Sunday, December 18, 2011

Benjamin Franklin in Paris

A bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin is the centerpiece of Square de Yorktown, adjacent to the southwestern wing of the Palais de Chaillot, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. Rue Benjamin Franklin runs from here down to Rue de Passy. Métro: Trocadéro

I’ve often read that, if Benjamin Franklin had not been our ambassador to France in the years after he signed the Declaration of Independence, we’d all still be speaking with a British accent. As it turns out, that premise is understatement.

Franklin lived in Paris for more than seven years, making his home in Passy, then a village just west of Paris (now in the city’s 8th arrondissement, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower). He was wildly popular, and known as a ladies’ man, even though he was 70 years old when he first arrived in Paris. His signature fur hat was copied in the hair styles of prominent Parisian women. Franklin wisely took the time to learn the French language and the idiosyncrasies of French manners. He was also something of a celebrity, because of his famous lightning experiment.

While living in Paris Franklin fully integrated himself into the life of the city. He even took delight in writing anonymous letters to the editor of the Journal de Paris, suggesting moving clocks forward to save on candles (an expensive luxury item in those days), presaging daylight savings time.

Franklin was temperamentally well suited for France. The streak of irreverence that ran through his entire life found a congenial reception in Paris, as did his love of laughter and the desire to amuse. He did not shock the French, nor did his interest in women, which was deemed perfectly normal. He patiently courted the French aristocracy to his cause and even gained financial support from Spain, while he was at it. The American colonists did not have the financial or manufacturing means to equip themselves to fight the British. Through Franklin’s efforts in France, a solution was found. It helped that the French wanted revenge on England, after being humiliated in the French and Indian war a decade earlier.

On the 19th of October, 1781, at Yorktown, 8,800 Americans and 7,800 French defeated 6,000 British troops. When this news reached Paris exactly one month later, Franklin was giddy with joy, exclaiming, “There is no parallel in history of two entire armies being captured from the same enemy in any one war.” The American character thus rose to new heights, and the joy of all classes of people was excessive. Paris was brilliantly illuminated for three successive nights on that glorious occasion.

Franklin stayed in Paris for two more years to negotiate the subsequent treaties. He was frequently frustrated by the amateur skills of other Americans, whose acts were detrimental to a satisfactory resolution, particularly future president John Adams.

A few years later, France went bankrupt, an incipient cause of the subsequent French Revolution of 1789. That bankruptcy happened, in part, because of the earlier French support of America in its struggle against the English.

When Franklin died in 1790, the French National Assembly went into mourning for three days, making it the first political body in the world to pay homage to a simple citizen from another land.

At no. 56, Rue Jacob (in the St-Germain des Prés neighborhood) Franklin, along with John Jay and John Adams, signed the peace treaty in which the American colonies were formally recognized as an independent nation. A plaque on the side of the building makes note of it.
ON SEPTEMBER 3rd, 1783

Today’s visitor to Paris can dine in the footsteps of Franklin at Le Procope, the oldest dining establishment in the city, dating from 1686. Le Procope was notable in introducing Paris to the exotic new beverage, coffee. This was also the principal hang out of Voltaire, who drank 40 cups of coffee (mixed with chocolate) a day – quite a serious habit; his desk is enshrined upstairs and can be seen to this day, off to the left, near the rest rooms. Other Americans who joined Franklin at Le Procope were John Paul Jones and Thomas Jefferson.

Le Procope
13 rue de l'Ancienne Comédie (6th arrondissement)
Open 7 days a week, 10:30a to 1:00a.
Tél. : 01 40 46 79 00
Métro: Odéon
Observe Napoléon’s hat in a glass case near the restaurant's front door. He left it as collateral on the promise that he would return to settle his bill. They’re still waiting.

Aside: Robert Preston starred in a 1964 Broadway musical, “Ben Franklin in Paris,” which recounted these events. Music and lyrics were by Jerry Herman, of Mame and Hello Dolly fame. It played at the Lunt- Fontanne theater for 215 performances.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Paris Map-Guide

Forgot those annoying folding maps (even the laminated ones that flaunt rain and the occasional spilled drink). There is only one map of Paris worth owning, and that is the 64-page Paris Map-Guide by Michael Middleditch (Penguin Reference Books ISBN 97801414 69041; Third Edition publ. 2006). The scale is so large that restaurants, museums, hotels, etc. are shown as points accurately placed and keyed, so that you can tell which side of the street you should head for before venturing out; in the front is a large scale subway (Metro) map, and a complete street index occupies the last pages.

There is a history of Paris, map of the 20 arrondissements, 29 pages of large-scale street maps, descriptions and maps of the Louvre and Notre-Dame Cathedral, listings (incl. opening times) of museums and art galleries, major points of interest, churches, shopping , markets, nightlife (incl. jazz venues), restaurants, bars, tours, parks, gardens, sports venues, Versailles, concert halls, theatres and cinemas. I'm not kidding.

And in tiny type on pg. 55 is the best tip I've ever read on finding an address in central Paris: on the right bank street numbers increase from the Seine northwards (even numbers on the right heading north); on the left bank from the Seine southwards (even numbers on the right, heading south); on streets running E-W the numbers increase as one goes westward (even numbers on the right heading west).

The legend is in 6 languages: English, French, German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish; all other text in English. At US $10 full retail, there is not a better stocking stuffer. Booklet measures just under 5.5" x 8.25"

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Chapelle Expiatoire

This “Chapel of Atonement” stands on the site of one of the more curious eternal resting places in all of Paris, the Madeleine Cemetery. The remains of its star tenants, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, are no longer located here, having been exhumed and removed from the site 21 years after their deaths by guillotine. In January, 1793, the body of King Louis XVI was hauled from the Place de la Concorde (where the guillotine was installed) to the Madeleine Cemetery, where his headless corpse was dumped into a mass grave and covered with quicklime. Nine months later the same fate befell the queen.

The Chapelle Expiatoire, whose construction was completed in 1826, is a royalist mausoleum built upon the grounds of that former cemetery. The site, located within the tranquil Square Louis XVI, on the south side of Boulevard Haussmann, includes this Greco-Roman necropolis, as well as an entry building designed in Neoclassic style.

The cemetery dates back to 1720, when it served as the new burial grounds of the parish of Sainte Madeleine (located a few blocks to the south), whose original cemetery had outgrown its capacity. Over the next eighty years more than three thousand bodies were interred here, most of them victims of the French Revolution, buried in mass graves.

Ironically, in 1770, the Madeleine Cemetery was used to bury 133 people who were killed in an accident resulting from a fireworks display during the wedding of the dauphin, Louis (the future king Louis XVI), and his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette. On August 10, 1792, several hundred members of the Swiss Guard were slaughtered while making a heroic stand to protect the Tuileries Palace from a revolutionary mob. Their resistance allowed the King and Queen to escape to Versailles. All the bodies of the Swiss guardsmen were buried in the Madeleine Cemetery.

In 1802 the land in which the bodies lay was bought by Pierre-Louis Olivier Desclozeaux, a royalist lawyer who had lived adjacent to the cemetery since 1789. He had taken note of the sites where the King and Queen were buried and marked them with a hedge and several trees. In 1816, just after the bodies of the former king and queen were removed to St. Denis, Desclozeaux sold his house and the old cemetery to Louis XVIII, who shared the expense of building the Chapelle Expiatoire with his niece, the Duchess of Angoulême, daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

The Chapelle Expiatoire complex is entered through an entry hall that leads to a large enclosed courtyard planted with roses and flanked with grave markers in remembrance of the dead. Beyond that, the domed Chapel of Atonement is reached by climbing a set of stairs and passing through a facade supported by Doric columns. Above the entrance is a bas-relief sculpture commemorating the exhumation and procession of the remains of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to the Basilica of St. Denis (north of the city), the traditional repository of the remains of French royals.

A marble altar is centered along the back wall, and two marble statues stand to either side. To the left is Marie Antoinette “supported by Religion,” the work of Jean Pierre Cortot. To the right is the sculpture by Françoise Bosio which depicts Louis XVI ascending to heaven with the help of an angel. A crypt, accessed by stairs behind each statue, contains a black coffin that marks the original location of the bodies of the king and queen.

In addition to the royals, other notables who met their destiny in 1793 are commemorated at this site. Mme. Du Barry, mistress of King Louis VX, also fell victim to the guillotine. It is noted that she displayed none of the dignity of the king and queen; instead, her approach to the scaffold was hysterical, screaming and begging for mercy. Her remains were also later removed from the Madeleine Cemetery. The Bourbon Duc d’Orléans, cousin of the king, changed his name to Philippe Egalité and cast a vote for the execution of the king, but this did not prevent him from meeting the same fate. However, unlike Mme. Du Barry, eyewitnesses commented upon his courage and dignity in approaching the guillotine. Also interred here was Charlotte Corday, who was led to the scaffold just four days after she murdered Jean Paul Marat, whose incendiary writings she blamed for most of the terrors of the revolution.

The Chapelle Expiatoire complex combines history, art and architecture in an oasis of quiet from the activity of the surrounding city. It serves as the only monument to the French Revolution that is religious in nature.

Along the garden perimeter, symmetrical arcades commemorate the hundreds of members of the Swiss Guard who lost their lives defending the Tuileries Palace in 1792.

Chapelle Expiatoire
29, rue Pasquier – Square Louis XVI
Open Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays 1-5 pm; entrance fee 5 Euros (free to holders of the Paris Museum Pass)
Closed January 1, May 1, November 1, November 11, December 25.
Métro: St-Augustin

Friday, November 4, 2011

Aperitif supreme: Kir Royale

In Paris it is common to order a pre-dinner drink (an aperitif), and the king of all aperitifs is the Kir Royale.

In Dijon, capital of the Burgundy region, Kir is the beverage of choice. Named after Canon Felix Kir, who worked as a priest in Dijon, it’s a mix of Aligoté (a local white wine) and crème de cassis liqueur. On special occasions, one swaps the wine for champagne to create a Kir Royale. Naturally, this drink is served in a champagne flute. Red wine can also be used to make a Kir Cardinal, so named because its color resembles the crimson of a cardinal’s robe. Virtually every region in France has its own variant of a Kir depending on what the local wine is.

Canon Kir was the mayor of Dijon from 1945-1968, and was an important figure in the French Resistance during World War II. He used to serve the combination of aligoté and crème de cassis – made from locally grown black currants – as a welcome drink to visiting officials at the town hall, causing the aperitif to become associated with his name.

In Burgundy, a Kir is typically accompanied by gougère, a savory little cheese puff made from choux pastry.

A votre santé!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

École Militaire

The École Militaire (Military School) is a large complex of buildings housing military training facilities. It sits on the Left Bank, bang opposite the Eiffel Tower across the vast expanse of the Champ de Mars.
It was founded by Louis XV in 1750 on the basis of a proposal of the financier Joseph Pâris (known as Duverney) with the support of Madame de Pompadour, for the purpose of creating an academic college for cadet officers from poor families. The main building was designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, and construction began in 1752 on the grounds of a former farm. The school did not open, however, until 1760. The Comte de Saint-Germain reorganized it in 1777 under the name of the École des Cadets-gentilshommes (School of Young Gentlemen), which accepted the young Napoleon Bonaparte in 1784; he was a superior student, graduating in only one year (instead of two).

It now hosts two elite schools, the Joint Defense College and the Institute of High Studies of National Defense.
The neoclassical chapel is of particular architectural distinction. Louis XV laid the foundation stone of the chapel on July 5, 1769. Upon its completion in 1773, the chapel was dedicated to Saint Louis, the patron saint of the army. Until 1788, it was open for worship and welcomed students and staff from the military school. Napoleon Bonaparte received his confirmation there in 1785. Devastated during the Revolution, the chapel was turned into a canteen and then a feed and weapons depot. Its furnishings were dispersed.
During the funeral of Marshal Joffre in 1931, the chapel was definitively cleared of all the items kept there. Its furnishings were recovered during the course of the 1930s and it was restored as a Catholic place of worship in 1951. The chapel is now open rarely, for weddings or other religious ceremonies and concerts organized by the Department of Defense.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Maria Callas in Paris

Callas retired from the opera stage in 1965, and she spent her subsequent years living largely in isolation in Paris in her elegant apartment at 36, ave. Georges Mandel, not far from the Place du Trocadero. There is a plaque on that corner apartment building commemorating her residence there, and there are often fresh flowers tied to the gate. The service lanes in front of the building along Avenue Georges Mandel were renamed in her honor and now bear this sign:

Allée Maria Callas
Lyric Artist

She died alone in her Paris apartment on September 16, 1977, of a heart attack, at the age of 53. A funeral was held at Agios Stephanos (St. Stephen's) Greek Orthodox Cathedral on rue Georges-Bizet in Paris on September 20, 1977, and her ashes were interred at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in eastern Paris. After being stolen and later recovered, her ashes were ultimately scattered over the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Greece, according to her wishes. There is still an engraved plaque with gilded lettering in front of the now empty space in the wall of that famous cemetery’s columbarium.
Amazingly, thirty years after her death, she is still one of classical music’s best-selling vocalists. Maria Callas remains a phenomenon of the opera world, a prima donna assoluta whose influence has never waned. She could communicate with an audience at an emotional level as few opera singers were able. Evidence can be seen in this brief video, a televised segment of a Covent Garden recital performance in 1962, when Callas was 39 years old. Although she is standing on a nearly empty stage, Callas becomes Carmen before our very eyes. Every gesture and turn of the body reinforces the Habañera text, translated below. Even the 1960s coiffure and elegant concert attire do not distract us from her peerless interpretation.

Love is a rebellious bird that can’t be tamed.
You call out to him quite in vain if it suits him not to come.
Nothing helps, neither threat nor prayer.
One man talks well, the other's mum;
It's the latter that I prefer. He's silent, but I like his looks.

Love! Love! Love! Love!
Love is a child of the Bohemian way;
It has never, ever, known a law.
Love me not, then I love you;
But if I love you, you'd best watch out!

The bird you thought you had caught beat its wings and flew away.
Love stays away; you wait and wait. But when least expected, there it is!
All around you, swift, so swift, it comes, it goes, and then returns.
You think you hold it fast, it flees; You think you're free, it holds you fast.
(repeat of Love! Love! Love! section)

This short video is a decidedly voyeuristic visit to her Avenue Georges Mandel address; her apartment is now owned by an Arabian entrepreneur.
Note: Frenchman Georges Mandel was a Jewish journalist, politician and WWII resistance leader who was murdered in the forest of Fontainebleau in 1944.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Galerie Vivienne

Conceived in the nineteenth century to protect pedestrians from mud and horse-drawn vehicles, indoor shopping arcades proliferated in the mid 19th century. By 1845 there were over one hundred of them, but today only twenty or so of these passages and galeries remain. For decades they were left to crumble and decay, but many have been renovated and restored to their former glory, creating attractive havens from the city’s choke of traffic. Their entrances are easy to miss, and where you emerge at the other end can be quite a surprise!
The flamboyant decor of Greek and marine motifs in the Galerie Vivienne establishes the perfect ambience in which to shop for antique books, wine, gourmet treats or delightful toys as souvenirs for the young ones back home. This particular galerie is distinguished by its original mosaic floors and an elegant oval staircase dating from 1826.
Note: Hector Berlioz led a large crowd gathered inside the Galerie Vivienne in singing “La Marseillaise” to celebrate the revolution of July, 1830, which resulted in the overthrow of Charles X and transfer of power away from the House of Bourbon.
A Priori Thé, one of the most celebrated tea rooms in Paris since its debut in 1980, is owned by U.S. expat Margaret Gilbert-Hancock. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, the offerings are of the highest quality, and booking is recommended. There are entrances from the street as well as from inside the galerie.
35-37 Galerie Vivienne; tel. 01 42 97 48 75
Métro: Bourse or Pyramides

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Feast of Mary’s Assumption: August 15

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris is dedicated to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Following 1,300 years of church teaching, in 1950 it was officially pronounced as dogma by Pope Pius XII that Mary, body and soul, was taken (assumed) directly into heaven at the end of her earthly life. The Catholic Church honors her every August 15, the Feast of Mary’s Assumption, which is a national holiday in France.

On August 14 the Cathedral of Notre-Dame dedicates a full day to the Anticipation of Mary’s Assumption with a Mass held at 6:30 pm, led by the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, followed by a Marian Procession (7:30 pm) from the cathedral to the boat landing platform of the quay Saint-Bernard, on the Left Bank of the Seine. The life-size silver statue of Mary holding the Infant Jesus used in this procession was given to Notre-Dame Cathedral by French King Charles X in the 1820s.

At 8:00 pm the statue and thousands of pilgrims are loaded onto nine boats to begin a floating procession that departs the quay at 8:30. The boats follow a course around the two islands of the Seine, the Île de la Cité (on which the Cathedral of Notre-Dame is located) and the neighboring Île Saint-Louis. Observers line the bridges and quays in the immediate area to witness this “Procession Fluvial,” during which time the pilgrims sing and pray. After the statue is returned to the cathedral, there is an hour long Nocturne, a projection of Marian art images onto scrims set up in the nave of the cathedral, beginning at 10:00 pm (open to the public).

The following day, August 15, the Feast of Mary’s Assumption begins in the cathedral with a Gregorian Mass at 10:00 am, followed by Solemn Vespers at 3:45 pm. At 4:30 pm a two-hour Solemn Procession of the Assumption takes place on foot through the Île de la Cité and the neighboring Île Saint-Louis, followed by a Mass at 6:30. At 9:30 pm the Nocturne projection of Marian images in the nave is repeated (open to the public).

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Versailles: Royal Golden Gate

The original design of the royal golden gate of the Palace of Versailles has finally been restored, after being demolished during the French Revolution in 1789. It took over two years to replicate the original 260-ft. long gilded wrought iron fence and gate. This royal gate, which stands at the entrance to the cour d’honneur, provides an essential element of Versailles’ historical identity. It returns to this area in front of the château all its impressive, symbolic force.

100,000 sheets of gold leaf were crafted onto fleur-de-lys designs, crowns, masks of Apollo, cornucopias and the crossed capital Ls representing the Sun King, Louis XIV. Private donors contributed $8 million to rebuild the 15-ton structure, and an army of historians and top craftsmen were enlisted to ensure an exact replica of the well-documented original, designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart in the 1680s. This new replica of the original, dedicated on July 8, 2008, stands atop a stone knee wall, as originally designed.

Experts studied 17th and 18th century archives and information from archaeological digs before deciding on the final installation. The gate is the centerpiece of a secure double enclosure separating the cour d'honneur from the royal courtyard, at the very heart of the palace. Versailles was the king's residence, and the whole layout aimed to demonstrate that one was approaching “his sacred person.” In fact, when the court worshiped in the Versailles chapel, only the king faced the altar. Everyone else turned around and faced the king, lest they forget who was the most important person in the room. At banquets, members of the court had to bow and curtsy to the platters of food that were intended for consumption by the king. Thus, this imposing gilded fence and gate were but a foretaste of what one could expect once on the other side of it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Musée Delacroix

The Musée Delacroix offers a surprisingly intimate and scholarly perspective on 18th century Romanticist painter Eugène Delacroix, the artistic master behind the famous painting Liberty Leading the People (1830, on display in the Louvre). The museum is situated in the refurbished three-room apartment and atelier where Delacroix lived and worked from 1857 until his death in 1863. He moved here to be closer to Saint-Sulpice church, where he was commissioned to complete a series of frescoes. Sketches, watercolors, engravings, and letters to Théophile Gautier and George Sand are part of the permanent holdings, while occasional temporary exhibits showcase significant achievements in Delacroix scholarship.

There is a lovely enclosed garden (shown above) between the atelier – equipped with Delacroix’s original palettes and studies – and the artist’s private apartment. (6 rue de Furstemberg, 6ème., St-Germain-des-Prés. Behind the Église St-Germain, off rue de l’Abbaye. At the courtyard, follow the sign to the central atelier Delacroix).

Open 9:30am-5pm; last entry 4:30pm. Closed Tuesdays.
Admission €5. Access is just off to the right of the trees shown in the foreground in picturesque Place Furstenberg (shown below).

Note that one of the four paulownia empress trees is much larger than the others; the three smaller ones are replacements. If you come to this spot in springtime, you will treated to a magnificent display of lavender blossoms and gigantic new leaves. This is an ideal Parisian square, sunny in winter and shady in summer. If you are here for the first time, yet have a strong sense of déjà vu, it could be explained by your having seen Martin Scorsese's movie, The Age of Innocence, whose final scene was filmed here.
It is unfortunate that the benches that were located here had to be removed when this square became a hangout for an undesirable element; I remember when those benches on Place Furstenberg afforded an ideal spot for consuming a store-bought lunch. While I'm grousing, several times when I've visited this place recently, there have been hideous modern sculpture exhibits placed around the central lamppost, completely destroying the rather romantic atmosphere. But wait! I have another complaint: most of the bookstores and publishing houses that once populated this neighborhood have given over to shops and showrooms catering to the interior design trade; anyone who remembers Librairie Le Divan (since relocated) will know what I'm talking about. But I digress.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Paris - It's for the Dogs

Parisians have a love affair with dogs. In fact, the love of "man's best friend" is carried to the extreme. Dogs are accepted everywhere. You may be taken aback when you see dogs entering restaurants and stores, but that’s the Parisian custom, and everyone is accepting of it. Pooch even has his own seat at a restaurant table; no one thinks it's out of the ordinary. But it is far more common to see the owner’s dog on the floor at his feet, waiting patiently for a table scrap. Many waiters even bring a bowl of water for the canine pet of their regular customers.
The special thing that I notice is that the dogs in Paris are exceptionally well-behaved. They don’t snarl, whine or jump, and they greet other dogs with a casual disinterest; and they seldom stray more than a few inches from the feet of their owners, even when off leash. Amazing, but true.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Les Colonnes Morris

The ubiquitous Morris Columns are circular cast iron advertising posts that date back to the middle of the 19th century. They take their name from a Parisian printer, Gabriel Morris, who developed this advertising media and introduced them to the sidewalks of Paris, beginning in 1868. The advertising agency bore his name, so they were called Colonnes Morris. They are typically topped by a squat onion dome and a tiny spire.
As of 2006 there were 790 Morris columns in Paris, of which 18 contained telephone booths (most of these on the Champs-Élysées) and six contained Sanisette toilets! Many Morris columns rotate slowly, and the more modern ones are back-lit.
These days Morris columns are built and maintained by the JC Decaux company, which purchased Morris in 1986.
Paris does not allow billboards, so most major movie releases are advertised on a Colonne Morris, as pictured above (Thank You for Smoking, released in 2005). They also display theater, nightclub and concert announcements.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Place Dauphine

17-century pavilions stand guard over the narrow entrance to Place Dauphine.

Place Dauphine
was laid out in 1609 as part of a city planning project by King Henri IV that included the adjacent Pont Neuf, the oldest surviving bridge in Paris today. The original design was a triangle of three rows of residences, which conformed to the tapering shape of the western extremity of the Île de la Cité.

Two centuries earlier several small islands adjacent to the Île de la Cité had been joined together and filled in, allowing an expansion of the island west of the Conciergerie and Royal Palace. One of these islands, the Île de Juifs, had been where Philippe IV ordered and watched Jacques de Molay burn at the stake in 1314, thus ending the illustrious history of the Knights Templar. This new tract of land became the Jardin du Roi (Garden of the King), later converted to the first botanical garden by Marie de Médicis, the second wife of Henri IV. Their son, the Dauphin (who became Louis XIII), was thus honored when they named this new square after him.

Place Dauphine is shaped like a funnel, and entry is gained through a narrow opening between two striking pavilions built of brick with limestone quoins, which face the bridge and an equestrian statue of Henri IV, the centerpiece of the Place du Pont-Neuf. Once entry is gained, Place Dauphine opens up in a triangular shape, where two angled sides flank a small grassless park. Locals often play petanque, a form of lawn bowling, under the canopy of trees.

The eastern edge of Place Dauphine was later demolished to open the square to the façade of the Palais de Justice, ruining the original intimate design. This mistake was later diminished by the planting of a double row of trees along the footprint of the line of razed buildings, thereby screening off the somewhat pompous Palais de Justice.

Few tourists penetrate Place Dauphine, which provides an oasis of calm from traffic noise and city activity, even though a small hotel and several restaurants line the perimeter. Yves Montand and Simone Signoret made Place Dauphine their lifelong home.

On the other side of the Pont Neuf sits an equestrian statue of Henri IV, who appears ready to trot into Place Dauphine. Next to the statue are steps that descend down to the needle shaped Square du Vert Galant, a grassy expanse lined with willow trees that divides the two spans of the Pont Neuf. It's often described as a pointed "tongue" that sticks out into the Seine. From this choice spot tourists can view the river from the original level of the Île de la Cité, which has risen more than 2o feet over the centuries, as new buildings and streets were built atop foundations of older ones.

This little square also pays homage to Henri IV, a notorious philanderer. Its name, Square du Vert Galant, means "randy youth." It is said that Henri fathered 70 children before an assassin stabbed him while his carriage was stuck in traffic. Henri was a wildly popular ruler, and his equestrian statue was put up just four years after his death, a remarkable tribute.

Two views of the prow-shaped Square du Vert Galant

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Atelier Brancusi

A museum for the works of Brancusi, one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century, provides a moment of contemplative peace in one of the busiest public squares in Paris, facing the Centre-Pompidou.
The Romanian sculptor, Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), arrived in Paris in 1904, and from 1916 until his death worked in a modest wooden shed in an alley in the Montparnasse quarter.

Brancusi in his beloved "shed"

Modest though it was, the studio space, lit by north light, acquired singular importance for Brancusi. He came to see his works and the spaces around them as a single harmonious entity. Brancusi arranged his sculptures so that their relationship one to another and to the room itself was balanced. In the end, it became difficult for him to envisage the sculptures outside his studio, and by 1950 Brancusi refused to exhibit his works elsewhere. The year before his death, he left the studio and its contents, including his tools, to the State of France, with the request that it be left undisturbed. Accordingly, Brancusi was made a naturalized citizen of France.

The Kiss - 1916

Soon after Brancusi’s death, however, the studio was demolished, along with many other structures, in order to make room for the development of the controversial Tour Montparnasse; in order to carry out the wishes of Brancusi, a replica of his atelier was built opposite the north-west corner of the Centre Pompidou. Faithful to the picturesque scruffiness of the original, it was a quietly poignant place, the more so for being next to the frenetic glamor of the Centre Pompidou’s piazza. The little building was difficult to make secure, however, and was hardly advertised, open only two afternoons a week.
Architect Renzo Piano’s scheme for renovating the Centre Pompidou included building a new Atelier Brancusi on its former site. Now completed, the "new" atelier (1997) is an evocation of Brancusi’s spirit rather than an exact replica; importantly, the replacement building conforms to standards required by modern curators and security.
Observed from the huge piazza in front of the Centre Pompidou, one scarcely notices this simple stone pavilion, which spans a change in level sloping up to Rue Rambuteau. There is just a plain wall of stone blocks with a metallic shed roof. From the steps to the right side, visitors ascend toward the street, then descend another flight of stairs to the left. There is an attractive courtyard with trees to the left of the main entrance (there is no admission fee). Because the building is set below street level, it feels separate from it, and the descent forms a gradual transition from noisy street life to the quiet, contemplative areas found inside.

Photo by M. Denancé

Brancusi’s studio now consists of a wood-framed structure divided into four interconnecting spaces with plain white walls lit by north-facing skylights. The studio itself is isolated from human traffic by glass walls, which visitors circumnavigate around the perimeter. The sculptures and various objects like Brancusi’s time-worn tools are arranged as he would have wished. There is also a small gallery for Brancusi’s photographs.
Open 2-6 pm daily, except Tuesday; free admission!
Place Georges Pompidou (rue Saint-Martin)
Métro: Rambuteau (walk south on Rue Beaubourg, then right on Rue Rambuteau; museum is on the left just before the corner of Rue Saint-Martin.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Permanent Parisians: Montmartre Cemetery

The Cimetière de Montmartre (formerly called Cimetière du Nord) was a favorite of composer Hector Berlioz, who remarked, “My favorite walk, especially when it is raining, when it is pouring rain, is through Montmartre cemetery, which is near where I live. I often go there, and I have many friends there.”

Well, he never left the neighborhood, because he is buried beneath an elegant black granite tombstone in section 20 of this remarkable cemetery. In the late 1820s Berlioz became obsessed with an English actress who performed at the Odéon Theatre. Although they had never met, Berlioz stalked her, sent dozens of passionate love letters and attended performance after performance in which she starred. This actress, Harriet Smithson, was the inspiration for Symphonie Fantastique, perhaps his best known composition. They eventually married, but just six years later Berlioz took up with Marie Recio, who became his long-time mistress. Today’s visitors who come to pay homage to Berlioz might be astonished to find that things are rather cozy in the Berlioz grave, which contains the bodies of Hector, Harriet and Marie. The names of both women are literally etched in stone, side-by-side on the right vertical surface of the tombstone. Trust me on this.
There are graves of other musicians of note: Jacques Offenbach (born Jakob, a Jewish German cellist who changed his name to Jacques when he moved to Paris to delight the city with his can-can music, still performed nightly at the Moulin Rouge just down the street), Léo Delibes (composer of operas and ballet music), Charles-Valentin Alkan (composer tragically killed when a bookcase fell on him), Adolphe Adam (composer of “O Holy Night”), Nadia Boulanger (influential music teacher of scores of American composers - and her sister Lili, as well). Not to mention Adolphe Sax (Belgian by birth), who invented the saxophone.

Bust of Offenbach

But wait, there’s more!
Stuffed into these crowded 28 acres are painters Edgar Degas, Fragonard, Greuze and Delaroche; writers Émile Zola (who was later moved to the Panthéon, but his family grave and original resting place remains here), Henri Murger (see separate post: La Bohème), Alexandre Dumas, fils (see separate post), Heinrich Heine, Stendhal (The Red and the Black) and Gautier; celebrated courtesan Marie Duplessis (née Alphonsine Plessis, mistress of Alexandre Dumas, fils, and the inspiration for La Traviata – see separate post); Juliette Récamier (who gave her name to the récamier sofa of which she was fond); Foucault (demonstrator of the earth’s rotation with his pendulum) and physicist Ampère, after whom the amp (unit of electrical current) is named; Russian dancer Nijinsky; Poulbot (caricaturist and illustrator); and film maker François Truffaut (Jules and Jim).
Not to overlook Dalida, Miss Egypt 1954, who went on to become sort of a Parisian Cher. She became an actress and singer with an almost mythical cult following, especially among gay men during her later disco period; they adorn her grave with flowers to this day. She committed suicide in 1987, as did her first husband and two of her lovers.

So there you have it, all crammed into the melting pot that is Montmartre Cemetery.
Métro: Blanche (entry at Rue Rachel, just beyond the Moulin Rouge nightclub)