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When War-Torn Rubble Met Royal Imagination, 'Paris Became Paris'

Le Pont Neuf, shown here in an 18th-century painting by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, was completed in 1606 by Henry IV. The bridge's construction kicked off the reinvention of Paris in the 17th century. Today, it's the oldest standing bridge across the Seine.
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Le Pont Neuf, shown here in an 18th-century painting by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, was completed in 1606 by Henry IV. The bridge's construction kicked off the reinvention of Paris in the 17th century. Today, it's the oldest standing bridge across the Seine.

Today, Paris is a city of light and romance, full of broad avenues, picturesque bridges and countless tourists visiting to soak in its charms.

But the French capital wasn't always a stylish destination, says historian Joan DeJean. She's written about all things French and fashionable, from the birth of luxury goods to the rise of the celebrity hair stylist (which began during the terribly chic reign of Louis XIV). In her new book, How Paris Became Paris, DeJean starts with a look at the dismal condition of Paris in the late 1500s. The long wars between Protestants and Catholics had ended, but the toll on the city had been immense.

"It was a city torn apart by warfare. Paris at that time is so desolate, so burned out, that contemporary observers talk about wolves roaming freely in the streets of the city," DeJean tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "Paris was also a city largely empty: huge spaces of empty terrain everywhere in the city. And the new king, Henry IV, had a lot of imagination and energy."

Over the following century, Henry IV and later rulers, together with their engineers, architects and planners, transformed that desolate landscape into the modern city we know today. DeJean tells Montagne about what was so new about the Pont Neuf, why public flirtation became a new trend and how Paris changed the nature of tourism.

Interview Highlights

On the innovation of the Pont Neuf, Paris' "new bridge"

To begin with, it was wide, 75 feet wide. The London Bridge at that point was 12 feet wide to 20 feet wide, so 75 feet wide is very, very wide. It's still the widest bridge in Paris. It was also, and this is perhaps the most amazing thing, was built without houses lining both sides. People who know, for example, the Ponte Vecchio here in Florence today, still see a model of these bridges with houses, and that's how all bridges had been built for financial reasons. The constructions paid for the bridge itself. But Henry IV wanted a bridge without houses. So he had all the wine brought into the city of Paris, every cask brought in, was taxed. So one observer said the drunkards paid for the new bridge ...

They could do so many things [on the bridge], it was extraordinary. For example, on each side of the bridge there was a raised walkway. These were the first sidewalks in the city to have been seen in modern times. So that meant that pedestrians were free to walk and to do something no one had been able to do before: simply admire the view along the river on either side of the bridge. Also on the bridge, people set up little makeshift theaters, so there would be performances on the bridge. People even set up little stalls, and they would sell things there.

Joan DeJean is the author of 10 books on French history and culture.
Candace DiCarlo / Courtesy of Pantheon
Courtesy of Pantheon
Joan DeJean is the author of 10 books on French history and culture.

And another remarkable thing: Parisians of all ranks. You see poor people on the bridge, you see bourgeois on the bridge, and you see very wealthy people, both men and women. This is really important: the city at that time was not a place where women circulated freely, and in Paris, beginning with that bridge, women did feel that they could come out, even come out alone and walk on the bridge.

On the creation of tree-lined boulevards

People today think of [Louis XIV] as the man who gave France Versailles. However, long before Versailles was opened, Louis XIV was a young king rethinking the city of Paris, and in the 1690s he came up with a plan that was one of the most revolutionary plans for any city of any time.

... Paris was a walled city, as were most cities at the time, with fortifications designed to protect it from invasion. Louis XIV issued a proclamation saying that under his rule, Paris was going to be safe from invasion, so they didn't need the walls anymore. So he and his engineers and city planners had the walls torn down and they used the rubble and the dirt from that to make a huge boulevard. They called it "The Boulevard"; it's the first use of "boulevard" as a walkway and thoroughfare in a modern city. It was 120 feet wide with two double rows of elm trees lining each side.

On how boulevards led to another new trend: public flirting

One of the things that I love about the boulevard is that on the boulevard itself, by later decades of the 17th century, foreign observers said people would stay out at night. They put lights in those elm trees, and people would dance on the boulevard until three and four in the morning. The boulevards also connected to Paris' new gardens, which were completely public, open to people, and in the public gardens, men and women would meet with each other and flirt, men handing women flowers.

On the beginning of nighttime illumination

The basic reason for this was a feeling that the city was so dangerous at night that merchants were afraid, for example, at the end of the day to lock up their shops and walk home because they were afraid of being robbed in the streets, and there were lots of gangs of thieves in the streets of the city.

So they started a system of street lighting, and thousands of street lights are put up in a sort of pulley system against the walls of buildings, two on each street, at the ends of each street, and people were assigned the task in each neighborhood, you had the task for a certain number of months, you were the candle lighter for your neighborhood, and they went around with a basket of these huge candles, and the lanterns could be lowered on the pulley system and you changed the candle, removed the old one, put the new one in, lit it, and then raised the lantern.

On the creation of tourism for pleasure

It's really the beginning of a new kind of tourism. There were things to do in Paris that people couldn't necessarily enjoy in other cities. And again and again, there's the same message. People will come to Paris and they'll begin by, say, going to Notre Dame, because Notre Dame cathedral is still an obligatory visit, and they'll say, 'You know, really, it was OK, an hour there was great, but I wanted to go and sit in a cafe, and then I wanted to go to the Marais and walk around, and then I wanted to go to the Place des Vosges and see what that was like.' So there's a people-watching scene that develops. It's not the standard model where people went to Rome and visited the great monuments of antiquity, period. Louis XIV said he wanted to build, and I quote, "a place dedicated to pleasure." Well, I think he did it.

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