The Birth Of Paris
( Originally Published 1921 )
ENCHANTING as it is from all points of view, it is, perhaps, from the Pont des Arts, that simple footbridge which, thrown like a mere log across a stream, spans the Seine before the Institut, that the story of the island breathes deepest its note of inexhaustible promise.
Of the shell of Henri IV houses, which encloses the Place Dauphine, the two at the point of the island preserve, through restoration, their original character. As they are now, so was once the whole prow of the ile de la cite. Between them one looks, as into the heart of a fire, upon an enclosed greenery, once part of the garden to the palace of the Caesars established in Roman times, where now is ponderously planted the Palais de Justice.
The simile of the heart of the fire, a fire rich and glowing with the embers of remoter antiquity, never fails to strike me, as I pass now almost daily in my peregrinations back and forth between the Louvre and the delightful Bibliotheque Mazarine, lodged in a wing of the Institut de France. One seems here to have that older Paris completely within the hollow of the hand.
The vista thus glimpsed of a ground so rich in layers of history that one seems never to reach the first deposit, is one of the most inviting of a city that goes in largely for vistas. Henri IV himself, so proud upon his mount there at the head of the island, looks in between Madame Roland's house and its cheerful twin, upon the place which he preserved and embellished.
The Place Dauphine remains just as Henri IV made it, a cool retreat from the gaiety of the Pont-Neuf, completed in his reign. I could wish, upon closer inspection, that there were less asphalt, and I am sure, as Henri designed it, whatever, if any, carriages entered between the two openings in the belt of houses came by a modest driveway in keeping with the discretion of the enclosure. The king named it in commemoration of the birth of Louis XIII, the then dauphin of France. The place, accommodating itself to the form of the island, is triangular, and the houses in their original state were of red brick with wide markings of white stone and steep renaissance roofs of blue slate, all of the same structure and symmetry. There were never more than the two entrances, one in the middle of the base of the triangle and the other opposite in the angle upon the Pont-Neuf. The houses are shallow and have two facades of equal importance, and the two large ones upon the Rue de Harlay form acute angles with the quays. The whole scheme is amusing and original. There is nothing here to suggest the lugubrious Louis XIII, but the whole disposition of affairs exhales that charm and vivacity inseparable from the memory of Henri IV.
Now the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont-Neuf, finished in 1608, was then the newest—all Paris adopted it as the fashionable promenade and made it the scene of their rendezvous. As the XVIIth century advanced it became the official passage of the royal processions going to parliament.
Old maps show two little islets preceding the present Ile de la cite; they remained until the end of the XVIth century and were accredited to the abbot of Saint-Germain. The largest lay to-wards the left bank of the Seine and in various deeds and titles is called l'isle des Juifs, l'isle aux Treilles, l'isle aux Vaches, and isle de Seine. The vineyards of this island, whence the name ile aux Treilles (trellis), must have been considerable, for an old act records six hogsheads of wine from the trellises behind the Palais, given by the king to the chaplain of Saint-Nicholas-du-Palais in the year 1160. The abbot and monks of Saint-Germain profited from the pasturage of cows there.
The other island, much smaller, was called sometimes l'isle de Bussy and again 1'isle du Passeur aux Vaches.
These were joined to the larger island when the Pont-Neuf was projected, in the reign of Henri III, and the bridge rests upon them. When the first pier emerged from the water, at the side of the Quai des Grands-Augustins, the king accompanied by his wife, Louise de Vaudemont, and his mother, Catherine de Medicis, rode from the Louvre in a magnificent barge, to lay the corner-stone. It bore the arms of the king, the dowager, and the city of Paris, and the date, May 30, 1578. That day Henri had seen pass, on its way to the church of Saint-Paul in the Marais, the funeral procession of Quelus and de Maugiron, his dearest minions, and out of respect for his grief the bridge bore for a time the name, Pont des Pleurs.
All the history of Paris is mingled with this old and admirable Pont-Neuf. Jacques-Androuet Du Cerceau, distinguished under both Henri III and Henri IV, was the architect, and the bridge is spoken of as his chef -d'ceuvre. One of its attractions, a tremendous innovation, was an hydraulic pump, constructed by Lintlaer, a Flemish engineer, upon one of the piers of the bridge—the second from the right bank. Its mission was to distribute water to the Louvre and the Tuileries, hitherto unprovided, and it was one of the mechanical wonders of the age. " L'eau de la pompe du Pont-Neuf est aux Tuileries," wrote Malherbe triumphantly, on October 3, 1608, as though the impossible had been accomplished.
The Musee Carnavalet preserves the model of the little chateau d'eau in which the machine was housed. The charming little renaissance building gave piquancy to the river views; its facade to-wards the promenade was ornamented with a group of sculpture representing Jesus receiving water from the woman of Samaria at Jacob's Well, from which the familiar name of the building, La Samaritaine. A chiming clock with, says John Evelyn, " a very rare dyall of several motions," filled the rounded space above the group, and a little wooden campanile contained the carillon of bells, which, playing every hour, charmed and diverted the people. Falling into decay, the Samaritaine was rebuilt in 1712, only to be again mutilated, by the Revolution, when the statues were destroyed as too reminiscent of the evangel.
The Roman fortress or palace, which formed the western buttress of the antique city of Julian the Apostate, became in later centuries the palace of the kings of France, culminating in importance and grandeur under Saint-Louis; and who is not familiar with the oft-repeated story of that sublimely simple monarch, seated under the trees in the garden of his palace, administering a merciful justice to his beloved and loving subjects?
Let Joinville tell it again in his archaic tongue:
" Je le vis aucunefois en ete, que pour delivrer sa gent it venoit ou jardin de Paris, une cote de camelot vestue, un surcot de tyreteinne sans manche, un mantel de ceudal noir entour son col, moult bien pigne, et sans coife, et un chapel de paon Blanc sur la teste, et faisoit estendre tapis pour nous seoir entour li, et tout le peuple qui avoit a faire par devant estoit entour, et lors it faisoit delivrer en la maniere, que je vous ai dit devant, du Bois de Vincennes."
In still earlier times a mill for minting moneys stood in this field belonging to the Palais. A street, Rue de la Monnaie, behind Saint-Germainl'Auxerrois, recalls this obscure fact, and from a similar association comes the name of the second of the three pepper-pot towers which, standing along the Quai de 1'Horloge, mark the northern boundary of the ancient palace. The first mint must have been this Tour d'Argent and the famous mill, indicated upon the oldest maps of Paris, was probably a modern contrivance for striking coins built as an improvement upon the mint of the Tour d'Argent.
The tall, square tower, the Tour de 1'Horloge, rising almost to the height of the Tour Saint-Jacques, that isolated Gothic fragment, upon the right bank of the Seine, places the northeast corner of the Palais. From its summit was echoed the fateful signal for the Massacre of Saint-Bartholomew, first sounded from Saint-Germainl'Auxerrois.
The first of the pointed towers, coupled to the Tour d'Argent, long bore the name Tour de Montgomery, in memory of the captain of the Scotch guards imprisoned therein after fatally wounding Henri II in a tournament near Place des Vosges. Place des Vosges was then a royal park attached to the palace of the Tournelles, built by Charles V as a country house. There, on July 1, 1559, Henri II, fighting under the colours of Diane de Poitiers, broke his lance against the Earl of Montgomery, and Montgomery's lance raising the visor of the king's helmet penetrated his adversary's eye. The king died of the wound ten days later at the Tournelles.
Ravaillac, the assassin of Henri IV, and Da-miens, who attempted the life of Louis XV, spent also their last days in this tower. The Tour Bonbec, the last and smallest, is the most perfect of the towers, since it has preserved its battlements. With the modern restoration of the Palais, these names, which had both point and flavour, have been changed. Montgomery be-comes the Tour de Cesar; Bonbec, the Tour Saint-Louis.
These four towers then, with the Sainte-Chapelle, determine accurately the perimeter of the Palais from the Merovingien monarchs to the first of the House of Valois. The Palais, thus simply designated from time immemorial, meant the kings' residence upon the lie de la cite, whereas one specified Palais des Thermes, chateau du Louvre, chateau de Vincennes. The occasional residence, merely, of the Merovingiens, who affected the Thermes, it was in this palace that the sovereigns of France held court from the Capetiens to Charles V. The Roman building appears to have lasted until the time of the Norman invasions, when Count Eudes rebuilt the palace as a square fortress, defended by high towers, its facade characterized by four great round-headed arches, flanked by bastions, of which the remains were discovered when the Cour de Harlay was pulled down.
Louis le Gros and Louis le Jeune both died within the walls of this palace, and here Philippe Auguste was married to a Danish princess. Blanche de Castille, mother of Saint-Louis, is said to have inhabited the right-hand tower.
At the beginning of the XIVth century the Palais presented a reunion of buildings of which the oldest went back to the epoch of Louis IX and the most recent dated from the time of Philippe le Bel, or about 1313.
The beautiful early XVIth century Gothic buildings erected by Louis XII, which surrounded the Cour du Mai, totally perished in the three fires of 1618, 1737, and 1776. These fires also destroyed the Hotel Isabeau, once occupied by the unfaithful wife of Charles VI; the rooms in which the Burgundians seized the Comte d'Armagnac, Constable of France, and Chancellor Henri de Masle, and others; the Grand' Salle, in which was held the coronation banquet of Henry IV of England, when he was crowned king of France; the halls of Saint-Louis, and the room in which that king spent his bridal night, and in which thereafter the kings of France slept upon the night of their arrival in Paris.
The triumphal entry of the sovereigns upon their accession to the throne was feted with many curious and beautiful customs. As the cortege advanced towards the Palais by the Grand Pont " two hundred dozens of birds " were set free by the bird market to add to the festivity of the scene. In consideration of this the bird dealers were allowed the privilege of selling their stock upon the Grand Pont on Sundays and fete days, so that the bridge in olden times came to be known as le Pont aux Oiseaux. By the rue de Lutece and across from the Prefecture of Police is still a market where birds of all sorts are for sale on fete days and Sundays, a survival of the ancient custom.
Saint-Louis gave certain rights of the Palais to a court of justice, but Charles V was the first to abandon it to the newly created parliament, re-moving his court to the famous Hotel Saint-Pol, under the protection of the Bastille, from which later developed the Palais des Tournelles. Mean-while the Louvre was slowly advancing from the fortress of Philippe Auguste into a residence for the last monarchs of the House of Valois.
The palace of antiquity lies buried beneath the crushing mass of the modern Palais de Justice, rebuilt after the furies of the Commune had destroyed most of the buildings erected after the fire of 1776 (about 1874). The domain of the Caesars forms in effect the foundations, the cellars, of the contemporary pile. The Quai de l'Horloge covers about twenty feet of those antique constructions, its road-bed lies well above the beginnings of the three round towers, whose elevation, even yet of an imposing height, be-speaks a primitive structure of impressive elegance. Judged by them alone this palace of antiquity over which you walk in treading the floor of the immense Salle des Pas Perdus, of the present palace, was a marvel of architecture.
Such fragments as remain poets have woven into a fantastic fabric, which the cool judgment of archaeologists has in turn destroyed. It is all so indefinite that one may choose for belief between the rich legends of the romanticists and the alleged facts of the materialists. It is true that very little of the ancient palace remains, that the towers show remorseless reconstruction, but it is equally true that the foundations have yielded from time to time some thrilling evidence of pre-historic times.
The Bibliotheque Nationale preserves in its cabinet of antiquities a quadrangular cippe, or truncated funeral column, found very deep amongst the debris of an ancient edifice under-lying a part of the Palais ruined by the fire of 1776. This cippe is thought to date from the IIIrd century. It is five feet ten inches in height and bears no inscription, and each side is ornamented by the standing figure of a divinity in high relief. There is Mercury with all his attributes ; a woman holding a caduceus, possibly Maia, the mother of Mercury; Apollo with the bow and quiver; and a winged figure difficult to identify.
Again in the middle of the last century excavations under the Palais discovered the remains of certain Gallo-Roman constructions.
Beside the Tour de l'Horloge, along the quay, is a vaulted hall, built upon a quincunx of columns (arranged like a five-spot) with four large chimneys in the corners. This room is known as the cuisines de Saint-Louis, though Viollet-le-Duc, who studied the question, attributes it to the period of Philippe le Bel. What remains is thought to be the lower floor of a kitchen built in two stories, the lower serving for the domestics' table and the upper for the service of the king.
Situated between the twin towers of the Conciergerie, and opening from the Salle dcs Pas Perdus, is the Premiere Chambre of the court. This was once the Grand' Chambre of the parliament of Paris. Saint-Louis built it, together with the Sainte-Chapelle and the Grand' Salle, and Louis XII restored and ornamented it with a ceiling of golden caissons, walls hung with blue velvet and fleurs-de-lys in raised gold, high stained windows whose semi-translucency bathed the room in a rich, colourful twilight, and at the end of the room a large picture with sentences from the sacred writings under a crucifix.
The history of France was enacted here. In this room Francois I held his seat of justice; here the marechal de Biron was condemned to death; here, in 1614, parliament proclaimed the majority of Louis XIII ; and here it was, on August 16, 1655, that Louis XIV, arriving post-haste from Vincennes, in hunting costume, booted and spurred, sprang to the dais and ordered the edicts recorded without discussion in fulfilment of his glorious assumption : " L'Etat, c'est moi."
In this same room, by a reversal of fortunes, the great-grandson of the autocrat presided at the seance (September 12, 1715) which broke the will of the Roi-Soleil in favour of the legitimized princes. Little Louis XV, aged five years, but described as deja decoratif, sat upon cushions embroidered with the fleur-de-lys under the surveillance of his governess, Madame de Ventadour, while at his feet were the regent and the dukes and peers of parliament.
Parliament perished with the advent of the Revolution. Suspended by a law of November 3, 1789, it was suppressed in August of the following year, and in 1793 the Chambre Doree was transformed into a Salle d'Egalite. At the end of the room, his back to the Seine, the president of the Revolutionary tribunal was enthroned beneath a bust of Socrates flanked by those of Murat and Lepeletier. The vaulted roof of Louis XII covered them, but its grandeur was masked and the escutcheons of royalty had been scraped from the walls. Dukes, marshals, bishops, princes, the king, the queen—all the ancient nobility of France, the Orleanistes, Brissot, with the Girondistes, Saint-Just and the comite du saint publique, all the condemned of all the parties—Marie-Antoinette and Madame Roland, Charlotte Corday and the Abbesse de Montmorency, the Dubarry and Madame Elisabeth, Hebert and his partisans, Danton and his party, Malesherbes, the marechal de Noailles, Camille Desmoulins, Robespierre—all, by hundreds, passed this fantastic mockery of judgment.
Here was heard, on October 14, 1793, the pitiful affaire de la veuve Capet. The trial of the queen of France occupied twenty consecutive hours, while, her destiny prejudged, she was subjected to every insult, accused of every infamy, compared to Catherine de Medicis, Messaline, Fredegonde! The seance broke up at four o'clock in the morning of the second day and Marie-Antoinette left the salle du tribunal, to regain her cell in the Conciergerie, by the little door to the left—it still exists—and descended the tiny spiral stairway built in the Tour Montgomery.
The horrors of the Revolution swallow up all minor miseries of the Conciergerie—primitively the lodge of the concierge of the ancient palace, yet here the Comte d'Armagnac was murdered, and here, below the level of the Seine, was the Souriciere, the mouse-trap, of infamous memory.
Under the Reign of Terror the unique entrance to the Conciergerie was under the archway to the right of the grand stairway of the Cour de Mai, down nine worn steps into a damp court, and through a low gray door, protected by a rusty double grill. Time has so softened the memory of the terrors of this locality that the restaurant of the Palais has had the heart to install itself in the very court of infamy, in the very antichambre of death. Aside from this the theatre of drama is singularly unchanged.
The Cour de Mai—the name derived from the maypole annually erected in the court of the Palais by the lawyers' clerks—thus became the arena for the daily spectacle of horror as the carts delivered the " suspects " and called again for the condemned, who came through the little gray door, from the dungeons, into the tiny court, and mounted the steps to be carted away to the guillotine. If the steps of the Palais were crammed with spectators, the top of the wall itself, over the arch, was alive with a howling and vociferating mob, which hurled filthy projectiles and insults at the unfortunates, who, their hair cut as much for the profit of wig makers as the convenience of the blade,, their hands tied behind them, were made to wait in this pillory while the bourreau, clad in a long redingote and coiffed with a top hat, identified the victims with his lists before tying them to the benches or sides of the cart facing the crowd which ran with the wagons to the Concorde.
With Balzac one regrets that the Conciergerie has invaded the palace of the kings ; its hideous recollections overlie every other consideration. " The heart bleeds," says the romanticist, " to see how they have shaped jails, keeps, corridors, lodgings, dungeons without light or air, in this magnificent composition where Byzantine, Roman, Gothic—these three faces of ancient art have been joined together by the architecture of the XIIth century. This palace is to the monumental history of France of the first epoch what the chateau of Blois is to the monumental history of the second period. Just as at Blois, in the court, you may admire the castle of the counts of Blois, of Louis XII, of Francois I, of Gaston; so in the Conciergerie you find, in the same en-closure, the character of the first dynasties and in the Sainte-Chapelle the architecture of Saint-Louis." (Scenes de la vie parisienne.)