is why a row of houses cuts right across one side of it. (Yus, lads, I guess it is Roman, but don’t go telling no historians till we’ve got the job finished.) The archaeologists dug around a bit and then lost interest, and it wasn’t properly dug out until after the First World War, when it became a Bus depot. Now it has been somewhat restored and is used as a playground by the local schoolchildren, and a place to play pétanque for the men of the district. Close your eyes and the clink of metal on metal, the cries of the footballers, transport you back to the days of blood and sand.
Back to the Rue de Navarre. Turn right, then left into RUE MONGE.
Downhill now. On the right, in the Place Monge, is a pleasant market most days. At the end of Rue Monge is CENSIER-DAUBENTON metro station, and just after it you come out into RUE CENSIER.
Turn right, breathing deeply. There are two open-fronted shops on the corner; one sells fish, the other flowers. On a hot day, the mixture of perfumes is positively heady. On your right now is the church of SAINT-MÉDARD, set in a little green space called – originally enough – SQUARE SAINT MÉDARD. Peaceful, a nice place for a picnic, but a square with a past. Such goings-on this little patch has seen.
Once upon a time there was a nice man by the name of François Pâris. He had a rich dad, but took a vow of poverty and became a Deacon. Not a Priest, he was much too humble for that. He took great care of the local poor, even to knitting them socks, and died in 1727. Now, in so far as he ever expressed any theological opinions, he appears to have been a Jansenist – a follower of Jansenius. Soon after the death of nice François, the opinions of Jansenius on Predestination were declared to be heretical, and his followers were persecuted. Several of them began to treat François Pâris, deceased, as a Saint, and emotion on the subject became so strong that eight or ten young girls, getting all worked up as young girls will, had fits on his tomb. For some reason this was treated as a miracle, so within a year or two everybody was doing it, and the churchyard where you are sitting was full of writhing bodies. The Government, subtle as ever, simply ordered the churchyard closed. Next day, somebody stuck a notice on the church door which read:
De par le Roy, défense à Dieu
De faire miracle en ce lieu.
(By order of the King, God’s Grace
May work no wonders in this place.)
Well, that did it, didn’t it? Processions, riots, arrests, imprisonments, the lot. In the end the – the ones who had fits on the tomb – formed a union. There were several different classes of membership, including Leapers, Barkers, Miaowlers and Helpers. The helpers, incidentally, didn’t just catch the others when they fell down; they also slapped, whipped, thumped and jumped up and down on them according to the requests of the victim. Now that the churchyard was closed, they did these things in each other’s houses.
As time went on, everything got more extreme. Instruments of torture were brought in. Some, while the fit was on them, tried to strangle themselves; others swallowed things, such as hot coals or Bibles. Finally one young lady had herself crucified. This all went on for , until the persecution stopped and the fashion died out.
The whole thing, of course, was hysteria rather than religion; minor forms of the same thing can be seen at pop concerts and charismatic services to this day. In fact, the term Hysteria was medically defined down the road at the Salpétrière hospital on the basis of these very events. The churchyard was sensibly never re-opened and became, in time, the quiet little square we are in today.
Do look inside the church while you’re here, it’s rather charming – and a good example of the way Paris churches were adapted to changes in architectural fashion; pointed arches one year, round the next – so fill up the pointy arches with a bit of plaster, and hey presto! Neo-classicism.
In front of the church, if you’ve come in the morning, is a market; food mostly, fresh as paint and succulent, on stalls in front of the old shops with decorated façades. Before people could read, of course, a shop had to announce itself in pictures; so the butcher’s has a whole stylised forest covering its front, with deer and wild boar peeping out of the foliage.
Once upon a time this was a very different market. From 1350 to 1953 this was the site of the MARCHÉ DES PATRIARCHES; a flea-market, such as you’ll still find at most of the gates of Paris, a permanent enormous jumble-sale; but with its own rather special rules. How it came to be there was like this....
In the fourteenth century there was on the Île de la Cité a pastry-shop famous for its pork pies. Its best customers were the Canons of Notre-Dame. Now these Canons augmented their meagre incomes by letting lodgings to students. The times were dangerous, and if your student failed to come home it was safe to assume that he had either run off with the rent money or been mugged and chucked in the river. Whereupon you sighed for human wickedness, said a mass for his soul and put out the ‘Vacancies’ board. In 1387 a German student disappeared in the usual way, and nobody would have though any more of it had not his dog – a Great Dane – sat immovably down and howled for a week outside the pie-shop. When questioned (which is medieval for tortured) the baker and his assistant confessed that their pork pies actually were, and had been for years, student pies. Hence the superior taste. Baker and assistant were burned alive in iron cages, and the shop was reduced to rubble. There’s a garage for police motor-bikes there now.
But what of the poor Canons? They had eaten human flesh, and were therefore excommunicated. The law, like that of the Mikado, didn’t say anything about not knowing. The Archbishop reckoned it was too great a sin for him to pardon, and recommended that the Canons walk barefoot to Rome and throw themselves on the mercy of the Pope. Their feet, however, were soft and tender, and they never got to Rome. Truth to tell, they only got half a mile out of Paris. They got as far as the Rue des Gobelins – to your left, across the square from the church – and gave up. They settled down on the spot and lived by begging.
Not long afterwards a new Archbishop arrived, and was mugged on his way into town. I said those were dangerous times. Coming as he did from Rome, he was on this very road, and the excommunicated Canons turned out to rescue him. As a reward, he pardoned them for their cannibalism and for their failure to reach Rome. He couldn’t reinstate them at Notre Dame, though, so for their support allowed them the rents on the local
market. He made sure this would be a success by guaranteeing that no inquiries would be made into the origins of any article sold there. Which, when you think about it, helped the muggers as well. Until the Revolution, everything that fell off the back of a tumbril was sold here.
While you’re here, take a look down the AVENUE DES GOBELINS. Halfway down is the famous Gobelins tapestry factory, owned by the State since Louis XIV’s time. Its products are not for sale – they go to decorate French Embassies and so on; and if they for sale, who could afford them? The designs, to start with, are created by the greatest artists of the day (Picasso and Dali did quite a few). And then, the labour involved! A real tapestry is woven rather than stitched, and woven by hand. They come about five metres square as a rule, and a good worker, after five years at Art School and an apprenticeship of seven years, can turn out a whole square metre in a good year.
The modern tapestries are dyed by modern methods in an infinity of colours, and cleaning them is a job for a chemist. The old tapestries, by contrast, can be (and are) washed down with water and a scrubbing-brush on the floor of the courtyard. It appears that the dyes were fixed by a special organic method. A little stream, the Bièvre, ran past the factory in the old days, and there was a prison just upstream. The prisoners were given vast quantities of weak beer to drink, and new tapestries were put to soak in the stream at the time their chamber-pots were emptied.
The factory also makes – and also doesn’t sell – Savonnerie carpets, which are even bigger but about twice as quick to make because the wool’s thicker. The pile of the carpets is trimmed with nail scissors. One problem with them is that they’ve been on the floors of Royal and Government buildings for 200 years now, and nobody has ever managed to wear one out.
Nearer us, however, is the site of the house where King Charles VI, never the most well-adjusted of individuals, finally went stark raving mad.
It was at a fancy-dress ball. The King and five of his chums turned up as savages, dressed entirely in feathers and chained together. The King’s brother, wishing to find out which of these creatures was His Majesty, inspected them closely by the light of a blazing torch and set fire to the feathers. One managed to get unchained and leapt into a water-butt, four were burned to death. The King was saved by his Auntie, who wrapped him in her cloak; but he was, to say the least, never the same again.
But it’s time to walk on. Our way lies UPHILL, away from the Gobelins, up the RUE MOUFFETARD, once a Roman side-street.
Though much restored, many of the houses here are still medieval, and each has its market-stall in front. A lot of them specialize in seafood everything from live crabs to dead octopoi (or octopodes, but never octopi or octopussies). Some sell the more way-out bits of animals, like sweetbreads and whole brains. To the right, the PASSAGE DES PATRIARCHES reminds us of those barefoot canons on their way to Rome (or the bottom of the street). Next on the right is the RUE DE L’ÉPÉE DE BOIS – the street of the wooden sword. It was named after a café which stood at the corner for six hundred years, during which time, local lore states categorically, 36,500,000 glasses of wine were drunk there.
No. 22 has a nice sign showing wells and water-carriers. It used to be a water-shop, of course, in the days when good drinking-water was scarce. Some English and American people still wonder if it’s safe to drink tap water in Paris, as if France were a country but recently hacked out of the jungle. They point out that most French people seem to buy drinking-water in plastic bottles. A recent survey of the bacteriological content of water demonstrated conclusively that you’re always safer with the tap. French people, however, go on buying bottled water, because it tastes better.
No. 13 – notice the numbers get smaller as we go up? That’s because we’re moving towards the Seine, and all house numbers in Paris start at the river end of the street. (Unless the street runs parallel with the river, in which case the numbers go with the flow, starting at the upstream end) – No. 13 was pulled down in 1938, and in the process a treasure was found; 5,000 gold Louis from the time of Louis XV. The Archives of Paris traced ownership to Louis Nivelle, the King’s Secretary, who disappeared in 1757. This was still a rough neighbourhood in the 18th century. Nivelle’s great-great-etc.-grandson was found, and said, yes, there was a family tradition of buried treasure. So whose was it now? The Courts eventually came up with a verdict – equal shares for finders, family and state, less legal fees – fourteen years later.
On your RIGHT you now pass a Barracks – one of many in Paris, though originally they were just outside the walls. The town gate in this area was in the square just higher up, PLACE DE LA CONTRESCARPE. The barracks was built to house guards whose job was to keep down the rogues and vagabonds who always hung around the gates waiting for Archbishops and Royal Secretaries to duff up. Until well into this century the square remained a meeting-place for tramps and beggars.
It was a meeting-place for others too, In a house in the Rue Lacépède (left) began, on May 1st 1821, the Carbonarist conspiracy.
What the Carbonarists wanted was to chuck out the King and bring back Napoleonic rule. Tough for them, wasn’t it, to start in the year Napoleon died? Most of the conspirators were students, but they recruited four sergeants from the barracks here. Transferred to the town of La Rochelle, these unfortunate four were betrayed, arrested, tried, brought back to Paris and guillotined. That, basically, was the end of Carbonarism as such, but a monument was erected to the Sergeants when Bonapartism came back into fashion, and two cafés where they had met – one in Rue Mouffetard, one in Rue Descartes – were renamed AUX QUATRE SERGENTS DE LA ROCHELLE’.
RUE DESCARTES is, in fact, where we come to next. It leads straight on from Rue Mouffetard and is notable, apart from the café, for a plaque on the front of No. 50, which shows a plan of what the town gate here looked like before it was demolished. Two towers, drawbridge, etc.
On the LEFT you think you’ve come to another barracks, but in fact it’s one of France’s best schools, the LYCÉE HENRI IV. A Lycée used to be a Grammar School, but now it’s more of a Sixth Form College. Forbidding place, isn’t it?
Down one side of it, as if in warning to unruly scholars, runs the RUE DE L’ESTRAPADE. The Estrapade, or Strappado, was a punishment for thieving or deserting soldiers. The victim was hoisted into the air by a rope attached to his wrists, which were tied together behind his back. When he was about twenty feet up, the operator let go of the rope. Then he did it all over again. People came from miles to watch. If you were still alive after five goes you could return to service, though most victims died of complications caused by the fact that each fall broke several bones. After 1776 soldiers were sent to the galleys instead. Apparently chaining a man to a bench for the rest of his natural life was considered more humane.
The Lycée Henri IV itself contains a tower, the last remains of an old Abbey, part of a story nearly as old a Paris itself and fully twice as long. Let’s have a go at shortening it.
In the Parish of Nanterre in the year 422 was born a girl called GENEVIÈVE. While very young she met a Saint – St. Germain of Auxerre, whose church is next to the Louvre – and decided that this was the life for her. Her mother, who thought being a Saint was no ambition for a girl, and that she ought to get married and have children like any sensible person, slapped her one day and was immediately struck blind. Luckily her daughter, being a Saint, was able to cure her. After her mother’s death Geneviève moved to Paris. When the population was in a panic over the imminent arrival of Attila the Hun, Geneviève got them
all together for prayers and lo! the Huns turned aside. The next invader was Childéric, the leader of the Franks, who besieged Paris until the people (nobody having yet founded a zoo) were starving. Geneviève then set off up the river on a raft, begged help from the people of Arcis-sur-Aube, loaded up three boats with food, and returned to Paris under the very noses of the besiegers. The Franks, however, won in the end – why do you think it’s called France? – so Geneviève talked to Childéric’s successor Clovis, and converted him and his wife Clotilde to Christianity. Actually, she converted Clotilde first, after which poor old Clovis didn’t stand a chance. It was Clovis who founded the Abbey, the Abbaye Sainte-Geneviève; the streets called Rue Clovis and Rue Clotilde still run either side of its site.
Geneviève lived to a ripe old age, though when she was fifty the local Bishops persuaded her to change her diet; she’d been living on bread and beans which she ate on Sundays and Thursdays only. For the next thirty years she added milk and fish. She never stopped knocking out the miracles, being very good at curing the sick, raising the dead, calming storms and so on. Her speciality was lighting candles at a distance, and when the work on the church of St.-Denis stopped because the builders were thirsty, she made a jug fill up with water. After she died the miracles went on. People prayed over her bones to be cured of plague and fever, and to put an end to droughts and floods. If you rubbed your bedclothes on her coffin, that immunised you from the Ague. In times of plague the remains, by now in a gilded shrine, were carried in procession to Notre-Dame.
Plainly, so effective and important a local Saint needs a Church of her own. She died in 511, and her remains were kept in St. Peter’s church on the top of the hill you’ve just climbed; but when the Normans came a-pillaging they were removed and, even though returned later, spent the next 500 years in a portable shrine. Even in the absence of the actual bones the tomb itself continued to work miracles. Bones and tomb didn’t come together again until the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth the Abbey across the road, the only place of worship dedicated to the lady
who was now the Patron Saint of Paris, began to fall down. King Louis XV, when ill in 1744, vowed to rebuild it if he were cured. Luckily, he was and he did. The new Church of Sainte-Geneviève was the building whose dome you can see.
Walk towards it along RUE CLOVIS, on your LEFT.
Oh yes, there it is. What a big place. 360 feet long, 280 feet wide, 276 feet high. Funny, it’s got no windows. Is this Ste. Geneviève’s church, then?
Well, actually, no. You see, the Church was only finished in 1789, which was when the Revolution started, and the Revolutionaries were against all that kind of thing. The bones of poor old Geneviève were taken to the Place de Grève, the proper place for public executions, and burned. The shrine was melted down. All that remained was a tiny fragment of wood from the coffin, salvaged from the ashes by some of the faithful. Then in 1791 one of the Revolutionaries, Mirabeau, died, and the church was turn into a Temple of Fame so that remains could be buried there. Apparently that sort of thing was all right as long as it had nothing to do with religion. The bones of Voltaire and Rousseau were brought in to
keep Mirabeau company, the windows were blocked up, and the place renamed the PANTHÉON. Then in a year or two it turned out that Mirabeau had been in cahoots with the King all along and he was depantheonised – which means chucked out – in favour of Marat, the chap whom Charlotte Corday stabbed in the bath and the heart. Marat lasted three months before he, too, was removed to the graveyard next door. Then in 1806 Napoleon came to an agreement with the Pope, Christianity was back in, and the Panthéon became the Church of Sainte- Geneviève once more. By pure coincidence that was the same year that the old Abbey finally fell down, except for the tower – La Tour de Clovis – which still stands inside the Lycée Henri IV. Revolutions came and went. After 1879 the Third Republic put religion out of fashion again, but the place remained a church and the artist Puvis de Chavannes decorated it with a series of stodgy frescoes on the life of the saint.
The final blow fell in 1885. Victor Hugo died, France’s greatest poet, and simply had to have a State funeral. The State, however, like Totor himself, had no religion, so where could it take place? You guessed. Poor Sainte-Geneviève finally lost her church for good. It was redeconsecrated and became the Panthéon again, and still is. A last resting-place for great Frenchmen who have no religious allegiance. Unfortunately, most great Frenchmen are devout Catholics, so the place is a bit empty. Over the door is inscribed AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE – the Fatherland is grateful to its great men. The inside is enormous, empty and boring, and withal expensive to enter, so why bother?
Meanwhile, what about that fragment of Geneviève’s coffin? It was taken, secretly at first, to the next-door church of SAINT-ÉTIENNE-DU-MONT, my favourite church in Paris and, I think, anywhere. When the old Abbey fell down, the base of the Saint’s tomb was found, and that now forms the foundation of a new and magnificent shrine for Sainte-Geneviève. Let’s go and have a look. It’s just across the road.
First, though, stand back and have a good look at the front of this amazing building, I defy you to think of any architectural style not represented here. If you find one I bet it’s used on the inside. The basic structure is Gothic, dating from 1220, but it was ‘done up’ very thoroughly in the 16th and 17th centuries, in whatever style – Romanesque, Baroque, neo-classical – took the architect’s fancy at the time.
Go inside. Look around. Marvel. Look at the vaulted ceiling! Look at the pillars, attached to nothing else because the aisles are the same height as the rest of the building! Look at the carving of Samson holding up the pulpit! And look especially at three things; first, the shrine of Sainte- Geneviève, never with less than fifty candles burning; then, the rood-screen, dividing Nave from Choir, incredibly carved from marble and the only screen in Paris not destroyed in the Revolution – the people of the area defended their church from that, with the help of their Saint’s one little fragment. Last, go down into the cloisters behind the Choir and look at the stained-glass windows, full of Bible stories in medieval dress. You should be able at the very least to spot Noah’s ark, Elijah with the prophets of Baal, and the feeding of the five thousand.
On your way back, see how the Choir is out of line with the Nave, so that you turn a corner as you walk up. A lot of Paris churches are like that. Perfection is for God alone.
I love Saint-Étienne-du-Mont; not only because it’s old and architecturally significant, but because it’s fun. The men who designed and built here over so many centuries obviously enjoyed every minute of it. Which, for a Christian church, is how it should be.
But we must move on. Go straight ahead out of the church door and across the square ion front. It’s called the Place Sainte-Geneviève and leads into the PLACE DU PANTHÉON.
On your right now is a library called the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. Poor girl, she has a shrine, a square and a library in her own city, and the hill we’re standing on is called the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, but she still has no church of her own and must rely on the hospitality of St. Stephen. Perhaps she prefers it that way; she was very holy. And still, they say, works the odd miracle. Which reminds me that in 1626, when the little gallery round the nave of St-Étienne was being consecrated the balustrade broke at one point and fell, along with two young ladies, into the crowd of worshippers below. Nobody was hurt.
Turn left, then right into RUE SOUFFLOT.
Across the Rue Soufflot runs the RUE SAINT-JACQUES, once a Roman road called VIA SUPERIORA – High Street. We’ll come to a Low Street in a minute.
Look to the right and you can see across the river and the Île de la Cite to the Tour Saint-Jacques-La-Boucherie and the start of the pilgrim’s route to Spain. From here a chain of monasteries, each a day’s march apart, led you in almost a straight line to Santiago de Compostela. If you made the trip you were entitled to wear a cockleshell as a badge, in memory of St James the fisherman – known in France as Saint-Jacques, in Spain as Sant’Iago.
At No. 254 lived, in 1800, M. Itard, one of the first and greatest teachers of the deaf. His biggest triumph was with the Wild boy of Aveyron, a genuine original Mowgli type who had lived wild in the forest since babyhood. Itard couldn’t teach him to speak, it was too late; but over a
period of six years he ‘civilised’ him and taught him to read and write. On the site of Itard’s house is now a School for the Deaf. Nearby a Choir school occupies the building of a Benedictine Monastery where King James II of England, after long exile in France, was finally buried. Like Geneviève and all the past Kings of France, he too was dug up and burned during the Revolution. They were nothing, those Jacobins, if not thorough.
The RUE SOUFFLOT, along which we continue to walk, is named after the Architect who designed the Panthéon. Looking back at that severely Classical building, it’s hard to believe that he was actually a great admirer of the Gothic.
At the end of Rue Soufflot we come to the Roman Via Inferiora, Low Street, now the BOULEVARD SAINT-MICHEL.
You must be hungry by now. Buy a sandwich or a pizza from one of the shops on these corners, where you can choose from a fantastic variety. This is the heart of the student area, after all. We can go and eat in the JARDIN DU LUXEMBOURG, the park across the road. Or rather, you eat and I’ll tell more stories.
First, then, the BOULEVARD SAINT-MICHEL, which everybody calls the Boul’Mich. It is the main street of this part of Paris, the Left Bank, known as the Quartier Latin. This name, as we shall see, has nothing to do with the Romans, though they laid the street out in the first place.
The original town, LUTETIA PARISIORUM, was on the Island now call the Île de la Cité. There were several other islands, but too low and marshy to build on. As the town grew, the island became too small. Towns develop along their roads, and the main road here was the one which crossed the Seine at the easiest place – the island – on its way from Soissons to Orléans and so on to the South. The South being the way to Rome, it was on that side that the expansion took place. After a time the road grew so crowded with traffic that a parallel one – now the
Boul’Mich – was built, and a one-way system introduced. There’s nothing new under the sun. Each road was thirty feet wide and paved with sandstone on a bed of concrete. The forum, or market-place, was between the two roads where the Rue Soufflot is now. The theatre was just down the street on the side where we are now, and the baths – very important to Romans – were originally two in number, one on each street. The smaller baths survive, and can be inspected as part of the Musée de Cluny, down towards the river. The larger baths, on the Rue Saint-Jacques, have disappeared. Barbarians destroyed the Roman town in 280 AD, and the stones were used for building right through the Dark Ages. In those trouble times, the town once more retreated into the Island.
The Emperor CHARLEMAGNE was crowned on Christmas Day in the year 800, the easiest of all dates to remember. He ruled the Empire of the Franks from farther North, at Aix-la-Chapelle, now Aachen in Germany; but he made Paris a centre for Education by founding a number of schools. Not nursery-schools or neighbourhood comprehensive, but Theological Colleges, the Universities of his day.
Early in the 12th Century one of the Masters, PIERRE ABÉLARD, fell out with his fellow-theologians and moved off the Island to set up his own School. This caused a tremendous academic row, with the student population gleefully taking sides with Abélard or the Bishop, who claimed that nobody had the right to do such a thing. This quarrel Abélard won. The other main argument of his life he lost, but it is for that one that he is chiefly remembered. He fell in love. The girl in question was call Héloise, and lived with her uncle in the house where Abélard lodged.
Now, the problem was that to be a Scholar in those days you had to be a priest, and therefore theoretically celibate. Under the rather peculiar customs of the time, it was considered all right for a scholar-priest to have a mistress, even a considerable family; but marriage itself was a deadly sin. When Uncle discovered that Abélard’s had not only got his niece pregnant, but also secretly married her, he sent two thugs round to
Abélard’s room to make sure, with the aid of a sharp knife, that such a thing would never happen again. After which Héloise retired to a convent and Abélard went back to lecturing, just as before, but in a rather higher voice.
During the rest of the century the students gradually drifted to the Left Bank, and in 1215 the Pope granted them the right to form themselves into Corporations, with their own rules, separate from the law of the land. The students continued to live in lodgings if they could afford them, in the streets if they couldn’t and to hold classes in the open air. In 1253 Robert de Sorbon, Confessor to Saint Louis who was King at the time, invented a new idea. He told the King (during one of those brief moments when Saint Louis was in France and not off crusading) about the hard lives the students led, and suggested building a large house with classrooms and dormitories. ‘We can call it a college’, he said. So the King coughed up the money and the College was built and more followed quickly; but that original one founded by Robert de Sorbon has always been called the Sorbonne. It was the centre of theological study in France right up to the Revolution. Nowadays the University of Paris has ten enormous sections, but the Sorbonne, in buildings dating from the 17th and 19th centuries, houses two of them.
Students nowadays, especially in France where they have a lot to grumble about, are a rowdy, ill-disciplined lot; but try for a moment to imagine what they must have been like in the Middle Ages. Some were rich enough to pay their own fees; some, though poor, won scholarships which paid the fees but no living expenses; most lived in total poverty and picked up money where they could – mostly out of other people’s pockets. One of the first great French poets, François Villon, lived a student life, alternating between lecture-hall and the slums, entirely on the proceeds of burglary. And all these students were . They were Clerks in Holy Orders, and subject only to the discipline of the Church. A Church court could hand them over to the Civil arm for punishment, but they had to be caught first, and the Church had no Police Force. They literally terrorised the whole town. In 1407 there was a riot in which a dozen or so people were killed by students, and the King’s Provost rounded up a few of the ringleaders and hanged them on the spot. The Church kicked up a fuss, and the poor Provost was forced to cut the corpses down and bury them with his own hands before asking the University for Pardon on his knees.
When the students weren’t rioting or thieving, they had to work ferociously hard. Classes, and finally exams, lasted all day. For your Doctorate of Theology Finals you had to maintain and justify a thesis, orally, before twenty examiners, all trying to catch you out, from six in the morning until six at night, during which time you weren’t allowed to eat, drink or leave the room. One finalist, called Buridan, maintained – brilliantly and successfully – the thesis that it was lawful to kill a Queen of France. History does not record what arguments he used to support this, but it does record the Queen’s answer. The next day Buridan was tied up in a sack and thrown in the river. He got out and went on with the argument. What’s more, he did the whole thing in Latin. All lectures and disputations were in Latin; that’s why the University area is called the Latin Quarter.
But what about the garden we’re sitting in? Why, for example, is it called the JARDIN DU LUXEMBOURG? Well....
In the fifteenth century there was a pleasant town house in the Rue de Vaugirard (longest street in Paris), owned by a nobleman called the Comte de Luxembourg because when he wasn’t in Paris he was ruling the county of Luxembourg. The house, therefore, was called the Hôtel de Luxembourg, because the word Hôtel simply means a big house in a town.
Then, in the sixteenth century, King Henri IV ran out of money. All the money in France had been spent on the Wars of Religion, which Henri IV, as leader of the Protestants, had brought to a sudden end by turning Catholic. Now he did what French Kings always did when strapped for cash; he married a rich foreigner. The richest people in the world after a long war are always the bankers, and the richest bankers were the Medici of Florence. Henri therefore took to wife Maria de’Medici, who thus became Marie de Médicis, Queen of France.
After Henri died, Marie was still rich in her own right, and acting as Regent for her son Louis XIII, who was still a ninfant. She decided to build a Palace where she could live in her retirement – rather as old people nowadays buy a bungalow at the seaside. She bought the Hôtel de Luxembourg and a large amount of land to the South, to form a garden. That was in 1612. In 1615 an architect called Salomon de Brosse began work on a palace next to the old house, with a chapel and a convent at the other side. In 1621 Rubens was called in to help with the interior decorations, painting a series of 24 monstrous pictures on the subject of Her Majesty’s life; her arrival in France, her Regency, her quarrel with her son, her exile, their reconciliation, etc. They’re in the Louvre now, and monumentally horrendous, though it’s quite fun trying to sort the bits Rubens actually painted himself from the vast areas he left to his apprentices. By 1630 the palace was habitable, and in 1631 Marie had another row with Louis XIII, who resented his mother’s interference and exiled her to Cologne, where she died in poverty eleven years later.
The Palace and gardens remained in Royal hands until the Revolution, being used mainly by minor royalty or the girl-friends of major royalty.
Some of them opened the gardens to the public, though under Louis XIV the Duchesse de Berry closed them, not wishing the public to observe the goings-on to which she was partial.
At the Revolution Palaces were not much in demand, but there was a shortage of prisons, so this palace became a prison. Among those incarcerated here were General de Beauharnais and his wife Joséphine, whose subsequent widowhood was to be consoled by the acquisition of a somewhat more illustrious second husband. Since then the palace, suitably altered, has been the Upper House of the French Parliament, whenever the Constitution has demanded such a body. The original house, now called the Petit Luxembourg, is the official residence of the President of this body, the Senate.
The GARDENS – much smaller than they used to be – are formal in the Italian manner, though there are corners called English and French gardens, and a rather superior supervised playground for tiny tots. There’s also a GUIGNOL – a puppet theatre – and tennis courts and that sort of thing. You can ride a donkey round the pond, or hire a toy boat to sail on it.
Finished your sandwich? Excellent. Throw the crumbs to the pigeons and we’ll walk down to the pond.
On the way, you’ll begin to see that this crowded park has nearly as many stone people in it as real ones. Since the reign of Louis-Philippe, statues have been springing up in the Luxembourg at a tremendous rate. If you’ve reached the terrace overlooking the pond, you’ll find two series of ladies; one of Famous Women, the other of Queens of France – including Mary Stuart, who was Queen of France long before she became Queen of Scots.
The wide open spaces of these gardens were useful at the end of the eighteenth century to some of the first men ever to fly. The great pioneers, the Montgolfier brothers, gave demonstrations of their hot-air balloons in the Jardin des Tuileries and the Champ de Mars, but their followers came to the Luxembourg (where, malicious rumour had it, the proximity of the Senate guaranteed a constant supply of hot air). Some had more luck than others, a certain Abbé Miollan less than any. He arranged to demonstrate that a balloon could be steered like a ship, and constructed a hot-air job 32 metres high for the purpose. He booked the Luxembourg for Sunday July 12th 1785, and sold tickets at high prices. The flight was due at midday, people began to arrive at dawn, and when at five in the afternoon the thing still wasn’t fully inflated, the crowd began to get impatient. First they shouted, then they started to throw things, then they charged. At this point, with a sense of timing that can only be admired, the balloon caught fire. Miollan escaped in the confusion.
The next year, 1786, a man called Testu-Brissy tried out a hydrogen balloon in the same place. He remained airborne eleven hours, floated off into the countryside, landed safely and was beaten up by angry farmers
for frightening their cows. A year again, undaunted, he did it all again on horseback. Yes, mounted on a horse, in a basket, under a balloon.
Turn towards the Palace and walk towards its right-hand side.
Here you will find the FONTAINE DE MÉDICIS, designed by the same Salomon de Brosse who built the Palace. It dates from 1624, is in the Italian style of the day, and is really a very pretty and cool and pleasant place to be. It’s been moved around and added to over the years, of course; the rear, facing the street, with the low relief of Leda and the Swan, is by De Gisors (1807), and the niche with the figure of Polyphemus the Cyclops crushing Acis and Galatea (jealous, he was) is by Ottin (1863). The sculpture, actually, offers a fine example of the use of mythology to justify works of art which might otherwise get you arrested. Leda and the Swan are certainly in a compromising position, and on the other side, though the bronze Polyphemus is comparatively inoffensive, the lovers, in white marble, are quite sensationally voluptuous.
At the far end of the pond, incidentally, you will often nowadays see little boys fishing. Not for fish, however. There are magnets on the end of their strings, since tourists find it difficult to resist throwing coins in fountains, and many French coins are made of stainless steel. The lads make a good living.
Such enterprise would have rejoiced the heart of the nineteenth-century eccentric Henry Murger, the author of ‘Scènes de la Vie de Bohème’ (source of the Puccini opera) and the hero of the students and other bohemians of the district, and whose statue stands on a corner of the lawn by the fountain. When it was announced that Murger was to have a memorial, the students were overjoyed; when it was further announced that tickets for the unveiling and the ceremonial banquet would cost six gold francs each, they rebelled and held their own unveiling three hours earlier, and went off to their own banquet, costing 95 centimes and consisting of black pudding and chips. The monument had to be hurriedly re-veiled in time for the arrival of the President and the bigwigs. You are looking, in fact, as the President pointed out in his speech, at the only monument in Paris – perhaps in the world – to have been inaugurated twice in the same day.
If you’re still facing the Fontaine de Médicis, the way out is to your left.
Walk quietly. At the end of the Second World War, they say, a large number of German soldiers hid in an underground bunker at this corner. Nobody knows just how many, because a high-explosive shell obliterated the entrance and it’s never been found, so they’re still in there somewhere.
Now then, what is this large pillared building which confronts us? It is a National Theatre, built in 1779 for the Comédie-Française company which had been in existence for a hundred years without a permanent home. Ten years later came the Revolution and the company split into two – Royalists and Republicans. The Republicans moved to the Salle Richelieu, next to the Palais-Royal, home of the Comédie-Française to this day. Three years later the King was guillotined and the Royalist company was disbanded to a selection of prisons. The theatre here remained empty until 1797, when it was re-opened as the ODÉON, which is Greek for concert-hall. It wasn’t very successful, and anyway it burned down in 1799. If you walk round it, you’ll see that the square all around was built to match the theatre, so the disappearance of its main building rather spoiled the effect. So, when Chalgrin (architect of the Arc de Triomphe) was commissioned to rebuild the Odéon in 1807, he just handed the builders the old plans and told them to get on with it. It became a National Theatre again in 1946, and became world-famous under Jean-Louis Barrault until 1968, when it was taken over as a debating chamber for revolutionary students, after which it was closed several years for refurbishment.
Turn left along the Rue de Vaugirard as far as the main entrance of the Palais du Luxembourg.
Now look across the road and down the RUE DE TOURNON.
Not very remarkable, is it? Yet between 1790 and 1805 No. 5 Rue de Tournon saw more action than many whole streets, housing in turn three extraordinary people.
The first was called Hébert. He was the Editor – indeed, the entire editorial staff – of a Revolutionary newspaper called Le Père Duchesne. This paper was notable for its vulgarity, for its love of blood, for its ardent condemnation of Royalty, and for the fact that every tenth word, whether it fitted the sense of the sentence or not, was the same; was a word not normally printed in newspapers; and began with F.
As the paper was, of course, a great success, Hébert moved out to better lodgings in 1793. His flat was taken over by Anne-Marie Lenormand, who was a Prophetess. Lots of famous people came to see her and she did a roaring trade until Robespierre, then head of the Government, got annoyed because she told him he would be executed before the end of the year, and had her thrown in jail. The Luxembourg palace was handy, and while imprisoned there she met Joséphine de Beauharnais, for whom she foresaw the death of her husband, remarriage to a Corsican soldier, and eventual divorce.
Before the end of the year Robespierre had fallen from power and parted with his head, and Anne-Marie, doubtless muttering ‘told him so’, was released. When Joséphine, widowed, married a Corsican called Napoléon and became an Empress, Anne-Marie was back in favour and fashion. In 1809, however, she warned General Moreau that he was about to be arrested. Moreau left the country in a hurry and the Police, naturally vexed, imprisoned the clairvoyant instead. After the fall of Napoleon she was released again and went to live in Belgium. There she was arrested again in 1818, this time for fraud because one of her prophecies didn’t come true. She came back to No. 5 Rue de Tournon and lived there until she died, aged 71, in 1843. As she had predicted that she would live to be 124, this was a disappointment to her admirers. Nevertheless, a later occupant received a spirit message from the lady in 1866....
The third tenant was the most amazing of the lot.
She was born a simple village girl, christened Anne-Josèphe, in a hamlet called near Marcour in 1762. She arrived in Paris at the age of 22, equipped with a formidable beauty and a cunning little mind, the Scarlett O’Hara of her place and time, and pinched the names of her childhood haunts to give herself a resounding title; Théroigne de Méricourt. Pictures of her survive; narrow waist, good skin (it helped to be a country girl), enormous eyes and that expression of eager innocence which has melted hearts and ruined fortunes in every generation.
In the Summer of 1789, Théroigne stepped full into the spotlight of History. She was involved in everything, and what she missed, her enemies accused her of. She took part, according to some accounts, in the storming of the Bastille, for which she was awarded a sword of honour. And when, in October of the same year, the women of Paris marched on Versailles to demand bread, they were, according to the royalist press, met at the city gates by Théroigne de Méricourt on horseback, resplendent in a scarlet riding-habit, sword at her side, loaded pistols in her belt. They say she led the procession to Versailles, and was a member of the delegation which presented the women’s demands to Marie-Antoinette, whom it is reported she fixed with a haughty stare. Actually, the only element of truth in this is that she was at Versailles at the time, and may have observed the women passing by.
Nevertheless, over the next few months Théroigne made herself famous in revolutionary circles by her championship of the Rights of Women. Politicians of every colour and opinion flocked to her flat in Rue de Tournon. One of her opponents described a visit like this:
‘On the dressing-table were a comb, a dagger, some vegetable rouge, a red cap of liberty, a pair of pistols, some curls, a scarf and a few pamphlets including the Declaration of the Rights of Man. On the walls, pictures of the Bastille and the deaths of revolutionary heroes. Next to the bed, a pike, and in the same area a very revealing velvet riding-habit. She herself appeared in a suggestive state of dress, wearing red morocco shoes and black wool stockings, a blue damask petticoat and a white silk bodice, a flame-coloured gauze bonnet on her head, surmounted by a green pom-pom. Her scarf was blue, white and red, as was her make-up.’
Unfortunately for Théroigne, the monarchy was not yet abolished, and in 1790, two months after the arrival of her sword of honour, she was investigated for her conduct at Versailles. It was said that when the police searched her apartment they discovered letters demonstrating that, of all the famous men who had visited her in the past year, at least 38 had not gone home at bedtime.
Unwilling to undergo further interrogation, Théroigne went home to Belgium. This was not the best of moves, since Belgium was part of the Austrian Empire, which opposed the new government of France. The Belgian authorities handed her over to a gang of French émigré noblemen, who abducted her, attempted to rape her, and had her imprisoned at Kufstein in the Tyrol. Luckily, she now came across a scrupulously honest Austrian investigator, who was able to demonstrate the falsehood of her accusers. She was sent on to Vienna, where the Emperor Leopold, Marie-Antoinette’s brother, visited her in prison and had her released a few days later. Not even Royalty could resist those eyes.
Back in Paris, she was every man’s hero. She told the story of her captivity as guest of honour at the Jacobin club. Contemporary playing-cards used her portrait for that new and egalitarian figure, the Citizeness of Spades. In June 1792, when the mob entered the Tuileries Palace and manhandled the King, she was at work organising a regiment of women, and on the 10th August, when the Monarchy finally fell, she showed immense courage under the fire of the Swiss Guards. For a few more months her popularity remained, while she grew ever more brazen, more outspoken, more notorious, more thoroughly slandered – and still, at the age of 31, ridiculously attractive. She visited the National Assembly constantly, and was one of the leaders of the movement to give women both the vote and the right to bear arms. She assisted in preparing a Declaration of the Rights of Woman. Her speeches read like those of Mrs. Pankhurst, more than a hundred years ahead of her time.
While no man could resist those eyes, unfortunately most women both could and did. And it was the women of Paris, whom she had led so gloriously, who dragged her down in the end. On the 15th May 1793, she made yet another speech on the Terrasse des Feuillants, between the Tuileries gardens and the Manège, where the National Assembly was sitting. She spoke mostly in defence of the Girondins, a party whose mass arrest and execution was to mark the start of the Reign of Terror a month later. Here she was set upon by the poissardes, those very women of the people whose cause she had always upheld, stripped naked and whipped until the tender skin broke and ran red. Her humiliation was total. While her body suffered, something snapped in her head.
The mental breakdown was total and irreversible. It began with nervous prostration and went on to fits of dementia. While the King was tried and executed, she was unaware; through the reign of Terror and the deaths of all her lovers, she faced the wall in a succession of asylums. Through the Directorate, the Consulate and the Empire she lived in an underground cell, on all fours like an animal, refusing clothes or comfort, deprived of speech. Through the whole Napoleonic Empire, the Restoration, the Waterloo campaign, she survived and existed for twenty-four years. She finally died in June 1817, of chronic pneumonia. It seems a harsh punishment for a little excess of amorous enthusiasm.
Keep walking along the RUE DE VAUGIRARD until you come to RUE FÉROU on the right.
Just to your right here is an arcade and, set into the end wall, a . Like the standard foot in Trafalgar Square, it was placed here so that local traders could check their measures against it. It is, in fact, pretty nearly on the Paris meridian line, which – as we’ll see later – has a lot to do with the original definition of a metre.
While you’re walking, you will pass on the left the Palais de Luxembourg, then the Petit Luxembourg, then the ORANGERIE du Luxembourg. What is an Orangerie? It’s a seventeenth-century greenhouse – big windows, glass roof – in which orange trees were kept in the wintertime. During the summer they stood about the private gardens in case anybody got thirsty. There are still quite a few orange trees living here, and when they’re outside in the Summer the building makes an ideal Art Gallery. Just the other side of it is a monument to the composer Hector Berlioz. It’s bronze, and consists of a bust of Hector on a pedestal with two rather luscious naked nymphs – or, I suppose, Muses – twining themselves round it. From what one knows of Berlioz, he would have preferred, in the circumstances, to be provided with rather more than just a head and shoulders.
Where have we got to? Ah, yes, Rue Férou. Nip up this to the PLACE SAINT-SULPICE.
The original SAINT-SULPICE was a little Parish Church, dependent on Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which we’ll come to in a minute. Louis XIV started the rebuilding, in the seventeenth century. The job took 134 years, and isn’t actually finished yet. Architects – six altogether down the years – included Servandoni, Maclaurin and Chalgrin again. The front is rather handsome in an Italian style with two colonnades on top of one another, but look at the towers. The left-hand one is more ornate and taller than the right. This is because the right-hand tower isn’t finished, and probably never will be.
Pop inside for a minute and see how badly suited the grandeur of Louis XIV is to a Church. It’s nothing special, is it? Just a vast, echoing barn. However, this has it advantages musically, and Saint-Sulpice has arguably the best Organ in France, and unquestionably hires the best organists – Widor and Dupré to name but two.
Three things to see; first, the holy-water stoups at the rear of the nave, made of enormous sea-shells given by the Doge of Venice to François I and installed here by Louis XV in 1745. They stand on marble rocks sculpted by Pigalle.
Second, the MERIDIAN STONE. Just as Greenwich had its zero meridian, so had Paris. In 1727 the Parish Priest here noted that the meridian went through the church, and designed an apparatus to demonstrate the fact. In the North Transept is an Obelisk and a line on the floor. Sunlight coming through a lensed window strikes obelisk or floor at different points according to the season; a brass plate marks where the light will fall at noon on the Summer Solstice. The Paris meridian was used to
measure longitude by the French – and, characteristically, the Irish – until well into this century. Some of the confusion over the sinking of the Titanic was caused by this doubling of standards. Note also – not a lot of people know this – that the original definition of a METRE was one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator along the Paris meridian.
The third thing to see in Saint-Sulpice is the CHAPEL of the Assumption, behind the high Altar. It represents the ultimate in that type of religious art which features droopy plaster saints and Holy Pictures of shepherds standing around in dressing-gowns with pious expressions. If you like that kind of thing, then this chapel is the kind of thing you like. With extra syrup.
If we go out into the square we’ll notice that the chapel has become the centre of a whole industry; several shops sell nothing but plaster saints and holy pictures, all in the style known to the Art world in France as ‘Sulpicien’.
In the middle of the square is rather pleasing fountain. It is square, and has on each side a statue of a seventeenth-century bishop, sitting on a throne, with water pouring out from underneath him.
The square itself is on the site of an old cemetery. There used to be a dance-hall here, with a skull above its entrance, where you could dance on tombstones. Napoleon had it closed down. Spoilsport.
Leave the square by a street opposite where you came in, RUE DES CANETTES. At the end, cross RUE DU FOUR and, bearing right, go along RUE DES CISEAUX.
While in Rue des Canettes – Duckling Street – see if you can see the sign from which it got its name. Rue de Ciseaux – Scissors Street – probably was named in the same way. Rue du Four – Oven Street – is notable only as the home of Ruggieri, who was Court Astrologer to both Medici queens, Catherine (Mrs. Henri II) and Marie (Mrs. Henri IV), and still managed to live nearly a hundred years.
At the end of Rue des Ciseaux, here we are opposite SAINT-GERMAIN-DES-PRÉS.
This is the oldest church in Paris. The steeple dates from 1014. This means that the original style of architecture was Romanesque – what in England we call Norman – with round arches and massive walls. The upper part of the church was rebuilt in the twelfth century, so its Gothic, with pointy arches , and restored in the 17th century, when round arches were back in fashion. The front porch was added in 1607, the interior details were considerably mucked about with in 1646; so the whole place is quite a mixture.
One of the oddest of all miracles took place here in 754, before the present church was built. As its name – St. Germanus’ in the meadows – implies, the church then belonged to an Abbey outside the town walls, and was founded by St. Germain, Bishop of Paris. His tomb was in the crypt, but was to be moved to a more honourable place in the Sanctuary. The King, Pépin le Bref, father of Charlemagne, was present. How Charlemagne’s Dad came to be called Pippin the Short I don’t know. The coffin, however – large, stone, heavy – couldn’t be moved. A monk explained to the King that St. Germain was refusing to move until the financial provisions for his Abbey were properly arranged. The King understood and made a large gift of land on the spot. After that the coffin moved easily. Well, it would, wouldn’t it?
Later, in 845, the church was pillaged by the Normans. I keep mentioning these Normans; they’re the ancestors of William the Conqueror & Co., but at this date Norman just means Man from the North. They were Vikings, and no amount of romanticisation can conceal the fact that Vikings, especially when in somebody else’s country, were not nice people. What they wanted here was to rip out the church woodwork to repair their boats. One of the raiders was misguided enough to lay hand on the Tomb, and the hand in question withered away.
Oddly enough, nothing of the sort happened in 1789, when the revolutionaries destroyed the tomb completely and put the venerable bones on one of their bonfires. They did the same for several Royal tombs discovered here in 1646, containing the remains of Kings and Queens from the remote past, with such lively names as Childéric, Caribert, Bilihilde and Frédégonde.
Across the road (Boulevard St.-Germain) a new fountain occupies a space at a street corner. Its designed – very effectively – to look as if the water has welled up explosively from the depths of the earth, bursting open the pavement.
Walk along the Boulevard, alongside the church, till you come to RUE DE L’ÉCHAUDÉ, and turn left, then left again into RUE DE L’ABBAYE, then right into RUE DE FURSTEMBERG.
In Rue de l’Abbaye, behind the church, stood a prison, the Prison de l’Abbaye. At the beginning of the Revolution, when the Church was much in disfavour, this was filled with priests and their friends. In September 1792, following the rumour of a plot against the Revolution, a mob broke in and massacred 318 of the prisoners.
Rue de Furstemberg, on the other hand, is one of the pleasantest places in Paris. The street opens out into a perfect little square, built in 1699 on the site of the Abbey stables. The painter Delacroix has his studio at No. 6, which is now a museum to his memory. Should you go in? Try this test. Did you notice that one of the chapels in Saint-Sulpice, the extreme South-West one, was painted by Delacroix? If so, then you’re a fan. Go on in.
At the end of Rue Furstemberg, turn left along RUE JACOB (where Laurence Sterne lived, and Mme. de Rambouillet and Adrienne Lecouvreur – a novelist, a bluestocking and an actress – and then right down RUE BONAPARTE to the river. You come out on QUAI MALAQUAIS, opposite the Louvre, where the little SQUARE HENRI CHAMPION with its fountain and its bronzes offers a quiet place to sit and contemplate the Palais de l’Institut.
Here, as you may have guessed from the inhabitants of Rue Jacob, is the centre of the Arts. On your left is the École des Beaux-Arts, the French equivalent of the Royal Academy. To the right is the INSTITUT DE FRANCE.
The institut was built by Le Vau, Louis XIV’s architect, to house a learned body called the Collège des Quatre Nations. Work started in 1663 and went on for nine years. At this point it was discovered that the place was already inhabited. Squatters had moved in; not tramps, mind, high-class squatters. There was a Marquis, a priest who had just got married (!), another priest with his father and four servants; a writer, living by himself in five rooms; a tailor, a Doctor, a Chemist, a carpet-maker, some painters and of all things, a Duke who was a relative of the late Cardinal Mazarin, money from whose will had paid for the building. It took considerable time and difficulty to get them all out.
Even when the squatters were evicted, the Palace included, on the ground floor, 27 shops – including one where a quack by the name of Barbereau, assisted by the beauty of his wife and daughter, made a good living selling ‘medicinal water’, guaranteed to cure almost anything, which he took straight from the river.
The Palais de l’Institut now houses five Academies, grouping the most distinguished scholars and writers of France; Historians and archaeologists; Philosophers, politicians and lawyers; Scientists; Painters, sculptors and musicians; and, most famous of all, the Académie Française, founded in 1635 at the instigation of that Madame de Rambouillet whose house we just passed. Its members are known as the Immortals and wear on special occasions a uniform so encrusted with gold braid you can only just tell it’s a nice greeny-blue.
The election of a new member is a great event – there are only 40 at a time, elected for life – but it’s surprising how few of them are remembered by posterity, and how many truly great writers escape election. They are in charge – literally – of the French Language, and meet once a week to work on the official Dictionary. If they say a word ain’t French, it ain’t French. Which is why modern French is actually two languages; one written – and subject to the scrutiny of the Académie – and one spoken.
For the last story of this walk, let’s sit on the PONT DES ARTS, joining the Institut to the Louvre. It’s a footbridge, but quite a wide one, with a splendid view up and down river to the Île de la Cité one way and the Louvre and Gare d’Orsay the other. A good place to be, a good place to end a long walk, a good place to start another tomorrow. The seats are new and well-designed. Comfortable? Then let’s sum up the spirit of the Quartier Latin and the life of Bohemia with an entirely typical story.
In 1955 a M. Albert Buisson was elected to the Académie Française. As his main claim to fame was as a manufacturer of aspirins, the artistic community took exception and held its own poll under the direction of the humorist Henri Monnier. A sculptor, Ralpha Diligent, a large, untidy Bohemian with an enormous beard, was elected, dressed up in a uniform several sizes too small, and presented with a sword made of aspirin packets. The police gathered him in, and the following interrogation took place:
FLIC: Who paid you to make this demonstration?
RALPHA: Paid me? I don’t have to be paid to play silly games.
FLIC: You play silly games, do you, at your age?
RALPHA: Look, if I can’t play silly games at my age, when can I?