If I had only three days at my disposal in Paris, one of the things which I surely would want to see would be the Place des Vosges. But, of course, being rather fond of history, I may be just a little bit prejudiced. However, if your visit to Paris will include the Place de la Bastille, as it most likely will, you are bound to visit the Place des Vosges also because the two are only about a ten minute walk from each other; and as we have just now left the Place de la Bastille, let us just take a walk over there together.
If you will consult the little map in your Michelin guide you will see that the easiest way to reach the Place des Vosges from the Place de la Bastille is to walk one very short block down the Rue Saint-Antoine to the Rue des Tournelles. You will be able to recognize this street even without looking at the street sign because a little jog in the Rue Saint-Antoine forms a tiny little square there on which you will find a statue of Beaumarchais. This is the Pierre Augustine Caron de Beaumarchais who wrote the two plays upon which the operas “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro” are based. His house and garden stood almost in the shadow of the Bastille, at the end of the boulevard which now bears his name, and that is where he died on May 18, 1799. However, before we walk up this street, let me first tell you something about the general vicinity in which we now find ourselves.
During the short little walk down the Rue Saint-Antoine we will have passed the very spot where the Porte Saint-Antoine once stood. As you may remember from your history, it was to this gate that Etienne Marcel came on the night of July 31, 1358, in order to open the city gate to the forces of Charles II, the King of Navarre, who was then besieging Paris and was in league with the English. Anyway, Etienne’s attempt failed, and this last bold stroke of this powerful opponent to royal prerogatives proved to be his undoing. He had been followed by one John Maillart, a Captain in the Municipal forces who, suspecting his design, had followed him with a few of his men-at-arms, and struck him down with a battle ax just as he was about to carry out his design.
At that time France was governed by the Dauphin, Prince Charles, who was the eldest son of John II, who was also known as “John the Good.” Two years before that John had been taken prisoner by the Black Prince (Edward Prince of Wales) and carried off to England where he was held for a ransom of three million crowns. This happened during the memorable battle of Poitiers which was fought on September 19, 1356. When the ransom was not forthcoming, John was allowed to return to France to see if he could not raise the money himself. But apparently money was as scarce a commodity then as it is now. When John failed to raise the ransom, he returned to England voluntarily, where he was received with great honor and where he died on April 8, 1364. In the meantime, Prince Charles, who after his father’s death had become the Charles V who built the Bastille, was trying to rule France as best he could. Unfortunately, Charles V, who was not a bad King-he afterwards became known as “Charles the Wise”-had two tough adversaries. One of them was the King of Navarre, whom I already mentioned, and who had aspirations to the throne, and the other was our Etienne Marcel, who felt that no king ought to be all-powerful. Well, all this happened during the so-called Hundred Years’ War, which lasted from 1338 to 1453, and which was really a war between England and France over the dominions left in France by Eleanor of Aquitaine, who, after having been Queen of France, later also became Queen of England. After Eleanor’s death the English claimed that the French Province of Aquitaine belonged to them and the French claimed that it didn’t. And that was where matters rested for two hundred seventy-five years. Well, anyway, only about five months before Etienne got killed, he and some of his followers had forced their way into the Dauphin’s quarters on the Cite and murdered two of his marshals in front of his very eyes. It was this horrible experience which later induced Charles to leave the Cite and establish himself in the Louvre. I am mentioning all this here now because all of these events are more or less connected with the area through which we are now strolling. But this will be all I shall tell you about Etienne Marcel for the present. I shall tell you a little more about him when we get to the Hotel de Ville. And now, let us jump about two hundred years and continue our walk up the Rue des Tournelles.
The Rue des Tournelles obtains its name from the Hotel des Tournelles which had stood there for about two hundred years before the Place des Vosges was built. After Charles V had abandoned his place on the Cite and moved to the Louvre, he occasionally used this palace as a temporary residence. More important than that, however, is the fact that it was to this palace that Henry II was carried on the evening of June 30, 1559, after a splinter from a lance had pierced his eye during a tournament. At that time the area between this palace and the Rue Saint-Antoine was often used for tournaments, and this particular one was organized to celebrate the marriage of Henry’s fourteen-year-old daughter to Philip II of Spain. Near the end of the tournament, when it was a1ready beginning to get dark, Henry, who was wearing the colors of his lady friend, Diane of Poitiers, had insisted upon one more joust, and called upon the Captain of his Scottish Guard, Montgomery, to oppose him. For some reason or other, Montgomery’s lance glanced off the King’s shield, raised his visor and a splinter of it pierced his eye. Henry died from this injury ten days later and poor Montgomery, although the King had absolved him, had to flee to England. Henry’s death so grieved his wife, Catherine de Medici, that she had the palace demolished and that is about all we know about it today. And now, let us be done with this long history lesson and come to the Place des Vosges, toward which we have all this time been making our way. To do that, all we will have to do now is to continue on the Rue des Tournelles until we come to the Rue du Pas-de-la-Mule, and then turn a few steps down this street to our left and we will be on the Place des Vosges and in a different world.
In 1605, Henry IV, our King of Navarre number two, decided to build a series of houses on the square where the Hotel des Tournelles had stood. This is the Henry IV whose statue now stands on the Pont-Neuf. Since Henry intended these houses for his nobles in oxder to permit them to live closer to his own household, this square was to be different from any other square in Paris. Not only was it to be larger than any other square that had, heretofore, been built, but all the houses around it were to be of uniform design, and that was something that had never before been done. The type of building, their alignment, their height, the slant of the roofs and even their ornaments, were all fixed in the letters of patent. This ambitious project, which consisted of thirty-six buildings, took seven years to complete and was the first example of that uniform style of architecture one sees so much in Paris today. Although all of these buildings look alike, except the center buildings at the north and south ends, all of them were originally separate mansions with individual owners. The center building at the south end is known as the King’s Pavilion and that was the building which Henry had intended for himself. This, and the corresponding building at the north end, being a little higher than the rest, are the only buildings that differ from the others. The south end of the square is completely closed except for the archway which leads to the Rue de Birague and the Rae Saint-Antoine, but on its northern end the Rue du Pas-de-la-Mule runs right through the end of the square. In either case, one does not obtain a view of the square until one has entered by one or the other of these entrances, and since the area around the outside of the square is rather crowded, and open spaces in this part of the city are practically non-existent, your first view of it is apt to be startling.
By scaling my map, I would judge the Place des Vosges to be about five hundred feet. square, and that is not a small square for any city. All the houses around it are of red brick with a limestone facing, a combination one sees very seldom in Paris today, although part of the palace of Versailles is built of the same combination. There are iron balconies in front of some of the windows, and underneath the entire length of the buildings there is an open arcade. As I already mentioned, all of these buildings except the end buildings, are of absolutely identical design, three stories high, not counting the alternately round and gabled dormer windows. When one considers that these buildings are every bit of three hundred fifty years old, it is not surprising that anyone who visits this square for the first time is bound to be struck by the charm of its Medieval setting. And strangest of all, these buildings are still occupied, most of them having been turned into small apartments. Around the center of the square there is a triple row of trimmed plane trees and these are wisely kept low enough so as not to hide the buildings. When the Place des Vosges was first built there was a garden behind each building, but these have, of course, long since been used for other buildings. Also, the square was at first known as the Place Royale and, in accordance with the usual custom, an equestrian statue of Louis XIII, the King who followed Henry IV, ornamented the center of it, for poor Henry never saw its completion. During the French Revolution this statue was melted down and cast into cannons and the horrible-looking statue of the same King you see there now-in sandstone this timewas added during the reign of Louis-Philippe. It was also during the Revolution that the name of the square was changed, first to the Place des Federes and then, in 1793, to the Place de 1’Indivisibilite, something for which the Revolution, no doubt, had great need. In 1799 the name of the square was changed once more and given the name Place des Vosges after the Department of the Vosges, which happened to be the first to pay its taxes that year. It has been going by that name ever since.
I need hardly mention that a square the size of the Place des Vosges was bound to become the site of many colorful public spectacles. It was an ideal site for tourna ments and was also a favorite spot for duels. But even more colorful are the names of its former residents. Madame de Sevigne was born at number one; Bossuet, the great French preacher, at one time lived at number 17; before he built himself a palace of his own, Richelieu lived at number 18; Marion Delorme, the famous French courtesan and leader of the elegant world (1613-1650), about whom Victor Hugo wrote a story, lived at number 11. Another famous woman of this period, but not living on this square, was Ninon de Lenclos (1615-1705) who lived in a house which is now number 28 Rue des Tournelles, the street we just came up on. During her long life this brilliant woman ruled French society for almost two generations. Not wishing to lose even one of her friends, she never married, but numbered among her lovers such diverse men as Richelieu (1585-1642); Moliere (1622-1673); De La Rochefoucauld, the author of the famous maxims (1613-1680); the Great Conde (1621-1687); La Fontaine, the fabulist (1621-1695); Racine (1639-1699) and many lesser luminaries. So great was Ninon’s fame that when Voltaire was still a boy, and don’t forget that he was not born until 1694, his father took him to see her. Having been told that he was a very studious boy, Ninon later left him the sum of two thousand francs so that he could buy himself some books. It was Voltaire’s letters on (please not to) Ninon which later furnished the chief sources for the numerous biographies which have appeared about her. But now, let us get back once more to the Place des Vosges.
Coming down to more recent times, Rachel, the great French tragedienne, at one time lived at number 9; both Theophile Gautier and Alphonse Daudet successively lived at number 8; and between 1832 and 1848 Victor Hugo resided at number 6. This is the house near the southeastern corner of the square and the entire house is now the Victor Hugo Museum. After you have visited this museum, and I am sure you will want to do so, you can leave the square either the way you came, or through the archway under the King’s Pavilion, which would bring you out on the Rue Saint-Antoine again. If, after wandering around this square for a while, you have become confused as to the direction from which you cameand that can easily happen-all you have to do is look at the statue of Louis XIII. The tail-end of the horse will point in the direction from which you entered. You will then again be on the Street of the Mule Step, only from there on the Rue du Pas-de-la-Mule continues, toward your left again, as the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois.
If you will follow this street, you will first come to the Carnavelet Museum, and then, after another brisk walk, to the buildings housing the National Archives, in other words, the Hotels Rohan and Subise. If you continue on the same street after that-the street is a rather winding one-you will ultimately come out on the Boulevard de Sebastopol, where you will be able to hail a taxi. Two very short blocks before you come to this boulevard yon will cross two very ancient streets. The one nearest the boulevard is the Rue Quincampoix where john Law, of the Mississippi Bubble fame, had his office; and the one ahead of that is the ancient Rue Saint-Martin. However, after you leave the National Archives you will no longer be on the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, but on the Rue Rambutealz, for streets in Paris have a habit of changing their names every few blocks.
If we should cross the Boulevard de Sebastopol and continue in the direction in which we have been walking, two very short blocks would bring us right into les Halles, the great produce market of Paris, and that is where I propose to meet you again tomorrow.