Paris: The Biography of a City

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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The city of Paris is not exactly an under-exposed subject. Still, Colin Jones’ history of the city deserves a special place on the shelf, the best single volume I have yet read on the evolution of this most beloved of world cities.

If you want to understand the geography of this beloved city, you will benefit from understanding its origins and growth. Why isn’t there a chatelet at Chatelet? Why are most of the big royal squares to the west – while the Place des Vosges is on the east? Why are so few historical sites of the Revolution still standing?

That last point is the most amazing. How often have we heard the newness of America contrasted to the antiquity of France? Yet the building in which Patrick Henry asked for liberty or death is still standing – while the building in which the French Convention meet has long since vanished. You can see the homes of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams, among other revolutionary figures. The Paris homes of Napoleon, Robespierre, Danton? All gone, as is the prison in which Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette awaited their fate.

If this older Paris is gone, however, it is not erased. You see it in the plan of the streets and in other relics, more subtle, that challenge you to train your eye and see beyond the moment.

I mentioned in a column posted below the Expiatory Chapel as an example of the way in which the Paris present is overlaid atop the Paris past. There are so many more, and Colin Jones – editor of the Cambridge History of France – clearly and lucidly explains how to find them.

There’s a piece of Catherine de Medici’s Hotel de Soissons still surviving attached to the Paris bourse. I’d never noticed it till Jones showed me where to see it. I’d never appreciated how the rue de l’Observatoire exemplifies the grim power madness of Louis XIV – at a time when Isaac Newton was founding the Royal Society of England, Louis built his observatory in the wrong shape and the wrong place in order to create a perfect southward vista for the Luxembourg palace.

Water and sewage has formed Paris as profoundly as any building plan. When the kings of France definitively abandoned their palace on the Ile de la Cite in the mid-14th century, they moved eastward, to the area that is now the rue St. Antonite. Charles V built a palace called the Hotel des Tournelles, or Turrets, and here French monarchs made their Paris residence for 200 years. The last king to live there was Henri II, who died in a jousting accident in 1559. A romantic story has it that his widow, Catherine de Medici, tore the Tournelles down to show her grief. In fact, sewage smells had rendered the place uninhabitable. The dowager Catherine installed the court in the Louvre, commenced work on the Tuileries – and elite Paris’s great westward migration had begun.

Paris has aptly been described as “the capital of the 19th century.” In many ways, it has been the victim of the 20th.

The old commercial heart of Paris, the area around the markets of Les Halles, was ripped down in the 1930s by a government bent on urban improvement – but lacking the means to rebuild it. An act of pure vandalism, not exactly redeemed by the eventual erection of the Beaubourg museum in what might otherwise have evolved into an urban neighborhood as lively as the Marais.

Cities have to be lived in, and therefore they must adapt to the times. Somewhere between 1930 and 1960, however, the French lost the ability to keep up with the times in ways that enhanced their capital. That, however, is the story of France and not just of Paris.

Colin Jones offers us this perspective: Paris has known these cycles of glory and degradation before. Thirteenth century Paris stood first among the cities of Europe, its university the greatest in the Christian world. Plague, war, and progress elsewhere reduced its population, wrecked its commerce, and put an end to its intellectual and artistic supremacy. By 1500, Paris ranked as only a very provincial, poor, and shabby also-ran after Rome, Venice, Florence, Naples, Antwerp, Crackow and even squalid London. It recovered and revived.

Can Paris do it again? Can Europe? Can the old continent rediscover the vitality that creates culture rather than either curating it or vandalizing it? That’s too profound a question to be answered here. All I can say is that if you love Paris, you will love Colin Jones’ biography of the city.

And if you are planning a visit to the city anytime soon, let me add a second recommendation. My favorite series of guidebooks are the Cadogan volumes published in the UK.

The Cadogan Guide to Rome is simply the best guidebook to anything I have ever used. Cadogan’s guide to Paris does not match that standard, but it is lively, trustworthy, and personal without being idiosyncratic. We used the Cadogan guide to Normandy too, and it was even better. Cadogan’s guide to Paris for the children was pretty mediocre, but every other competing guide is even worse, so it gets a prize of sorts. On the other hand, you could save yourself $11 by reading the adult book carefully – you can find the museum of magic, the doll museum, the Bois de Boulogne children’s park, and (our favorite!) the Paris catacombs all well described in that main volume.

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