Paris – The Great Boulevards

A SECOND, and doubtless to the reader by this time more familiar walk, round the Great Boulevards, will suffice to give a hasty conception of the Paris of Louis XIV. and his immediate successors. Even if you are already well acquainted with the route, go over it once more, if only on the top of an omnibus, at this stage of your investigation, in order to take your bearings more fully. It must be borne in mind, for the purposes of this walk or ride, that in the earlier medieval period the district between the boulevards and the central core consisted, for the most part, of gardens and fields, among which were interspersed a few rural monasteries and suburban churches. These last have long since, of course, become wholly imbedded in modern Paris, but I will note as we pass a few earlier objects which it may be interesting, for those who have time, to diverge and visit.

Start from the Luxor Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde (noting here and elsewhere the Roman reminiscence of the bronze ships of Paris on the gas-lamps—as you see them at the Thermes), and walk up the Rue Royale, —the first portion of the great ring of streets which girdles the city of Louis XIV. The Rue St. Honoré, to your right, was, before the construction of the Rue de Rivoli and the Champs Élysées, the chief road which led westward out of ancient Paris. The Porte St. Honoré stood on this site, where it crossed the barrier by the modern Rue Royale. Beyond it, the street takes the characteristic name of the Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré ; and all the other streets which cross the girdle similarly change their name to that of the corresponding Faubourg as they pass beyond it. These long straggling roads, lined with houses on the outskirts (Faubourg St. Honoré, Montmartre, St. Denis, du Temple, etc.), have finally become the chief residential quarters of the city at the present day.

The handsome classical building in front of us is the Madeleine (Church of St. Mary Magdalen), — the last stage in the classical mania which substituted Græco-Roman temples for Christian churches and other edifices. (See previous stages in St. Paul and St. Louis, the Sorbonne, the Invalides, the Panthéon, etc.) Begun under Louis XV., it was not completed till the Restoration. In style it follows the late Roman variation on the Corinthian-Greek model. Notice, however, as you approach, that even this Grecian building bears on its purely classical pediment the stereotyped Parisian subject of the Last Judgment, with the Angel of the Last Trump, and the good and wicked to right and left of the Redeemer. Only, in this case, St. Mary Magdalen, under whose invocation, as the inscription states, the church is dedicated, kneels by the left side of Christ, imploring mercy for the wicked. Compare this last term in the treatment of this old conventional portal-relief with its naïf beginnings at Notre-Dame and St. Denis. It is also worth while to enter and inspect the chapels, the paintings and sculpture in which will reveal their dedications.

The Rue Royale forms the first part of the girdle of Louis XIV. From the Madeleine onward, we enter that wider part of this girdle which still distinctively hears the name of the Boulevard. To our left Baron Haussmann’s quite modern Boulevard Malesherbes opens up a vista of the recent and unsatisfactory Church of St. Augustin, — a great ornate pseudo-Romanesque building, unhappily accommodated to the space at the architect’s disposal. Proceeding along the Boulevard de la Madeleine, and then the Boulevard des Capucines, we arrive in a few minutes at the Place de l’Opéra, undoubtedly the central nodal point of modern Paris. To our left stands the great Opera House, erected at vast ex-pense in the gaudy meretricious style of the Second Empire, and decorated with good, but too voluptuous modern sculpture. Two new streets branch right and left of it. Walk round them, and so take the measure of the building. To our right the Avenue de l’Opéra has been run diagonally across the older streets of Louis XIV.’s town, toward the Palais Royal and the Théâtre Français. This is now one of the finest thoroughfares of the existing town. Nevertheless, the old Boulevard, above all in this part of its circuit, remains the centre of Parisian life, thought, and movement. Especially is it the region of . cafés and theatres. Here also the older Rue de la Paix, one of the earliest fine open thoroughfares in Paris, leads to the irregular octagonal Place Vendôme, laid out under Louis XIV., and said to owe its canted corners to the king’s own personal initiative. This place is a good example of the best domestic architecture of the eighteenth century. Its centre is occupied by the great bronze column (Colonne Vendôme) originally erected by Napoleon to commemorate his victories. It was pulled down by the Commune, but (the fragments having been preserved) was reërected after the triumph of the National party. Round it in a long spiral run a series of reliefs, suggested by those on Trajan’s Column at Rome ; but while the Roman pillar was surrounded by a Forum of several stories, with open porticoes from which the sculpture could be inspected, the sculpture on Napoleon’s is quite invisible, except just at the base, owing to the lack of any similar elevated platform from which to view it. The other great street di-verging from the Place de l’Opéra to the right, the Rue du 4 Septembre, leads to the Bourse (uninteresting), and is part of the modern arterial system.

Continuing along the line of Louis XIV.’s Boulevards, we reach next the Boulevard des Italiens, and then turn obtusely round into the Boulevard Montmartre. To our left lies the faubourg of that name, long since swallowed up by the engulfing city. At the Rue St. Denis (the great north road of Paris), we arrive at one of the debased classical triumphal arches (Porte St. Denis) which Louis XIV. erected in place of the ancient castellated gates. It is more or less decorated with contemporary reliefs representing his victories ; these, and the inscriptions, are worth examining. Beyond the gate, the road to St. Denis, much traversed in earlier times by pilgrims, takes the significant name of Rue du Faubourg St. Denis. A little farther on, the modern trunk line of Haussmann’s Boulevard de Sébastopol, hewn straight through the heart of the earlier town, intersects the old fortifications, leading on the right to the Cité, and on the left to the Gare de l’Est, in which direction it is known as the Boulevard de Strasbourg. The next corner, the Rue St. Martin, which similarly changes its name to that of its faubourg as it crosses the limit of the earlier town, is marked by a second of Louis XIV.’s arches, the Porte St. Martin (not quite so ugly), whose sculpture is again worthy of notice on historical grounds, if not on artistic.

A little way down the Rue St. Martin, to the right, lies the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers (uninteresting internally), which occupies the site of the former Cluniac Priory of St. Martin-des-Champs, after which the street is still called. This was one of the principal old monasteries in the belt outside the girdling walls of Philippe Auguste, though included within those of tienne Marcel. It was founded as early as the eleventh century. The Conservatoire itself, as an industrial exhibition, is hardly worth a visit (except for technical purposes), but it ought to be inspected for the sake of the old church of the monastery which it contains (enter it to view interior ; open on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays only), as well as for the fine refectory of the thirteenth century, a beautiful Gothic hall, probably erected by Pierre de Montereau, the architect of the Sainte Chapelle, who also built the other refectory, now destroyed, at St. Germain-des-Prés in the southern faubourg.

A little further on in the same street is the interesting Gothic church of St. Nicholas-des-Champs, with rather picturesque Renaissance additions. It stood, when first built, far out in the country. The fine west porch is of the fifteenth century. These buildings are chiefly worth notice as enabling the visitor mentally to restore the outer ring of monasteries and churches during the early mediaeval period, afterward englobed in the town of Louis XIV., and now in many cases adapted to alien modern uses.

Return to the main line of the boulevards, which here become distinctly shabbier and pass through a poorer district. This part of Paris is destitute of immediate interest, but should be traversed in order to give the visitor a just idea of the extent and relations of the eighteenth century city. We arrive be-fore long at the Place de la République, formerly the Place du Château-d’Eau, now adorned with a new bronze statue of the Republic. From this place several more new boulevards, in various directions, pierce through the poorer and densely populated regions of east-ern and northeastern Paris. Along the main line, the Boulevards du Temple, des Filles du Calvaire, and Beaumarchais lead hence through increasingly poorer-looking districts to the Place de la Bastille, where stood the famous strong castle of that name (Bastille St. Antoine), destroyed in the Revolution. Its site is now occupied by the Colonne de Juillet, erected to commemorate the Revolution of 183o. Hence the Rue St. Antoine leads on the right in one line into the Rue de Rivoli near the Hôtel de Ville. Beyond the line of the boulevards, to the left, it takes the name of Rue du Faubourg St. Antoine. This was the region of the poorer and fiery revolutionists of 1789-93.

The district within the boulevards in this direction was, in the Valois period, the most fashionable part of Paris. It contained the old royal palace of the Hôtel St. Paul, together with numerous other hôtels of the French nobility. From the Place de la Bastille, also, new boulevards diverge in several directions. You had better return to the centre of the town by the Rue St. Antoine, where the third turning to the right will lead you direct into the Place des Vosges, a curious belated relic of the Paris of Henry IV. Its interesting architecture and quiet stranded air will well repay you for the slight détour, and will suggest to you the possibility of many similar agreeable walks in the same district. Mr. Hare will prove a most efficient guide to this quaint district, for those who have time to explore it thoroughly. Remember always that the least important part of Paris, historically speaking, is the western region which alone is known to most passing strangers.