Paris is an ancient city going back to the origins of Parisii, 300 B.C. Today, one can still see the remnants from this period in the Arènes des Lutèce located in the Latin Quarter or in the Crypte of the Notre Dame. Most of Paris, however, has been built and rebuilt.
Last week, the French MPs approved a law on the reconstruction of the Notre Dame Cathedral which was ravaged in a tragic fire on April 15th. The controversial decision has weighed the Modern transformation vs Traditional reconstruction. (see the full article on France24 “French lawmakers approve controversial bill to rebuild Notre-Dame”). President Emmanuel Macron along with his Culture Minister Franck Riester have had the impossible task of answering this question as the Notre Dame has been in the “hearts of the French people and in the entire world”. They have even conducted popular opinion polls to help them make the decision of whether to restore the Cathedral back to the way we all remember it or to modernize it and make it more culturally relevant with structural glass similar to the Apple Store.
[My husband and I were visiting Paris just one week before this terrible fire. This was a picture we took of the Notre Dame Cathedral on our last day. ]
In the mid nineteenth century, one hundred and fifty years ago, the emperor Napoleon III and his principal architect, Baron Haussmann, were struggling a similar dilemma with the surrounding area of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The entire city of Paris was in a dire need of transformation; not only to improve the visible functionality and aesthetics of Paris through new boulevards, squares and public buildings and parks, but also to improve the horrific sewage system and water supply. Most of Paris’ narrow streets were covered with raw sewage which led to disease. Because of this, “Cholera plagued Paris with the highest death rates peaking at 19,000 in 1848” (Pinkney, 11). Balzac and Hugo would describe the conditions of Paris in their works as slums “which our grandsons will refuse to believe such barbarianism would exist in the heart of Paris” (32).
The idea for this transformation came about partly from the influence of renovations of other major European cities such as London, Rome, Stockholm, Barcelona, Madrid and Mexico City. Louis Napoleon also felt he needed to follow suit with the recent improvements in the United States in New York, City, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Chicago.
The area surrounding the Notre Dame Cathedral would be a major part of this rebuilding. This area was a blemish on the city’s face, “a maze of dark and twisting streets…mud-colored houses, worm-eaten window frames “(10). Fourteen thousand people lived on the island of Ile de la Cite. To renovate the area around Notre Dame would displace most of these citizens. In all of Paris, according to Pinkney, no other area would be altered and affected like the Ile de la Cite. There were disputes about all of these changes, as today. Haussmann wanted to keep the area historic near the Cathedral and therefore built the Place du Parvis Notre-Dame in which thousands of visitors can enjoy magnificent views of the Cathedral today.
Napoleon III would also be influenced by his uncle Napoleon I who in 1798 said, “ If I were master of France, I would want to make Paris not only the most beautiful city that had ever existed, but also the most beautiful city that could exist”(33).
The Notre Dame Cathedral would be the Coronation place for Napoleon Bonaparte on December 2, 1804. Shabby from years of abuse and neglect during the Revolution, the Cathedral was completely refurbished by Percier and Fontaine for Napoleon’s Coronation. According to Diana Reid Haig, “A triumphal arch and golden statues of Charlemagne and other rulers were erected outside the cathedral and a striking neoclassical set resembling a temple from antiquity was constructed within” (75). Faux-marble columns were added and chandeliers with thousands of candles inside illuminated the cathedral. Jacques-Louis David would capture this historical event in a grand painting which hangs in the Louvre.
After two decades, Louis Napoleon would achieve his dream to build a new Paris. Soon, Paris would become the number one destination for travelers around the world as well as expats. Paris would become a model city for designers throughout the world (210).
Since this completion of the reconstruction of Paris in 1870, the bells of the Notre Dame Cathedral have only been silenced twice: during the German occupation in World War II [see post, Is Paris Burning?] and after the recent fire on April 15th. Whatever decision is made about the rebuilding of the Notre Dame Cathedral, whether traditional or modern, my only desire is to hear the bells of Notre Dame ring again.
Haig, Diana R. Walks Through Napoleon & Josephine’s Paris. New York: The Little
Pinkney, David. Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris. Princeton University Press, 1958.
Copyright 2019 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)