La rue des Colonnes (The Street of the Columns)

Tucked away in between the Paris Stock Exchange and the Garnier Opera House in the heart of the 2nd arrondissement is the Rue des Colonnes, the Street of the Columns.  Built in 1795, this street is often (and injustly) overlooked : not only is it the only significant bit of Paris built during the revolution still visible today, but it is also the street that inspired the great projects for the urbanisation of Paris under Napoleon Bonaparte, and Napoleon the 3rd.  

La Rue des Colonnes was originally a private street, leading directly to a theater (long since torn down), until the Revolutionary Government passed a decree mandating that it be open to the public - and in order to make this happen, it was necessary to make several modifications.  And this is where it gets interesting.  

The French Revolution was, at least in part, propelled forward by ideas and notions from the Philosophers of the the Enlightenment, which is to say that they valued reason and logic over all other things.  With that in mind, a lot of the plans and laws implemented during the Revolution were done so in the name of logic and rationality.  This is includes many changes made to Paris in the name of hygiene - for the first time ever.  It was during the Revolution, for example, that the houses and buildings were torn down from the bridges of Paris in order to improve air circulation in otherwise stifling neighborhoods.  

With the rue des Colonnes, we see for the first time in Paris, a street lined with arcades - which means a distinction between street and sidewalk - in a time before any major roads were paved, and far before the introduction of the grands boulevards as well! The model of the rue des Colonnes was deemed so impressive, so hygienic, and so progressive, that it served as the model for the famous rue de Rivoli, built under Napoleon Bonaparte! 

Beyond its hygienic advantages, the rue des Colonnes is a textbook example of design and decor under the Revolutionary government.  We see arcades composed of doric columns, crowned with palmettes, balconies for the noble floors, and roofs topped with slate.  The repetition of horizontal forms was extremely important for Revolutionary architects like Ledoux and Boullé, who hoped to inspire the same sense of grandeur and ennoblement through repetition of horizontal forms and purified geometric shapes that Gothic architecture inspired through its high, soaring ceilings.  Beyond that, the palmette motif finds its origins in the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, discovered some 50 years prior, and was very popular in the neoclassical design under Louis XVI.  It most likely would have been implemented here to set a tone for the street, as being something that was very dignified.  

To book a tour of Revolutionary Paris, of the Decorative Arts Museum, or an Architectural Walking Tour, please email : awalkaboutparis@gmail.com

 

The Butter Tower of Rouen

Located on the southern edge of the facade of the famous Rouen Cathedral, the Butter Tower, constructed between 1485 and 1506, is a masterpiece of Late Gothic, or Flamboyant Gothic, style architecture.  Whereas some historians attribute its name to the unique color of stone used to construct it which almost gives the illusion that it was sculpted out of butter, others believe that butter is the reason for the tower, rather than the inspiration.  

Apparently, the construction of this magnificent tower was financed by the indulgences collected by the Church from the wealthy citizens who ate dairy products during Lent - despite the formal interdiction of the Church! Normandy is famous for its dairy products - and has been for quite some time - and the citizens of Rouen, although quite religious, were unable to resist the siren song of the famous Normandy butter, and so were able to reconcile their insatiable appetites by donating to the church.  Sadly there is no official record of just how much butter they consumed during those 21 years, but if the level of detail in the architecture of the tower is any indication, we can imagine that they indulged in quite a bit..

Over the years, the tower has served as a source of artistic inspiration for all sorts of creative minds : the impressionist painter Claude Monet featured the tower prominently in his legendary series of paintings of the church, completed over the course of the 1890s.  The tower also served as the inspiration for the Tribune Tower in Chicago, a Gothic Revival skyscraper built between 1923 and 1925.  

Rouen is just a short train ride away from Paris, and easily accessible by car as well; as such, it makes for an excellent day trip, and a wonderful chance to escape the bustle of Paris and see a bit more of what France has to offer.  To book a day trip to Rouen, please email : awalkaboutparis@gmail.com


L'Inconnue de la Seine

L'Inconnue de la Seine, or, the Unknown Woman of the Seine, is a figure who has fascinated Parisians for nearly 150 years because of the mystery and beauty that enshrouds her.  

According to the legend, one morning near the end of the 1880s, the body of a young woman, no older than 16, was fished out of the frigid waters of the Seine near the Louvre museum.  In the absence of any signs of violence, the policeman who presumed that she had committed suicide and brought her body into the Parisian morgue, where it was to be placed on display for three days.  The body of the unknown girl was propped up on a slab of black marble with cold water running over her to stave off decomposition, in the hopes that her family would be able to identify her.  Apparently upon seeing her, the mortician was so taken with her beauty that he decided to make a plaster cast of her face, in a commendable attempt to immortalize her youth against the ravages of time.  

As it would turn out, the mortician was not the only person entranced by the faint smile of the young woman - word began to spread and more and more people came to the morgue to see the mask of the "Mona Lisa of the Seine".  In fact, numerous members of Parisian society began asking obtaining their own copies of the mask and displaying them in their salons, claiming that the young girl was their muse.  References to the girl began to appear in literary works of the time by authors such as, Richard la Gallienne, Rainer Maria Rilke, and even Vladimir Nabokov. 

The popularity of the mask was such that, today, nobody is quite sure which mask could be the original - and reproductions are still available for purchase in the plaster shops of Paris. 

To book a walking tour of the Ile de la Cîté or the Latin Quarter, please email: awalkaboutparis@gmail.com