Paris - Rue St Jacques
( Originally Published 1921 )
Before you leave this place, look back at the rue St Martin on your left and then towards your right, up the rue St Jacques, beyond the Petit Pont and its short street. As I have said, you could find Roman pavement underneath this you are treading, if the authorities would let you dig. Until 1860 this was the most crowded street on the Left Bank.
The apse of St Severin touches the rue St Jacques; along-side it is one of the few cloisters left in Paris. A tiny square faces a public school on the street where the Parchment-makers had their shops in the days when Dante used to wander about here, rue de la Parcheminerie.
You are in the Latin Quarter, where that language served as a medium of communication for all the nationalities who came here to study during the Middle Ages. The best of the ancient houses along here, as far as the rue des Ecoles (Schools' street), have lodged their thousands of students; some of them still do.
Upon the corner of the rue des Ecoles is the College of France, founded in 1530. The prisonlike building at your left is a former monastery and today the Lycée Louis le Grand, meaning Louis X IV. Lycées only go back to the First Empire. Napoleon had a passion for establishing them in disaffected monasteries and using a Greek word in order to make them seem classical. The cloister, as you glimpse it through the glass door, looks attractive.
On your right is the back of the famous Sorbonne, founded for poor students in 1253 by St Louis and his friend and confessor, Robert Sorbon.
When you get to the rue Cujas (named for a 16th-century legal light), look to your left for a rare view of the church of St Etienne; and at the next cross-street look again to your left for the Panthéon. You are now in what was considered by the Romans the best residential district of Lutetia. Their Forum, as we have seen, was near the Luxembourg Gardens; excavations there have proved it.
And that reminds me that even near the Bassin de la Villette, they found, not so many years back, a bronze vase full of Roman coins. And later, near the Square de Montholon (which is on the Right Bank), they found skeletons of the second or third century, which proves that Paris has a great many secrets still untold.
Above this old market-place of the Romans the rue St Jacques gets as narrow as it was along its whole length at one time. Where it crosses the street named for a scientist and inventor, Gay-Lussac, you will see the Institute of Geography and another of Oceanography in modern buildings. Beyond, in the rue Pierre Curie, the monstrously ugly buildings house the Institute of Radiology.
But the church of St Jacques-du-Haut-Pas compensates for this modernity and science; it was founded by the Italian Order of Alto Passo (High Pass), and the name descended into French. Louis X I II laid the corner-stone in 1630.
This is the region of orders, hospitals, schools, and institutes, as it always has been. The oldest and best-built monasteries date from the scholastic days. The gardens around some of them are very fine, though closed to the public. The Institute for the Deaf and Dumb has such a garden, close to this church; the modern Music School occupies the monastery of the English Benedictines; the primary school around the corner, which Victor Hugo attended, was the convent of the Feuillantines.
The Val-de-Grâce, the military hospital on this street, can be visited. Its domed chapel is visible whenever you are upon one of the heights of Paris. Anne of Austria built both church and convent in gratitude for the birth of Louis XIV; they were begun in 1645, and it was little Louis himself who laid the corner-stone. Here, too, the foundations had to be sunk very deep because of the stone quarries which undermined this place; they be-long now to the Catacombs. There is something a little sinister about walking above so many dead men's bones.
At the boulevard de Port-Royal, the "rue" becomes a "faubourg." On the corner is another imposing hospital in what was the famous convent of Port-Royal which be-longed to the Jansenists, the group of Catholics which Louis XIV persecuted as fanatically as he did the Protestants.
If you go on up the street you will pass the Hôtel de Massa, a fine old residence which was taken down, stone by stone, where it stood on the Champs Elysées, and put up over here; it is the headquarters for literary men in need of advice; a sublimated Authors' Association.
When you reach the boulevard Arago, named for a one-time director of the Observatory which is near here, look, if you wish, at the walls of the Santé prison. What a mockery in that name, for santé means "health"!
Your last stretch, before arriving at the Cité Universitaire, is on the rue de la Tombe Issoire. No one is certain about the origin of this name: Tombe is "tomb." There was a bandit named Issouard; there is a town in Auvergne named Issoire. But never mind, you have been walking with the shades of the Phenician tin merchants, and a mysterious finale is quite fitting. From here on, if you wish to go on with the Phenicians to the Loire and on down to the Mediterranean, you will need another guide. We are almost at the city limits here and far enough for this cross-section of Paris.
Look at that long thin line upon your map, and think of it in its historical importance; you will have a clearer idea of the hoary age of the town ; it was in existence when Tyre and Sidon, exporting their purple and fine linen, were trembling under the prophecies of Ezekiel. It was a settlement on an island, visited by their citizens.