Latin QuarterSaint Germain des Près to Notre-Dame
Point of Departure : The Church of Saint Germain des Près How to get there : Metro Saint Germain des Près, Line 4 or Mabillon , Line 10 Buses 39,63,70,86,87,95 and 96
The walk begins in the Place Saint Germain des Près facing the west façade of the former Benedictine Abbey of Saint Germain des Près with the celebrated Café ‘Les Deux Magots ‘ behind you. To your right is the rue de Rennes, a long straight road at the end of which stands the Montparnasse Tower. It’s a typical nineteen seventies steel and smoked glass affair completed in 1973 during the tasteless era of President Pompidou and mainly used as offices. At 210 metres it is the second tallest building in Paris but a poor second compared to the daring originality of Gustave Eiffel’s 324 metre tower built some 84 years earlier for the 1889 Paris Exhibition. Other than looking like a Dunhill cigarette lighter, its most interesting feature at the time was the fastest lift in Europe which takes you to the 56th floor in 38 seconds,allowing you access to the panoramic ‘ Ciel de Paris ‘restaurant on the 56th floor and the viewing platform on the 59th level. 600,000 people visit it every year compared to the 6 million visitors for the Eiffel Tower. In 2006 it was discovered to contain large amounts of asbestos yet ,at the time of its inauguration, it represented the face of modern France along with Charles de Gaulle Airport and the Concorde linking Paris to Washington in three and a half hours. Curiously 1973 also saw the death of Picasso who had known a totally different Montparnasse between the two world wars. Just before the First World War the Montparnasse area replaced Montmartre as the artistic centre of Paris. By the mid 1920s Poets,Painters and intellectuals patronized the large bohemian cafés and restaurants lining the Boulevard Montparnasse, such as La Rotonde, La Coupole, Le Select,La Dome and La Closerie des Lilas. The clientèle in those days included not only Picasso but Matisse, Foujita, Vlaminck , Van Dongen , Jean Cocteau, Blaise Cendrars,Kisling,Leger,Braque,Derain,Apollinaire,Modigliani,De Chirico,Mondrian,Lipchitz,Archipenko,Brancusi,Man Ray and the artists model Kiki de Montparnasse.Among later arrivals were the American writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller who found their way to Montparnasse in the 1930s . There are indeed a host of literary and artistic figures today in Montparnasse but they are all safely buried in the cemetery and recent arrivals include Samuel Beckett,Jean-Paul Sartre , Simone de Beauvoir, Eugene Ionesco and Serge Gainsbourg. How long they stay there depends on the whim of the politicians ,as often the “great and the good” are dug up and popped into the Pantheon as the ultimate tribute .
A decade of building in the mid 1970s and 1980s attempted to re-invigorate the area but managed instead to destroy a quiet traditional quarter surrounding the old railway station with a series of concrete monstrosities of which the Montparnasse Tower is at the centre, stabbing the sky like a solitary finger raised in a rude but typical gesture of Parisian defiance.Behind the new railway station , is an attempt at social housing with a colossal multi columned concrete semi circular centre piece called Place de Catalogne by the architect Ricardo Bofill making it look like an unfriendly attempt at a post fascist revival à la Mussolini. A few remaining creperies remind us that the railway station was the arrival point for many Bretons fleeing the poverty of Brittany and hoping for a better life in the capital. Now the TGV Atlantic can get to Rennes in under two hours. By way of contrast,let us turn our attention to the old Abbey of Saint Germain des Près. The tower is the oldest church tower in Paris built at the beginning of the 11th century. Just think when William the Conqueror invaded England and defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 this tower was already built. There had been an earlier church originally called Saint Vincent built in the 6th century by a son of Clovis called Childebert. Just to remind you that Clovis was the first baptized King of the Franks. France is called France because Clovis invaded Gaul and his kingdom was named Francia, land of the Franks, rather like Frankfurt means the ford of the Franks. Clovis was baptized at Reims and that is why all the Kings of France had to go to Reims to be crowned. Just think of Joan of Arc battling her way through the lines of the beastly English to get the dauphin Charles crowned Charles VII at Reims in 1429. This line of kings is called Merovingian , Tom Hanks made a hash of the name in the recent film ‘The Da Vinci Code’. If you take the name Clovis and remove the C you are left with Lovis, now the Latin alphabet did not have a U but only a V. So replace the V of Lovis and you get Louis. No wonder so many Kings of France were named Louis after the first one to be baptized. Essentially after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD Clovis crossed over from Germany and walked into Gaul . But don’t tell the French they are descended from a bunch of Germans !
Clovis died in 511 and his kingdom was split among his four children. No need to lose any sleep over them except that one was called Childebert. Childebert declared war on his brother-in-law Almaric ,King of the Visigoths (part of Spain). In 542 Childebert besieged Saragossa in Spain and brought back to Paris some relics including the tunic of saint Vincent (martyred by Diocletian in 204AD) and parts of the true cross. Childebert was encouraged by the Bishop of Paris, Germain, to build a church to house these relics. Childebert and other Merovingian Kings were buried here. When Germain died in 576 AD he was declared a Saint and the Church changed its name from Saint Vincent to Saint Germain .
The Church of Saint Germain became a Benedictine Abbey and the word ‘Prés’ added as it was in the middle of the countryside and ‘Prés’ means fields or meadows. A bit like Saint Martin’s in the Fields in London off Trafalgar Square. The original church with a shiny copper roof did not have a long nor glorious future as Paris was attacked by the Vikings or ‘the men from the North’ (hence the name Normandy where some of the Normans settled including the ancestors of Duke William of Normandy, the future William the Conqueror) and the church was destroyed in a number of viking raids on Paris between 846 and 886 AD . The Church was rebuilt around the year 1000 with the tower you now see in front of you. This church was plain and simple with very little ornamentation and must have looked like a fortress with massive walls and few large openings .In the 12 th century the monks decided to build a new choir in the new gothic style. The Choir was consecrated in 1163 by Pope Alexander III. By a curiosity of history 1163 is the year that Notre Dame Cathedral was begun. There was no love lost between the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully responsible for the rebuilding of Notre Dame and the monks of Saint Germain des Prés who prevented him attending the consecration of their choir as they claimed that as Benedictines the bishop had no authority over them as they were responsible only to the Pope. However the Pope did attend the foundation ceremony at Notre Dame. So essentially Saint Germain des Prés represents an architecture in transition with a Romanesque Façade and Nave and a Gothic Choir. In the 13th century a great many monastic buildings were added around the church including a cloister,dormitory,library,refectory,chapter house and a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Before you go inside the church take a look at the garden square to the left of the porch tower, there is a little garden gate on the corner of rue de l’Abbaye and the Square is called Laurent Prache. The remains of the chapel of the Virgin are displayed here but look at the massive head of a woman. Closer inspection reveals that it is by Picasso and dedicated to his friend Apollinaire who died in 1918. Where else but in Paris would you find a Picasso bust outside in a public park ?
As you leave the park to return to the main church entrance notice the café on the corner of rue Bonaparte called the Bonaparte. Jean-Paul Sartre lived above this café on the fourth floor of 42 rue Bonaparte for 17 years between 1945 and 1962 . He moved out after a bomb was placed in the entrance by disgruntled members of the OAS not content with Sartre’s views about the French presence in Algeria. Sartre once wrote in his play ‘Huis Clos’ –“Hell is other people”. One can imagine Sartre, his companion Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus living their ‘vie de café’ existence in this area and going and talking about Existentialism in the literary cafés of Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore and the Brasserie Lipp just opposite the entrance to the church of Saint Germain des Prés. In the 1940s this was like a little village . Sartre going off to a clandestine meeting of the Resistance was rather shocked in 1944 to see so many people ,’I did not think that so many people were in the Resistance’ he remarked.Many had seen how the wind was blowing and were called ‘Résistants de la derniere heure’ or last minute resistance people. By the end of the Second World War Saint Germain des Prés was the in-place of Paris attracting not only the intellectuals and writers but those seeking nightclubs and jazz venues. Among them the 18 year old Francoise Sagan who created a sensation with her first novel ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ and Juliette Greco a young up and coming singer. As you go inside the church notice the porch entrance under the tower . The present porch dates from 1609 but the original door was circa 1163 with 8 statue columns and a sculpted lintel now all destroyed but it must have looked like one of the doors you can see at Notre Dame. Take a look inside the church and particularly the picture of what the church looked like on the left side of the nave as you enter just in front of the chairs. As you can see on the plan the area around the Abbey grew into a little town separate from Paris with a population of 600 people. When the King Philip Augustus built the walls around Paris in 1180-1200 the monks protested that they were outside. The King purportedly replied that as they were so rich they could build their own walls- which they did . In fact the church owned much of what is today the 6th and 7th districts of Paris. One of the biggest annual markets of the middle ages was held on their land called the Foire de Saint Germain every February and March.
By the 16th century however the Abbey went into decline as a working monastery because the King retained the right to dispense the title of Abbot to whoever he wished and this meant that non religious people were given the vast income of the Abbey hence the word ‘commendatory’. An Abbey Palace was built next to the Abbey in the late 16th century and can still be seen behind the Church from the rue de l’Abbaye. The interior of the Church is not large when compared to Notre Dame but we are talking about a church for a Benedictine monastery and not a Cathedral. It is 65 metres long by 21 metres wide and 19 metres high, about half the size of Notre Dame Cathedral. The Romanesque nave originally had a wooden ceiling which was replaced in 1644-46 by stone vaulting. The Revolution caused immense damage. In 1792 a Revolutionary Tribunal was set up in the Abbey Buildings, presided by Maillard, and 357 prisoners were condemned. Brutal scenes of murder and butchery took place in the Abbey and its surroundings, the Abbey had its own prison and prisoners of all classes including aristocrats and priests were slaughtered in the September massacres of 1792,including 21 monks from the Abbey.Under the terror in 1793 noted prisoners kept here included Madame Roland, who on seeing a statue of Liberty on the way to the guillotine ,cried out ‘Liberty,Liberty,what crimes are committed in your name’ and Charlotte Corday who murdered Marat in his bath .The tombs were vandalized and removed and most statues were mutilated. Part of the church was used to store saltpeter or gunpowder for 8 years which ate into the stone of the church . In August 1794 about 15 tons of gunpowder exploded and destroyed the refectory, the Library and the chapel of the Virgin . In 1800 on the site of these buildings a new road was built which is today rue de l’Abbaye on the north or river side of the church. By 1820 total demolition of the Church was considered. Then along came Godde ! Not GOD but the architect Godde, the same man who designed the entrance gates and chapel of Père Lachaise cemetery. The pillars of the Nave were re-done,and 12 capitals replaced (what remains of the originals are now in the Cluny Museum),the vault,chapels,font and porch were restored.The west porch tower was restored but two lateral towers situated at the angle of the choir and transept were taken down as they lacked money to restore them.In 1843 a more thorough restoration was undertaken by Baltard, the same architect who built the metal domed Saint Augustin Church and the now demolished Central Market at Les Halles .At the same time the painted decoration you now see in the church was largely done by the artist Hippolyte Flandrin ,note the neo classical style in vogue influenced by his master Ingres and by study of Raphael in the Old and New Testament scenes in the Nave surmounted by a biblical figure or prophet. Note particularly at the entrance to the choir Christ on the road to Calvary and Entry of Christ into Jerusalem set on gold backgrounds.The polychromatic decoration of all the columns,walls and capitals was the work of Denuelle. Behind the choir the deambulatory is the most original part of the 12th century church ,with nine chapels radiating off from the ogival gothic vaulting. In 1819 the ashes of the philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes(1596-1650) were put into one of the chapels. Look out for the large black plaque listing his name in the second chapel on the right after the choir. His skull is kept in the museum of mankind at the Trocadero. Descartes is famous for the phrase ‘Cogito ,ergo sum’ (I think ,therefore I am). He maintained that the sciences should be studied together as a whole and arrived at a mathematical conception of the universe. That one should distinguish what is clear and certain from what is probable. Descartes upheld the doctrine of freewill. He was careful to distinguish between science and faith. Cartesianism was the name of Descartes doctrine.Descartes had a huge influence on philosophical thought in Europe. He advanced mathematics by his development of analytical geometry and optics by his discovery of the law of refraction. If you cross through the opening in the middle of the choir there is a side door leading you out into rue de l’Abbaye.Remnants of the old Abbey buildings are hidden behind the facades of the buildings lining this street. The chapel of the Virgin was behind number 8, the refectory behind numbers 14 and 16, the Cloister and Chapter House at numbers 7,9,10 and 11. At the end of the street is the Abbey Palace, built in 1586 for Cardinal Charles de Bourbon. It is a handsome stone and brick building that resembles somewhat the architecture of the Place des Vosges in the Marais. Confiscated during the Revolution it was sold in 1797. Today the former abbey palace houses the parish offices and part of the catholic institute of Paris. Facing the old Abbey Palace is the Place Furstemberg. It is a delightful Square and was once the stables for the Abbey. You can see that the original stable buildings would have been low like the ones on the left hand side. In the far left hand corner at number 6 is the entrance to the Delacroix Museum open everyday except Tuesdays from 09H30 to 17HOO. Delacroix’s great masterpiece ‘Liberty Guiding the People’ depicting a topless lady waving the Tricolour flag on the barricades of the revolution of 1830 is one of his key pictures in the Louvre. It used to feature on the old one hundred franc note before the euro came in.Delacroix was one of the great French painters of the first half of the nineteenth century , a rival to Ingres and the leading romantic painter, a master of colour and movement.This was both where he lived and his studio. He spent the last years of his life here whilst working on a chapel at the nearby church of Saint Sulpice. You can still see his paintings in the Chapel on the right as you enter Saint Sulpice: Jacob wrestling with the Angel, Heliodorus driven from the Temple and ,on the ceiling, Saint Michael defeating the Devil. Continue to the end of rue Furstemberg and turn right into rue Jacob. This road is awash with antique shops and art galleries. It forms part of the antique shop square mile between Saint Germain and the River Seine. Many shops display a rectangular black sign with a grid marked in blue denoting an association of antique shops. Rue Jacob ends in rue de Seine. To the left would take you down to the river but we turn right and then first left into the bustling rue de Buci. Food and Fashion compete for business and often at weekends cars find it difficult to squeeze past all the pedestrians spilling out onto the road. The rue de Buci is quite a short street ending in the Carrefour de Buci or crossroads. If you count the number of streets going in and out of this crossroads there are Five. This was one of the busiest crossroads in the middle ages and during troubled times it was often barricaded. In the French Revolution a cart taking prisoners towards the Abbey prison of Saint Germain was attacked and the prisoners massacred. It started here at this crossroads next to an army recruiting office when the long line of volunteers waiting there jeered the prisoners as they passed by. One prisoner knocked the cap off a soldier’s head with his cane and the soldier decapitated him thus starting a riot ending with the deaths of the prisoners and the cry went out that the prisoners in all the prisons were going to murder the population and this led to the September massacres of 2-4 September 1792.
Cross over the Carrefour de Buci into rue Saint André des Arts. As you cross if you look down the rue Mazarine on your left you might spot the dome of the Institute ,the home of the French Academy. This was built in the1660s from money bequeathed by Cardinal Mazarin to found a college of four nations for the education of impoverished noble gentleman. Originally on this site there had been a tower called the tour de Nesle which was the last tower on the left bank of the Seine of King Philip Augustus ’s wall built right round Paris in 1180-1220. The Nesle Tower faced the Louvre on the other side of the River Seine. At night a heavy iron chain was hung across the river to prevent the perfidious English from sailing up from Normandy and attacking Paris at night. The Louvre was the strong point of this wall and in the mid 1980s they uncovered the base of the old Louvre Castle which is now part of the display at the Louvre Museum. We continue just a very short distance down the rue Saint André des Arts and then turn down the first passageway on the right into the passageway of the cour du Commerce Saint André. You are now plunging back in time and see a little street that has not changed much since the French Revolution. In fact down this street there are many souvenirs of this period. Once you pass the few small shops of the covered part of the passageway you come to some long low buildings and a street of old cobblestones. Cobblestones are called ‘pavé’ in French , you often see on a French menu ‘pavé de rumpsteak’ – in other words as thick as a cobblestone ! We also get the English word ‘pavement’ from pavé. Stop on your right outside the Procope Café . It was established here in 1684. Procopio was a nobleman from Sicily who had the idea to set up a café between a Jeu de Paume or Tennis Court and a Boules ground. Coffee was all the rage . In 1683 the Turks were at the gates of Vienna besieging the Hapsburgs. The Hapsburgs appealed for help to Louis XIV ,asking that one Christian country help the other, but their appeal fell on deaf ears as France traditionally regarded Austria as her enemy. Vienna was saved by the intervention at the last minute of the King of Poland and Prince Eugène of Savoy. When the Turks hurriedly fled the scene of the Battle they left their tents with the Turkish flag on top in the shape of a crescent and with abandoned bags of coffee beans inside. The Viennese baked pastries in the shape of the Turkish crescent and a year later this fashion arrived in Paris – hence the origin of Café and Croissants !
In 1689 Procopio had a piece of luck as the Comédie Francaise, the leading theatre company moved in to the Tennis Court and the area became very fashionable. Actors, Writers and the public came to his café. Throughout the 18th century they kept coming including Voltaire, Rousseau,Diderot and d’ Alembert. They were called the encyclopedists. It was a conversation between Diderot and d’Alembert in this café that led to the idea of compiling an encyclopedic dictionary of the knowledge of the day , a bit like Doctor Johnson in London and his coffee houses. The 18th century has been called the siècle des lumières where an attempt was made to found morality on reason ,to be rational not superstitious.This encouraged religious scepticism and led to hostility from the church. As the work on the dictionary progressed the authors also criticized privileges,wealth and abuse of power. Although not directly criticizing the King it made people think about the position of monarchy. This in turn led the next generation to talk about overturning the abuses of absolute power and the café Procope saw Americans like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson come to talk about the war of American Independence. The playwright Beaumarchais came here whilst his play ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ was playing at the nearby Theatre of the Odeon. ‘Figaro’ echoed the popular feelings of the moment. It made fun of the aristocracy and showed that their servants were running circles around them. Joseph II of Austria thought it a dangerous play and banned it but his sister Marie Antoinette found Beaumarchais highly amusing and performed the Barber of Seville in private at Versailles. Beaumarchais’ day job was as a secret agent supplying guns to the American Revolution. The opening of Figaro in 1784 got him three days in prison but great popular success. Just a few years later the Procope was the meeting place of the leading French Revolutionaries such as Danton, Marat, Camille Desmoulins and Fabre d’Eglantine most of whom lived in the district. Danton was Minister of Justice and lived at the end of the road where today his Statue stands on the boulevard Saint Germain beside the Odeon metro station. Fabre d’Eglantine was a leading revolutionary journalist,member of the Cordeliers club and renamed the months of the year in a new Republican Calendar. The English made fun of the names which reflected the weather conditions of each month , hence the English parody of : Slippy,Nippy,Drippy Freezy,Wheezy,Sneezy, Showery,Flowery,Bowery, Heaty, Wheaty,Sweety Camille Desmoulins became a hero when he stood up in the gardens of the Palais Royal on 12 July 1789 and incited the people to rise up saying ‘Aux Armes Citoyens’ – which form the refrain to the French National Anthem called the Marseillaise. Danton,Fabre d’Eglantine and Camille Desmoulins were all guillotined on the same day ,5 April 1794, having fallen foul of the wrath of Robespierre.
We leave the Procope on our right and continue along the cour du commerce Saint André.If the gate on the left is open pop into the little courtyard known as the cour de Rohan ,probably a corruption of the home of the Archbishops of Rouen. Here are a series of courtyards ,one leading into the other , which gives one an idea of some of the hidden delights of Paris often inaccessible owing to the extensive use of door codes. Just after the entrance of this courtyard is a restaurant at number 4 in the cour du commerce Saint-Andre. Look through the windows and you will see a half rounded base of a Tower. Incredibly this is one of the 67 Towers of the wall of King Philip Augustus built between 1180-1220 to keep the beastly English out of Paris. You are standing outside the walls of Paris. To your left would have been the walls with the city on the inside. Continue along the passage until you see a white plaque high up on the wall on your right. In French it tells you that you are in one of the key places connected with the French Revolution. Not only did Marat publish his vitriolic newspaper ‘L’Ami du Peuple’ or Friend of the People at number eight but Danton lived at the end of the road and it was here in this street at number nine that the Guillotine was first perfected. At the beginning of the Revolution in October 1789 a debate was going on in parliament about the various methods of execution then practiced in France. These ranged from hanging,drawing and quartering, beheading by axe, simple hanging, burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel. Then a member of parliament stood up called Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin and suggested a more humane ,simple and rapid method be applied. Up till then Aristocrats had been beheaded by sword or axe, common criminals were hanged. Guillotin suggested equality for all . Guillotin wrote a report but was rather upset when the other members rejected it and he exclaimed ‘ but with my machine I could chop off your heads in a flash and you would only feel a light breeze on the back of your neck ! The blade whistles down, the head falls,blood spurts and your man is dead’. But times changed and by 1792 parliament approved his report and Doctor Louis, head of the Royal College of Surgeons, was ordered to look into producing a prototype. Estimates were asked for and it was a carpenter called Schmidt who gave the lowest bid and so it was here at number 9 where Schmidt had his business that the Guillotine was first developed. The idea had been around for centuries ,indeed one can cite the ‘Edinburgh Maiden’ or the ‘Halifax Gibbet’ in Britain.After constructing a prototype it was decided to test it out on sheep. When this proved successful it was tried out on corpses from a hospital. During the ‘trials’ various modifications were made, an angled blade proved more successful than a flat blade, a scooped out board was fashioned to fit the neck with another to slide down to hold the neck in place so the victim wouldn’t thrash about. The idea was that the future condemned prisoners would have their hands tied behind their backs, were pushed against what looked like a plank door which then pivoted to place them on a sort of table with the guillotine at the head of the table. By April 1792 everything was ready for the first execution. Traditionally executions took place in front of the Hotel de Ville or City Hall. A large crowd gathered and waited all day whilst the guillotine was set up ,it took longer than expected, but then the actual execution of a petty criminal was over in a second. The crowd was mightily disappointed.
The name Guillotine was eventually adopted but at first it might have been called’ Schmidt ‘after the carpenter or ‘Louisette ‘after Doctor Louis. On 21st January 1793 Louis XVI was guillotined at Place de La Concorde, nine months later his wife ,Marie-Antoinette was guillotined in front of the gates to the Tuileries gardens again in Place de la Concorde. 1,200 people were eventually guillotined in the Square during the two years known as The Terror. But the guillotine was remarkably small and transportable and soon guillotines were operating all over France. In Paris there were beheadings at Place de la Bastille and at Nation on the eastern edge of Paris. Lafayette’s family, though he himself escaped, were executed at Nation and thrown in a pit which later became the cemetery of Picpus – one of the most memorable visits one can make to honour the memory of the victims of the French Revolution. The bodies of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were taken away from the Concorde Square, north along the present day rue d’Anjou and dumped in a common pit which today is called the Chapelle Expiatoire just off boulevard Haussmann at 29 rue Pasquier,Square Louis XVI. Open Thursday,Friday and Saturday from 13H00-17H00. Tombs to both Louis XVI and to Marie-Antoinette can also be seen at the Basilica of Saint Denis ,the former Necropole or burial place of the Kings of France up to the Revolution. Doctor Guillotin was nearly guillotined , he had fallen foul of Robespierre and was in prison awaiting execution when Robespierre himself fell from power,so Guillotine was saved and died in his own bed in 1814. As for the carpenter Schmidt ,he made a fortune but drank it away and died an alcoholic.
We now walk to the far end of the street and come out on the busy boulevard Saint Germain facing the statue of Danton. Cross over to this statue by going to the traffic lights on your right.Danton actually lived in a house on the site of this statue. The house was demolished to make way for the boulevard Saint Germain in 1876. Note the date on the pedestal- 1889. The world fair of 1889 was held in Paris with,as its centerpiece ,The Eiffel Tower, the tallest building in the World ,but it was also the centenary of the French Revolution and this statue was erected . On the sides of the pedestal are some of Danton’s most celebrated quotes : What we need to defeat our enemies is ‘Audacity,Audacity and yet more Audacity’ and ‘After Bread what the people need is Education’. The more bloody side to Danton is conveniently forgotten and the statue is accompanied by a little boy holding out an olive branch somewhat similar to Delacroix’s pistol wielding boy beside ‘Liberty guiding the People’ that has often been confused with Victor Hugo’s character Gavroche in Les Miserables, although Delacroix’s picture dates from 1830 and Victor Hugo wrote ‘Les Miserables’ in 1862. Hence the Statue represents a ‘Diet Coke’ version of real events. Go behind the statue in the direction of the cinema and Starbucks – another American joint that has recently graced the streets of Paris. Pass Starbucks and you are in the rue de L’Ecole de Médecine. Cross the rue Dupuytren and stop at the next alley on your right called rue Antoine Dubois. As you look down this alley which finishes with a flight of steps, everything on your left was once part of the Cordeliers monastery. Marat’s house stood nearby at number 20 rue de l’Ecole de Medecine and it was here that he was murdered in his bath by Charlotte Corday on 13 July 1793. 25 year old Charlotte Corday came from Normandy and was a moderate Revolutionary. Indeed thanks to the Revolution she escaped becoming a nun but she blamed the inflammatory language used by Marat in his newspaper L’Ami du Peuple’ for the downfall,arrest and execution of the moderate Girondin faction. Fired by the example of her ancestor Corneille’s passionate Tragedies , in which duty and honour vied with passion ,she developed the idea of coming to Paris and putting an end to Marat whom she blamed for inciting the mob and increasing the violent nature of the Revolution. In this way she became a tragic hero determined to self-sacrifice herself in the better interest of others and saw her destiny as ridding the world of Marat. Charlotte Corday arrived in Paris by coach a few days before 13 July from Caen in Normandy. She then went looking for Marat firstly at the Parliament called the Convention and then at the Palais Royal ,which was known for being the meeting place for the Revolutionary leaders. Not finding him there she nevertheless purchased a kitchen knife and took a taxi cab to his house at, what was then ,30 rue des Cordeliers. She was met at the door by Marat’s companion, Simone Evrard, who refused her entry. What Charlotte Corday did not know was that Marat was suffering from a skin disease and often spent time in his bath where he would edit his newspaper. That evening she returned with a second more urgent letter implying she had important news for Marat . Simone Evrard again tried to prevent her coming in knowing Marat was in his bath but Marat overheard the discussion ,asked what was happening and invited her in to see him. She then stabbed him after a brief argument. Charlotte was arrested and the body of Marat was embalmed and displayed next door in the Cordeliers Monastery. It was here that the painter David saw the body and later turned it into the dramatic ‘Death of Marat’ now in the Art Museum at Brussels with copies at Versailles and the Louvre. What happened next is pure farce. On the 16 July his body was paraded through the streets . What the people did not know was that when rigor mortis set in both Marat’s arms had flopped out the side of the bath and his tongue was sticking out in the agony of death. So the solution was to go across to the Medical School and remove the tongue and stitch on another substitute arm, taken from another body , in a pose holding a pen , more fitting the martyred revolutionary leader and a laurel wreath round his head. So the body was displayed on a sort of sarcophagus , pulled by 12 men with young ladies dressed in white walking beside it and a little five year old boy holding a flaming torch sat perched at his head like an angel, the stench of the corpse was hidden by drenching it with alcohol and the body was wrapped in the tricolour flag. The cortege was accompanied by gendarmes and by students playing music by the composer Gluck which lent a solemn air to the procession. For six hours this parade continued during which time the young boy fainted, the body started to smell dreadfully in the July heat and an overzealous member of the crowd seized hold of Marat’s arm which came away in his hand . Towards midnight the procession returned to the Cordeliers Monastery, the main entrance would have been where you are now standing, and Marat was buried inside the grounds. Later he was dug up and placed in the Pantheon, the former church of Saint Genevieve which had only just been completed by the architect Soufflot . Later still as the Revolution took another turn, Marat was considered far too ‘revolutionary’ and was ‘de-pantheonised’ ,in other words dug up and his body thrown into the River Seine.
Let us walk to number 15 rue de L’Ecole de Medecine facing the rue Hautefeuille. Stop in front of the gates.In that short walk from rue Antoine Dubois to here you have walked right through the middle of the former Cordeliers Church. It was 97 metres long and was built in the thirteenth century. The monks were Franciscans and wore a brown habit tied in the middle by a white cord or Cordelier rather like a dressing gown. During the Revolution part of the monastery was used as a meeting place for a Revolutionary Club called Cordeliers set up by Camille Desmoulins in 1791. Danton ,Marat, Hébert and other revolutionaries would meet here until it was closed in 1794 following the execution of Danton and Camille Desmoulins. On the other side of the River on the right bank was a similar ex monastery called the Jacobins where Robespierre and his faction would meet. The only remains of this Monastery is the Refectory built in the 15th century in the gothic flamboyant style. You can see it through the gates to the left, it is sometimes open for art exhibitions. The rest of the monastery including the church was demolished in 1802 and the present School of Medecine, part of the University of Paris, was built between 1877 and 1900 along with most of the buildings on the other side of the road. We continue along the more narrow part of rue de L’Ecole de Médecine and stop outside number 5. This building is surmounted by a dome. The dome was the anatomy amphitheatre for the barber-surgeons in the 17th century. In the 18th century it was used as a drawing school and today is part of the English department of the University of Paris-Sorbonne. There is a plaque on the outside wall to the great French Actress,Sarah Bernhardt who was born here in 1844 or 1845. She may have lied about her age. She died in 1923 and is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery. At the end of the road cross over the busy Boulevard Saint Michel ,notice the student bookshops, we are close to the main Headquarters of the University of Paris-Sorbonne. The students contract the name of boulevard Saint Michel to ‘Boul Mich’. This is where they rioted in May 1968 and dug up the cobble stones and threw them at the police and manned the barricades. Charles de Gaulle was the then President and the riots caused a crisis for the government. In 2007 Nicholas Sarkozy on becoming President said he had finally laid to rest the ghosts of 1968. Cross over to the right side of rue des Ecoles and make your way to rue de la Sorbonne and the corner of the large building. This is part of University: numbers one and four of the Sorbonne. The Sorbonne was founded in the middle of the thirteenth century by Robert of Sorbon ,chaplain to King Louis IX or Saint Louis. It was originally a hostel or college for poor students. Eventually it became the name of the University of Paris. There are now 13 Universities with a student population of some 330,000 students. There were originally 4 Faculties : Arts,Law,Medecine and Theology and 4 Nations French,Picard ,English and Norman. In the middle ages there were dozens of streets with colleges and schools around here, probably as many as 65. The common language was Latin hence the term ‘Latin Quarter’. The earliest Universities in Europe were Bologna in Italy, Montpellier in France and Salamanca in Spain. Then came Oxford and Cambridge in England.
With the University behind you cross over the rue des Ecoles and go to the garden Square called Square Paul Painlevé with a Statue of Montaigne sitting facing the Sorbonne. The statue is by Paul Landowski who is famous for his statue of Christ above Rio de Janeiro and for the Tomb of Marshal Foch in Les Invalides here in Paris. Michel de Montaigne lived in the 16th century ,he was the son of a wealthy merchant and Mayor of Bordeaux. He is principally known for his Essays published between 1580-88. One of his phrases was ‘Que Sais-Je ?’ – What do I know ? In other words the more you know the less you know or the inability to know anything with certainty. A couple of his memorable quotes are : ‘Who fears suffering,already suffers from what they fear’ ; ‘Why Travel ? I know what I am escaping not what I’m looking for ‘ ; ‘Of the highest throne in the world, you’re still sitting on your arse’ ! Just behind the Square Painlevé is one of the most interesting buildings and museums in Paris. Go towards the crenellated wall at number 6 Place Paul Painlevé, which is the entrance to the Museum of the Middle Ages and the Roman Baths of Cluny. It is open everyday except Tuesdays from 09H15-17H45.
The Museum of Cluny links two very different buildings ,the Roman Baths and the Gothic townhouse of the Abbots of Cluny. From the Courtyard you are looking at the home of the powerful and wealthy Abbots of Cluny. The Abbey of Cluny is in Burgundy ,at one time it was the largest Church in Christendom after Saint Peter’s in Rome. Unfortunately most of it was destroyed at the French Revolution. The Abbots of Cluny had founded a College of Cluny near the Sorbonne and wanted to have a town house nearby. In 1485 Abbot Jacques d’Amboise built the townhouse . His brother Georges, who was a Cardinal ,was also chief minister to King Louis XII. Louis XII married in January 1515 the daughter of King Henry VIII of England , he was 53 years old and his young wife Mary was only 16 years old. Three months later Louis XII died of exhaustion and the young widow was housed in this building, she was called La Reine Blanche as white was the royal sign of mourning.The next King of France, the great Francis Ist , who was cousin to Louis XII,put her here because he didn’t want her falling pregnant and claiming a posthumous heir. He quickly married her off to her lover the Duke of Suffolk and sent them both back to England. The house is a splendid example of gothic flamboyant architecture at a period of transition which would shortly see the arrival of influences from Italy that were to transform French architecture in the next reign of Francis Ist of France and create remarkable Renaissance buildings such as Chambord in the Loire Valley. In the courtyard you can see the large mullioned windows topped by gables containing the ‘Coquille Saint Jacques’ or scallop shell, the symbol of the pilgrims who went on the camino to Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain (hence the name of the Roman road outside- rue Saint Jacques) and the emblem of the Abbot’s patron saint. It is also a play on the Abbots first name and topped with a Cardinal’s hat. The entrance door to the Museum is on the right in what used to be the servant’s quarters and kitchen. Note the different stair turrets ,the one by the kitchen quarters is plain but the main turret is highly decorated. It is of course a medieval stone spiral staircase but this was to shortly change in the Renaissance period when these were considered old fashioned and were replaced by straight ramp staircases that the French had seen in the sophisticated Palaces of Italy.
Apart from the Chapel , none of the interior of the Cluny Museum is particularly original from the time of the Abbots, it is mostly a recreation but what is displayed here is well worth visiting including one of the finest sets of Tapestries in the world known as the Lady and the Unicorn,woven around 1484-1500 and representing the senses :Sight,Hearing,Taste,Smell and Touch. In the Roman Bath room are antique and medieval sculptures including the Altar of the Paris Boatmen found under Notre Dame and the original Heads on the Gallery of Kings of the West Façade of Notre Dame which were decapitated at the Revolution .
Now we leave the courtyard by turning right into the rue Sommerard . Alexandre du Sommerard was a collector who rented Cluny in the 19th century and left his collection to the State. At his death in 1842 his collection became the centrepiece of the Museum which opened in 1844. As we walk round the buildings on your right we start seeing the Roman Baths. Notice the small square stones interspersed with courses of brick. This method of building can be dated to the end of the 2nd century AD. It is called in Latin ‘Opus vittatum mixtum’. The exterior would have been covered with plaster and painted. Yet had the building been earlier it would have been constructed of massive blocks of stone rather like the Colosseum in Rome.It’s size was 320 feet long by 210 feet wide. On the rue Sommerard side you can see a plan on the ground in white concrete and you are looking at the Caldarium or hot bath. ‘Caldo’ is derived from the Latin calidus and in Italian means hot. There would have been a Frigidarium or cold bath on the boulevard Saint Germain side and a Tepidarium or tepid bath on the boulevard Saint Michel side. Turn right into Boulevard Saint Michel and follow the baths round until you come to Boulevard Saint Germain and the Metro Station Cluny-Sorbonne at the corner of the two Boulevards. The Baths are the largest remnant of the Roman occupation of Paris over two thousand years ago. When in 53-52 BC the Romans conquered the Gallic tribe called the Parisii living in thatched mud huts on the island they decided to build their Roman town called Lutetia on the left bank and not on the island. There is no archaeological evidence that there was a Roman ‘Governor’s’ Palace where the present day Law Courts/Sainte Chapelle/Conciergerie are, nor that there was a Roman Temple under what is today Notre Dame Cathedral. The so-called Altar of the ‘Nautae Parisiaci’ or Paris boatmen dating from the first century AD, found under the Choir at Notre Dame in 1711, and now displayed inside this museum, was a pillar erected in honour of Jupiter and the Emperor Tiberius and it probably stood originally on the left bank and was later re-used as building blocks for the wall around the island when Paris was threatened by barbarian invasions in the IV century AD.
On the other side of the Museum is the rue Saint Jacques. This was the principal Cardo or north-south Roman road on the left bank going up the hill of Sainte Genevieve. On the top of the hill the Romans built their Forum, about 600 feet long by 300 feet wide, today the site of the Pantheon. The plan of the Roman Town was based on a grid pattern rather like a chessboard. Where we are now at the baths of Cluny is about three quarters down the hill. There would have been two other Roman baths , one at the Forum and another slightly above where we are now on the present site of the College de France opposite the Sorbonne on the other side of the rue Saint Jacques. This makes it sound that Paris was a large Roman town but in comparison with other Roman towns in France, Paris was quite small and provincial. It certainly was not the capital of Gaul. Lyon or Lugdunum was the capital. The maximum size of Roman Paris has been calculated as being 115 hectares (including the ile de la Cité), about 250 acres, this can be compared to Autun 200 hectares, Amiens 250 hectares and Rheims capital of Belgica ,at 600 hectares. There was also an Amphitheatre (now called Arenes de Lutece)that could seat 17,000 people located some distance away from the other monuments in what is today the rue Monge . Also a Theatre located on the other side of Boulevard Saint Michel where it meets rue Racine and rue de l’Ecole de Médecine on your left.
At the Metro station Cluny-Sorbonne cross over the pedestrian crossing at the traffic lights. There is a MacDonalds straight ahead of you on the corner of rue de la Harpe. Ignore MacDonalds and go down rue de la Harpe. Rue de la Harpe was a secondary roman road running parallel to rue Saint Jacques. You are in the last two roman grids leading to the river, if you count one grid as 300 feet then in 600 feet in a straight line you would be at the River. But we turn right down the next street rue de la Parchiminerie literally parchment street as this is where in the 13th century parchment for books was sold and manuscripts were copied. Before the invention of printing and the use of paper, books were made from animal skin. The word vellum comes from the Latin vitellus and the French word ‘veau’ for veal. Traditionally books were made in monasteries, the monks were the only literate people and copied one manuscript after the other in their ‘Scriptorium’. A good example of this is the Monastery at Mont Saint Michel on the borders of Normandy and Brittany. There would have been huge fireplaces to keep the monks warm ,blank pieces of vellum were distributed and pricked with a pin to establish lines like in a exercise book. One monk would have to calculate how many animal skins would be needed to make a Bible. If you ever have the opportunity to feel a manuscript from the middle ages it is as tough as old boots and not easy to tear. Originally the animal skin had to be prepared as there was a smooth and hairy side to every skin. Once prepared and ruled the monks could start to write. Sometimes in medieval manuscripts one can detect changes in handwriting when the monk became ill or died and was replaced by someone else. At times they must have become bored with the tedious repetition and sometimes lines are written twice. The size of the books depends what it was for. There are very large books for Church use ,so they could see in the dim light ,or illustrated books which were the most expensive ,often destined as luxury gifts for VIPs. But in the 14th century books started to get smaller and more transportable. Here in Paris there was a definite need among the students of the Sorbonne to have ‘pocket’ sized books and it was in this street that they got them. Also it was no longer just monks copying out the books ,demand was too great and some of the students found employment providing copies.
Now turn left into the rue des Pretres Saint Séverin and head towards the Church of Saint Séverin.On your right is what looks like a regular churchyard. But in the middle ages with such dense populations living huddled in such close proximity and death just round the corner with plague and disease everywhere life expectancy was very short. What you see on your left is all that remains of the last Charnel house in Paris. Basically a body was buried either in a grave or pit of quicklime and after a few years the bleached bones were dug up and stacked neatly in the arcades that resemble a cloister. There is a good example of an existing charnel house in Rouen next to the church of Saint Maclou called l’Aitre de Saint Maclou.Here in 1474 an extraordinary operation was performed on an archer who had been condemned to death. King Louis XI had gallstones and his doctors decided to operate but they did not know if the King would survive so they experimented on the condemned man with the promise that if he lived he could go free. He had nothing to lose anyway.Both archer and king survived. By the early 19th century conditions in the cemeteries had reached an all time low and Napoleon decided to do something about it. He ordered three new cemeteries to be placed at the edges of Paris: Montmartre in the north, Montparnasse in the south and the largest Père Lachaise in the east. All main cemeteries in Paris were closed and the bodies dug up, about 6 million former Parisians were removed, mostly at night, and put into the former stone quarry near Denfert Rochereau. It is now known as the Catacombs and can be visited everyday except Mondays and public holidays between 10H00-16H00.
The present church of Saint Séverin is a combination of 13th century and 15th century gothic. The site is very old indeed being beside the Roman Road Saint Jacques and close to the original Roman bridge crossing onto the island now called Petit Pont. Such a strategic site probably began as a small chapel dedicated to Saint Martin and where a hermit lived called Séverin or Severinus. Later a church was built and became the parish church to a very busy and lively area on the left bank of Paris. Part of the tower and nave date to the thirteenth century but a fire destroyed most of the church in 1448. The new church is a splendid example of the gothic flamboyant style and was rebuilt thanks to the generosity of Guillaume d’Estouteville. He was from a Norman family who had suffered in the 100 Years War, his brother was the General who had resisted all English attempts at taking Mont Saint Michel . Guillaume was Archbishop of Rouen and in 1452 began the process of rehabilitating the memory of Joan of Arc burnt by the English at Rouen in 1431. He was also a great builder and other than rebuilding Saint Severin, he built the magnificent choir at Mont Saint Michel and the nave of Saint Ouen in Rouen.
If the Church is open go through the main door into the Nave. If not make your way round the tower of the church and turn right into rue Saint Severin which brings you to rue Saint Jacques and rue du Petit Pont. However if you go in you will find it is light and bright compared to the gloomy obscurity of Notre Dame . Nearly all of the clerestory windows in the nave and choir are 15th century. As you look down the nave to the Choir one is struck by the amount of light and one eye is drawn quite deliberately to the curious twisted column directly behind the altar. Make your way towards this column by walking down the side aisles and round the back of the altar. This column resembles a palm tree and from it spout like a fountain 14 razor sharp rib vaults in all directions. The effect is somewhat spoilt by the ugly and garish lower windows in the apse dating typically from the 1970s by Jean Bazaine. Just to the left of the twisted column is a small door which takes you out of the church and onto the rue St Jacques and rue du Petit Pont. Cross over the road at the traffic light and head down the rue Saint Julien le Pauvre which is slightly to your left before rue Galande. Incidentally if you want to see a Guillotine then put your head against the glass window of the pub called Guillotine ,also called Caveau des Oubliettes. You will see a guillotine dating from the Revolution on the right hand wall with the inscription ‘Armées de la Republique’. This guillotine saw action in the Revolution and was used by the army to execute deserters. Continue down rue Saint Julien le Pauvre past the Church of the same name, now used by the Greek Orthodox Church and go into the garden at the side of St Julien le Pauvre called Square Viviani , if the garden is shut just continue down the road until you get to the Riverside. Whichever route you take you will get a magnificent view of Notre Dame Cathedral . This is where our walk ends . To get to a metro turn left along Quai St Michel past the bookshop Shakespeare and Company and continue until you get to the next bridge where you will find both the Metro and RER station of St Michel. Alternatively cross over the Petit Pont onto the island , go past Notre Dame on your right on the rue de la Cité and you will find Metro Cité in the middle of the flower market on your left after the Police Headquarters.