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A perspective of old Paris – gone, yet still here

‘We’ll always have Paris,’ said Rick, as he gazed into Ilse’s eyes in the movie classic Casablanca. The Paris that Rick was referring to was the Paris of 1940. In many respects, Rick and Ilse’s historic city centre of 1940 would still be instantly recognisable to us today. That’s because the Paris we know and love was largely created in the two decades from 1853 in a frenzy of demolition and building instigated by the vaulting ambition of Napoleon III and driven by the superhuman energy of the master of works, Georges-Eugéne Haussmann.

Paris rebuilt

Is ‘frenzy’ an overstatement? Well, consider that the wholesale reimagination of Paris involved the demolition of about 20,000 buildings and the construction of 34,000 new ones across both the original and an enlarged urban area. Yes, that’s definitely a frenzy. Most of the new construction was executed in what we know as the distinctive Haussmann style of handsome and beautifully proportioned stone facades, richly decorated with fine wrought iron.

The industrial scale destruction of labyrinthine, dark, damp, medieval Paris was fuelled by the appalling squalor evident in the city of the 1840s. This was vividly described by social reformer Victor Considerant as ‘an immense workshop of putrefaction … misery, pestilence and sickness.’ The solution adopted by Napoleon III was to destroy the old city to create wide, straight boulevards, full of light and fresh air.

Old Paris is still there

Despite the vigorous assault, a few pockets of old Paris did survive: on a relatively large scale, the Marais district; and in a more scattered sense, monuments and cathedrals such as Notre-Dame. While Notre-Dame itself was spared, many of the buildings around it were not.

These days, we are accustomed to enjoying the expansive view of Notre-Dame (despite the ruinous fire of 2019) from the open plaza facing the famous west façade. But before Haussmann’s wreckers got to work, the whole of the west façade was not so easy to appreciate in its fullness.

As we can see from Eduard Gaertner’s painting of 1826, ‘Paris, Rue Neuve Notre-Dame’, the area of today’s airy plaza was densely packed with various stone buildings fronting a narrow street, complete with an open drain running down its cobblestone spine. A mere fragment of the cathedral’s west façade looms in the smoky distance, closely framed in the foreground by a collection of less majestic structures.

This painting of Gaertner’s was executed in his typically precise naturalistic style, which aimed to capture the genuine light, texture and mood of urban landscapes. The human figures in the painting are included not for their intrinsic interest, but to provide a sense of scale, distance and perspective for the real points of interest – the buildings. In this case, particularly Notre-Dame Cathedral: seemingly far off and mostly obscured, but still the dominant element. Paradoxically, the sharp masonry framing created by the foreground buildings accentuates the distant rising mass of the cathedral. By showing us only a naturalistic glimpse of a fraction of the cathedral, the artist provides a tantalising hint that there is much more yet to be revealed to us.

In one sense, Gaertner’s perspective on the cathedral is long gone, owing to Haussmann’s razing of almost every other building in the area. But in another sense, Gaertner’s perspective, captured on canvas in a lost moment in time, lives on forever in his evocative painting. Yes, we’ll always have Paris.

‘Paris, Rue Neuve Notre-Dame’ is in the collection of the Foundation of the Prussian Castles and Gardens of Berlin-Brandenburg, Potsdam, Germany.

By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…

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