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[759] How Paris Became Paris – Joan DeJean

1parisdejean

” All through the 17th century, everytime its cityscape was redesigned in an important way, Paris benefited from what would now be called a rebranding campaign. In a continuous stream of publications and images, writers and artists publicized the city’s transformation from urban ruin to urban wonder and advertized the city as a destination, the epitome of a sophisticated, cosmopolitan place. ” (Introduction: Capital of the Universe, p.5)

Today, books, films, and digital media define Paris as one of the most beautiful and romantic cities. Paris’ spell is rooted in its uniformity of architectural façade, the parks and gardens made for quiet stroll, and the views of the Seine. In fact, as DeJean nimbly demonstrates, Paris’ charm owes much to the vision of two savvy monarchs: Henri IV and his grandson, Louis XIV, the Sun King. How Paris Became Paris, wittily and quite thoroughly researched, presents the city’s role as a significant precursor urban modernity in 17th century, a decisive period of change for the city as it emerged scathed from the War of Religions. The book examines how many of Paris’ quintessential landmarks began as royal visions and benefited from royal support but carried out on a for-profit basis by financiers and real-estate developers. The most notable consequence of these public works is to give Parisians, regardless of social standing, places to go and sights to see, and thus broaden social trajectories and business opportunities.

The opening of Pont Neuf is a milestone in the emergence of an urban culture. Not only is it suited for heavy traffic and served as the first artery linking the two banks, the New Bridge was the first Parisian bridge built without houses, affording view of the Seine from the deck. Most important, it was not just utilitarian, it was treated as a place for urban civility and social exchange, a space for entertainment and commerce. It was a social leveler. The Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges) became a ground-breaking model for the city square devoted to recreation. Île Saint-Louis, built from two undeveloped islets on the Seine, changes Paris’ skyline with the unprecedented white stone construction. As city walls were demolished, streets widened to become boulevards, street lighting implemented, and public transportation introduced, Paris is leaving its medieval identity behind.

But the book is not exclusively about urban development. DeJean covers Le Fronde, the period of revolt against the monarchy (1649-1653) as Parisians, unified in their cause against the corrupted minister to the king, set up barricades and shut down Paris. The book also touches on the noveau riches who bankrolled on the king’s battles, and how these new riches bought fraudulent papers feign aristocratic standing. The result is an end to old aristocracy as one’s social status can be elevated by means of wealth. Rags-to-riches bring the demand for luxury goods, evolutions in fashion, and, a new social class that pursues money in unscrupulous means, otherwise known as gold-diggers.

The richness of subject matter is the strength and fun of this book, although the writing sometimes can be at risk of becoming subsumed in the delivery of facts that cover a vast period. DeJean is at pains to imply no greater city has existed until the reinventing of Paris. She succeeds in demonstrating the making of a very sophisticated Paris. She does an excellent job putting political, economic, and social events of 17th century in context, and showing how they are inter-related.

306 pp. Bloomsbury. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

2 Responses

  1. Always struck me that the city made the bold decision in reconfiguring itself to a grand plan (i.e. the boulevards) that gave a model that London could have adopted after the Blitz. And the orthodoxy is that the French are bourgeois and conservative. Pah! [shrugs]

    • I was reading that after the Great Fire of 1666, London could have rebuilt according to a grand master plan similar to that of Henri VI’s for Pris, but the property owners were afraid that their land would be stripped of them and hastily rebuilt. The Blitz would be another opportunity yes, but it seemed to me Londoners were never as defensive of the skyline as Parisians were. Think about how the Parisians just banished the business district that is known as La Defense now to the part of town west of the Seine.

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