It was certainly a charming idea to evoke, for the pleasure of the eyes, the Paris of the past, which we can guess from a few monuments, churches, private mansions, and sections of streets, but which has nevertheless disappeared. The rare specimens of architecture that have been preserved are too scattered and above all too out of place in the midst of the modern buildings that surround them for us to be able, even with a great deal of good will, to imagine what the capital was like during the various periods of which we still have samples. Even more so, one can hardly imagine it as it was before, if what remains is not enough to bring back to mind the centuries that have passed.
Buildings are not everything in a city; they are like pure diamonds that represent an intrinsic value on their own, but whose price is doubled when they are set, surrounded, mounted with their procession of precious metals, fine stones and pearls. We still have Notre-Dame, for example, but the famous basilica, which is the whole world in itself, is no longer surrounded as it once was by those pointed gabled houses whose gutters ended up criss-crossing the narrow, twisting streets; It no longer emerges from the swarming chaos at its feet, and although it has retained the prestigious grandeur of superhuman works, it perhaps no longer impresses as much as it did when it dominated with all its imposing and superb height the jumble of hovels lurking in the shadow of its towers. The house, which also had its own character, has collapsed; it has been pulled down. The merchant, the bourgeois, the craftsman have changed their appearance by changing their environment; the costume has changed with their habits and customs. The great egalitarian and cold road has taken away with its tramway line the picturesque and the unexpected, the individuality of the dwelling as well as that of the inhabitant: our houses all look alike and we have made, it seems, a considerable and meritorious effort when we decided on a more or less dark overcoat.
Paris had other aspects! And it is these various aspects that we see again at the exhibition, on the banks of the Seine. The situation of the building overhanging the water is a real find, and the millions of visitors who followed the river path could not hold back a cry of real admiration at the incomparable view presented by the uninterrupted sequence of buildings that form the Cité des Nations on the left bank, the palace of the Army and Navy, with, as a counterpart on the right bank, the extraordinary and striking Old Paris of Robida, the master draughtsman, reflecting its turrets, its bell towers, its thousand windows in the glittering water.
This is not the first time that reconstructions of this kind have been carried out; but it must be said that nothing so perfect, so completely true, has been done until now. Often, it was only a kind of decor with, on the ground floor, some practicable interiors, all the rest being only trompe l'oeil. Here the houses are houses from top to bottom, and the buildings are real buildings, containing rooms full of people, where everything is life, activity and movement. This Paris, or rather these old Parises, for there are several periods juxtaposed to form a homogeneous whole, varied but not disparate, are recreated Parises, with their streets, their squares, their crossroads: it was necessary, no doubt, to spend a lot of talent, ingenuity... and money to achieve such a result.
First of all, the location adopted, which was very favourable on the one hand because of the Seine and the Champs-Elysées, which are just a stone's throw away, lacked width: this was found, but at the price of what work!
Old Paris is largely built on stilts, the riverbank being far from sufficient for its development. For months the platform was prepared where the buildings of the good old days would rise, strange and graceful. This platform, with more than 300 metres of frontage on the Seine, represents a surface area of 6500 metres. It was established above the high water level by means of a thousand piles, varying from 10 to 15 metres in length and 1 metre in diameter, driven to refusal, from 2.5 to 6 metres, according to the geological layers encountered, by a 1000 kilo sheep, falling back up to five hundred times, to make the most recalcitrant ones penetrate by barely a millimetre at each blow. This preparatory work alone, but how important, was a curiosity. Today the eye immediately goes to what has risen as if by magic on the ground conquered by force, forgetting this forest of beaten piles, coming from the renowned fir-trees of the Orne and the Eure, and to this unique façade, composed of an infinite number of types of architecture grouped in three divisions, from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, passing through the Renaissance.
Old Paris plays a leading role in the general decor of the Exhibition; it stands out, by the diversity of its buildings, against the mass of palaces facing it, and it has the additional advantage, which forms such a pretty picture, of allowing, once one has entered it, to admire at one's ease the marvels unfolding as far as the eye can see.
The main entrance to Old Paris is at the Pont de l'Alma. We are in the middle ages, that is to say in the presence of a massive, military architecture, and as this architecture seems to really date back to the distant period it represents, as the stones bear the marks of the years on their worn walls, as the ironwork and the roofs have an air of venerable obsolescence, the visitor is immediately led to wonder by what process such an interesting result has been obtained. Here is how the architects and artists have worked: after much research to gather serious documentation on each building to be reproduced, the framework trusses were covered with moulded staf from the impressions taken from the patterns modelled for the sculptures. The stones, which were larger or smaller, and differently arranged according to the period, were imitated to a fault, thanks to the care taken by the masons to add certain oxides to their plaster. The painters came next; they gave the woodwork, the carved parts and the walls the appropriate colour. In addition, as we were ahead of schedule, the exterior of all these constructions underwent the action of heat, cold and rain; the result was an inimitable patina, a happy complement to the measures taken to provide the most complete illusion of reality. The entrance, as we have just said, takes us right into the Middle Ages; the visitor has, in front of him, the rampart and the turreted building of the Porte Saint-Michel, one of the gates of Philippe Auguste's enclosure, on the left bank, rebuilt under Charles V, when Paris, growing, required the establishment of the fourth wall built since Lutetia, seeing the Romans coming, had to be fortified.
The enclosure, at the time of Charles V, consisted, on the left bank, of a curtain wall flanked by semicircular towers and very close together; on the right bank, the square towers were more widely spaced; there were two castles, the Bastille and the Louvre. The enclosure was naturally pierced by gates with a very pronounced defensive character. They consisted of a large building, flanked by towers or turrets, with a barbican on the other side of the moat, or an unlined earthen boulevard.
The Porte Saint-Michel rests on the rampart, the debris of fortifications, pieces of curtain walls, large walls, such as were left in place by the continual expansion of Paris, which for a long time preserved the vestiges of its previous enclosures, vestiges to which the houses clung, which were transformed into convents, military buildings, or which were used for public services.
After passing through the arch of the Porte Saint-Michel, you come to the Place du Pré-aux-Clercs, framed by the gable of the Maison aux Piliers and the Tour du Louvre. The very reverse side of the Porte Saint-Michel is represented by the entrance portal of the Chartreuse du Luxembourg. The Maison aux Piliers, which was the first hotel in the city of Paris, consisted of three gables similar to those of Old Paris, which were attached to the hospice of the Orphans of the Holy Spirit. The Louvre tower is typical of the high Parisian towers flanked by the turret where the spiral staircase runs, with a crenellated platform and a pepperpot roof.
Under the gable of the Maison aux Piliers, the rue des vieilles Ecoles leads to a number of Parisian houses that are interesting both for their architecture and for the people who lived in them. The first is Molière's birthplace or Pavillon des singes, rue des Etuves. The name "Pavillon des singes" comes from the corner post or cornice, sculpted from top to bottom, with monkeys climbing. The last of these corner posts, a marble of Jesse, was recently removed from a House of Nicolas Flamel, which still exists in rue de Montmorency, 45, but completely damaged; the restitution was made with such scrupulousness, according to a drawing of the time, that its former owner, the illuminator, would return to it with his eyes closed. He could take back to his shop the patient pen and meticulous brush with which he calligraphed and coloured for the rich bourgeois, the nobles, and even the king, the missals that museums now compete for at a high price. Nicolas Flamel was an artist in his own right; he had more talent than all his colleagues gathered around him in shops similar to his; he also earned a lot of money, and as Dame Pernelle, his worthy companion, was a wise housewife, the couple could afford the luxury of showing themselves to be generous with the parish and compassionate with the poor; it did not take much more for superstition to become attached to the name of Nicolas Flamel: The vulgar made him an alchemist, attributed to him the secret of the philosopher's stone and the gift of eternal life. Nicolas Flamel's philosopher's stone was work, and his alchemy a prudent management of his goods: he was only so rich because he put the needs of the unfortunate before the satisfaction of his desires, and anyone can be rich on that account.
Then there is the house of Théophraste Renaudot, founder of the Gazette, our ancestor, the newspaper at its birth, preparing to fulfil its role of propagator in the world, thanks to typography; the house of the master printer Robert Estienne, the Tower of the Collège Fortet, still visible near the Panthéon, and finally the famous Cabaret de la Pomme de Pin, which is included in the composition of the paintings of the time, spoken of in the vaudevilles à couplets, Finally, the prototype of the literary tavern, where the red maritorne is the counterpart of the owner, eager to meet the customers approaching his stone staircase, when these customers were called Boileau, Molière, Racine, La Fontaine, Chapelle, Lully or Mignard in the great century.
After the rue des Vieilles-Ecoles and the picturesque rue des Remparts, with its curious dwellings and stalls full of small merchants, come the crossroads and the church of Saint-Julien-des-Ménestriers, whose portal on the rue Saint-Martin contains a legion of little angels playing all known instruments. On the right, a statue of Saint Genest, patron saint of jugglers; on the left, Saint Julien. Saint-Julien-des-Ménestriers was, among the hundred churches whose sharp bell towers pierced the sky, the corporate chapel of the musicians, minstrels and jugglers of Paris and all France. In front of its porch, the musicians were praised, and the chief of the minstrels of Saint-Julien extended his power over all the guilds of the provinces.
Saint-Julien, with its gabled roof, its chevet framed by houses and shops, produces the best effect on the small square; the pretty chapel and the Pilori of Saint-Germain-des-Prés mark the limit of the Gothic style. With the old Halles, we pass into the eighteenth-century quarter. The square includes the turret of the Château Gaillard, the old gables that followed each other along the streets forming the edge of the pillars of the Halles, and the Grille de Lully, which comes from the house of the famous musician, located in the rue des Petits-Champs, at the corner of the rue Saint-Anne. This grille is authentic.
Here is the Grand-Châtelet, as it was restored during the reign of Louis XII, according to an etching of 1650. The building above the vault is flanked by two turrets, a large decorated clock can be seen under a very advanced canopy. The bell tower of a small chapel, which disappeared under Louis XIV, rises above the fortified door. Passing the arch, it leads, as in the past, to the Pont-au-Change, which gives an exact idea of these old bridges with houses of the past, forming on the water streets with irregular constructions planted in corbelling on the beams or on the stones of the bridge, above the mills. As bridges were rare, and as the houses, which all had shops, left little room for horsemen, carts and pedestrians, it is conceivable that the bridges were always places where people were heavily hustled, which was a source of delight to the wool pullers and other crooks.
The gable that can be seen next, with its two glass windows and rose window, on the façade overlooking the Seine, belongs to the Palais de la Cité. This is the great hall, the hall of solemnities, of royal feasts; later the great hall of the Palace rebuilt by Saint Louis and Philippe le Bel after the disappearance of the Roman Palace, there were magnificent pieces that we can appreciate, since they still exist: the Clock Tower, the Conciergerie, the Sainte-Chapelle.
The great hall was destroyed by fire. It dated from the last years of the fourteenth century and had been completed by Enguerrand de Marigny. It is this room that has been exactly rebuilt with its windows, its roses in the gables, sending light under the panelled vaults, painted in azure and decorated with gold flowers, its statues of kings fixed to the pillars, legendary statues, the history of France represented by these portraits and the inscriptions accompanying them. Good and bad kings, who have reigned well or badly, are there, with their swords raised or lowered, depending on whether tradition grants them merit or accuses them of incapacity. In the great hall of the palace, we will see Pharamond, Clotaire, Clovis, Chilperic, Dagobert, Hugues Capet, Pépin le Bref, Saint-Louis and Philippe Auguste, not only sculpted in stone or wood, but also variously painted in bright colours, with vivid blue contrasting with bright red, with yellow to represent the gold embroidery. At the back of the room was the marble table, said to be in one piece, where the king and the highest court officials sat. We see it again in the present room, but with a completely different purpose, since it serves as a platform for various speakers, speakers and artists, kings in their own right if you like, but who are no longer of the same race as those of the statues that contemplate them somewhat astonished.
Following the same itinerary, in the direction of the river's course, one reaches the Grand Degrees of the Saint-Chapelle, through which King Louis XII, who was ill with gout, could be carried in a litter. These steps, built as hors-d'oeuvres, parallel to those of the Chambre des Comptes, passed under four ogival arches, supported by pillars decorated with fleurs-de-lis ending in flowered pinnacles framing a network of flamboyant curves.
To accompany the famous staircase of the Sainte-Chapelle, architectural details from different periods were borrowed, such as the windows of the Trésor des Chartes, the Bretèche of the Hôtel de Bourbon, an enclosed balcony that the seigneurial dwellings had, and the Tour de l'Archevêché, which remained until 1831 between the south side of Notre-Dame and the Seine.
Opposite the Grands Degrés stands d'Harcourt, formerly located near the College on the left bank. Finally, the ramp leading to the footbridge over the Seine in front of the Palais des Armées de Terre et de Mer is decorated with a three-storey Renaissance wooden bretèche and eleventh-century houses, followed by a reduction of the famous eighteenth-century Foire Saint-Laurent.
This description of the built-up part of Old Paris would give only a faint idea of what this artistic reconstruction really is. It is almost a resurrection one should say, for Old Paris is essentially alive. From morning till the middle of the night, the animation does not cease, justified by the innumerable merchants installed in the stalls, the shops, the cabarets, the inns, the hostelries, the theatres, where the crowd crowds with a rustle of joyful laughter. The Grand Théâtre, situated above the Vieilles Halles, gives hospitality to the Colonne concerts. The hall, so vast and so characteristic, is a sort of wooden hall whose bays span more than twenty-six metres. The usual chandeliers or floor lamps have been replaced by lanterns suspended from their pulleys, and the seats, on the same level, are made of old oak. At the back, the stage is enclosed by magnificent seventeenth-century tapestries depicting Lebrun battles, which are perfectly preserved.
The population of this real little town wears the costume of the four periods: Middle Ages, Renaissance, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries until the Revolution. The picturesque signs beat in the wind; one runs from the three Scriptures to the Wheel of Fortune; to the Harping Goat or to the Three Faces; one stops at the stall of the frivolity dealer as well as that of the antique dealer; one passes from the medals of Saint-Julien to the knick-knacks of the Chat qui pêche, and time passes so quickly, so quickly, that one no longer thinks of the slight anachronism which can result from the modern crowd circulating through the vestiges of ancient times, elbowing men-at-arms, musketeers and picturesquely costumed bourgeois: The audience is simply a century, added to the centuries that have passed!
©Louis Rousselet - L'Exposition Universelle de 1900