Monday, May 5, 2008

Place du Panthéon

This rather austere square (it could sure use some greenery!) surrounds the monument honoring great French men, the Panthéon. When Louis XV was ill, he vowed to build a church to honor Sainte Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, if he recovered. Recover he did, but the church wasn’t completed until the time of the French Revolution, when all church property was seized by the citizens. The 42 windows were eventually walled up, and the great neo-classical building, which bears an uncanny resemblance to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, became a mausoleum for Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola and other notables. Marie Curie broke the sex barrier when she was re-interred here in 1995.
An inscription on the building reads: To the great men of France, from a grateful nation.
It is possible to climb the steps to the top of the dome for a spectacular view of all Paris. Foucault’s pendulum, which proves the rotation of the earth, is set up on the main floor, and numerous murals and frescoes, some of which form a diorama of the life of Sainte Geneviève, adorn the walls. The overall effect is rather grandiose, cold and monolithic.
From the front steps one has a view down Rue Soufflot, named after the architect of the Panthéon, to the Luxembourg Gardens and the Eiffel Tower.
Also on this square is the Sainte-Geneviève library, built on the site of the Montaigu College, which was known for the harsh standards of education its pupils endured, as well as the squalor of its rooms. However, Erasmus, Ignatius Loyola and John Calvin all managed to survive the rigors. Erasmus later reminisced about the "bad food, hard beds and harsh blows." The present building dates from 1850 and is inscribed with the names of more than 800 scholars. Now serving the University of Paris, the library houses over 2 million documents.
The Mairie (Town Hall) of the 5th Arrondissement is located on the southwest corner of this vast square. This is where local residents come to vote, register their children for school and pay parking tickets.
The historic church St-Etiènne-du-Mont and the neighboring Lycée Henri-IV (the most prestigious high school in France) are located behind the Panthéon. Georges Pompidou taught literature at the Lycée Henri-IV, and a roster of famous students includes Guy de Maupassant, André Gide, Baron Haussmann, and Jean-Paul Sartre. This school was the first public high school in all of France, and it occupies the historic buildings of the former Sainte-Geneviève abbey.

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