Whilst the triumphal arch of the Porte Saint-Denis and the equestrian statue of Henri IV, the two bridges,1 the Louvre, the Tuileries and the Champs-Élysées all equal or surpass the beauties of ancient Rome, the city centre – dark, enclosed and hideous – stands for an age of most shameful barbarism.
– Voltaire, The Embellishments of Paris (1739)
Alas, Old Paris is disappearing at terrifying speed.
– Balzac, The Lesser Bourgeoisie (1855)
After many detours, I first reached Rue Montmartre and the Pointe Saint-Eustache; I passed the square of the Halles, then open to the sky, through the great red umbrellas of the fishmongers; then Rues des Lavandières, Saint-Honoré and Saint-Denis. The Place du Châtelet was quite wretched at this time, the fame of the Veau Qui Tette restaurant overshadowing its historical memories. I crossed the old Pont-au-Change, which later I had to have rebuilt, lowered and widened, then followed the line of the former Palace of Justice, on my left the sorry huddle of low dives that then dishonoured the Île de la Cité, which I would have the joy of razing completely – a haunt of thieves and murderers, who seemed able there to brave the correctional police and the court of assizes. Continuing my route by the Pont Saint-Michel, I had to cross the poor little square that the waters of Rues de la Harpe, de la Huchette, Saint-André-des-Arts and de l’Hirondelle all spilled into, like a drain . . . Finally, I sunk into the meanderings of Rue de la Harpe before climbing the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève and arriving – via the Hôtel d’Harcourt, Rue des Maçons-Sorbonne, Place Richelieu, Rue de Cluny and Rue des Grès – on the Place du Panthéon, at the corner of the École de Droit.2
Such was Haussmann’s itinerary as a law student living on the Chauséed’Antin in the early years of the July monarchy. At this time, the city centre had changed little in the past three hundred years. Paris as circumscribed by the boulevard of Louis XIV, a square with slightly softened angles that could be seen as a figure of density and constraint, was still a medieval city. Like the famous knife of Jeannot, which sometimes had a new handle and sometimes a new blade, but always remained Jeannot’s knife, the streets of Paris, though their buildings were replaced over the years, remained medieval streets, crooked and dark. ‘Victor Hugo, summoning up the Paris of Louis XI, only needed to look around him; the streets bathed in shadow into which Gringoire and Claude Frollo disappeared were not so different from the streets of the Marais, the Cité, even the boulevards that he wandered in the 1830s and later described to us, in sentences similarly weighted with darkness and danger – in a word, of night – in Things Seen.’3
In the 1850s, Privat d’Anglemont described ‘behind the Collège de France, between the Sainte-Geneviève library, the buildings of the old École Normale, the Saint-Barbe college and Rue Saint-Jean-de-Latran, a large block of houses known by the name of Mont-Saint-Hilaire . . . a whole quarter made up of narrow and dirty streets . . . old, dark and crooked’.4 And the trades practised there – worm sellers, vegetable steamers, meat lenders, cheap illustrators, pipe seasoners – also went back to the depths of the Middle Ages.
Twenty years later, under the Second Empire, gas lighting, the great cuttings of the new boulevards, plentiful water and new sewers transformed the city’s physiognomy more than the three previous centuries had done. (‘Take any good Frenchman, who reads hisnewspaper each day in histaproom, and ask him what he understands by “progress”. He will answer that it is steam, electricity and gas – miracles unknown to the Romans – whose discovery bears full witness to our superiority over the ancients’, Baudelaire wrote in 1855 in L’Exposition universelle). Yet Paris did not completely leave the Middle Ages behind in the nineteenth century. Just before the Great War, Carco could still describe a Latin Quarter where Villon would not have felt so out of place: ‘The Rue de l’Hirondelle, a couple of steps from the Seine, which you reach via the narrow and stinking corridor of Rue Gît-le-Coeur, its clientele made up of anarchists, prowlers, students, oddballs, tarts, down-and-outs, regaling themselves on the cheap . . . If there are places in the world, quarters reserved for human perversity, that surpass in ignominy these bordering on the Seine and stretching around the Rue Mazarine, where are they?’5 And until the late 1950s, the alleys between the Place Maubert and the river – Rue de Bièvre, Rue Maître-Albert, Rue Frédéric-Sauton – the Saint-Séverin quarter and Rue Mouffetard, were still filthy and wretched. In his itinerary among the Paris poor, Jean-Paul Clébert described in Rue Maître-Albert, ‘this dog’s leg of an alley that outsiders avoid, kitchens invisible from the main road, and which you enter from the side, taking the corridor that leads to the upper floors; you push open a door chosen at random and step down into a room as big as a chicken coop, in the midst of a family.’6 The Place de la Contrescarpe had more tramps than Situationists, and there were some cafés that were hard to enter if you were not a ragged alcoholic. There were no tourists, restaurants or shops to be seen. Hotels rented rooms by the day to immigrant workers, without asking to see their papers. The offices of Messali Hadj’s Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties were on Rue Xavier-Privas, a couple of steps from Notre-Dame. Contrary to a widespread idea, the final eradication of the Middle Ages in Paris was not the work of Haussmann and Napoleon III, but rather of Malraux and Pompidou, and the emblematic literary signal of this disappearance was not Baudelaire’s ‘The Swan’ but rather Perec’s Les Choses.
The character of Paris as a town formed in the Middle Ages is still visible in the way that its quarters are assembled. The Right Bank has four large and compact nuclei, that of Palais-Royal being the most recent, with satellites in the Tuileries-Saint-Honoré and Bourse quarters; Les Halles is the oldest of the four, and has been treated worst; the Sentier is changing now before our eyes; and the Marais is not so much a single quarter as several. Between these main regions there are transition zones that fill the gaps. This is the most densely built region of Paris.7
It is easy to imagine that the centre of the world was once where the ruined columns of Athens and Rome now lie, precisely because these are ruins. At the Palais-Royal, on the other hand, in the avenues of its gardens or under the colonnades where stalls selling tin soldiers with their crosses and ribbons, pipes, soft toys and needlepoint form an old-fashioned backdrop, nothing allows you to imagine that for fifty years this place was the agora or forum of Paris, its fame spreading right across Europe. When the Allied forces entered the city after the battle of Waterloo, ‘What was the first thing they asked for in Paris? The Palais-Royal! A Russian officer entered the building on horseback. What was the first thing in the Palais-Royal that they wanted? To sit down in one of the restaurants, whose glorious names had reached even their ears.’8
‘No matter what the weather, rain or shine’, Diderot’s narrator explains at the beginning of Rameau’s Nephew, ‘it’s my habit every evening at about five o’clock to take a walk around the Palais-Royal. I’m the one you see dreaming on the bench in the Argenson avenue, all alone.’ This was written in the 1760s, so it is still the old Palais-Royal that is referred to here. Cardinal Richelieu had bought a series of buildings and plots at the end of Rue Saint-Honoré, grouping them into a single quadrilateral that is today bordered by Rues Saint-Honoré, des Petits-Champs, de Richelieu and des Bons-Enfants.9 The Palais-Cardinal constructed by Lemercier stood close to where the Conseil d’État is today. The rest of the land formed a garden: the Argenson avenue that Diderot mentions was to the right, alongside what would become the Galerie de Valois; the avenue opposite took its name from the Café de Foy, the first of those establishments that would be the glory of the Palais-Royal. (The Caveau was founded a little later. Diderot in his old age wrote to his daughter on 28 June 1781: ‘I get bored at home. I go out and get bored even more. The sole and supreme happiness I can enjoy is to go regularly each day at five o’clock to have an ice at the Petit-Caveau.’) In the same year, the Duc de Chartres, future Philippe-Égalité, commissioned Victor Louis to construct the buildings that today surround the garden on three sides.10 Endowed with its hundred and eighty arcades, the Palais-Royal enjoyed an immediate success:
A unique point on the globe. Visit London, Amsterdam, Madrid or Vienna, you will see nothing like it: a prisoner could live there without getting bored, and it would be years before he even dreamed of freedom . . . It is called the capital of Paris. Everything is to be found there: and for a young man of twenty, with fifty thousand livres invested in government stock, there could be nothing else wanting in life, and he would never even emerge from this fairyland . . . This enchanted abode is a small town of luxury enclosed in a greater one; it is the temple of pleasure, from where scintillating vices have banished even the phantom of shame; no tavern in the world is more graciously depraved.11
Towards the end of Louis XVI’s reign, the Palais-Royal saw a proliferation of clubs. By July 1789 the agitation was constant, and the Palais became what Hugo called ‘the nucleus of the comet Revolution’. Camille Desmoulins relates the date of 13 July as follows:
It was half past two, and I had gauged the mood of the people. My anger against the despots had turned to despair. I could not see any groups ready for an uprising, however strongly affected they were. Three young men, standing hand in hand, struck me as inspired by a more resolute courage. I could see that they had come to the Palais-Royal with the same intention as myself. A number of passive citizens followed them. ‘Messieurs,’ I said, ‘here is the beginning of a civic force: one of us must take the initiative and stand on a table to harangue the people.’ ‘Get up, then.’ I agreed. Rather than climbing, I was immediately hoisted up on the table [in the Café de Foy]. Right away I found myself surrounded by an immense crowd. Here is my speech, which I shall never forget: ‘Citizens, there is not a moment to lose. I have come from Versailles. Necker has been dismissed; his dismissal is the signal for a St Bartholemew’s Night of patriots. This evening, the Swiss and German battalions will come out of the Champ-du-Mars tomassacre us. Just one single recourse remains, to seize arms and choose a rosette by which to recognize one another.’12
In the course of the Revolution, however, the Palais-Royal, rechristened Palais-Égalité, rapidly became a rallying place for royalists, moderates, Feuillants, all those whom Robespierre called fripons (rogues). At the Mafs restaurant, the contributors to the royalist newspaper Les Actes des apôtres – Abbé Maury, Montlausier, Rivarol – held their ‘evangelical dinner’ each week. They wrote up their discussions at a corner of the table, and ‘the issue composed in this way was left on the Mafs menu, and from Mafs went to Gattey, the famous shop in the Palais’ Galeries de Bois’.13On 20 January 1793, the day that the Convention voted to send Louis Capet to the guillotine, it was in a modest restaurant – chez Février – in the Galerie de Valois that the bodyguard Pâris assassinated Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau. At the Convention, on 19 Nivôse of year II, ‘the revolutionary committee of the Montagne denounced the restaurant owners and caterers of the Palais de l’Égalité, which had merely changed its name and could still bear that of Palais-Royal from the insolent luxury displayed there’.14 Barras – who lived in the Palais-Royal, above Véfour’s – and his friends prepared the coup of 9 Thermidor at a table in the Corazza’s ice-cream parlour, and under the Directory the incroyables pursued republicans in the gardens, white cockade in hat and bludgeon in hand.
The apogee of the Palais-Royal, the time when it became a myth with no counterpart anywhere in modern Europe, was the twenty years following the entry of the Allies into Paris in 1815. The arrival of Russian, Austrian, Prussian and English soldiers and officers gave a new impulse to the two most profitable activities of the site, prostitution and gambling. This was when the Galeries de Bois, wooden buildings lined up transversally where the double colonnade of the Galerie d’Orléans now stands, had their moment of glory:15
The Wooden Galleries of the Palais-Royal used to be one of the most famous sights of Paris. Some description of the squalid bazaar will not be out of place; for there are few men of forty who will not take an interest in recollections of a state of things which will seem incredible to a younger generation. The great dreary, spacious Galerie d’Orléans, that flowerless hothouse, as yet was not; the space upon which it now stands was covered with booths; or, to be more precise, with small, wooden dens, pervious to the weather, and dimly illuminated on the side of the court and the garden by borrowed lights – styled windows by courtesy but more like the filthiest arrangements for obscuring daylight to be found in little wineshops in the suburbs. The Galleries, parallel passages about twelve feet in height, were formed by a triple row of shops. The centre row, giving back and front upon the Galleries, was filled with the fetid atmosphere of the place, and derived a dubious daylight through the invariably dirty windows of the roof . . . The treacherous mud-heaps . . . were in keeping with the seething traffic of various kinds carried on within it; for here in this shameless, unblushing haunt, amid wild mirth and a babel of talk, an immense amount of business was transacted between the Revolution of 1789 and the Revolution of 1830. For twenty years the Bourse stood just opposite, on the ground floor of the Palais . . . People made appointments to meet in the Galleries before or after ’Change; on showery days the Palais-Royal was often crowded with weather-bound capitalists and men of business . . . Here dwelt poetry, politics, and prose, new books and classics, the glories of ancient and modern literature side by side with political intrigue and the tricks of the bookseller’s trade.16
In this blessed age, when the trades of bookseller and publisher were still combined (sometimes indeed with that of printer as well), the Galeries de Bois saw the beginnings of certain publishing houses that were marked out for a fine future: Stock, Garnier, Le Dentu – supposedly the model for Dauriat in Lost Illusions, to whom Lucien de Rubempré tries to sell his sonnets on ‘Easter Daisies’ (‘For me the question is not whether you are a great poet, I know that you have a great deal, a very great deal of merit; if I were only just starting in business, I should make the mistake of publishing your book. But in the first place, my sleeping partners and those at the back of me are cutting off my supplies’).
The colonnades were not a place for reading but rather for gambling, at creps, passe-dix, trente-et-un and biribi. Stall number 9 (which occupied spaces 9 to 12 of the colonnade) offered two tables of trente-et-quarante, a table for creps, and the gamblers could drink punch flambé. At the beginning of Balzac’s The Magic Skin, the unfortunate Raphael climbs the staircase of number 36 (‘As you enter a gaming-house the law despoils you of your hat at the outset. Is it by way of a parable, a divine revelation?’). But the most famous establishment was undoubtedly number 113: eight saloons, with six roulette tables. Marshal Blücher, the victor of Waterloo, hardly left this gambling den. He ran through six million livres during his stay in Paris, and left the city with his estates all mortgaged. Mortgage agents actually stationed themselves close at hand, and in the evening, readily available girls mingled with the gamblers. Those who strolled beneath the Wooden Galleries and in the little avenues of the gardens were known as ‘semi-beavers’, those in the Galleries themselves as ‘beavers’, and those on the Caveau terrace as ‘complete beavers’.
You could also eat and drink in the galleries of the Palais-Royal. The Café de Foy was the only one that served in a garden pavilion. On the first floor, its chess club, whose members included Talleyrand and David, competed with that in the Café de la Régence, the setting of Rameau’s Nephew. The Café des Mille Colonnes, run by a famous beauty, was Balzac’s particular preference. The Café de la Rotonde, close to the Passage du Perron, had been during the Revolution the headquarters of the Brissotins (who were not known in their time as Girondins), after being the site under Louis XVI of the quarrels between the champions of Gluck and those of Piccini. Café Lemblin was frequented by those nostalgic for the Empire. Philippe Brideau ‘was one of the faithful Bonapartes of the Café Lemblin, that constitutional Boeotia; he acquired the habits, manners, style, and life of a half-pay officer.’17 Behind the counter, the waiters had swords wrapped in green serge, ready to hand to their customers for duels. Some evenings there was such a demand that they had to excuse themselves: ‘Messieurs, they’re in use.’ Among the establishments specializing in prostitution, the most famous was the Café des Aveugles, which took its name from the composition of its orchestra. (‘Why blind men, you will say, just in this café, which is scarcely more than a cupboard under the stairs? It’s because in its early days, which went back to the time of the Revolution, things happened that would have shocked the decency of an orchestra.’18)
Of the three great restaurants featured in La Comédie humaine, two were in the Palais-Royal, the third being Le Rocher de Cancale, on Rue Montorgeuil. ‘Is it a dinner for foreigners or provincials whom you want to give an exalted idea of the capital? Then you must take them to Véry’s . . . This is the most expensive caterer, which allows us to conclude that he must be number one in the hierarchy of worth of his profession, one of the most enlightened artists among those who see to the preservation of good taste, and opposed to the invasions of middle-class cuisine.’19 When Lucien de Rubempré arrived from Angoulême, unhappy and humiliated, he made his way towards the Palais-Royal:
He did not know the topography of his quarter yet, and was obliged to ask his way. Then he went to Véry’s and ordered dinner by way of an initiation into the pleasures of Paris, and a solace for his discouragement. A bottle of Bordeaux, oysters from Ostend, a dish of fish, a partridge, a dish of macaroni and dessert – this was the ne plus ultra of his desire. He enjoyed this little debauch, studying the while how to give the Marquise d’Espard proof of his wit, and redeem the shabbiness of his grotesque accoutrements by the display of intellectual riches. The total of the bill drew him down from these dreams, and left him the poorer by fifty of the francs which were to have gone such a long way in Paris. He could have lived in Angoulême for a month on the price of that dinner.20
Véry’s was eventually taken over by its neighbour Véfour, the former Café de Chartres where Alexander von Humboldt, on return from Central America, very often dined under the Empire. In 1815, Rostopchin, the man who had given the order to burn Moscow, frequently caroused there with his French teacher Flore, a lovely actress from the Thêatre des Variétés: ‘There was not a foreigner, an elegant lady, or even a bourgeois from the Place Royale who did not know these three young people from the Durance, who had arrived in Paris with nothing to support themselves except the secret of brandades de morue [cod pounded with garlic, oil and cream], which eventually led to their receiving tribute from the whole of civilized Europe, from the mouth of the Tagus to the shores of the Neva.’21
The heyday of the Palais-Royal ended on a precise date: at midnight on 31 December 1836, when games of chance were banned in Paris. The decline was rapid. The dandies, gawpers, bon viveurs and call girls migrated a few hundred metres, and the Boulevards became the new promenade enchantée.
In those days, when quarters went out of style, they fell into a kind of lethargy that could last a very long while. They had not suffered in their heyday the accelerated commercial metabolism that since the 1960s has ravaged quarters such as Saint-Séverin, Mouffetard, the Bastille and the Marais, and is now at work on the Butte-aux-Cailles, or the Saint-Blaise quarter around the Place Charonne, Rue Montorgeuil and Rue Oberkampf. The Palais-Royal, for its part, has remained as it was when the crowds left and moved further north. Its essential charms, however, did not withstand Victor Louis’s bays, the monotony of which is reinforced by the impeccable alignment of the four avenues of lime trees. What still does have its surprises is the way in which the Palais-Royal, an enclosed space, communicates with the surrounding streets. Certain passages have a monumental beauty, with statues, candelabras and gilded railings – such as that which leads via the Place de Valois towards the entrance of the Galerie Véro-Dodat; or the two covered colonnades by which you leave the bottom of the gardens for Rue de Beaujolais, the one on the left passing Véfour’s restaurant, the one on the right towards the Passage des Deux-Pavillons, Passage Colbert and the Bibliothèque Nationale. Others, on the contrary, slip along in an almost clandestine fashion, like the Passage du Perron with its outlet opening on Rue Vivienne between antique dolls and musical boxes, or the three graceful stairways that lead from Rue de Montpensier towards Rue de Richelieu.
For Diderot or Camille Desmoulins, it was quite easy to pass from the Palais-Royal to the Tuileries. Thirty years later, however, Géricault, Henri de Marsay or Stendhal would have had to cross the new main road through the quarter, Rue de Rivoli, though not yet confront the Avenue de l’Opéra or bypass the enormous mass of Napoleon III’s extensions to the Louvre. The Palais-Royal was not hemmed in as it is today, but connected with the Tuileries-Saint-Honoré quarter. A direct connection, or almost direct, as it was still necessary to cross obliquely a quarter that – unlike any other in the centre of Paris – has disappeared without leaving the slightest trace, even in memory: the Carrousel. The verse from Baudelaire’s ‘The Swan’: ‘Once a menagerie was set up there;/There, one morning, at the hour when Labour awakens,/Beneath the clear, cold sky when the dismal hubbub/Of street cleaners and scavengers breaks the silence,/I saw a swan that had escaped from his cage . . .’ is not a purely poetic vision like his ‘Albatross’. Alfred Delvau, rambler and chronicler of street life under the Second Empire, recalled:
It used to be charming, the Place du Carrousel – today populated with great men in stone from Saint-Leu. Charming like disorder, and picturesque like ruins! It was a forest, with its inextricable tangle of wooden stalls and mud-walled shacks, occupied by a crowd of petty trades. I often strolled among this caravanserai of bric-a-brac, amid this labyrinth of planks and zigzags of tiny shops, and I knew its denizens almost intimately – men and animals, rabbits and parrots, pictures and cheap ornaments.22
The Joanne guidebook of 1870 also uses Baudelaire’s magic word baraque (‘I see only in memory that camp of stalls’), and laments the disappearance of ‘this plethora of little stalls, like a perpetual fair of curiosities, old iron and live birds, that used to stretch from the Musée to Rue de Chartres’.
The extraordinary quarter of the Carrousel lay between the Horloge pavilion of the Louvre and the avenues of the Tuileries. It was bordered on the south, along the Seine, by the Grande Galerie that had linked the two palaces from the time of Henri IV. The inner side of this gallery was adjacent to a street with the name Rue des Orties [Nettles]. To the north, the boundary of the Carrousel was Rue Saint-Honoré. Three streets perpendicular to the river connected Rue des Orties with Rue Saint-Honoré: Saint-Nicaise, Saint-Thomas-du-Louvre and Fromenteau.
The Rue Saint-Nicaise, continuing the line of Rue de Richelieu, would today coincide with the Louvre’s ticket offices. On the side of Rue Saint-Honoré it bordered onto a large hospital, the Quinze-Vingts, founded by Louis IX to care – so legend goes – for three hundred knights who had returned blind from the Crusades, the Saracens having put out their eyes. (Curiously, most historians of old Paris relate this story as if it were an established fact, just as they do that of the Jew Jonathan who, around the same time, supposedly boiled a host from the church of the Billettes, which emitted blood – for which crime he was burned alive, as can be seen on Paolo Uccello’s predella in Urbino.23) The hospital precinct sheltered a whole population of craftsmen, exempt from taxation as they also were at the Temple. In 1780, the Quinze-Vingts was transferred to the former barracks of the Black Musketeers in Rue de Charenton, where it remains today.
The Rue Saint-Thomas-du-Louvre would today pass through Ieoh Ming Pei’s pyramid. As well as the Hôtel de Chevreuse, it served a building of unparalleled importance in French literature, the Hôtel de Rambouillet. ‘I need not say that it is the most famous in the kingdom,’ wrote Sauval, who was a regular there,
as no one has any doubt on this score. The entire beau monde has read its praise and description in Le Grand Cyrus, and in the works of the most refined minds of the century. Perhaps there is not even any need to recall that in Cyrus it is known as the palace of Cléomire, and elsewhere it is always called the palace of Arthénice, an anagram of Catherine, the baptismal name of Catherine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet, the mansion having been devised by Malherbe. Illustrious figures have all published the name of this heroine to their heart’s content, leaving me almost nothing to say about her hôtel . . . And as well as this, they have also told us that she devised it and gave it its design, that she alone undertook, conducted and completed it. Her fine and elegant taste revealed to our architects conveniences and perfections unknown even to the Ancients, and which they have since extended to all proud and prestigious dwellings.24 By the discoveries that Arthénice made in architecture, by way of a pleasant diversion, it is possible to judge those that she made in literature, where she occupied a pinnacle. The virtue and merit of Catherine de Vivonne attracted to her house, for many years, all fine minds of the court and the century. In her blue chamber a circle of illustrious figures gathered each day, indeed we should say the Academy; for this is where the Académie Française had its origin; and it is from the great minds who attended here that the most noble section of this very considerable body was composed. This is the reason why the Hôtel de Rambouillet was long known as the French Parnassus . . . Those who were not known there were seen simply as ordinary persons, and it was enough to have entered there to be ranked among the illustrious figures of the century.25
Rue Fromenteau followed the moat of the Louvre along the Horloge pavilion, ending up at Rue Saint-Honoré close to Rue de Valois. It always had a bad reputation: ‘Is not Rue Fromenteau both murderous and profligate?’, Balzac asks at the start of Ferragus. Connecting Rue Fromenteau with Rue Saint-Thomas-du-Louvre, the little Rue du Doyenné hosted a street market where, in the Romantic epoch, eighteenth-century French canvases could be bought at a low price. This is where Cousine Bette lived at the beginning of the eponymous novel: ‘As we drive in a hackney cab past this dead-alive spot, and chance to look down the little Rue du Doyenné, a shudder freezes the soul, and we wonder who can lie there, and what things may be done there at night, at an hour when the alley is a cut-throat pit, and the vices of Paris run riot there under the cloak of night.’ In the 1830s, a group of young writers still little known established themselves in Rue du Doyenné in a kind of squat, their number including Gérard de Nerval:
It was in our common lodgings in Rue du Doyenné that we came to recognize one another as brothers . . . in a corner of the old Louvre des Médicis, very close to the spot where the former Hôtel de Rambouillet stood . . . Good old Rogier would smile into his beard, from the top of a ladder, where he was painting on one of the three mirror frames a Neptune – who looked like himself! Then the two swing doors opened abruptly: it was Théophile [Gautier]. We hurried to offer him a Louis XIII armchair, and he read in his turn his first verses, while Cydalise I, or Lorry, or Victorine, swung nonchalantly in blonde Sarah’s hammock, stretched across the enormous salon . . . What happy days! We gave balls, suppers, costumed parties . . . We were young, always gay, and often rich . . . But now I come to the sad note: our palace was demolished. I rummaged through its debris last autumn. Even the ruins of the chapel [of the Doyennés, which was part of Saint-Thomas-du-Louvre], which so gracefully stood out against the green of the trees . . . were not respected. Around that time, I found myself, one day, rich enough to buy back from the demolishers two lots of woodwork from the salon, painted by our friends. I have the two Nanteuil architraves; Vattier’s signed Watteau, Corot’s two long panels representing Provençal landscapes; Châtillon’s Red Monk, reading the Bible on the curved haunches of a naked sleeping woman; Chassériau’s Bacchantes, who have tigers on a leash like dogs . . . As for the Renaissance bed, the Médicis dresser, the two sideboards, the Ribera, the tapestries of the Four Elements, all that was scattered a long time ago. ‘Where did you lose so many fine things?’ Balzac asked me one day. – ‘In misfortune,’ I replied, citing one of his favourite phrases.26
Rue Saint-Nicaise was where royalist plotters exploded a bomb on 24 December 1800, while the First Consul was proceeding from the Tuileries to the opera in Rue de Richelieu. The attack killed eight people, and marked the beginning of the end for the Carrousel quarter. Bonaparte realized the danger of having cutthroats like these so close to his residence, and had the damaged houses pulled down as well as a number of others. He later demolished the stalls and wooden barriers that closed off the Tuileries avenues,27 and had the triumphal arch of the Carrousel constructed as a gateway of honour to the palace. Demolition continued slowly until 1848, when the pace accelerated in order to make work for the National Workshops. ‘Three-quarters of the square was cleared in 1850. There only remained [on Rue Saint-Nicaise] the former building of the royal stables . . . and right in the middle of the new esplanade, the Hôtel de Nantes, which had resisted until the end all the offers of the expropriation assessors. The hôtel has since been demolished, and the royal stables as well.’28
The Carrousel today is a dusty steppe between the Louvre pyramid and the railings of the Tuileries gardens, crossed by a stream of cars – required by some odd notion to navigate a one-way roundabout – and by an underground tunnel whose concrete entrances give a final touch to the whole ensemble. As the triumphal arch makes no sense in the middle of this desert, the idea was conceived of linking it to the Tuileries gardens and the Napoleon III wings of the Louvre by little fan-shaped plantations over which the heads or thighs of Maillol’s fat ladies emerge: there are academic gardens just as there are academic painters. Happily, some very fine chestnut trees have been saved, which in summertime provide shade for the ice-cream and postcard sellers around Percier and Fontaine’s monument.
In 1946, the Place du Marché-Saint-Honoré was renamed Place Robespierre, a decision reversed in 1950 when the French bourgeoisie raised its head again. Their hatred towards Robespierre had never diminished since Thermidor. Beside the Incorruptible himself – who lodged with his sister Charlotte and brother Augustin in carpenter Duplay’s house at the end of Rue Saint-Honoré – other actors in the Revolution also lived in the Tuileries-Saint-Honoré quarter: Sièyes, Olympe de Gouges, Héron, and Barère whom Robespierre praised in the ambiguous words: ‘He knows everything and everyone, he is ready for anything.’ Not that this was a particularly revolutionary quarter, but Rue Saint-Honoré was the geographical axis of political life. Between 1789 and 1791, the club of La Fayette and the Moderates held its sessions in the former convent of the Feuillants, where Rue de Castiglione now runs. The Society of the Friends of Liberty and Equality was remembered in history under the name of the Jacobins club, the buildings of the Dominican order (known as Jacobins in France) having occupied what is now the Place du Marché-Saint-Honoré as far as Rue Gomboust. The Constituent Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, and initially also the Convention, sat in the Salle du Manège in the Tuileries gardens, close to where Rue Saint-Roch comes out into Rue de Rivoli. After 10 August 1792, the Convention moved to the Salle des Machines, which Soufflot had transformed and where Sophie Arnould had previously triumphed in Rameau’s Castor et Pollux. The Convention tribune, which according to the specifications was a low construction painted in antique green, decorated with yellow pillars with bronzed capitals and three crowns in faux porphyry, was situated close to the present Marsan pavilion. The Committee of Public Safety met in the opposite wing, the south end of the palace.
After Thermidor, the Convention had the Jacobins’ premises demolished – Merlin de Thionville having denounced it as a ‘bandits’ lair’ – and the gap this created was known for a while as the Place du Neuf-Thermidor. But when royalist pressure became worrying, Barras secured the services of a young officer who was seen as a Robespierrist, Napoleon Bonaparte, and made arrangements to protect the Assembly during the royalist uprising of 13 Vendémaire in year IV (5 October 1795); the insurgents were crushed on the steps of the church of Saint-Roch, by grapeshot from an eight-pounder set up at the end of the Cul-de-sac Dauphin, today the part of Rue Saint-Roch between Rue Saint-Honoré and the Tuileries.
The two main squares in the Saint-Honoré quarter are the Place du Marché-Saint-Honoré and the Place Vendôme, and though quite different from one another, they have both experienced similar disfigurement in recent times. The former already suffered a town-planning assault in the late 1950s, when the market that Molinos had built under the Empire was demolished – four halls, and in the middle a fountain supplied by Chaillot’s steam pump – and in its place a concrete block constructed that doubles as a fire station and police precint. More recently, the Paribas bank commissioned Bofill to construct a new building there. Aware that his hollow columns and pseudoclassical fronts were beginning to look tired, the architect conceived a pseudo high-tech building, badly proportioned and completely foreign to the spirit of the place, with a chilling effect that the proliferation of restaurants fails to conceal.
The Place Vendôme, for its part, has been endowed by the architects in charge of public buildings and national palaces with an indescribable paving scattered with sheets of brushed steel, and bunker entrances to its underground car park. The chauffeurs dusting their limousines outside Cartier, the Ritz, or Crédit Foncier wear dark suits and dark glasses, and have the appearance of bodyguards. Whenever I pass that way, I think fondly of the National Guards, canteen-women, Gavroches, armed civilians and gunners at their posts, posing in groups for the photographer in front of the debris of the column in May 1871.
Between the gardens of the Palais-Royal and the Boulevards, the district often known as the Bourse quarter is one of the most homogeneous and harmonious in old Paris. In these blocks that are called neoclassical for want of a better word, many buildings date from the reign of Louis XVI, others from the Revolutionary years – Rue des Colonnes, whose miniature neo-Grecian vocabulary, Doric columns without pediment, palm-leaf mouldings and strange windowed balustrades form such an original ensemble that great architects from all over Europe – Gilly, Soane, Schinkel – came to admire and draw it. Others in this style were constructed under the Empire, like Brongniart’s Bourse. The paradox of so grandiose a building devoted to so mundane an activity did not escape his contemporaries:
I vex myself every time I enter the Bourse, the beautiful edifice of marble, built in the noblest Greek style, and consecrated to the most contemptible business – to swindling in the public funds . . . Here, in the vast space of the high-arched hall, here it is that the swindlers, with all their repulsive faces and disagreeable screams, sweep here and there, like the tossing of a sea of egotistic greed, and where, amid the wild billows of human beings, the great bankers dart up, snapping and devouring like sharks – one monster preying on another . . .29
The Bourse quarter is crossed by three parallel streets with a more or less north-south orientation – Rue Vivienne, Rue de Richelieu and Rue Sainte-Anne – and two transversals. One of these is very ancient, Rue des Petits-Champs, which links the two royal sites of Place des Victoires and Place Vendôme.30 The other is Rue du Quatre-Septembre, one of the least successful of Haussmann’s cuttings. Under the Second Empire it went by the name of Rue du Dix-Décembre, commemorating the election of Louis Bonaparte as president of the Republic in 1848. The Society of 10 December, founded by the prince-president, recruited among the Paris lumpenproletariat caricatured by Daumier’s character Ratapoil, playing a role comparable with that of the Gaullist Service d’Action Civique in the 1960s.
For a very long time this quarter has been devoted to three activities that have resisted pretty well the changes in fashion and luxury goods: books, finance, and music. ‘Since the reign of Henri IV,’ Germain Brice tells us, the Bibliothèque Royale
had been maintained very negligently on a private house in Rue de la Harpe. In 1666 it was moved to another house on Rue Vivienne, on the orders of Jean-Baptiste Colbert . . . In 1722 it was decided to install it in the Hôtel de Nevers, or rather in the apartments that had been used for some time for the Bank, to which others had been added, built on neglected gardens that were close by, in such a way that the public would have the satisfaction of seeing it to better advantage than before, when it was scattered in a number of rooms in that shabby building on Rue Vivienne.31
From the Regency to the 1990s, the Bibliothèque – royal, imperial, or national – remained in this quadrilateral between Rue Vivienne and Rue de Richelieu. To sum up the spirit of this archaic institution, exasperating and blessed, I would choose Gisèle Freund’s photograph of Walter Benjamin at work, with his glasses and his dishevelled hair, bent over a book that he holds open with his left elbow, and taking notes with a large black pen. And as caption I would cite a connoisseur of libraries:
It may well be that in having branches of trees painted high up on the very lofty walls of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Rue de Richelieu, Henri Labrouste, an architect with a literary bent, had an intuition of this connection between reading and nature. That is in any case what one may believe in reading the remark that Benjamin wrote about this room which he knew so well, and which was basically the only true ‘apartment’ that he had in Paris: ‘When you leaf through pages below, you can hear a murmur above.’32
The quarter’s links with finance also date from the eighteenth century. For Sébastien Mercier, ‘there is more money in this single street’ – Rue Vivienne – ‘than in all the rest of the city; it is the capital’s purse’:
The major counting-houses have their offices there, in particular the Caisse d’Escompte. This is the stamping ground of the bankers, the money changers, the brokers, all who make a trade out of money . . . The whores are more financial here than in any other quarter, and never mistaken in marking out a henchman of the Bourse. These moneymen might have a greater need for reading than any others, so as not to completely lose the faculty of thought; but they don’t read at all; they provide material for those who write . . . All the inhabitants of this street are men who literally work against their fellow citizens, without feeling any sense of remorse.
The banks have now left Rue Vivienne for the Boulevards, but there are still several shops that sell coins, where gold is changed just as in Balzac’s time.
Rue de la Banque leads from the Bourse to the quarter’s other financial institution, the Banque de France. The Hôtel de La Vrillière, designed by François Mansart, was confiscated during the Revolution and the Imprimerie Nationale established there. Robespierre’s speeches were printed in runs of 400,000, and Marat needed three presses in the courtyard to print L’Ami du peuple. The famous Galerie Dorée – whose paintings by Pietro da Cortona, Tintoretto and Veronese had been transferred to the Louvre to make them accessible to the people – was used as a paper warehouse. The Banque de France took over the building from the Imprimerie in 1808,33 and like all banks, it destroyed the marvel that had been entrusted to it. Mansart’s doorway disappeared, which, according to Germain Brice, ‘was seen as his masterpiece because he had been able to preserve the regularity of the Ionic order despite the pairing of columns, which had previously been viewed as very difficult’. The gardens likewise disappeared, on which Sauval had written that they ‘offered two admirable vistas: on the one hand a large parterre surrounded by mock privets, and accompanied by a great number of statues and busts, both ancient and modern, of bronze and marble; on the other, the length of Rue des Fossés-Montmartre [now d’Aboukir], receding towards Rue Montmartre . . . Of all the palaces that Paris contains, only the Palais d’Orléans [Palais-Royal] and this possess such a long avenue, and enjoy such a rare perspective.’ In 1870 the Galerie Dorée was likewise demolished, ‘the most perfect in Paris and perhaps in the whole of France’, according to Sauval; its fifty metres ended in an overhang supported by a pendentive above Rue Radziwill.
This quarter, with only a single church (Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, where the moneymen met while the new Bourse was being constructed), has had three opera houses – without counting the Opéra Garnier, which is no distance at all as the crow flies. On the square facing the main entrance to the Bibliothèque Nationale, the site of the former Hôtel Louvois, where three streets dedicated to great ministers of the ancien régime – Richelieu, Colbert and Louvois – converge, Victor Louis built a theatre for the great actress Mme Montansier. Its entrance was a peristyle with thirteen arches and a balcony onto the street. The vestibule was supported by two ranks of Doric columns; four monumental staircases painted in white and gold served the five levels. Under a quite fallacious pretext – Chaumette to the Commune, 14 November 1793: ‘I denounce Citoyenne Montansier for having had her theatre built on Rue de la Loi [now Richelieu] in order to set fire to the Bibliothèque Nationale; English money made a large contribution to the construction of this building, and the ci-devant queen provided 50,000 écus’ – the Convention confiscated the hall and decided to move the Opéra National there, which was done on 20 Thermidor, eleven days after the fall of Robespierre. It was after attending the French premiere of Haydn’s Creation here that Bonaparte nearly met his end in Rue Saint-Nicaise, and on 13 February 1820, the Duc de Berry was struck by a dagger while coming out of a show. Just as the Château des Tournelles had been razed after Montgomery killed Henri II there with an unfortunate blow of his lance, so Mme Montansier’s hall was demolished after the death of the heir to the throne. There was a plan to erect an expiatory monument on the site, but Louis-Philippe preferred to have Visconti construct the graceful Fontaine des Fleuves. All that remains of the opera here are the names of the streets bordering the square – Cherubini, Rameau, and Lully, whose house is not far off, at the corner of Rue Sainte-Anne and Rue des Petits-Champs, ‘decorated outside with tall pilasters of a mixed order, and a few sculptures that are not badly conceived’.34
After this catastrophe, the Opéra shifted for a few months to the Salle Favart, built in the 1780s on the lands of the Duc de Choiseul, which had up to then been devoted to Italian comedy. Its odd position, with its back turned to Boulevard des Italiens and opening into the little Place Boieldieu, is explained by the desire of the actors not to be mistaken for the mountebanks of Boulevard du Temple.35 In 1821, the Opéra was moved a few metres, crossing Boulevard des Italiens to settle at the corner of Rue Le Peletier. This was the grand Opéra of the nineteenth century, the mythical hall of Rossini, Boieldieu, Meyerbeer, Donizetti and Berlioz, as well as of Balzac and Manet. It also burned down in 1873, and the Opéra spent a few months in the Bourse quarter, at the Salle Ventadour,36before it moved into the new hall built by Garnier, inaugurated in 1875 with La Juive by Scribe and Halévy.
Finance and opera were not mutually exclusive activities. West of Rue de Richelieu (‘street of business and pleasure’ in the words of Alfred Delvau), and overspilling the line of what would later be Avenue de l’Opéra, was a mound of rubble, the result among other things of the demolition of the old wall of Charles V and the Porte Saint-Honoré. This Butte des Moulins was one of the high places of Parisian prostitution. At the start of Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life, the touching character of Esther lives in Rue Langlade, a tiny alley between Rue de Richelieu and Rue Traversière-Saint-Honoré (now Molière):
These narrow streets, dark and muddy, where such industries are carried on as care little for appearances, wear at night an aspect of mystery full of contrasts. On coming from the well-lighted regions of Rue Saint-Honoré, Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, and Rue de Richelieu, where the crowd is constantly pushing, where glitter the masterpieces of industry, fashion, and art, every man to whom Paris by night is unknown would feel a sense of dread and melancholy, on finding himself in the labyrinth of little streets which lie round that blaze of light reflected even from the sky . . . Passing through them by day, it is impossible to imagine what they become by night; they are pervaded by strange creatures of no known world; white, half-naked forms cling to the walls – the darkness is alive. Between the passenger and the wall a dress steals by – a dress that moves and speaks. Half-open doors suddenly shout with laughter . . . Snatches of songs come up from the pavement . . . This medley of things makes you giddy.
The Butte des Moulins was cleared to allow Avenue de l’Opéra to connect with Rue Saint-Honoré. A photograph by Marville shows the gigantic work this involved, with the new Opéra glimpsed in the background through the dust. But the tradition of love for sale long survived in Rue des Moulins, depicted in Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous Salon, as well as Rue Chabanais, which before the Second World War still contained one of the most select brothels in Paris – hence the expression that was once very common in Le Canard enchaîné: ‘a fine chabanais’.
The majority of the great Paris arcades are found between Avenue de l’Opéra, the Place des Victoires, Rue des Petits-Champs and the Grands Boulevards. Some have been renovated, or frozen into museums, like the Passage Colbert. Others have become commercial galleries of semiluxury, like the Galerie Vivienne. But certain of them, however changed from their day of splendour, still keep a particular charm: the Galerie Véro-Dodat – where Mlle Rachel lived, and which housed the offices of Philipon’s La Caricature – with its dark woodwork and checkerboard paving;37 the Passage Choiseul, where Lemerre published the Parnassians and whose bustle still offers unexpected surprises; and especially the ancestor of them all, the Passage des Panoramas. This took its name from the two wooden turrets framing its sentry on Boulevard Montmartre. A group of painters, including Daguerre, executed panoramic views of Toulon, Tilsit, Napoleon’s camp at Boulogne, and the battle of Navarino, on immense canvases close to a hundred metres in circumference and twenty metres tall. At the centre of the rotunda, spectators were immersed in a spectacle lit up from above. Chateaubriand, in his Itinerary from Paris to Jersualem, wrote: ‘The illusion was complete, I recognized at first glance the monuments that I had indicated. No traveller was ever confronted with so rude a test; I could not wait for Jerusalem and Athens to be transported to Paris in order to convince myself of the truth or otherwise.’ The rotundas have disappeared, but the Théâtre des Variétés remains, where Offenbach had his triumphs, succeeded by Meilhac and Halévy, Lavedan, Capus, de Flers and Caillavet. It was in front of the entrance that poor Count Muffat waited for Nana, where
a perfect stream of brilliancy emanated from white globes, red lanterns, blue transparencies, lines of gas jets, gigantic watches and fans, outlined in flame and burning in the open. And the motley displays in the shops, the gold ornaments of the jeweller’s, the glass ornaments of the confectioner’s, the light-coloured silks of the modiste’s, seemed to shine again in the crude light of the reflectors behind the clear plate-glass windows, while among the bright-coloured, disorderly array of shop signs a huge purple glove loomed in the distance like a bleeding hand which had been severed from an arm and fastened to a yellow cuff.
The melancholy beauty of the Passage des Panoramas extends across Boulevard Montparnasse, through Passage Jouffroy and Passage Verdeau, as far as Rue de Provence, a long walk completely out of the rain. This was indeed the main reason behind the fashion for these arcades, from the Directory to the end of the Second Empire: you could stroll there without stepping into the famous Parisian mud, or the risk of being run down by carriages. (At the start of the twentieth century: ‘Gourmont explained to me that when he was at the Bibliothèque Nationale, he lived on Rue Richer and in bad weather could walk to the Bibliothèque, almost without experiencing it, via the Passages Verdeau, Jouffroy and des Panoramas, Rue des Colonnes, etc.’38) In 1800, Paris only had three streets provided with sidewalks: Rues de l’Odéon, Louvois, and de la Chausée-d’Antin. Elsewhere, the gutter was most commonly in the centre of the road, as in the Middle Ages. ‘With the least shower’, wrote Sébastien Mercier, ‘rickety bridges have to be put down’, in other words, boards on which street children helped pedestrians to cross in return for payment. Frochot, prefect of the Seine department under the Empire, could still lament: ‘The capital of France, adorned with admirable monuments and possessing so many useful establishments, offers those who cross it on foot only an excessively difficult and even dangerous way, which seems to have been exclusively designed for the movement of carriages.’39 Fifty years later, the picture had scarcely changed. Baudelaire wrote in his little prose poem ‘Loss of a Halo’: ‘My dear, you know my terror of horses and carriages. Just a little while ago, as I was crossing the boulevard very hastily and jumping about in the mud, through that moving chaos in which death comes galloping towards you from all sides at once . . .’ The decline in these arcades coincided with the completion of Haussmann’s first great cuttings: ‘Our wider streets and more spacious pavements have made easy the sweet flânerie impossible for our fathers except in the arcades.’40 By the end of the century the arcades were already being spoken of in the past tense: ‘The arcade, which for Parisians was a kind of walking saloon where you could smoke or chat, is now no more than a kind of shelter which you suddenly remember when it rains. Certain arcades keep a certain attraction because of this or that famous shop that is still to be found there. But it is the renown of the tenant that keeps the fashion going, or rather the death agony.’41
Though abandoned and down-at-heel, the Paris arcades are still present in twentieth-century literature – the Passage de l’Opéra in Aragon’s Paris Peasant, which gave Walter Benjamin the idea for his Passagenwerk, the extraordinary Passage des Bérésinas – actually Choiseul – described in Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan as ‘a kind of sewer’. What is stranger is that scarcely a trace of them can be found in books written in the age of their glory. To my knowledge, there is no mention of the arcades either in La Comédie humaine or in such other texts of Balzac’s as ‘Histoire et physiologie des boulevards de Paris’, nor in Nerval, nor in Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens or his prose poems, even though Poulet-Malassis, the publisher of Les Fleurs du mal, had his offices in the Passage Mirès (later Passage des Princes, before its recent demolition), nor in Les Misérablesor Eugène Sue’s Mysteries of Paris. Perhaps the arcade, such a poetic place today, was for its contemporaries simply an urban detail that, however convenient, had little intrinsic interest, any more than shopping centres, multiplex cinemas or underground car parks have for us today.
To pass from the Palais-Royal to Les Halles is to pass from the newest quarter of old Paris, as well as the most elegant and best preserved, to a quarter that is quite the opposite. The most visible border between them is Rue du Louvre, a widened version of the very ancient Rue des Poulies. Another frontier, perhaps more precise as it follows the trace of the walls of Philippe Auguste, is Rue Jean-Jacques-Rousseau, which went under the
name of Rue Plâtrière when Jean-Jacques lived here, earning his living as a music copyist. ‘His imagination’, wrote Sébastien Mercier, ‘dwelt only in the meadows, waters and woods, with their animated solitude. Yet as he approached the age of sixty, he came to live in Paris, in Rue Plâtrière, in other words the most noisy, uncomfortable, crowded and diseased of bad places.’
The destruction of the market halls in the 1970s was such a trauma that the demolitions of Baltard at the start of the Second Empire were almost forgotten.42 Yet close to four hundred buildings had been razed to make way for the new market: the central street which became Rue Baltard continued Rue du Pont-Neuf towards the Pointe Saint-Eustache; Rue des Halles, which came obliquely from the Châtelet, and Rue Rambuteau, already opened up under Louis-Philippe, but which had to be widened. The land was cleared to construct the ten metal pavilions designed by Baltard, six to the east and four to the west of the central axis.43 This was a brutal intervention right at the heart of the city, but – unlike the disaster of 1970 – it did no more than perpetuate an old tradition, by which this quarter was periodically transformed without ever losing its role or its spirit.
The first halls dated from Philippe Auguste, who had two great buildings constructed to cover a market that was already held there, in the open air, on a little hillock called Les Champeaux. These halls were surrounded by walls, and the gates closed at night; it was like entering a town. The surrounding buildings had a recessed ground floor and upper storeys supported by pillars, forming a gallery that housed shops. The grands piliers of Rue de la Tonnellerie [barrel-making] – in the line of the future Pont-Neuf – were differentiated from the petits piliers, those of the pewterers, which faced a small triangular place in front of the original small church of Saint-Eustache. This open-air market where three streets converged – Coquillière, Montmartre and Montorgeuil – was known as the Carreau des Halles, and wheat and fresh fish arrived here from the west and north. At the centre stood a fountain and a pillory that was like an inverted Bentham panopticon, ‘an old octagonal stone tower with large windows at all sides of its upper level. In the middle of this tower was a rotating wooden device pierced with holes, for placing the head and arms of fraudulent bankrupts, extortionists and other condemned criminals of this kind. They were exposed there for three market days, two hours each day; and each half hour they were made to turn round in the pillory, exposed to the insults of the people.’44
The Innocents cemetery, the largest in Paris for a number of centuries, occupied the corner between Rue Saint-Denis and Rue de la Ferronnerie.45 Philippe Auguste also had this surrounded by a wall with four gates. The dead were cast into common graves several metres deep, which could accommodate up to a thousand bodies. When one grave was full, it was closed and a new one dug. In the fifteenth century, the interior of the surrounding wall was supplemented by arched galleries with spaces above, a charnel house where bones from earlier graves were piled up to make room. On the side of Rue de la Ferronnerie, the walls of the gallery were decorated with a danse macabre, a motive found throughout France in these years. In an age when people were only too familiar with death, the cemetery was one of the most frequented places in Paris, just as the Galerie Mercière of the Palace of Justice and the gardens of the Palais-Royal were later on. It was a place to find linen-maids, public scribes, clothes merchants, sellers of books and pictures, and various kinds of charlatans.
The market had been somewhat disorderly ever since the time of Louis IX, who had authorized ‘poor women’ to retail sea fish close to the main fish market, a privilege retained until its final destruction: these are the women with their large red umbrellas that the young Haussmann encountered on his way to the Faculty of Law. Along the cemetery wall, linen-maids and old-clothes dealers were also able to present their wares free of charge. To the north of the Innocents, near the church of Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles, Rue de la Grande-Truanderie well justified its name for a number of centuries: Sauval wrote that ‘it took its name from the rogues who formerly lived here, and was not just a court of miracles, but perhaps the earliest and largest one in Paris’.
The first great ‘reformation’ of the Halles was conducted under Henri II in the early 1550s, at the same time as construction started on the church of Saint-Eustache. ‘In 1551’, wrote Gilles Corozet, ‘the Halles of Paris were entirely knocked down and rebuilt, equipped with finely worked buildings, hotels and sumptuous houses for those townspeople who took the old sites.’46 The old wall of the Halles was then demolished, and future access was through regular streets. The allocation of space was more clearly defined. On the south side, where Rues des Bourdonnais, Sainte-Opportune, des Deux-Boules and des Lavandières now run, was the hall for linen and cloth. Butchers were also to be found there, though the greater part of their activity was in the quarter of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie – the Saint-Jacques tower is a vestige of this large church – where flocks were brought to the slaughterhouses on the hoof.
To the northwest, close to where the Bourse du Commerce now stands, was the Halle aux Blés, close to the hotel that Catherine de Médicis had built by Philibert de l’Orme (‘A modern writer’, stated Germain Brice two centuries later, ‘whom one can follow on this occasion, says that, after the Louvre, there is no more noble building in the kingdom than this hotel.’) On the northeast side, towards the Pointe Saint-Eustache, was the Carreau des Halles, extending to the market for poirées: ‘Throughout the year, and every day, all kinds of vegetables and herbs are sold here, including medicinal ones, and all kinds of fruit and flowers, so that this place is a real garden, where the flowers and fruits of all seasons can be seen.’47 This arrangement – textiles and meat to the south, grain, fish and vegetables to the north – would last until Baltard’s time.
At the end of the ancien régime, the Halles were once again transformed from top to bottom. The hotel of Catherine de Médicis – Hôtel de Soissons – was demolished, and in its place Le Camus des Mézières built a new Halle aux Blés, a large circular building that Molinos covered in the 1780s with an immense wooden dome, an innovation new to Paris. The halls dating from the Renaissance were replaced by new buildings. And above all, the buildings surrounding the Innocents cemetery were pulled down, on Rues aux Fers48 (now Berger), de la Lingerie and Saint-Denis.
This destruction did away with the church of Les Saints-Innocents, but spared the adjacent fountain, a monument much admired: ‘Signor G. L. Bernini, one of the most renowned architects of the last several centuries, always very sparing with his praise, and who affected to think nothing of all the beautiful things that he saw in this city, could not prevent himself from exclaiming when he inspected this incomparable work, and declaring that he had not noticed anything like it in France.’49 The fountain of the Innocents was then given a fourth arch, completing those that Jean Goujon had already sculpted, so that it no longer had to stand against a wall, but could be placed at the centre of the new Marché des Innocents. The cemetery, in fact, was closed. In an ecological vein, Mercier wrote that ‘in this narrowly enclosed space, infections attacked the life and health of the inhabitants. The knowledge newly acquired about the nature of air [Lavoisier!] had cast light on the danger of this mephitism . . . The danger was imminent; soup and milk spoiled in a few hours in the houses close to the cemetery; wine turned acid when it was poured; and the miasmas from the corpses threatened to poison the atmosphere.’ The skeletons were then removed to the quarries to the south of Paris that became the Catacombes: ‘We can only imagine the lit torches, this immense grave opened for the first time, the many beds of corpses suddenly stirred, the debris of skeletons, the sparse lights fuelled by the planks of coffins, the moving shadows of funeral crosses, this fearsome precinct suddenly lit up in the silence of the night.’50
The Paris landscape can be understood from observing the development of the Halles site over the centuries. It is impossible to avoid a sense of regret for the ridiculous fate of this place, which, as Sauval wrote centuries ago, ‘is full of everything: vegetables, the fruit of gardens and fields, fish from river and sea, things that can assist the convenience and delights of life, and indeed all that is most excellent, exquisite and rare in land and air, arriving in Paris and taken there’. But despite such regret, we should not forget the circumstances that led to this end. Louis Chevalier observed it from the inside, hearing all the arguments brought up in bad faith in favour of destruction:
The economic argument, the most mysterious and obscure . . . was the one most often cited. And then public health. The legendary dirtiness of the Halles . . . I cite the words that I found in these speeches as they come, without trying to put them in order – as one might arrange goods for sale, vegetables for example, in harmonious constructions that, under the striking light of lamps, exude order, beauty, taste, and indeed, to be sure, cleanliness . . . To dramatize things still more, rats . . . And to complete this spectacle à la Gustave Doré, Villon’s fat prostitutes, who were certainly not very discreet, and some of whom even displayed their charms on the steps of Saint-Eustache.51
Chevalier went to see his old fellow student from the École Normale Supérieure, Georges Pompidou, whom he had dinner with from time to time: ‘It seemed to me – pure illusion, perhaps – that Pompidou, knowing how my ideas on the matter were quite the opposite of his own, cast me an inflexible and facetious glance that undoubtedly meant that with people of my sort, Parisians would still be stuck in the huts where Caesar found them.’
Once the decision was made to transfer the market to Rungis, disaster was certain. The 1960s and ’70s were an all-time low for French architecture. Major commissions went to members of the Institut de France, to whom we owe – among other things – the administrative building on Boulevard Morland with its pergola, the Palais des Congrès at Porte Maillot, the Tour Montparnasse, the Radio building, and the Faculty of Sciences at Jussieu. And in a detrimental scissors effect, corruption and collusion within semipublic companies, between the promoters and scoundrels of Parisian Gaullism, was at its height. It was not enough, therefore, to pull down Baltard’s pavilions: to make the operation profitable, the destruction had to spread far wider. The space between Rue de Turbigo and what remained of Rue Rambuteau, and the whole region between what was Rue Berger and Rue de la Ferronnerie, were replaced by office blocks and flats so aggressive in their ugliness that you have to go a long way – the far end of the Italie quarter or the Front de Seine – to find their match. On top of all this, the ‘gardens’ on the site of Les Halles also show what decrepitude French landscapists had reached in their art. Hemmed in by mutilated streets, decked out in the worst panoply of postmodernism, these ‘spaces’ transform the old itineraries of Paris into assault courses, by their complex arrangement of metal barriers, ventilation columns, walkways overlooking ditches of wretched plantations, the orifices of underground roads, and fountains clogged up with empty drink cans. As for the underground shopping mall that goes by the noble name of Forum, the most surprising thing is that its author is still classed as an architect. But the whole ensemble is so badly constructed, with such poor materials, that its ruin in the near future is inevitable. One might even say it has already begun.
The Beaubourg plateau, between Rue Beaubourg and Rue Saint-Martin, bounded to the north by Rue du Grenier-Saint-Lazare and to the south by the church of Saint-Merri, is an outcrop of Les Halles, linked to them – across Boulevard Sébastopol – by the very old streets of Rue de Leynie and Rue Aubry-le-Boucher. In the 1950s Doisneau photographed this ‘old rubbish-tip of the Halles where lorries park, where an entire nighttime population comes out to work – and sometimes to play – in the shadows, far from the pavilions dazzling with light, like actors warming up in the corridor before going on stage’.52 This immense paved promenade, this strange emptiness in such a dense region, was the work of Haussmann, though not finished until the 1930s. He assiduously destroyed the network of little streets – Rues Maubuée, de la Corroierie, des Vieilles-Étuves, du Poirier, du Maure – that had served as a tragic setting for almost all the insurrections of the first half of the nineteenth century. The minuscule Rue de Venise, opposite the Centre Beaubourg, is the sole remaining vestige of this group, which used to be known as the Cloître Saint-Merri, and which thejournées of June 1832 made famous throughout Europe. Around the Centre itself, which is now part of the Parisian landscape – good architecture always ends up triumphing over whinging critics – , semipublic companies have wrought their ravages: the ‘Horloge quarter’ with its gloomy passages, bankrupt shops, wretched gadgets and suspect smells, has the same relationship to a genuine quarter as a works canteen has to a traditional Paris bistro.
The district marked out between Les Halles and the Grands Boulevards is underpinned and organized by Rue Montmartre, which plays the role of guardian to two successive enclaves, one on each side of Rue Réaumur. Previously, it was the Montorgueil quarter that approached Rue Montmartre via Rue Tiquetonne, Rue Bachaumont built on the site of the Passage du Saumon, and Rue Léopold-Bellan, which in the eighteenth century had the lovely name of Rue du Bout-du-Monde. Despite its new guise as a pedestrian zone, Rue Montorgueil remains lively by virtue of its market, which, even if not completely genuine, plays the same protective role as Rue Mouffetard or – increasingly less so – Rue de Buci. Further afield, between Rue Réuamur and Boulevard Montmartre, is the old press quarter, which long predates rotary printing. Lucien de Rubempré, when he ‘went out one morning with the triumphant idea of finding some colonel of such light skirmishers of the press . . . arrived in the Rue Saint-Fiacre off the Boulevard Montmartre. Before a house, occupied by the offices of a small newspaper, he stopped, and at the sight of it his heart began to throb as heavily as the pulses of a youth upon the threshold of some evil haunt.’53
In the heyday of the daily press, between the end of the Second Empire and the First World War, all the major newspapers, even the less major ones, had their editorial office and printing press one above the other in the same building. Le Petit Journal was on the corner of Rue de Richelieu and Boulevard Montmartre, which had been the site of the famous Frascati’s. The ground floor was occupied by a bookshop and an immense bazaar, where an aquarium of exotic fish jostled with the works of Corot and Meissonier. In the Rue Montmartre, at the end of the century, you had La Presse, La France, La Liberté, Le Journal des voyages, and the Paul Dupont printworks, whose building housed L’Univers, Le Jockey, Le Radical and L’Aurore. Rue de Croissant was the site of La Patrie, Le Hanneton, Le Père Duchesne, Le Siècle, La République, L’Écho de l’armée andL’Intransigeant. Le Soleil was in Rue Saint-Joseph, L’Illustration in Rue de Richelieu, La Rue and Le Cri du peuple in Rue d’Aboukir. Some newspapers had crossed Boulevard Montmartre: Le Temps was in Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre, La Marseillaise in Rue Bergère, and Le Figaro at 26 Rue Drouot, in a fine neo-Gothic building. Léon Daudet recalled:
This is where I made a start in 1892 under Magnard. I signed short pointed moral tales and rather acerbic snippets as ‘a modern young man’. At the same time, Barrès, a young man himself, and as lively and fond of a joke as I was, was a contributor to this illustrious house. We were Magnard’s darlings, and he kept us in his private office while more important figures kicked their heels on the floor below, decorated with a bust of Villemessant. One day we noticed Verlaine in the cashier’s office, with his face of a retired satyr. He’d come for his money, not very much – a group of us had given him a little pension. Naturally he was drunk, and raising a fat and dirty finger in the air, he laughed and repeated with a malicious and indescribable air: ‘notwithstanding . . . however’.54
It is not so far back that you could not even imagine driving by car along Rue du Croissant, where lorries were constantly discharging spools of paper for the Imprimerie de la Presse. The crisis of the written press, the merger of titles, and the migration of printing works to the suburbs, have left behind only pale vestiges of this glorious age: the Figaro building on the corner of Rue du Mail, the Tribune building, the fine caryatids of the building of La France, journal du soir, and the plaque on the Café du Croissant recalling that ‘Jaurès was assassinated here on 31 July 1914’. Along Rues du Croissant, des Jeûneurs and Saint-Joseph, the neighbouring Sentier quarter has infiltrated into the gaps left by the press.
The Sentier is today the only Parisian quarter whose name denotes both a territory, an economic activity that was exclusive to it until recent times – the garment trade – and a social type. The recent establishment here of ‘new technologies’ has increased property prices, but has not yet shattered the Sephardic monopoly or reduced the bottlenecks, which are the worst in Paris. Other names of quarters also used to have this ability to characterize their inhabitants. From the ancien régime to the era of Les Misérables, coming from the Faubourg Saint-Marcel meant, for Sébastien Mercier, belonging to ‘the poorest section of the Paris population, the most rebellious and refractory’. Through to the 1950s, coming from Belleville and even Montmartre was almost equivalent to stating one’s skin colour. These particularisms have disappeared, except for the Sentier, which remains a quarter difficult to enter, physically isolated, socially removed, little studied or visited, famous but poorly known.55
It is often believed that Jews who arrived in France at the end of the Algerian war took over the rag trade from East European Jews, who had arrived in successive waves between the great pogroms of the early twentieth century and the 1930s. In reality, the Sentier’s textile tradition goes back much further. In the eighteenth century, the Compagnie des Indes, which imported cotton among other things, had its premises near Rue du Sentier. Local manufacturers and dyers were unhappy with this competition, and waged a veritable ‘battle of cottons’ against it. The Marquise de Pompadour, who had been born in the quarter on Rue de Cléry, and lived at 33 Rue du Sentier when she married the farmer-general Le Normant d’Étioles, backed the promotion of local cloth by using it for her interior decoration. The development of the textile industry then led to the construction of a particular kind of building, many examples of which are still to be seen. In the details, their vocabulary is that of neoclassicism, but what is unusual, and gives Rue de Cléry, Rue d’Aboukir and Rue d’Alexandre their particular physiognomy, is the density of buildings and their great height: the same building had to house the shop, the warehouse on the courtyard, the production workshops on the upper floors, as well as family accommodation. This combination of density and height is a characteristic of immigrant quarters in big cities everywhere: the Sentier’s buildings recall those of the Venice Ghetto, as well as those of another historical textile district, La Croix-Rousse in Lyon.
In the twentieth century, each historical period saw the arrival of new immigrants here. In the last twenty years, it has been Turks (often Kurds), Serbs, Southeast Asians and Chinese, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Senegalese and Malians who have come to offer their labour-power as packers or finishers, when they are not simply employed by the hour or the day to unload a lorry or clear a warehouse.
The Sentier is shaped like a square, its boundaries being Rues Réaumur and Saint-Denis, Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle and Rue du Sentier. It is divided in two by the diagonal of Rue de Cléry and Rue d’Aboukir, stretching between the Porte Saint-Denis and the Place des Victoires along a segment of the walls of Charles V whose traces are still very clear: Rue de Cléry is built on the counterscarp of the wall, and Rue d’Aboukir, very clearly lower, takes the line of the moat (it was formerly known as Rue du Milieu-du-Fossé, before being changed to Rue de Bourbon-Villeneuve, then to Aboukir in 1848).
Of the two triangles divided by this diagonal, the more frenetic is on the side of Rue Réaumur and Rue Saint-Denis. This is Paris’s ‘return from Egypt’ quarter.56 The street names (Rue du Nil, Rue d’Alexandrie, Rue de Damiette, Rue du Caire), and above all the extraordinary façade that frames the entrance to the arcade from the Place du Caire – columns with lotus capitals, incised frieze in the Egyptian style, the three heads of the goddess Hathor – are evidence of the enthusiasm of Parisians for Egypt at the time of Bonaparte’s expedition, an enthusiasm that remains today.
The Place du Caire, where Pakistanis and Malians wait with their trolleys throughout the day, occupies the former site of the city’s largest court of miracles.57 As Sauval put it:
A place of very considerable size, and a very large cul-de-sac – stinking, muddy, irregular and devoid of any paving. Previously confined to the outer limits of Paris, it is now located in one of the most badly built, dirty and out-of-the-way quarters of the city . . . like another world . . . When the ditches and ramparts of the Porte Saint-Denis were removed to the place where we see them now,58 the commissioners conducting this undertaking resolved to cut through this court of miracles with a street that would ascend from Rue Saint-Sauveur to Rue Neuve-Saint-Sauveur; but whatever they might do, they found it impossible to bring this to completion: the builders who started work on the street were beaten by the ruffians there, and these rogues threatened those in charge with an even worse fate.
What a time!
At the heart of the quarter, in the Passage du Caire which is the oldest of Paris arcades (1798), several shops, including the finest of their number, exhibit material for shop windows – mannequins, busts, gilded price-tags, plastic trees and paper fur. This activity continues the oldest tradition of this arcade, specialized from its origins in lithography for calicots, which were the streamers with which shops announced their wares.59
The opposite triangle – opposite in every sense of the word – is the section of the Sentier bordering on Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle, built on an artificial hillock made up of rubble, mud and filth of all kinds that accumulated over the centuries and was called the Butte-aux-Gravois.60 Under the League, the windmills and the small church that crowned this hill were razed in order to fortify the rampart. And it is still with the air of a wall that buildings overlook the boulevard on the side of Rue de la Lune or Rue Notre-Dame-de-Bonne-Nouvelle, while Rue Beauregard recalls the view it once offered over the country to the north, with the windmills of Montmartre in the distance.
You climb from the Porte Saint-Denis to the Butte-aux-Gravois past the strangely sharp edges of the buildings at the end of Rues de la Lune, Beauregard, and de Cléry. Further up the quarter, Rues Notre-Dame-de-Recouvrance, de la Ville-Neuve and Thorel are old streets where certain walls have low openings that are neither doors nor windows, but the displays of former shops. In Egypt, bakeries still open onto the street through small basement windows with grills that are opened when the bread is cooked.
Of the church of Notre-Dame-de-Bonne-Nouvelle, built in the seventeenth century, there only remains the bell tower, whose inclination towards Rue Beauregard denotes an unstable subsoil.61 The rest of the present building dates from the 1820s, so that it was in a nearly new church that the funeral of gentle Coralie took place in Lost Illusions, after she had been forced by Lucien de Rubempré’s escapades to leave her dwelling on Rue de Vendôme (now Béranger) for a fourth-floor apartment on Rue de la Lune.
The border between Les Halles and the Sentier on one side, and the Marais on the other, is formed by three north-south axes in close parallel: Rue Saint-Denis and Rue Saint-Martin, which are old Roman roads, and, in the middle, Haussmann’s cutting par excellence, the Boulevard de Sébastopol. The contrast between Rue Saint-Denis with its metered sex, bloody memories, and nighttime brawls, and the chaste and peaceful Rue Saint-Martin, can already be read from the boulevard, on the two gates that the Paris burgesses dedicated to ‘Ludovico Magno’ (Louis XIV). The Porte Saint-Martin with its vermicular embossage and calm bas-reliefs is as modest as a triumphal arch can be. The ‘very fine and very useless Porte Saint-Denis,’ as André Breton calls it in Nadja, presents on the contrary the political-decorative programme of absolute monarchy at its apogee:
Its main gate stands between two pyramids set into the body of the arch and decorated with falling weapons as trophies, ending with two globes with the arms of France . . . At the base of these pyramids are two colossal statues, one of which represents Holland in the figure of a woman in dismay seated on a crouched and dying lion, which holds in its paws seven arrows denoting the United Provinces. The other symmetrical statue is that of a river, holding a cornucopia and representing the Rhine. In the tympani are two Fames, one of which, by the sound of its trumpet, announces to the whole earth that the king’s army has just crossed the Rhine in the presence of his enemies . . . The bas-relief on the face of the gate facing the faubourg represents the taking of Maastricht.62
There is an interesting parallel with the ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, where the defeated Louis XIV drags himself wretchedly at the feet of William III.
Though Rue Saint-Denis is pretty down-at-heel, and not all its shops brilliant, it keeps the unity and noble vestiges of a royal road. To cite Sauval again:
In olden times Rue Saint-Denis was known for a long while simply as the Grand’Rue, as if for its excellence. In 1273, it was still referred to as magnus vicus . . . This was very fitting, for not only was it for many centuries the only main road in the quarter that we call the Ville, but also the only road leading to the Cité, which made up the whole of Paris at this time. Subsequently, it served as another triumphal way by which our kings generally made their magnificent entrances when they came to the throne, after their coronation, on their marriages, or on their victorious return from defeating their enemies; and finally, for more than three hundred years, it was the route they were carried after their death to Saint-Denis, where their mausoleums are.
The buildings bordering the street are very old, rickety and irregular towards Les Halles, with a proliferation of sex shops and peep shows, shading to fine neoclassical residences as you approach the Porte Saint-Denis.
Rue Saint-Martin, by comparison, is almost village-like. This is not just a matter of toponymy, running as it does past Saint-Martin-des-Champs and Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs. It is wide and airy, with a fine place to pause under the chestnut trees of the square facing the high wall of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. Towards the centre, you still have the narrowness of a medieval street, but greatly deteriorated. It is better to take Rue Quincampoix, which has hardly changed since John Law established his central bank there, and ‘crowds rushed into this narrow street to convert coin into paper’.63
Once you cross Rue Saint-Martin – some would rather say Rue Beaubourg – you enter the Marais.64 The appearance of this word to denote a region of Paris is relatively recent: it was not until the seventeenth century that only the zone of the Marais that was still really marshy was called by that name, around the present convergence of Rues de Turenne, Vieille-du-Temple, de Bretagne and des Filles-du-Calvaire, not far from the Cirque d’Hiver.65 In referring to the Paris quarter, marais means a region of watered gardens (maraîchers) rather than an actual marsh. If there was such a marsh, if the battle of Lutetia between Camulogène and Caesar took place around here, the fortifications of Charles V subsequently served as a dyke, and its moats as a drainage canal. This arrangement is still very visible: Boulevard Beaumarchais, built on the line of the walls, is in such a raised position that Rue des Tournelles and Rue Saint-Gilles, coming from the Marais, have to rise quite steeply in their final stretch in order to meet it. And on the other side, to descend to Rue Amelot – formerly Rue des Fossés-du-Temple – it was necessary to install a stairway.
It is strange, and has no other equivalent in Paris, how the physiognomy of the Marais today is haunted by the phantoms of three great domains, which have left their names and yet not a single stone: the Temple, the Hôtel Saint-Pol and the Hôtel des Tournelles.
The mother house of the order of Knights Templar, founded in Jerusalem in the twelfth century, was located at the far end of the region’s major north-south axis, on Rue du Temple.66 Its lands fell into two distinct sections. The heart was the enclos, a fortified quadrilateral whose boundaries would now be Rues du Temple, de Bretagne, Charlot and Béranger. At the centre of this enclosure was the keep, used as a prison for Louis XVI and his family after 10 August 1792, and later for Babeuf and Cadoudal. A large part of the enclosure was rented out to artisans, exempt here from tax as in all the religious precincts of the city.
To the south and east of the enclosure, the Templars possessed large tracts of agricultural land: this was the censive, whose limits defined a further quadrilateral, extending to Rue du Roi-de-Sicile and thus corresponding to a large section of the Marais today. The wall of Philippe Auguste cut through this censive, along the line of Rue des Francs-Bourgeois.67 On the side facing the city, these lands were gradually populated along the axes, particularly along Rue Vieille-du-Temple, which was then called Rue de la Couture-du-Temple [couture = cultivation], but on the outward side there was nothing but market gardens until the sixteenth century.
The other major axis of the Marais, its east-west orientation, was Rue Saint-Antoine, as it still is today. At the end of this, the outer limit of Paris, two royal dwellings stood face to face, the Hôtel Saint-Pol and the Hôtel des Tournelles. Saint-Pol was the creation of the Dauphin, the future Charles V. Tired of the old Palais de la Cité, where he had been forced to confront popular insurrection and Étienne Marcel, he decided to establish himself somewhere more calm. He bought buildings and gardens from the Comte d’Étampes, the archbishop of Sens, and the abbés of Saint-Maur, ending up with all of the land between Rue Saint-Antoine and the Seine, and from Rue Saint-Paul right through to Rue du Petit-Musc. Saint-Pol was not a single building, an hôtel in the usual sense, but rather a group of buildings surrounded by gardens, and linked by covered galleries that framed a succession of courtyards, a cherry orchard, a vineyard, a sauvoir for raising salmon, aviaries, and a menagerie where lions were kept, pensioners of the hotel down to its final days. (In his Vies des dames galantes, Brantôme recalled how ‘one day when François I was amusing himself by watching his lions fighting, a lady who had let her glove fall said to de Lorges: if you want me to believe that you love me as much as you swear every day, go and pick up my glove. De Lorges went down into the lions’ den, picked up the glove from among these fearsome animals, came up, threw it in the lady’s face, and since then, despite all the troubles and pains that she took towards him, never wanted to see her again.’)
From the main gate of the Hôtel Saint-Pol you could see on the other side of Rue Saint-Antoine the gateway of the Hôtel des Tournelles, which, according to Piganiol de La Force, ‘took its name from the number of towers by which it was surrounded’. In the 1420s, under the English occupation, the Duke of Bedford, acting as regent, made his residence in a small hotel that was situated between Rue de Birague and the Impasse Guéménée. ‘John, Duke of Bedford, stayed there during the disturbances of the Bourguignons and the Armagnacs’, wrote Sauval. ‘He extended it and had it magnificently built, so that it has since been a royal residence, which our kings have preferred to Saint-Pol, and where Charles VII, Louis XI, Charles VIII, Louis XII and François I all stayed for long periods.’ Piganiol de La Force relates that ‘this palace counted several courtyards, a number of chapels, twelve galleries, two parks and six large gardens, as well as a labyrinth known as the Daedalus, and a further garden or park of nine acres, which the Duke of Bedford had his gardener plough up’.68 After its return to the French crown, the hotel was surrounded by a large park, where François I raised camels and ostriches, and which gave its name to Rue du Parc-Royal. The park was also used for equestrian sports, but tournaments as such were held on Rue Saint-Antoine, which was widened between the two hôtels, a layout that still exists alongside the statue of Beaumarchais.
The way in which these three groups of buildings disappeared goes a long way to explain the contemporary Marais. The Hôtel Saint-Pol was the first to go: François I, always short of money and wanting to renovate the Louvre and make his residence there, decided to sell it off as building plots. ‘There is no longer anything remaining of these buildings, which included a large number of hôtels, such as the Hôtel de La Pissotte, the Hôtel de Beautreillis, the Hôtel-de-la-Reine, the Hôtel Neuf (known as the Hôtel d’Étampes), etc. And it is on their ruins that the streets were laid out that are now those of the Saint-Paul quarter as far as the ditches of the Arsenal, and preserve the names of the buildings that were there at the time of the Hôtel Saint-Pol, such as Rues de Beautreillis, des Lions, du Petit-Musc and de la Cerisaie.’69 Like all of the Marais that was built in the Renaissance, this part of the Saint-Paul quarter, despite the street names that seem taken from an illuminated manuscript, was designed in a modern fashion: the plots are regular, and the streets laid out in a grid, in contrast with the medieval lattice beside the Hôtel de Sens, Rue des Nonnains-d’Hyères and Rue de l’Ave-Maria.
The destruction of the Hôtel des Tournelles was not provoked by financial difficulties but by an accident: in 1559, while a tournament was being held in Rue Saint-Antoine to celebrate the marriage of the princesses, Henri II was mortally wounded in front of the palace by the blow of a lance wielded by Gabriel de Montgomery, ‘the fairest man and the best man-at-arms of that time’, according to Sauval. Catherine de Médicis, his widow, decided to raze the hotel to the ground, and moved into her new hotel close to the Halles. The abandoned park was for many years the site of a horse market.
During this time, however, in the more central part of the Marais, a new quarter was constructed between the two fortifications – the wall of Philippe Auguste around the central and denser part of the city, and the wall of Charles V, which ran through open fields. Once the ‘false gates’ of the old fortifications were crossed, you entered a region where gardeners peacefully cultivated their cabbages and leeks. This was a paradise for property developers, as demand was strong in the first half of the sixteenth century, before the Wars of Religion. François I set the example by dividing up the Hôtel de Tancarville, whose lands were located on each side of the wall of Phillipe Auguste, at the corner of Rue Vieille-du-Temple and Rue des Rosiers. The religious communities – in particular Saint-Catherine-du-Val-des-Écoliers, which owned the wide fields of Sainte-Catherine, towards Rue Payenne – likewise sold off their lands for building.70 The movement extended along Rue Barbette and Rue Elzévir. A modern quarter was built there, much influenced by the new taste that came in from Italy, the Hôtel Carnavalet being a sumptuous example among the buildings that remain.
This surge, held back for a long while by the Wars of Religion, the League, and the terrible siege, got under way again when Henri IV entered Paris in 1594. Through the voice of the provost marshal, he proclaimed that ‘his intention is to spend years in this city, and live there like a true patriot, to make this city beautiful, tranquil, and full of all the conveniences and ornaments that will be possible, desiring the completion of the Pont-Neuf and the restoration of fountains . . . even desiring to make a whole world of this city and a wonder of the world, in which respect he displays towards us a love that is more than fatherly’.71
What was then lacking in the Marais – and in Paris more generally – was a large square ‘for the inhabitants of our city, who are most tightly pressed in their houses owing to the multitude of people who arrive from all directions’.72 Henri IV and Sully had the idea of constructing this Place Royale (now the Place des Vosges) on the Parc des Tournelles, which had been neglected, being far from the centre. And to kill two birds with one stone, the king decided to establish on the north side of the square a manufactory for silk sheets embroidered with gold and silver thread, a luxury product that had up till then been imported from Milan:
And indeed in 1605 those who were to undertake these manufactories had put up a large building that occupied all of one side. The king for his part marked out there a large place some seventy-two yards square which he desired to be known as the Place Royale, and he gave sites on the three other sides for one gold écu in tax (cens), in return for covering them with pavilions according to the elevations to be supplied to them. As well as this, he had the streets leading to them widened and began at his own expense both the royal pavilion, placed at the end of Rue Royale [now de Birague], and the pavilion of the queen, placed at the end of Rue du Parc-Royal . . . Each pavilion consisted of three storeys, all built in brick, with stone arches, piers, embrasures, entablatures and pillars, all covered with a slate roof in two sections, ending in a ridge garnished with lead. The red of the brick, the white of the stone and the black of the slate and the lead made such an agreeable mixture or shading of colours . . . that it has since been used even for the houses of the bourgeois.73
Elegant shops were established under the arches, but there were also bawdy houses (tripots), as later at the Palais-Royal, and it became a favourite place for prostitutes.74 The centre of the square, inaugurated by Louis XIII at the great festival of 1612, was flat, sandy, and clear; it was used as a ground for equestrian events, tournaments, tilting, and sometimes also for duels, some of which have remained famous.75
Not far from here, Henri IV and Sully had conceived another great site, a kind of administrative complex that would house the Grand Conseil as well as other bodies. There was an opportunity to be had, as the grand prior of the Temple was dividing up hiscensive. The projected ‘Place de France’ was a semicircle whose diameter – close to two hundred metres – would coincide with the fortifications. A new royal gate, between Rue du Pont-aux-Choux and Rue des Filles-du-Calvaire, opened towards the road to Meaux and Germany. Six streets radiated from the place in the direction of the city, bearing the names of those provinces that were seats of sovereign courts – the first example, Sauval says, of streets named geographically. The design of diverging roads from a city gate was fashionable at the time, after the trident from the Porta del Popolo in Rome.76 The project came to an end with the death of Henri IV, but it persists in the name of certain streets (Poitou, Picardie, Saintonge, Perche, Normandie . . .), which, even if they do not correspond to the original plan, perpetuate its toponomy. The initial design is also recalled by the radial course of Rue de Bretagne, and especially the semicircle formed by Rue Debelleyme. There also remains the market of Les Enfants-Rouges,77 intended to supply these large establishments. Ravaillac had a greater influence than is generally imagined on the Paris cityscape, for if this great project had been concluded, the centre of gravity would have been permanently shifted eastward.
Since the timescale of places is neither continuous nor homogeneous, a quarter can suddenly gather speed, so that events that previously took two centuries now happen in twenty years. With the Place Royale and its surroundings, this was the first time that a Paris quarter was specifically designed for what was not yet called flânerie, a ‘promenade’ for a society that was reviving after the nightmare of the Wars of Religion. There was no peace as yet: in 1636, the very time when the fashion for Spain was at its height and Le Cid was having its premiere in Paris, the Spanish army had reached Corbie, three days’ march from the city; it was a good while yet until the danger was allayed, after the battle of Rocroi. Nor was there religious tolerance: in 1614, in a memorandum from the Ville de Paris to the États Généraux, the desire was expressed that Jews, Anabaptists and others not professing the Catholic faith, or the reformed religion ‘tolerated by the edicts’, should be put to death.78 All the same, a kind of love affair developed between the new quarter and a certain cultivated aristocracy, an open-minded haute bourgeoisie, and an intellectual and artistic milieu that was rapidly expanding. One of Corneille’s first plays was La Place Royale (1635); it did not actually deal with the place itself, but it is revealing that he chose this title for a play about fashionable youth.79 Ten years later, when the valet of Dorante, Corneille’s eponymous Liar, is charged with inquiring about a pleasant encounter in the street: ‘The coachman’s tongue has done its duty well/The fairest of the two, he says, is my mistress,/She lives on the place, and her name is Lucrèce.’/ ‘What place?’ ‘Royale, and the other lives there too.’ Paul Scarron, leaving the quarter, said his Adieux aux Marets et à la place Royale: ‘Farewell then until after the fair/When you shall see me return/For who can stand living for long /So far from the Place Royale?/Farewell fine place where only live/Persons of true elite,/And farewell such illustrious place/The lustre of an illustrious city.’
It was in the Marais that the intelligentsia of baroque Paris held their gatherings. In Rue de Béarn, behind the Place Royale, the new convent of the Minimes had just been completed, with a chapel decorated by Vouet, La Hyre and Champaigne, and a doorway that was seen as François Mansart’s masterpiece. Père Mersenne – ‘a savant in whom there was more than in all the universities together’, as Hobbes said of him in his own Paris exile – gave hospitality to Descartes for a number of months, before his move to Holland. Mersenne also received Gérard Desargues, a geometer who specialized in the design of staircases, along with his young student, Blaise Pascal, who lived not far away on Rue de Touraine. This was a curious establishment, in the lead not just in the struggle against misguided thinkers – the ‘confrérie des bouteilles’, Théophile de Viau, Saint-Amant, Guez de Balzac – but also in scientific research, with a library of 25,000 volumes. At the Hôtel de Montmort, on Rue du Temple, you could meet Huygens, Gassendi (who bequeathed Galileo’s personal telescope to Hubert de Montmort, counsellor to the Parlement), or Claude Tardy, the doctor who introduced into France William Harvey’s new ideas on the circulation of the blood and the role of the heart: there was a passionate controversy in the salons between the ‘circulationists’ and the ‘anti-circulationists’ who defended Galien’s system. Every Monday, Lamoignon de Malesherbes would invite writers to his hôtel on Rue Pavée80 – Racine, Bouleau, La Rochefoucauld, Bourdaloue – often also joined by Guy Patin, doctor to the king and professor at the Collège de France.
Women held salons as well. Some of them were what would later be called demi-mondaines: Marion Delorme, whose salon was on the Place Royale, and Ninon de Lenclos, whose residence on Rue des Tournelles was the rendezvous of the ‘libertines’, i.e., freethinkers, though this did not prevent her from having among her regulars La Rochefoucauld and Mme de Lafayette, Boileau, Mignard, and Lully. Legend has it that Molière read his Tartuffe here for the first time, before La Fontaine and Racine, who had come with the actress La Champmeslé. Mme de Sévigné wrote to her daughter on 1 April 1671, concerned about her son: ‘This Ninon is a real danger! If you knew how dogmatic she was about religion, it would horrify you . . . we are making every effort, Mme de la Fayette and I, to extricate him from such a dangerous commitment.’ Virtuous intellectuals could also be found: Mlle de Scudéry, a précieuse if ever there was one, was at home every Saturday in her small hôtel on Rue de Beauce, its courtyard adorned with an acacia – still rare – and an aviary. This was where she wrote, along with her brother, Le Grand Cyrus and Clélie, illustrated with the famous Carte du Tendre. Mme de Sévigné spent her entire Parisian life in the Marais. She was born in the house of her grandfather, on the corner of the Place Royale and Rue de Birague. As an orphan, she lived at her uncle’s, first on Rue Barbette and then on Rue des Francs-Bourgeois. After her marriage to Saint-Gervais, she established herself on Rue des Lions. Soon widowed, she moved with her two children to Rue de Thorigny, opposite the Venetian embassy, then to Rue des Trois-Pavillons (now Elzévir), and finally to the Hôtel Carnavalet: ‘It is an admirable affair, we shall all stay here and enjoy the fine air. Since it is impossible to have everything, we shall have to dispense with parquet floors and fashionable little stoves; but at least we have a fine courtyard, a beautiful garden, and nice little blue girls who are most convenient.’81
Each major residence on the Place Royale, wrote Scarron, hid ‘its sumptuous interior, its wondrous panelling, its rich ornaments and priceless paintings, its rare cabinets, canopies and balustrades’. The Duc de Richelieu, great-nephew of the cardinal, built up in his hôtel (now no. 21) a collection with more than ten paintings by Poussin, including Eliezer and Rebecca – subject of a famous lecture that Philippe de Champaigne gave to the Académie – and Moses Rescued from the Waters, which was later bought by Louis XIV and is now in the Louvre. Bernini, a great admirer of Poussin, visited the duke during his stay in Paris, as he would visit Chantelou to see the Seven Sacraments. After selling the Poussins, the duke bought several works by Rubens, including The Massacre of the Innocents and The Lion Hunt which is now in Munich. President Amelot de Gournay lived at no. 10. His son’s tutor was Roger de Piles, whose theoretical writings lay at the origin of a famous controversy between the supporters of Poussin – the majority of the Académie – and those of Rubens, defenders of colouring who were denounced as corruptors of the visual arts, as they had ‘introduced by their plotting all kinds of libertine painting that were quite released from all the constraints that formerly rendered this art so admirable and difficult’.82
Many artists chose to live in the Marais, close to their secular or religious patrons. There were painters such as Quentin Varin, whose workshop was on Rue Saint-Antoine at the corner with Rue de Birague; Claude Vignon, on the same street near the Visitation; La Hyre, who lived on Rue d’Angoumois (now Charlot) and painted a Nativity for the church of his neighbours, the Marais Capuchins, at the corner of his street and Rue du Perche. A little later, all the great names of French architecture were concentrated in the Marais: François Mansart, who had a very simple house built on Rue Payenne (now no. 5); his nephew by marriage, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, who lived on Rue des Tournelles in an hôtel decorated by Mignard, Le Brun et La Fosse; Libéral Bruant, on Rue Saint-Louis (now de Turenne);83 Le Vau in the same street, and Jacques II Gabriel on Rue Saint-Antoine.
The Marais quarter had its theatre, the most popular in Paris, challenging the Comédiens du Roi of the Hôtel de Bourgogne. It was inaugurated in 1629 in a tennis court on the Impasse Berthaud – behind the Centre Beaubourg – with Mélite ou les Fausses Lettres, the work of a young and unknown provincial, Pierre Corneille. The success was immediate, thanks to the talent of the troupe’s leading actor, Montdory. When the theatre moved to another tennis court, the Maretz on Rue Vieille-du-Temple,84 Montdory would interpret the title role of Le Cid. After the first few performances, he wrote to Guez de Balzac: ‘Le Cid has charmed the whole city. He is so good-looking that the most well-mannered ladies have fallen in love with him, their passion breaking out several times in the public theatre . . . The crowd at our doors was so large that the nooks and crannies of the theatre that usually served as places for pages became favoured spots for blue-ribonned guests, and the stage has regularly been bedecked with knights of the Order.’85
In the second half of the seventeenth century, the momentum of baroque Paris quietened down, and the great hôtels in cut stone that were subsequently constructed in the Marais, with courtyard in front and garden behind, no longer followed Italian fantasies. The Hôtel d’Aumont on Rue de Jouy (architect: Le Vau), the Hôtel Guénégaud de Brosses on Rue des Archives (François Mansart), the Hôtel de Beauvais on Rue Saint-Antoine (Le Pautre), the Hôtel Amelot de Bisseuil on Rue Vieille-du-Temple (Cottard), the Hôtel d’Avaux on Rue du Temple (Le Muet), the Hôtel Salé on Rue de Thorigny (de Bourges): everything here now represented the classical French hôtel.
Towards the end of Louis XIV’s reign, however, Farmers-General and councillors of the Parlement, marshals, dukes and peers of France, felt hemmed in by the dense construction of the Marais and began to spread out into the Faubourg Saint-Honoré and especially the Faubourg Saint-Germain, where there was still a great deal of land to build on. This migration had definite consequences on the city’s physiognomy, with the elegant residential sector shifting in the space of a few years from east to west, where it would remain. Balzac was aware of this change many years later: ‘The noblesse began to find themselves out of their element among shopkeepers, left the Place Royale and the centre of Paris for good, and crossed the river to breathe freely in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, where palaces arose already around the great hôtel built by Louis XIV for the Duc de Maine – the Benjamin among his legitimate offspring.’86 The decline of the Marais was completed by the end of the ancien régime, by which time Mercier could write inLe Tableau de Paris:
Here at least you rediscover the century of Louis XIII, both in its manners and in its outdated opinions. The Marais is to the brilliant quarter of the Palais-Royal what Vienna is to London. It is not poverty that holds sway there, but the full complement of old prejudices: those with a modest fortune take refuge there. That is where you find grumbling old men, gloomy enemies of all new ideas, and highly imperious ladies who denounce without having read them those authors whose names they have heard of: thephilosophes are referred to here as ‘people to be burned’.
During the Revolution, emigration emptied this quarter of such aristocracy as still remained. In La Comédie humaine this is where Balzac situates the déclassés, the worthy, isolated and humble misfits. As early as the ‘Prolegomena’ to his Treatise on Elegant Life, he explains how ‘the petty retailer, the second lieutenant, the sub-editor . . . if they do not save like casual workers in order to ensure their board and lodging in old age, the hope of their bee-like life scarcely goes beyond this: possession of a very cold room on the fourth floor, in Rue Boucherat’ (now de Turenne). Comte Octave, in Honorine, who ‘occupied one of the highest legal appointments’, led a life of ‘hermit-like simplicity’, as ‘his house was in the Marais, on Rue Payenne, and he hardly entertained’. Cousin Pons, Balzac’s most important Marais figure, whose character and condition were identified with the quarter, lived on Rue de Normandie, ‘one of the old-fashioned streets that slope towards the middle; the municipal authorities of Paris as yet have laid on no water supply to flush the central channel which drains the houses on either side, and as a result a stream of filthy ooze meanders among the cobblestones, filters into the soil, and produces the mud peculiar to the city’.87
Fortunate to escape Haussmann’s demolitions – by a hair: the baron planned to extend Rue Étienne-Marcel as far as Boulevard Beaumarchais – the Marais remained out of fashion until the mid twentieth century. In the immediate postwar years it was still a poor quarter, the courtyards of its great hôtels clogged up with vans, lean-tos with galvanized metal roofs, piles of pallets, and carts with iron-trimmed wooden wheels. The years of de Gaulle, Malraux and Pompidou soon put paid to this anachronism. Property developers realized the profit they could make on these edifices – so historical, so down-at-heel, and inhabited by a population so little able to defend itself. In the space of twenty years the Marais became unrecognizable, and the old hôtels – façades scrubbed down, outlines tidied up, door frames plasticized, security and parking assured – are now in the hands of a well-off bourgeoisie, an opposite change to that which saw their forerunners emigrate west en masse some two centuries earlier.
The boundaries assigned to the Marais have fluctuated over the years. In the eighteenth century, it stretched as far as the city limits of the time. For Piganiol de la Force, it was ‘bordered on the east by the ramparts and Rue du Mesnil-Montant [now Oberkampf], to the north by the further reaches of the Temple quarter and the Courtille [Boulevard de Belleville], to the west by the main street of the same faubourgs [Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple]’, and thus included a large part of what is now the 11th arrondissement. Today, what is known as the Marais denotes everything between the Boulevards, Rue Beaubourg and the Seine, with a little inset along Rue de la Verrerie for what remains of the Hôtel de Ville quarter. But the dual origin of the Marais – the artisanal north around the Temple enclosure, the aristocratic south around the royal hôtels – has left such deep traces that it is almost an abuse of language to call both by the same name. Though the quarter dates almost entirely from the same short epoch, it includes so many local particularities that it can only be read as an archipelago.
Artisanal Marais begins to the north of the axis formed by the sequence of Rues Saint-Gilles, du Parc-Royal, de la Perle, des Quatre-Fils, des Haudriettes and Michel-le-Comte. It is divided in three by the ‘T’ formed by Rue de Bretagne and Rue du Temple. First, between Rue de Bretagne and the Place de la République, on the site of the Temple enclosure, there is the typical municipal equipment of the Third Republic: mairie, police station, square and market, represented here both by the Enfants-Rouges and the Carreau du Temple, with a very old tradition as an old-clothes market.88 Second, set amidst Rue de Bretagne, Rue du Temple and the boulevard is a labyrinth of short and narrow streets, running in all directions as if the abandonment of the projected Place de France had left chaos behind. Rue Charlot and Rue de Saintonge, parallel straight lines, are superimposed on this anarchic lattice. ‘Rue Charlot and all the surrounding streets,’ wrote Sauval, ‘were bordered with houses by Claude Charlot, a poor peasant from the Languedoc whom fortune nourished, fattened and stuffed until, as adjudicator-general of the gabelles and the five great tax-farms, and lord of the duchy of Fronta, he fell down and died in the mud out of which fortune had pulled him.’ The old metal trade, surviving alongside pleasant galleries of contemporary art, occupies these calm streets in which signs in gilded type proclaim the activities of another age – etching and embossing, hallmarking and stamping, plating, electrolysis, low-fusion porcelain, lost wax and polishing. Third, in one of those contrasts that make for the quarter’s charm, on the other side of Rue du Temple and through to Rue Beaubourg is the busy district of clocks and watches, jewellery, and leatherwork. Jews and Asians coexist peacefully on the territory of the Revolutionary section of the Gravilliers, fiefdom of the Enragés, ‘hot and vehement souls, men who enlighten, lead and subjugate’, as Jacques Roux wrote to Marat.89 The courtyards of Rues Volta, au Maire, des Gravilliers and Chapon are still those of the old Marais: gates wide open, vans and trolleys, piles of boxes, bottlenecks and car horns, all the clinical signs of life.
The southern part of the quarter, the Marais of kings, business leaders, historians and tourists, is divided and organized by Rue Saint-Antoine, one of the finest in Paris – a genuine city of streets, which cannot be said of New York, Tokyo, or even Rome, which is rather made up of alleys and squares. Rue Saint-Antoine stands at the balancing point between regularity, in the alignment of its buildings, its width and its harmony of colours, and tension, in its double curve and the way it widens out at the end. (For streets, there is no beauty without regularity: Rue des Archives, broken up by constant variations in width, missing teeth and heteroclite additions, does not stand comparison with its contemporary neighbour, the very regular Rue du Temple. Conversely, regularity without tension can become boring if overly long, like the arcades on Rue de Rivoli or Boulevard Magenta. Beauty in strict modular repetition is a particular feature of short streets, such as – however different in style – Rues du Cirque, des Colonnes and de Marseilles, or Rue des Immeubles-Industriels which so intrigued Walter Benjamin.)
The curves of Rue Saint-Antoine (there is more than one curve, as Rue François-Miron is historically its initial segment) are punctuated by two domes that for me – and certainly many others – are not just mere silhouettes but old friends. That of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, the church of the Jesuits, is the oldest large dome in Paris, still a little clumsy, too small on a too large base, giving the church the charm of an adolescent run to seed, particularly its back view from Rue des Jardins-Saint-Paul.90 The Visitation, designed by François Mansart, a remnant of the convent of the Visitandines that stretched right to the gate of the Bastille, is on the contrary the most perfect cupola on a centred plan that can be found in Paris, along with Libéral Bruant’s chapel of the Salpêtrière.
The Marais archipelago extends on either side of Rue Saint-Antoine. On the river side are the silent streets of the Saint-Paul quarter. The other side has, from east to west, the Place des Vosges, the great museum island91 and the Jewish island. ‘The Rue de la Juiverie [since 1900 Rue Ferdinand-Duval] is thus called because in former times the Jews lived here, before they were expelled from France by Philippe Auguste for their excessive usury, and the execrable impieties and crimes they committed against Christians’, wrote Abbé Du Breuil.92 Sauval was of a different opinion, noting that ‘as regards the streets of this Jewish quarter, some are very narrow, crooked and dark . . . All the houses bordering on them are tiny, tall, poorly built, and similar to the Jewish quarters in Rome, Metz or Avignon.’ The Jewish quarter today is prosperous and lively, despite the pressure of fashionable boutiques on the one hand and gay bars on the other. And the inevitable disappearance of the old Bundists with their caps has not prevented the civilization ofpickelfleish and gefiltefish from resisting as best it can that of the falafel.93
On the Right Bank, Old Paris forms an approximate semicircle. Its circumference is defined by the arc of the Boulevards, and its diameter by a narrow band along the Seine, between Rue de Rivoli and the quais, from the colonnade of the Louvre to the Hôtel de Ville – or, if you like, from the flamboyant Gothic of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois to the classical façade of Saint-Gervais. This band is a special case, where the successive layers, instead of resonating together like harmonics, as they do elsewhere, form a discordant and confused ensemble. This is not for want of fine buildings, picturesque details, or historic memories, but these are lost in such a heteroclite patchwork that the general sense is no longer legible. You have a hotchpotch of Haussmannian cuttings that are unfinished (Avenue Victoria) or ravaged by the feeders and entries of underground roads (Rue du Pont-Neuf, Rue des Halles), squares that have been gutted (the Place du Châtelet, still ravishing in 1860 on a Marville photograph – quite small, and almost closed around its fountain) or ‘improved’ in a ridiculous fashion (the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, the Square de la Tour Saint-Jacques), old streets massacred by renovation (Rue Bertin-Poirée) or by car traffic (Rue des Lavandières-Sainte-Opportune, where a roundabout disguised as a Zen garden draws in all the traffic from Rue Saint-Honoré). Even Haussmann, generally rather content with himself, confusedly felt there was something wrong, which he attributed to the difficulties of the terrain: ‘The difference in level across the whole quarter around the Place du Châtelet, caused by the slope to the east of the hill crowned by the Tour Saint-Jacques, and by the rise to the west of the Quai de la Mégisseries and its surroundings, required the demolition of all the houses from Rue des Lavandières to Rue des Arcis [now Saint-Martin], between the line of the quais and Rue de Rivoli’, a manner of justification that is unusual in the Mémoires of a man who called himself an ‘artist of demolition’.
Yet the worst was avoided: there was a real threat that the extension to Rue de Rivoli would start from the middle of the Louvre colonnade. ‘War on the demolishers!’ cried Hugo in La Revue des Deux Mondes on 1 March 1832: ‘The vandals have their own characteristic idea. They want to run a great, great, great road right across Paris. A road of a whole league! What magnificent devastation they could wreak! Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois would be in the way, the admirable tower of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherieperhaps too. But no matter! A road of a league! . . . a straight line from the Louvre to the Barrière du Trône!’ Haussmann, being a Protestant, rejected the project, fearing that the destruction of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois would be interpreted as a revenge for Saint Bartholemew’s Night, the signal for which, it is said, was given by the bells of that church.
The Grands Boulevards
‘The life of Paris, its physiognomy, was in 1500 on Rue Saint-Antoine; in 1600 on the Place Royale; in 1700 on the Pont-Neuf; in 1800 in the Palais-Royal. All these places were the Boulevards of their day! The earth was impassioned there, as the asphalt is today under the feet of the stockbrokers on the steps of Café Tortoni.’ When Balzac wrote his ‘Histoire et physiologie des boulevards de Paris’ in 1844, it was nearly ten years since the Palais-Royal had gone out of fashion, ten years since the Paris of Manon Lescaut, Adolphe, and Henri de Marsay had disappeared, along with its Argand lamps, half-pay officers, the vogue for Cherubini and the successes of Byron, Walter Scott and Fenimore Cooper. In a movement of taste that accompanied dandies, whores, journalists and gourmets in their migration to the Boulevards, a new romanticism made its appearance, that of Berlioz, Frédérick Lemaître and La Fanfarlo. But in one of the thousand and one ways that facts have of messing up the categories of art history, it so happens that the Boulevards, the great stage of Parisian Romanticism, are a long procession of neoclassical architecture – a paradox to match that which the clever Lousteau explained to Lucien de Rubempré around 1830:
[O]ur great men are ranged in two hostile camps. The Royalists are ‘romantics’, the Liberals are ‘classics’. The divergence of taste in matters literary and divergence of political opinion coincide; and the result is a war with weapons of every sort, double-edged witticisms, subtle calumnies and nicknames à outrance, between the rising and the waning glory, and ink is shed in torrents. The odd part of it is that the Royalist-romantics are all for liberty in literature, and for repealing laws and conventions; while the Liberal-classics are for maintaining the unities, the Alexandrine, and the classical theme.94
From the Madeleine to the Bastille, there remain none of the legendary dwellings built on the ramparts at the end of the ancien régime, with their view over the city on one side and across market gardens on the other: nothing of Beaumarchais’ house and its garden designed by Belanger, where Mme de Genlis came to witness the demolition of the Bastille along with the children of the Duc d’Orléans, nothing of the Pavillon de Hanovre built for the fine suppers of the Maréchal de Richelieu – ‘the fairy pavilion’, Voltaire called it – nothing of the hôtel built by Ledoux for the Prince de Montmorency on the corner of the Chaussée-d’Antin, whose entablature bore, as a homage to Palladio, the statues of eight high officials of the Montmorency family, ‘heroic virtues that vandalism has destroyed, a deep impression that time does not wipe out’.95 On Boulevard de la Madeleine it was still possible until recently to admire the two rotundas framing the beginning of Rue Caumartin, one of the hôtel of the Duc d’Aumont, and the other of the hôtel of the Farmer-General Marin de la Haye – its roof formerly boasting a hanging garden in which, according to Hillairet, two small Chinese bridges crossed a stream that, after forming an island, supplied water to the dining rooms and baths of the building. They have just been newly ‘façadisés’, which is perhaps worse than being demolished.96
But despite the destruction, the length of the Boulevards remains a great walking catalogue of Parisian neoclassical architecture from Louis XVI to Louis-Philippe, especially on the inner side, that of the odd numbers (the southern side, if you prefer), whose owners had front seats on the promenade. Many even had terraces built that overlooked the Boulevards’ animation.97 By turns you have pure Louis XVI (Hôtel Montholon on Boulevard Poissonière, with its six colossal Ionic columns supporting the third-storey balcony), the style of the Empire and Restoration, more severe and archaeological, and that of the July monarchy, decorated and smiling, with its great apartment blocks built for investment, looking like Italian palaces, where you can smell the eclecticism that lurked behind the taste for antiquity.98
If it is hard to imagine the seductive power of the Boulevards in the time of their splendour, this is because their sequence was then one of unbroken rhythmic scansion. Despite their length, they had a continuity, something of an enclosed space, that had made for the success of the Place Royale and the Palais-Royal. They were like the succession of rooms in an immense palace, each with its décor, timetable, and habits. But from Haussmann through to Poincaré this urban intimacy was hollowed out. The Opéra Garnier and its roundabout, the junction of Boulevards Haussmann and Montmartre creating the shapeless ‘Richelieu-Drouot’ intersection, and the brutal implantation of the Place de la République where the Faubourg du Temple and the Boulevard du Crime meet, replaced these subtle caesuras with gaping empty spaces. When the father of Lucien Leuwen, that exquisite patron of the Opéra dancers, ‘strolled on the boulevard, his lackey gave him a cloak to pass in front of Rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin’. What precautions would he have had to take to cross the Place de la République!
The segmentation of the Boulevards has become very sharp. Between the Madeleine and the Opéra you have the big hotels and travel agencies; from the Opéra to Richelieu-Drouot the banks. Then, until the République, a portion that, whilst rather the worse for wear, is certainly the closest in spirit to the original Boulevards. Finally, the stretch between République and Bastille is the domain of motor scooters, photography and music, which may well have its charm and its special places, but is no longer really part of the Boulevards.
As a point of inflection in time, the beginning of the Boulevards’ long downward descent, the image that comes to me is that of the death of Nana in a room of the Grand-Hôtel, on Boulevard des Capucines:
‘Come, it’s time we were off,’ said Clarisse. ‘We shan’t bring her to life again. Are you coming, Simonne?’ They all looked at the bed out of the corners of their eyes, but they did not budge an inch. Nevertheless, they began getting ready and gave their skirts various little pats. Lucy was again leaning out of the window. She was alone now, and a sorrowful feeling began little by little to overpower her, as though an intense wave of melancholy had mounted up from the howling mob. Torches still kept passing, shaking out clouds of sparks, and far away in the distance the various bands stretched into the shadows, surging unquietly to and fro like flocks being driven to the slaughterhouse at night. A dizzy feeling emanated from these confused masses as the human flood rolled them along – a dizzy feeling, a sense of terror and all the pity of the massacres to come. The people were going wild; their voices broke; they were drunk with a fever of excitement which sent them rushing toward the unknown ‘out there’ beyond the dark wall of the horizon. ‘À Berlin! à Berlin! à Berlin!’
The Boulevards was where the novelties of the modern city appeared one by one: the first Paris public transport line – the famous Madeleine-Bastille – the urinals, the cab ranks, the newspaper kiosks, the Morris columns. But the great transformation that had its birth in the Passage des Panoramas in 1817 and spread out along the Boulevards in the 1840s was gas lighting. We can grasp in Baudelaire the change from Les Fleurs du mal, lit by unsteady oil lamps (‘By the light of lamps flickering in the wind/ Prostitution lights up in the streets’) to Paris Spleen, illuminated by gas (‘The café was sparkling. The gaslight itself sent forth all the ardour of a debut and lit with all its force walls blinding in their whiteness . . .’).99 It was gas that made it possible to live the darkest hours of the night. ‘Cross the line that marks the axis of Rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin and Rue Louis-le-Grand, and you’ve entered the domain of the crowd. Along this Boulevard, on the right side especially, it’s all sparkling shops, impressive displays, gilded cafés, permanent illumination. From Rue Louis-le-Grand to Rue de Richelieu the flood of light that shines from the shops enables you to read a newspaper while walking along’, wrote Julien Lemer in Paris au gaz, published by Le Dentu in 1861.100 At closing time, ‘on the Boulevards, inside the cafés, the gas mantles of the chandeliers very quickly blow out into darkness. Outside you hear the brouhaha of chairs being stacked in fours on the marble tables.’101 But thanks to gas, nocturnal life carried on uninterrupted. Alfred Delvau, a professional noctambulist, offered a guide for the late bedder to the Boulevards of the Second Empire:
After midnight one may withdraw to the Café Leblond; its entrance on Boulevard des Italiens closes at midnight, but the exit on the Passage de l’Opéra remains open until two in the morning. The Café des Variétés [in the Passage des Panoramas], which has a licence until half past one, receives a large number for supper after the theatres close. At the Café Wolf, 10 Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre, the noctambulists of the Breda quarter congregate around midnight . . . to drink beer and eat onion sausages, until it’s time to close. At two o’clock the Brabant, at the corner of the Boulevard and Faubourg Montmartre, is still open, as well as Bignon, on the corner of the Chaussée-d’Antin, and especially Hill’s Tavern, on Boulevard des Capucines, where the fashionable crowd mingles with the carefree bohème.
It was on the Boulevards in the 1850s that a custom spread, so rooted now in Paris life that it is hard to imagine the city without it: cafés set tables out on a terrace. ‘All the cafés have provided seating on the pavement outside their premises: there is a notable group of these between Rue Laffitte and Rue La Peletier, and it is not uncommon to see, in the heat of summer, wilting promenaders linger until one in the morning outside the café doors, sipping ices, beer, lemonade and soda water.’102 When Georges Duroy, the eponymous Bel-Ami – ‘empty pockets and boiling blood’ – cruised Boulevard des Italiens on a stifling evening, ‘the big cafés, full of people, spilled out onto the pavement, displaying their clientele of drinkers under the sharp and rough light of the illuminated windows. In front of them, on little tables square or round, glasses contained red, yellow, green and brown liquids of all shades; and within the carafes you could see the big transparent cylinders of ice that chilled the fine clear water.’
‘Nothing is easier or more agreeable than a promenade of this kind. The ways reserved for pedestrians are tiled or asphalted, shaded with trees and furnished with seats. The cafés are at frequent intervals. Every now and then cabs are stationed on the roadway. Finally, omnibuses constantly run from the Bastille to the Madeleine.’ In the opposite direction from that proposed by the Joanne guide of 1870, the promenade began with Boulevard de la Madeleine and Boulevard des Capucines. For a long time the whole of this segment, as far as the break at Rue de la Chausséed’Antin, remained outside the life of the Boulevards. ‘From the Madeleine to Rue Caumartin,’ wrote Balzac, ‘there is no flânerie. This is a stretch dominated by our imitation of the Parthenon, a large and fine thing, whatever may be said of it, but spoiled by the hideous café sculptures that dishonour its lateral friezes . . . This whole zone is sacrificed. You cross it, but do not stroll on it.’103
A decade and half later, a sense of greater liveliness can be felt: ‘Coming from the Madeleine, there is still only one pavement that is really alive, the right-hand side; the other is occupied by a street, Rue Basse-du-Rempart, currently being ravaged by demolition to make way for the future opera house.’104 And by 1867, the year of the Exposition Universelle, everything seems to have changed, to judge from the Paris Guide:
In our day, the most monumental section of the Boulevards is that stretching from Rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin to the Madeleine. The new Opéra is surrounded by palaces. The richness and comfort of the interior fittings of the Grand Hôtel, the hotel that the Jockey Club has moved into, match the magnificence of the outside. There remain only remnants of the damp Rue Basse that was filled with the dead and wounded of the shooting of 23 February . The buildings and shops rival each other in their sumptuousness.
But the picture ends in a singular conclusion in which La Bédollière repeats words straight from Balzac: ‘And yet, on Boulevard des Capucines and Boulevard de la Madeleine, it seems that an arctic cold can be felt. People cross them without lingering; they live there but don’t stop there. The lines of carriages returning from Vincennes, in the afternoons of racing days, turn off and leave the Boulevards at Rue de la Paix. When all is said and done, to use a typically Parisian expression: ça n’est plus ça!’105
Known in 1815 as the Petit-Coblenz, after the town that had symbolized the emigration, Boulevard de Gand (Ghent where Louis XVIII found refuge during the Hundred Days) only later acquired its definitive name, Boulevard des Italiens, from the former theatre of the Comédiens-Italiens in the Salle Favart – though, as we have seen, this turned its back on the Boulevard. Between Rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin and Rue de Richelieu was the Boulevard par excellence for ‘those who have been called in turn refined, fine, marvellous, incroyables, dandies, fashionable, lions, gandins, mashers, fops’.106 Here, writes Balzac, ‘begin those strange and marvellous buildings that seem to be drawn from a fairy tale or the pages of The Thousand and One Nights . . . Once you have set foot here, your day is lost if you are a man of thought. It is a gilded dream and an unbeatable distraction. The engravings of the print sellers, the daily entertainments, the tidbits of the cafés, the gems in the jewellers’ shops, all is set to intoxicate and overexcite you.’107When Bixiou and Léon de Lora want to show Paris to their provincial cousin, this is where they take him, ‘from one end to the other of that sheet of asphalt on which, between the hours of one and three, it is difficult to avoid seeing some of the personages in honour of whom Fame puts one or the other of her trumpets to her lips’.108
Elegant cafés and restaurants were more numerous on Boulevard des Italiens than anywhere else (‘Are there still gandins, those men of severe dress, at table in the Café du Helder? Do you not notice on the forehead of most of them traces of the sun of Algeria, Cochin-China or Mexico?’109): the Café de Foy at the corner of the Chaussée-d’Antin, the Café Anglais with its twenty-two private rooms, including the famous Grand-Seize, the Grand-Balcon between Rue Favart and Rue Marivaux, the Café Riche, Café Hardy, Frascati’s patisserie on the site of the celebrated gambling house closed in 1837, the Bains-Chinois on the corner of Rue de La Michodière, the Maison Dorée restaurant at the corner of Rue Laffitte, etc. The epicentre was located precisely between Rue Le Peletier and Rue Taitbout, framed at one end by two mythical establishments: on the left, the Café de Paris, and on the right, Tortoni, whose terrace, with three steps leading up to it, was one of the most famous places in the world for all of half a century. Tortoni was frequented by dandies and artists – Manet spent every evening there – as well as financiers: ‘You leave the battlefield of the Bourse to go to the restaurants, passing from one digestion to another. Is Tortoni not both the preface and the dénouement of the Bourse?’ And two of the finest villains in La Comédie humaine naturally meet here: ‘About one o’clock, Maxime [de Trailles] was chewing a toothpick and talking with Du Tiller on Tortoni’s portico, where speculation held a little Bourse, a sort of prelude to the great one.’110 The main entrance to the Opéra was two steps away, on Rue Le Peletier, and the Passage de l’Opéra with its two galleries – du Thermomètre and du Baromètre – afforded direct access from the Boulevard.
In the sections of Rue Laffitte and Rue Le Peletier adjacent to the Boulevards, there formed in the 1870s something that had never been seen before in Paris, a gathering of art dealers on the same pavement. In 1867, Paul Durand-Ruel moved his gallery from Rue de la Paix to 16 Rue Laffitte, with a branch on Rue Le Peletier.111 At no. 8 on the same street there was already the gallery of Alexandre Bernheim, son of a paint-seller from Besançon, who sold the canvases of his friend Courbet, as well as Corot, d’Harpignies and Rousseau. Despite well-known sarcasms (Albert Wolff inLe Figaro, 1876: ‘Rue Le Peletier is having a bad time. After the fire at the Opéra, here is a new disaster that has struck the quarter. Durand-Ruel has just opened an exhibition of what is said to be painting . . .’) others followed, and in a short while these few metres had become the key territory of art in Paris. Baudelaire wrote to Nadar: ‘If you were an angel, you’d go and pay homage to a certain Moreau, a picture-seller, Rue Laffitte . . . And you’d get from him permission to make a beautiful double photographic copy of The Duchess of Alba, by Goya (vintage Goya, utterly authentic).’ Manet often said that ‘it’s good to go to Rue Laffitte’. Degas, who came down from Pigalle by bus, often visited there as a client. ‘He contemplated Bernheim’s Corots,’ said Romi, ‘criticized the Fantin-Latours at Tempelaere’s, and presented himself with a Delacroix that he had delivered to his house, like a great lord.’ Gauguin, who worked at a broker’s on the same Rue Laffitte, stopped in front of these magic windows for twelve years until the day when, unable to stand it any more, he abandoned the Bourse for painting. Certain galleries were devoted to Boudin, to Corot, to Daumier; others showed the expensive paintings of Henner, Bouguereau and Meissonier. Close to Durand-Ruel’s revolutionary showroom was the respectable gallery of M. Beugnet, who permanently displayed Madeleine Lemaire’s bouquets of polished flowers. Every month, an admirer of this society artist came to spray on her violets, carnations and roses a light cloud of the corresponding perfume. ‘A poetic advertisement!’ said M. Beugnet. In 1895, Ambroise Vollard triggered a scandal when he showed fifty canvases by Cézanne in his new gallery at 39 Rue Laffitte (he had previously been at no. 8). Vollard invited guests for dinner in his cellar. As Apollinaire relates in Le Flâneur des deux rives, ‘Everyone had heard speak of this famous hypogeum . . . Bonnard did a painting of the cellar, and as far as I recall, Odilon Redon appears in it.’ In the same street could be found the offices of ‘the friendly, open-to-all’ Revue blanche, where diarists, illustrators and friends spent their days – Mallarmé and Jarry, Blum and Gide, Lautrec, Vallotton and Bonnard.
Two reasons explain the catastrophe that struck Boulevard des Italiens and its artistic life, turning the one into a centre of fast food and the other into a gloomy desert. The first was the proliferation of banks and insurance companies, which invaded the quarter at the turn of the century. From the construction of the ponderous building of the Crédit Lyonnais in the 1890s – which caught fire at a most timely moment, when scandal had thrust the bank into public obloquy – to the denaturing of the Maison Dorée in the 1970s by one of the first and worst examples of façadisation, each of the pavements on which these ‘strange and wonderful’ buildings were located was ravaged. The Banque Nationale de Paris, which owned the whole of the north of the Boulevard from Rue Laffitte to the Richelieu-Drouot intersection, was not content to disfigure the Maison Dorée; it offered there a concentrate of what has since spread to hundreds of Parisian streets and crossroads. Insurance companies divided up the streets of modern art and transformed them into grey canyons peopled by security guards and swept by torrents of cars. They were assisted – and this is the second reason – by the extension of Boulevard Haussmann in the 1920s, the only cutting in the centre of Paris carried out in the twentieth century, which led to demolition on a gigantic scale, in particular that of the famous Passage de l’Opéra:
‘Today, Boulevard Haussmann has reached Rue Laffitte’, remarked L’Intransigeant the other day. A few more paces by this giant rodent and, after it has devoured the block of houses separating it from Rue Le Peletier, it will inexorably gash open the thicket whose twin arcades run through the Passage de l’Opéra, before emerging diagonally on to Boulevard des Italiens. It will unite itself to that broad avenue somewhere near where the Café Louis XVI now stands, with a singular kind of kiss whose cumulative effect on the vast body of Paris is quite unpredictable.112
Boulevard des Italiens ends at Rue de Richelieu, that’s a fact. But didn’t elegant life continue beyond this, on Boulevard Montmartre? Did it not stretch to the crossroads formed by the intersection of Rue Montmartre, Boulevard Montmartre and Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre, such a dreadful crossing that it was known as the ‘crossroads of accidents’? Some people replied in the negative: ‘What was then called “the Boulevard” extended only from the Chaussée-d’Antin to the Passage de l’Opéra, perhaps up to Faubourg-Montmartre because of the Variétés, but it was very bad form to be seen any further up. It was rare for dandies to parade beyond the Café Anglais; the Variétés marked their outer limit.’113 For most people, however, it was Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre that formed the border between the elegant and the plebeian boulevards. For Balzac, ‘the heart of present-day Paris . . . beats between Rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin and Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre . . . From Rue Montmartre to Rue Saint-Denis, the physiognomy of the Boulevard changes completely.’114 If Boulevard Montmartre belonged more to artists and shopkeepers than to literary folk and dandies, it still remained for Julien Lemer a recommended promenade, and even the favourite of La Bédollière:
The raging stream we have just crossed [Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre] is a kind of Bidassoa separating two countries, and we are now in the realm of literature. Here are journalists, novelists, diarists, satirists, dramatists, even lecturers . . . It is not without reason that great literary salons and an international bookshop have established themselves on Boulevard Montmartre . . . And all of them, like bees, buzz around the Théâtre des Variétés and the doors of cafés, especially at the absinthe hour . . . The arcades – Jouffroy, Verdeau, the Passage des Panoramas – are what the Palais-Royal used to be. They are silent in the mornings, only disturbed by the steps of apprentices, clerks and shopgirls on their way to work . . . Around eleven o’clock the habitués of the Dîner de Paris, the Dîner du Rocher, and the Dîner du Passage Jouffroy make their appearance . . . At five p.m. sharp, the evening papers are sold from the boulevard kiosks . . . At six o’clock, a great hustle and bustle, the faubourg is on its way down! The inhabitants of the Bréda and Notre-Dame-de-Lorette quarters advance to conquer the Boulevards. The region is signalled from a distance by the clicking of jade, the scent of musk, the rustling of silk.115
To cross the Montmartre intersection, and proceed along Boulevard Poissonière and Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle, meant passing from elegance to commerce, from literature to cottons, from the avant-garde of art to the most traditional crafts:
Le Gymnase vainly displays its charming little façade there; further on, the Bonne-Nouvelle bazaar, as fine as a Venetian palace, has arisen from the earth as if at the stroke of a fairy wand:116 but the effort is completely wasted! The passersby here are no longer elegant, fine dresses would be out of place, the artist and the literary lion no longer venture into these parts . . . One single boulevard in between produces this total change.117
During the daytime, however, Boulevard Poissonière was lively enough:
Enter Baurain’s restaurant and you will find a good many representatives of commerce, here to buy and sell velvet, linen, raw or printed cloth, spun or twisted cotton. Enter the Théâtre du Gymnase and you will recognize in the audience leading lights of novelty and calico, applauding Sardou or Alexandre Dumas fils as they used to applaud Scribe and Mélesville. Take a turn on the little overlapping promenade, shaded by thin sycamores, on the corner of Rue d’Hauteville. The boys and girls playing there and eating their biscuits were born in the midst of tulle, barege, blond-lace, woollens and silks. They’ve known since an early age the meaning of Tarare, Saint-Quentin, and A.G. goods.118
The building of Le Pont-de-Fer was located on Boulevard Poissonière, a kind of commercial centre under an immense double metal arcade; also the Dock du Campement that specialized in travel goods, and the house of Barbedienne, ‘which sells antique models in bronze, reproduced by the Colas process, and medals of David [d’Angers] . . . A little further on are the rooms of the Brébant restaurant . . . the carpet shops of M. Roncier, and, two houses further, the Industrie Française store, with two floors displaying the most varied riches.’119
The section of the Boulevards between Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre and the Porte Saint-Denis is that which has changed least since the nineteenth century, despite the Grand Rex and the rather unfortunate post office on Rue de Mazagran. This is perhaps the reason why the Surrealists made this segment their particular boulevard, even if they also frequented the Passage de l’Opéra and in particular Café Certa – ‘the place where, one afternoon towards the end of 1919, André Breton and I decided to start meeting our friends there, detesting as we did Montparnasse and Montmartre, as well as from a taste for the ambiguity of the arcades’ – and the Théâtre-Moderne – ‘that hall with great worn-out mirrors, decorated at the bottom with grey swans slipping through yellow reeds, with enclosed stalls quite deprived of air and light, not at all reassuring’.120 These few metres, which for want of a better name were known as Strasbourg-Saint-Denis, exercised on Breton an attraction that he explained by ‘the isolation of the two gates you see there, which owe their touching aspect to the fact that they used to be part of the Paris city wall, giving these two vessels, as if they were carried along by the centrifugal force of the town, a totally lost look’.121 For him, however, the centre of the world in those years was Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle: ‘Meanwhile, you can be sure of meeting me in Paris, of not spending more than three days without seeing me pass, toward the end of the afternoon, along the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle between the Le Matin building and the Boulevard de Strasbourg. I don’t know why it should be precisely here that my feet take me, here that I almost invariably go without specific purpose, without anything to induce me but this obscure clue: namely that it (?) will happen here.’122
Beyond the Porte, Boulevard Saint-Martin played a transition role between the boulevard that was still a little bit bourgeois and the genuinely plebeian boulevard, ‘as the jacket is a transition between the suit and the overall’.123 What was most striking here in the nineteenth century was its canyon-like aspect: Rambuteau’s levelling work had only affected the carriageway, which was subsequently ‘lowered, and so much so, that from the Porte Saint-Martin to the Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique it was necessary to install a railing on each side, with steps every now and then. In this place, therefore, the carriageway was set down like a railway . . . When the return of the troops under Marshal Canrobert from the Italian war of 1859 was announced, on the previous evening this part of the boulevard was invaded, the places against the railing were taken, and people spent the whole night there.’
This was the site of some of the great romantic theatres: the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin, built by Lenoir in forty days on the orders of Marie-Antoinette, where Frédérick Lemaître and Marie Dorval were hailed in Marion Delorme, and Mlle George inLucrèce Borgia; the Ambigu, devoted to serious drama (‘this is where you must go, lovers of great plays, dark and mysterious, but in which innocence always triumphs in the end, between eleven o’clock and midnight’124); the Folies-Dramatiques in Rue de Bondy (now René-Boulanger), ‘where vaudeville is generally played, drama mixed with song, and finally the Fantaisie’. For Heine, this is where theatre was at its best, and it steadily declined as one went further east, towards the ‘Boulevard du Crime’, finally reaching ‘Franconi’s, where the stage scarcely counts as such, as the plays performed there are more fit for horses than for men’.125
With Franconi, we cross from Boulevard Saint-Martin to Boulevard du Temple. At no. 52 – a plaque notes that Gustave Flaubert lived here from 1856 to 1869 – the line of buildings curves northward, to the right if you face the nearby Place de la République. The last of these out-of-phase buildings abuts an immense blind wall, perpendicular to the boulevard and replacing in the general alignment the few metres that precede the Place. This arrangement has a simple explanation: the curve of the staggered buildings indicates the course of the ‘original’ Boulevard du Temple, before the cutting of Boulevard du Prince-Eugène (now Boulevard Voltaire) and the Place du Château-d’Eau (now Place de la République). This first Boulevard du Temple reached Boulevard Saint-Martin close to the present site of the Garde Républicaine barracks. Rue du Temple and Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple were then continuous, on either side of the Boulevards. This slightly dilated crossroads formed a small square, with a fountain in the middle where a flower market was held on Tuesdays and Thursdays.126
This is the most famous part of Boulevard du Temple, destroyed by the works of 1862: the Boulevard du Crime, thus named ‘not by the Imperial prosecutors, but by vaudeville artists jealous of their fame for melodrama’.127 Its popular favour began under the last years of the ancien régime. In its heyday, under the Restoration and the July monarchy, ‘it was a Paris festival, a perpetual fair, an all-year carnival . . . You could see birds doing tricks, hares bowing, fleas pulling carts; Mlle Rose with her head down and feet in the air: the spatchcocked Mlle Malaga, jugglers, conjurors, dwarves, giants, skeleton-men, ugly customers, boiling oil. Finally, Munito, the savant dog, a great calculator who did not disdain to give performances and lessons to the domino players at the Café de la Régence.’128 In 1844, Balzac could still write that ‘this is the only place in Paris where you hear the cries of Paris, you see the people thronging, rags to astonish a painter and looks to frighten a man of property. The late Bobèche was there, one of the local glories . . . His accomplice was called Galimafrée. Martainville wrote sketches for these two illustrious acrobats who made children, soldiers and maids laugh enormously, their costumes always dotting the crowd on this famous boulevard.’129 Haussmann, as we saw, was set on removing as soon as possible ‘these unhealthy distractions that increasingly degrade and brutalize the popular masses’.
As reinscribed in collective memory by the joyful papier-mâché of Les Enfants du Paradis, seven theatres stood side by side on the left side of the boulevard, looking towards the Bastille. All these establishments had their stage door on Rue des Fossés-du-Temple (now Amelot), which formed a kind of common corridor. There was the Théâtre-Lyrique, which had ‘mistakenly strayed into these parts’, according to Haussmann. Massenet, when a student at the Conservatoire, played the kettledrum there in the evening to earn his living. ‘I have to confess that I sometimes came in at the wrong place, but one day Berlioz complemented me for this, and said: “You’re actually right, which is unusual!”’130 At the Cirque-Olympique, run by the Franconis, the alternating attractions were Indian jugglers, Chinese and Italian acrobats, and savant animals – as well as military parades that revived the epic of the Empire. Then there were the Folies-Dramatiques, the Gaîté, devoted despite its name to the gloomiest melodramas, and the Funambules, whose star was the mime Debureau, as played by Jean-Louis Barrault in Les Enfants du Paradis. The diarist for Le Globe, the Saint-Simonian newspaper, wrote on 28 October 1831:
There is in this man’s comedy something intangibly bitter and sad: the laughter he provokes, this laughter that comes so freely from his breast, is painful at the end, when we see, after having been so well entertained in all these ways, poor Debureau – or rather poor people! – fall totally back into the state of subjection, abasement and servitude in which we found them at the start of the play, and from which they escaped only for a moment to delight us so much. Adieu Pierrot! Adieu Gilles! Adieu Debureau! Adieu people, till tomorrow!131
The line of theatres ended with the Délassements-Comiques and the Petit-Lazzari – which owed its name to an Italian mime of the eighteenth century – very close to the house where Fieschi exploded his bomb when Louis-Philippe was approaching in 1835. After that, writes Haussmann, there were ‘other well-forgotten dives’.132
These theatres were the stimulus for a proliferation of small trades, ‘from the opener of carriage doors to the collector of cigar butts, and especially the seller of pass-out tickets, of whom there were few at the doors of other theatres’.133 If there were cigar butts to collect and doors to open, this betokens a fashionable clientele who came slumming on the Boulevard du Crime: ‘These ladies come into the little halls that in theatrical slang are called dives [bouis-bouis], in the same fashion that under the Regency the “impure” entertained themselves from time to time at the Théâtre de la Foire.’134
Haussmann’s great works led to the disappearance of almost all these marvels. There remained the Théâtre Déjazet (‘The name alone brings a smile, reminding you of a charming actress whom you must have applauded a hundred times, and will applaud again. Déjazet is an eighth wonder of the world, and for my part, I prefer her by far to the colossus of Rhodes’135), which owed its salvation to the fact that it was the only one on the opposite pavement from where demolition was taking place. There was also the Cirque d’Hiver, the former Cirque Napoléon built by Hittorff, where on Sunday afternoons the lions and clowns were replaced by concerts organized by Pasdeloup. ‘Works by Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Weber, etc. were played here. This was not the place for quadrilles or polkas, but rather for strict and serious music, great music indeed.’136
‘The rest of the Boulevard, from Rue d’Angoulême [now Jean-Pierre-Timbaud] through to the Bastille, has – we must confess – a sad scent of the Marais, which after nine in the evening is a kind of cemetery.’137 Balzac shows scarcely any greater esteem for the two major establishments to be found there: ‘The famous Cadran Bleu has not a single window or floor which is evenly balanced. As for the Café Turc, it is to Fashion what the ruins of Thebes are to Civilization . . . Soon the deserted boulevards begin, those without walkers. The pensioner strolls in his dressing gown if he feels like it; and on fine days, you see blind people playing card games. In piscem desinit elegantia.’