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