Mini History of Paris
Learn about what the colors of the French flag mean to complete your Paris history tour!
If you were going to sum up the history of Paris in one sentence, it might sound like this:
Paris is a city that has simply refused to be managed by outsiders.
Over the years, French kings who’ve distanced themselves from the city ended up regretting it. When Parisians don’t like the politics and restraints of the day, they end up finding a local powerbroker. The most blatant example is the French revolution which settled for no less than the king and queen’s heads, but Paris’s history of electing a local leader to defend the city’s interests goes back practically to its origins. Even after Roman occupation, Parisii inhabitants maintained their river trade.
When Norseman tried to invade the city in 885 (the fifth attempt in 40 years), a local count, Eudes of Paris kept them out and was subsequently elected king. Much later on, the throughout the middle ages, the city prévost’s role remained pivotal, evidenced by the statue of Etienne Marcel standing between City Hall and the Seine River. Perhaps he remains as a reminder that Paris is a city with an attitude. In 1357 Marcel led an open revolt against King Charles V. It’s no accident that the Paris city mayor position was suppressed for years, and only reinstated in 1977.
Who got here first? Celtic (or Germanic-depending on the historian) tribes populated the Seine River islands (Ile de la Cite and Ile St. Louis) when the Romans arrived in 52 B.C. The Romans stayed for some three hundred years, built roads, aqueducts, amphitheaters, and baths. They eventually set up camps on the Seine’s Left Bank, leaving the Parisii fishermen on the islands. Naturally their major roads led to Rome. When the barbarian invaders drove the Romans soldiers homeward (276-280 A.D), the Christian church remained. It developed centers of learning as an antidote and a refuge from war.
Eventually, centers of learning grew up around Notre Dame Cathedral (1163) and offshoot schools sprung up on Paris’s Left Bank. Paris’s Latin Quarter with its newly created schools like La Sorbonne (founded in 1257 by Robert de Sorbon) attracted students from all of Europe. Latin was the spoken language of students – and while the Church nurtured minds, the kings of France built walls around the city to keep out future invaders.
Philip Augustus’ castle and walls built in 1200 A.D. created the beginning foundations for his eventual home and palace for future kings. It was called the Louvre. You can still see remnants of the original chateau fort foundations to this day in the museum’s lower levels, but the total museum is truly a work in progress with each successive king, emperor or republic adding additional wings and new structures – most recently the 20th century I.M. Pei pyramid entrance.
At different places in the city, a few remnants of the Philip Augustus wall remain, but the majority of the city you see today is primarily a 19th-century city. To appreciate the older city of Romans and medieval students, you’ll need to take some time to delve into the streets and alleys of the Latin Quarter or visit some of the few remaining medieval townhouses on Paris’s right bank. Even the Gothic masterpiece, Notre Dame de Paris, was largely restored by Violette le Duc during the 19th-century. Be sure to visit St. Chapelle built as a showcase for the relics (Crown of Thorns brought back from the Venetians in 1239 by Louis IX. If you’re a fan of the Middle Ages and want to see authentic church statuary, be sure to visit Paris’s Middle Ages Museum (Musee du Moyen Age) on Blvd. St. Michel, the site of Roman bath ruins. La Tour Jean Sans Peur at Metro: Etienne Marcel is another one of the few remaining prime examples of a private home. Taking a guided walking tour is another good way to gather an appreciation of the city’s medieval aspect that lingers just below the surface. A good guide will help you discern the towers and wooden beams that are often camouflaged by modern day commerce.
King Francis I had the good sense to lavish his attention on the Louvre, changing its aspect from a castle fort to a palace. He is often credited with introducing the Renaissance style in France (yet some give credit to Charles VIII for being the frontrunner for introducing the new Italian style). Nevertheless, it was Francois I who invited a certain Leonardo da Vinci to France who didn’t arrive empty-handed. He brought along his favorite painting – the Gioconda (Mona Lisa).
Paris isn’t rich ground for Renaissance fans, but you need go no farther than the Louvre to view the wings that Francois I added. The museum itself has plenty examples of Renaissance paintings and treasures. Several of Paris’s churches remain as lasting witnesses of the era – one of the loveliest is the Left Bank St. Etienne du Mont dedicated to Paris’s patron saint, St. Genevieve. St. Etienne’s lush interior with its intricately carved rood screen is one of my favorite churches in Paris.
While walking through the vast halls of the Louvre, it’s good to keep in mind that these were the very halls and antechambers in which Catherine de Medici hatched her plots to massacre thousands of Protestants in one single night, where Queen Margot frolicked with the future Henry IV (who decided Paris was worth a Mass), and in which poisonings, stabbings, and political scheming were concocted in the shadows. Be sure to see the film Queen Margot to capture the full flavor of era.
Henry IV escaped the massacres, and embraced the city in 1594. Eventually, he built the Royal Place, now called Place des Vosges. His statue still graces the tip of Ile de la Cite at Place Dauphine. Called the ‘Vert Galant’ or the ‘Gay Blade’ he may have been the most Parisian of kings.
The Place des Vosges in the Marais district became the popular spot to be – as long as Henry IV was in residence – but some of his ideas of creating a royal place which combined artisans quarters side by side with aristocratic lodging was not so enthusiastically received – and by the time he was assassinated – this utopian dream also faded. Future kings who tried to create a home for artists – in the Louvre – and homes for veteran soldiers in the Invalides – never succeeded in bridging the gap between aristocratic life and city life. The Fronde rebellion (1648-1652) drove French kings, once again, away from Paris.
Louis XIV, had since childhood, retained an aversion for Paris (no doubt due to the Fronde insurrection which ultimately broke into their Paris palace). He eventually built his Versailles palace far enough from the city to be able to ignore any brewing discontent. Although he and his successors bequeathed monumental buildings like the Invalides (which would later house Napoleon’s tomb), hospitals, churches, gardens (Tuileries), Place de la Concorde (Louis XV), Place des Victoires, Champs Elysees, the classic grandeur was still an elite playground for the royal favorites. How ironic that these playgrounds eventually became their prisons (the Tuileries) and their execution blocks (Place de la Concorde). To visit the inner world of one of these rarified creatures, you can visit some of the churches of the era – where the ladies of the court would come to listen to the long-winded ‘Bourdalou’ (and bring their own ‘bourdaloue’ port-a-potty with them to St. Paul’s church, but the true testimony to these times lies (as always) behind closed doors. Try to join up with an escorted tour to some of the few examples of 18th-century ‘hotels particuliers’ or city townhouses of the era. My favorite is the Hotel de Lauzun, owned by the City of Paris.
Revolutionary Paris (1789-1795)
Apart from opening up the Louvre as a public museum, revolutionary Paris is probably best remembered for its systemized butchery and destruction of property. With the dismantling of the Bastille, you could say that the French revolution was a precursor of future urban renewal projects. Luckily, 19th century planners like Haussmann didn’t have an axe (or a guillotine) to grind. For a look at everyday life in revolutionary France, be sure to visit The Carnavalet Museum, Paris’s city museum. The great painters of the day such as Jean Louis David (who painted Napoleon’s coronation) not only managed to hang onto their heads but find a place to hang their paintings for posterity in the newly opened Louvre Museum. One of the cafes of the time period where some of the luminaries of the day (including Benjamin Franklin) threw back a beer or two would be the Procope Café which exists as a restaurant to this very day.
Napoleonic and 19th-century Paris
Napoleon I, (1804-1814) emperor of France and whatever else he could get his hands on, didn’t see the Arc de Triomphe finished in time for his wedding day, but he did set the tone for the 19th century ‘modern city’. It would build on the grandiosity of the Bourbon dynasty. Whereas Louis thought about broad squares and gardens. Napoleon peppered the city with taller and taller triumphal arches. Throughout the 19th century, ‘grandeur, glory and romantic fervor’ prevailed. Many of the typical ‘pierre de taille’ or stone apartment buildings were constructed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
Baron von Haussmann, the Second Empire city planner who worked for Napoleon III (1852-1870)had virtual carte blanche to level many of the city’s medieval structures deemed unhealthy. Much of Ile de la Cite surrounding Notre Dame Cathedral was cleared of its half-timbered houses to create a ‘parvis’ or esplanade to offset the cathedral’s front entrance. (When, more recently, Pres. Cecescau tried to do the same in Bucharest, Romania, he ended up getting shot). Houses stacked along the Pont au Change bridge (connecting Ile de la Cite to the Right Bank) were demolished. Some of these had already been removed in the preceding century. Haussman also gets credit for installing the city’s sewer system and maximizing use of the city’s many natural springs for bringing in drinking water. (Napoleon I had already begun some of the infrastructure plans for water projects).
Paris may have found in Napoleon I a strong leader after the chaos of the revolution – but hardly a leader who represented Paris. And in the wake of his nephew Napoleon III, the city was occupied by Prussian forces in the 1870s. The city once again lashed back – (March 1871) the Commune took over and burned down the Tuileries Palace, the Hotel de Ville and parts of the Louvre in rage over the terms of the peace treaty with Prussia March.
While Paris along with the rest of Europe experienced upheaval after upheaval, the city also became a mecca for artists, poets and musicians. This was the century that brought us the Romantic Movement. Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris spurred the restoration of the Notre Dame Cathedral which may have otherwise been demolished. Chopin met Georges Sand. Rodin sculpted Balzac. Courbet founded realism. Emile Zola wrote about the appalling conditions in working class Paris and Impressionism was born. Much of what you may love about Paris nowadays and consider to be so essential to the Parisian landscape, remains so, thanks to the nonconformists of the 19th-century, and to those that believed in their talent.
Belle Epoque Paris
Turn of the 20th century Paris has a number of remaining examples of a euphoric era. All you have to do is find some of Hector Guimard’s twirling wrought iron Metro entrances. Paris may not have as many ornate ‘art nouveau’ buildings as you’ll find in Prague, but the Musee d’Orsay’s second floor offers plenty of examples of ‘art nouveau’ Parisian apartment interiors and furnishings. You’ll find floor tiles and wrought iron doorframes in many Parisian neighborhoods. Music halls and dance halls abounded. This is when the Moulin Rouge and the can-can were the rage. Artists and musicians flocked to the city that offered plenty of inexpensive housing for poor but adventuresome expats. Paris’s universal exhibitions continued to draw the world’s attention. Paris fashion became the guide for Europe and America.
The two World Wars from 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1944 may have left little physical damage to the city, but the combination of these two battles have left indelible scars. The huge price of war, the loss of almost an entire generation in World War I, the German occupation and deportations of World War II, make this century one of Paris’s most anguished for future historians to decipher. Its cafes continued to welcome philosophers and humanists but also the Pol Pots of the world.
Mitterand left his legacy of architecture – his Grand Arche, his Bastille Opera House and his Bibliotheque – Pompidou his ‘periphe’. The fate of other failed projects such as the demolition of Les Halles markets and the subsequent replacement remain up in the air.
People are finally getting used to the Pompidou Center (known endearingly to most Parisians as the oil refinery).
What next for the 21st century and the New Millennium?
A completely pedestrian-oriented city? Will the next generation of Parisians be a walking and bicycling, non-smoking, non-drinking community? Will the gap between Parisian suburban dwellers and Parisian residents continue to widen? An astoundingly expensive moated city for the super rich. Or, will the city eventually become a ‘living museum city’ where no one really lives? However Parisians decide to map out their city’s future, you can be sure that this Paris will always be in the limelight.
Chris Card Fuller
Author’s note: Comments or corrections of any historical dates, facts, etc. are always appreciated.
History Books to pack:
The Michelin Tourist Guide would be my suggestion for a thorough and compact history which includes plenty of dates and the history associated with each monument you may want to visit.
Confused by all the kings named Louis and Charles? You are not alone.
A Holiday History of France by Ronald Hamilton
The Hogarth Press, London 1985 is another compact book that you can slip into your carry-on bag. Each king gets his picture included – which should make remembering them all somewhat easier (if you like that kind of challenge).