January 18, 2012
The eight kilometers that run from the Arc du Carousel in front of the Louvre, through the Tuilerie Gardens and the Place de la Concorde, down the Champs Élysées, under Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe, and all the way across the Seine until the financial district of la Défense, are often called Paris’s historical axis. Historical because that stretch chronicles various centuries of Parisian life under different regimes. Axis, because it contains monuments and places commissioned by various leaders who, wishing to reinforce their importance at the center of the State, intended them as symbols of their power.
Throughout our promenade down Paris’s historical axis, I began to notice two interesting tendencies. One of them was the contrast between historical, or traditional Paris, and modern Paris. When we were at la Défense, our guide Sophie de Loubens explained that some people found it to be an eyesore because it broke so abruptly with the typical style of Parisian architecture. However, the installation of la Tour Eiffel in 1889 for the World’s Fair was met with a similar response. I suppose that at the time, it seemed an aberration that would mar the face of the graceful city, with its Haussmannian façades, classical state buildings, and tree-lined boulevards. I wonder if any of those who criticized the Tower then expected it to become such an iconic and frequented landmark.
I consider it very fortunate that the Republican government envisioned turning the poor district of la Défense into such a vibrant modern financial center and that Gustave Eiffel wished to impress the world with his daring structure. Without their additions to the mélange of styles in Paris, might not be the beautiful, vibrant center that it has become. Going further back, if the emperor Napoleon III and his prefect, the Baron Haussmann, decided that Paris needed a face-lift, Paris would be a grim city filled with small cemeteries and a jumble of small, disorderly streets. Thus, their a massive urban renewal project, which involved the disinterment of the hundreds of Paris cemeteries and the laying out of ample avenues, created the look of the city that is now considered traditional.
If the first tendency I noticed was renewal, the second was reinvention: the ways in which the various regimes have redefined and repurposed many of the existing structures and monuments. For example, this morning we visited the Conseil Constitutional (Constitutional Council), a branch of the French government that watched over the constitutionality of laws proposed by the government and parliament, as well as over the regularity of the election. The Conseil Constitutional, as well as the Conseil d’État (Council of the State) and the Comédie Français, are all housed in the Palais-Royal. Originally, this was the palace of Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s influential minister. After his death, he bequeathed his palace unto the royal family. It was there that the boy-king Louis XIV would spend his childhood before he moved his court to Versailles, which led the palace to be given its current name, Palais Royal. The palace then passed to the king’s brother Phillipe d’Orleans, and would remain the palace of the Orleans family until the Revolution. It then went on to serve as offices for state institutions and a pleasure house, in turn, until it was sacked under the reign of Louis-Phillipe. After many other boulversements, in 1874 and 1958 the Conseil d’État and the Conseil Constitutionel were, respectively, definitively stationed at the Palais Royal. Thus, we can see how a former place of monarchic power came to serve the needs of the Republic.
During our Saturday afternoon promenade along the Historical Axis, we passes through the Place de la Concorde, another place with a history of shifting names and purposes. Initially commanded by the king Louis XV, it once contained a statue of the king surrounded by the fountains and stately lamp-columns built in an ornate classical style. Named the Place Louis XV, the king intended the plaza as a symbol of his regal power and authority. During the Revolution, his statue was unceremoniously toppled and melted down for use as ammunition. The guillotine took is place in the center of the plaza, aptly renamed Place de la Révolution. Considering the bloody state of the plaza during the Revolution, it might seem odd that it is now called the Place de la Concorde, literally Plaza of Peace and Harmony. Although the renaming can be attributable to the revolutionaries, the true change in the meaning of the plaza came as a result the 19th century’s government’s wish to erase the violent memories there located. Thus, after the viceroy of Egypt offered the French one of the two obelisks lining the entrance of the Temple of Luxor, the king Louis-Phillipe decided to place one of them in the center of the plaza as a symbol of amity between the two countries, and also as a monument devoid of any particular French-political symbolism.
Until next time, à bientôt!