Touring Paris Through the Lens of History |Best tourist’s place in Paris
If there is a vote to identify the most beautiful city in the world, many people would unhesitatingly tick the box against Paris. Planned on a grand scale, with wide boulevards lined with ornate buildings, artistic monuments and roadside eateries; numerous public spaces with aesthetic landscapes; the Seine snaking through the city, every square metre of Paris breathes history and exudes grandeur. However, two centuries ago, the scenario was quite different.
By the time Napoleon III proclaimed himself Emperor in 1852, Paris was an overcrowded, dark, dangerous and unhealthy medieval city. It was badly in need of modernization and beautification. Not that attempts had not been made, but public works projects abruptly came to a halt with every regime change in the country. Nineteenth century Paris was plagued by years of violent unrests. Rioters barricaded the streets of Paris with material vandalised and stolen from neighboring structures. These barricades effectively impeded the movement of government troops and made Paris virtually uncontrollable.
Fortunately for the new Emperor, he had a new Prefect of the Seine who had greatly impressed with his dynamism, boldness and ability to overcome obstacles. He was Georges Eugene Haussmann who would change the face of Paris forever. Napoleon gave his Prefect a map of Paris and asked him to, connect its various districts, improve housing conditions and bring clean water and modern sewerage. Haussmann was to dot the city with gas lanterns, design parks, create spacious public places and institute a central market, today’s Les Halles. Other building projects on the agenda were residential buildings, schools, hospitals, prisons and administrative quarters.
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One of the first things that needed to be done was to create wide avenues,which couldn’t be blocked by rioters. Haussmann earned his nickname “the demolisher” by bringing down existing buildings and plowing over the ancient streets of the city. He replaced them with broad boulevards that run through the length and breadth of the city. Though Napoleon’s reign did not last very long, Haussmann fulfilled his emperor’s ambition of turning Paris into a metropolis worthy of the imperial, cultural glory of Paris.
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France, especially its capital, has long prided itself on its aesthetic and cultural consciousness. Art has always been the defining cultural element of France and no city represents this better than Paris. The French capital emerged as one of the most important centre of the arts in post-Renaissance Europe and led the way in the early modern era.
It may or may not be a coincidence that most of the cave paintings in Europe have been found in France, dating back to about 30,000 BCE. There is an unbroken line of artistic expression through the successive cultures of the region. There has been a trove of archaeological discoveries of figurines, menhirs, sculptures, carvings and other art forms, most of which are preserved in museums.
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The first art form that may be classified as indigenous French was Celtic art of the Gauls, a tribe of which had settled on the banks of the Seine around 250 BCE. Their settlement, known as the Ile de la Cite, is an isle in the Seine on which stands the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Celtic art is ornamental, rarely symmetrical and involves sophisticated symbolism. It also reflects influences from contemporary European cultures. After the Romans conquered the region in 52 CE, Greco-Roman art forms prevailed, though the Romans also borrowed many artistic styles from the Gauls, who they called the “Parisii”.
Germanic-Frankish culture came to the area after the fall of the Roman Empire. Clovis I of the Merovingian dynasty was crowned king of the Franks in 508 CE. Merovingian art and architecture undermined the importance of building robust structures or creating sculptural artworks worthy of display. However, it focused on gold work and manuscript illustration, which revived the Celtic style of decoration. Churches were made of timber, most of which did not last long.
The Merovingians were ousted by Pepin the Short of the Carolingian dynasty in the 8the century. Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, went on to establish the Holy Roman Empire.
There was a brief Carolingian Renaissance in the arts and architecture, which lasted all of 120 years. Still, Carolingian art is considered the first important classification of medieval art in Europe. It was the first time that kings sponsored art in Northern Europe. Classical Greco-Roman art was blended with Germanic styles on a major scale for the first time.
After the death of Charlemagne, his empire was divided, and the western part acquired the contours of present day France. By the time the last Carolingian king, Louis V, died in the 10th century CE, the kingdom was in the grip of powerful nobles; they elected the kings, who had no real control beyond the outskirts of Paris. With no real central authority to patronize the arts, there was little creation or production of any notable works. Though Louis’ successor, Hugh Capet would pave the way for absolute monarchy, it would take three more generations before French art and architecture would make its first mark in Europe. All successive French kings till the ill-fated Louis XVI belonged to the Capetian dynasty.
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The Middle Ages
The first true artistic style, which developed in France was the Romanesque. Somewhere in the 11th century, French kings and artists were struck with a renewed interest in the art and architecture of classical times. French kings had more control over the land and were getting richer in the process. There began vigorous royal patronage of the arts. Elegant, Romanesque churches were built and lavishly embellished with sculptures, frescoes and murals. Romanesque art gave a much-needed fillip to French painting. And in another first, artists started to get recognized and valued. The Louvre had been recently rebuilt as a palace and quickly became a sparkling showcase of the prodigious creativity.
In the middle of the 12th century, there were three major innovations in French architecture. It was found that pointed arches could carry more weight than round arches of the Roman style. For better strength, X-shaped ribbing or cross vaults began ascending from columns within the arch. The third was flying buttresses, which carried the weight of the arch and the walls to the foundations. Now walls could be thinner enabling the creation of large windows to be decorated with elegant glass paintings. Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris) was the first cathedral to be built in the new Gothic style. Gothic architecture soon became popular across Europe and remained so until the 16th century.
The French Renaissance thrived in France under Francis I, who ascended the throne in 1515. He was a liberal patron of the arts and invited many celebrated painters, artists and architects from all over Europe to work in Paris. One of them was Leonardo da Vinci, who brought the Mona Lisa with him after Francis had acquired it. The master artist would work in Paris till his last years. In the Renaissance under Francis, Italian art and architecture again dominated the French artscape. Francis not only amassed a precious collection of Italian artworks, he also influenced his nobles to adopt the Italian style in their own commissions. Thanks to Francis I, Renaissance ideals took a firm hold in France, particularly Paris, which would have major repercussions with the Age of Enlightenment three centuries later.
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The Sun King
If Francis I paved the way for art to become a major force in the cultural ethos of France, his descendant the Sun King, exponentially multiplied that force to glorify the kingdom of France. The world has never seen a bigger patron of the arts than Louis XIV, except for maybe Pericles, the Athenian master administrator. For 56 years, the Sun King employed renowned artists and architects from all over Europe. Baroque art, the current rage all over Europe, was also Louis’ favourite. He brought the Academie Francaise under his patronage, whose administrators decided what kind of art should be created.
The artists built palaces and churches for the king and also made paintings and sculptures to adorn all of them. But Louis XIV did not only promote creators of the visual arts. He also sponsored poets, writers, singers, ballet and theatre. His palace at Versailles, furnished with some of the most stunning art of Europe, including France, was a seamless spectacle of ballets, grand balls and stage shows. Being an accomplished ballet dancer himself, he loved to perform in front of his aristocrats and foreign diplomats.
France produced some of the greatest writers, thinkers and stage performers under Louis’ patronage, who had a huge impact on French culture. Not only did the Sun King have an eye for fashion, he had good business acumen as well, with which he pioneered haute couture. With the help of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, his finance minister, Louis set up a national clothing and textile industry for his wealthy subjects. The king mandated new fashions to be designed twice a year in summer and winter, including all accessories. At Versailles, Louis instituted a strict dress code requiring his nobles and family members to be fitted only in the latest fashions. Paris’ strides towards becoming the fashion capital of the world were first taken in Versailles.
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The legacy of Louis XIV ensured that France continued its dominant position in Europe’s cultural domain. After Louis XIV, artists found a new freedom to innovate. The Italian painter Antoine Watteau, who was working in Paris, shifted his style of painting from the grandeur of Baroque art to the more-intimate Rococo style. Other renowned Parisian artists soon followed suit. Paris would lead the way in all the succeeding artistic schools like Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Naturalism, Realism, Impressionism, and post-Impressionist style like Art Noveau and Art Deco. The last French patron of the arts was Napoleon Bonaparte, who redesigned the Louvre and where the personal apartments of his nephew Napoleon III, are open to the public.
Chateau de Versailles
Of course, when you visit Paris, an extended trip to Versailles goes without saying. It is located about 20 kilometers southwest from the center of Paris. Distrusting the corridors of power in Paris, Louis XIV shifted his court to Versailles. He converted his father’s hunting lodge into one of the most spectacular royal residences in the world, whose unabashed interior opulence is only matched by its brilliantly landscaped gardens. Spread over 63,154 square miles, it contains 2,300 rooms. It served as the royal residence of France till 1789, when the French Revolution ousted Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
In 1837, King Louis-Philippe ordered the palace to be turned into the Museum of the History of France. The royal apartments were decorated with new collections of sculptures and paintings depicting the important events and the great figures that shaped the French history. In the early 20th century, the whole central section of the palace got a facelift and was restored to the original appearance given to it by Louis XIV.
Paris for First-Timers
A visitor to Paris can be worse than a kid in a candy store, and more spoilt by a wider choice. After you’ve been to the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Notre-Dame, the Arc du Triomphe and the Opera Garnier, there is still so much more to see and experience. Paris is the most popular metropolitan tourist destination and can be very overwhelming for newbie visitors.
Several week’s stay in Paris can be insufficient to do justice to the various attractions of the city. Planning in advance and reading up on how best to visit Paris cannot be emphasised enough. The Louvre museum can be a daunting task by itself. If you have any particular exhibits you want to see, find out in which wing they are housed in advance. The Louvre is always crowded you’ll be jostling with other visitors (beware of the shutterbugs) for a better view of the exhibits.
Decide which attractions of Paris you want to see within your travel window and make an itinerary. For people who want to really get a local feel, stray from the beaten path and venture into by-lanes and interact with the locals. Paris can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be so. Skip the main shopping avenues and big-ticket brands, whether you’re hunting for souvenirs or just need a square meal. You will do well to follow in the footsteps of the locals, who know Paris better than you.