When tourists go to see Notre Dame Cathedral it’s likely they miss a few sneaky details.. (for good reason, right? HEY KIDS LOOK UP ITS NOTRE DAME!) hidden right below their feet! If you were to be in front of ND prior to 1870, it would have appeared very different from what you see today.
For starters, the parvis AKA the huge open area where everyone gathers to take pictures or wait in a massively winding line back when the cathedral was accessible before the BFF (Big Fucking Fire)DID NOT EXIST. You could never really see ND until you were right up against it because the area in front of ND was a Medieval Real Estate Hot Commodity.
Back in the day of our medieval forefathers, panoramic city views were a privilege, not a right. Besides, who has time to complain about lack of open public space when everyone was too preoccupied with managing typical day to day concerns; like STDs, figuring out what time it was, and how to seek revenge on your asshole landlord when you lived in a constant state of poverty and poor health. Good times!
Like the Champs Elysees or Boulevard Saint Germain des Prés today, the Rue Neuve Notre Dame was the main drag here in medieval Paris, dominating the landscape around the cathedral from the time it was built in about 1136 until city planner Haussmann leveled this area in the 19th century. Another long-standing building, the Hospital of Found Children (or Lost Children if you are a cup half empty kind of person) was eliminated with it, thus creating the open space we see today.
However, you can still see traces of this former street in the cobblestones below, where the location of the Rue is highlighted with a different stone as well as a discreet marker. I absolutely love to point this out to tourists with their necks angled up. Their delight to look beneath their feet at this hidden in plain sight detail tickles me every time.
AND THERE’S MORE! You can even view the foundations of the 28 buildings that once lined this street below in my favorite Paris museum you probably never knew, the Crypte Archéologique. (click text for link, or see my post about this hidden gem of a museum in the link below)
Did you know about this detail or are you learning of it for the first time? Please comment below!
I don’t know about anyone else, but when I see an old photograph taken in Paris, my first thoughts are “Where was this taken” and ‘Can I see this same image through my camera lens today?”.
Maybe it’s part of my fascination with the idea that I am walking in the same steps of someone from the past, who although may be long gone- can still share with me this same setting (more or less) some 170 years later? I’m obsessed with the concept of “FIRSTS”, and I stumbled upon this photo (or Daguerreotype if you want to be precise) taken around 1851 by French photographer and artist Charles Nègre, who was noted for his preference of photographing the working class. (Hell yeah! A photographer of the PEOPLE!)
Remarkably, this is considered THE FIRST captured image of movement. These three youngsters are chimney sweeps, walking along the Quai de Bourbon on the northern side of ile Saint Louis.
I immediately analyzed this photo, looking for clues to give its precise location today. It means a lot more to me if I can pinpoint THAT EXACT SPOT. The paving on the wall has obviously been replaced. (But you know damn well I would have sought out these exact crevices had it not been) You can’t see much definition of the buildings in the background, located on the opposite Quai des Célestins- plus that area was largely leveled in the mid 1900’s. I looked for more info on the photograph and discovered that Charles had a workshop on the Quai at number 21. Presuming he took this photo not far from his workshop, this is the closest image I could come up with that did not contain trees.
TAH-DAH! Long before child labor laws, you can imagine these boys working under these hazardous conditions likely missed out on a childhood we take for granted today. I feel somewhat comforted that even if they weren’t aware in that moment of their participation in this FIRST, their suffering counted for something and here they are remembered in 2021.
First of all.. Can I just say how much my mind is blown when I read into little historical details? I lost myself over two hours hunting through online archives of Louis Daguerre, the Father of Modern Photography- and I’m thoroughly tickled.
Here is allegedly the FIRST photo of not one but TWO humans, and how perfect is it that the first outdoor picture in Paris also is on the city’s oldest bridge, The Pont Neuf? Can you spot the people?
Sprawled out on the steps leading up to the famous statue of King Henry IV appears to be a couple dry humping but is more likely maintenance workers taking a break after working on the statue. (If you look extra close you can see the shadows of their PBR Tall Boys)
How can you tell?
Their work bench and tools are behind them and upon closer inspection, they aren’t wearing skirts. (Damn You Patriarchy) But there’s more magic! Comparing this photo shot by Daguerre and partner Joseph Fordos to the same location (and the same building!) shot in modern times by photographer JR- is just mesmerizing.
You can see the coupole of the Bibliothèque Mazarine on the left, and the Grande Gallerie of the Louvre on the right. The original 9 arched metallic Pont des Arts rises almost alien-like in the distance; the one we know today was built in the 1980s.
Is anyone else geeking out that this photo is from nearly 200 years ago?? It’s like Inception Style Photography.
We can almost see the eyes of people that might have seen the French Revolution which happened only 50 some years prior, with their eyes! (Unlikely yes, but lets take it back another level to their parents’ eyes! Or their grandparents! Ok ok I’m reactivating my totem before my imagination traps me into 18th century France)
While there are controversies regarding the validity of the date, (it’s current home at the Musée des Arts et Metiers dates it from 1836-1839) based upon its reference in letters written by Daguerre in January 1838- recent studies agree its very likely this “photo” was done before the famous Boulevard du Temple one in spring of 1838.
Before The Big Fire, the Cathedral of Notre Dame was one of the most visited landmarks in Europe and about 13 MILLION people come annually to see this gothic wonder. Since it’s first stone was laid over 800 years ago, Our Lady has been a beacon in the city of lights to Parisians, pilgrims, and tourists from all over the world.
Imagine you are a visitor to Paris in the 19th century looking in your travel guide (yes travel guides have been around longer than Rick Steves) at the ile de la cité. Chances are the first recommendation wouldn’t be ND, but rather the other, even more popular attraction in the area… The Morgue.
No visit to the Morgue would be complete without a postcard!
Listed as a MUST SEE next to the Eiffel Tower and Catacombs, the morgue was described by Hughes Leroux in 1888 as “a part of every conscientious provincial’s first visit to the capital”.
To give you an idea of its popularity, the Eiffel Tower today receives about 20,000 visitors per day. In the 19th century the Morgue received as many as 40,000. We all know our Victorian predecessors were a rather morbid bunch (“oh poor Granny kicked the bucket last night? Quick Edmond, throw her in her rocking chair and force her eyes open so we can get a photo op before the rigamortus sets in!”) but this macabre tourist attraction might be excessively ghoulish.
Originally situated on the Quai du Marché Neuf, a larger and more modern Morgue was built in 1864 in the backyard of Notre Dame on the Quai de l’Archevêché. Although the morgue was built for the intended purposes of identifying and embalming bodies (most of which were fished out of the Seine, which conveniently flowed just a few meters away) it was literally advertised as being a sort of grim spectator sport.
Similar to visiting an oddity at a Carnival like a bearded lady or conjoined twins, up to 50 people at a time would pass through the entry and gaze at the cold, naked bodies laid out on marble slabs behind a window of glass.
Anyone and ANYTHING (yes that detached leg might look familiar to someone) that needed to be identified was displayed at the Paris Morgue. Thick velvety curtains were hung at either end of the display room so workers could discreetly change bodies on a regular basis, and then dramatically open the curtains like a stage show.
Spectators would gawk and gossip over the remains; murder victims and young women drew the most crowds. Jersey Shore wasn’t a source of entertainment in the 1800’s, but to get your fix of reality entertainment, you could come to the morgue when the police arranged a special “confrontation” between a murder suspect and his victim! Our wholesome American author Mark Twain was even known to be a regular visitor of the Paris morgue.
Strangely enough, the Morgue wasn’t just a place for tourists. It was a social place to see and be seen; with men, women, and children from all social classes passing through its doors regularly in the name of civic duty, sometimes stopping to have a chat with neighbors outside to gossip over the most recent finds, maybe even buying cookies or gingerbread from various venders near the opening to snack on before entering.
Emile Zola described the morgue in his book Raquin from 1867 as “The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.”
The morgue was eventually closed in 1907 due to “morality concerns” and this was good timing given the horrors that would soon come from WWI and II.
You may wonder how people not far off from us today, (maybe even some of you Boomers knew them as your parents or grandparents) could entertain themselves in such a horrid way, but its important to note this was during a time when executions were still public and death was much more a part of daily life. Besides, you were probably keen to check out The Body Worlds exhibit when that took the modern world by storm weren’t you?
Today, the building is gone, and a there is a simple park with a Holocaust Memorial in its place.
Today I want to share with you one of my most precious Paris discoveries, the kind of tale that just blows my mind continually, and makes me want to cover all the other secrets undoubtedly hidden, LITERALLY, in the streets of Paris.
I hope I am not boring you with Notre Dame hidden gems, but you can’t deny that this 856 year old behemoth of a historical landmark has more drama than one of those paperback romance novels from the 80’s with a bare-chested Fabio deflowering a graciously bosomed Dame in his arms on the cover.
In one of the greatest archeological discoveries (in my humble amateur non-archeologist opinion) of the 20th century, was the random unearthing of 21 stone heads and other fragmented sculptures during the renovation of The French Bank of Foreign Trade, which was located in the Hotel Moreau in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.
Let’s go back to the time of the French Revolution..
By order of the Convention of Paris in 1793 (the new government which took the place of the head-less Louis XVI and French Monarchy) all images of tyranny and superstition were to be eradicated. It started off innocently enough; streets and squares were renamed (Place Louis XV became the infamous Place de la Revolution, where King Louis XV’s grandson King Louis XVI would be decapitated) and statues like that of King Henry IV that sat next to the Pont Neuf were discarded.
Unfortunately for French History and Culture, in the ensuing witch hunt of anything resembling royalty, the French people got a little too carried away with their mad frenzy to bring all the power to the people, and made a few mistakes by destroying their heritage (hmm this seems to be a popular theme). Notably, on October 23, 1793 some asshole stood in front of Notre Dame cathedral and pointed to the 28 statues gracing the three portals and shouted “hey, guys!! Check it out! See those Royal-ish statues way the hell up there? Those are FRENCH KINGS! Let’s mutilate them, and push them off the edge!!” and everyone was like “Hell yeah!” and voila, bye-bye 630 year old relics of gothic architecture.
In their haste, they had mistaken the Gallery of the Kings of Juda as French Kings, and these limestone statues were pushed off the Cathedral and discarded. Reconstructed and added to the cathedral during the 19th century, (and who assume their position today) the original heads were assumed to have been thrown in the river Seine.
Or not. PLOT TWIST!
Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Lakanal, a weathly Parisian lawyer bought the heads of the statues in 1796 (apparently, they were just piled up in a nearby street for three years until people started complaining) and used them as a sort of foundation for the mansion/hotel particulier he was building on the Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin. A devout Catholic and knowing the real significance of the statues (but wanting to be discreet, because no one wanted to appear to have sympathy for the royalty during the French Revolution, duh), he followed the rules of “destroying” religious relics and buried each 3.5 meter head with respect, all interred in a line and facing the same direction.
He died not long after his home was finished and like many other significant historical artifacts, the heads were forgotten.. but not forever! Some 180 years later, in spring of 1977- construction workers were enlarging the basement at the French Bank of Foreign Trade, and they unearthed 21 heads (the other 7 are still missing).
In another remarkable twist of fate, the President of this very bank, Francois Giscard d’Estaing, who was the cousin and good friend of the French President (of the 5th Republic) in 1977, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing- was very knowledgeable in archeology and suspected immediately that the heads found in the foundations of his bank were the original Kings of Juda. With the help of other archeologists and historians, Francois proved himself right, especially when the heads were discovered to carry the same traces of paint used to decorate Notre Dame when it was first built! (Did you know Notre Dame Cathedral used to be COLORFUL? IS YOUR MIND BLOWN?!)
The heads were excavated, and put on display at the Cluny Museum, not far from their original home, where they remain today. And to wrap this up with a BANG, let’s appreciate the randomness of the unearthing of these statues. As Francois Giscard said himself, “Its an extraordinary coincidence that I should be the one to find them. I can only hope that the cousin of the French president of the 5th Republic can repair the misfortune caused by the President of the 1st Republic!”
I’m genuinely curious how many of my followers knew about this; its really one of the best, yet widely unknown “secrets” in Paris in my opinion! Please comment below!