Paris beckons, and I dream of returning to the city whose streets I never tire of wandering. Paris is a city steeped in self-awareness — of its past and of possibilities for its future. It mourns its losses, struggles with turmoil, envisions change, and celebrates survivals, like the ship of the city’s emblem that’s buffeted by waves but never sinks.
And it endlessly analyzes and debates all of the above.
Like geological shifts, Paris folds over itself and crumbles, exposing layers of history, myth, and urban self-reflection. Paris continually re-imagines itself — from major urban upheavals like the Haussmannian decades of the 19th century . . .
. . . to the more recent explosion of street art that has transformed parts of the city into vast outdoors art galleries.
Sometimes Paris overwhelms with a blaring sennet, like its grand boulevards and hôtels particuliers.
Other times, it seduces with a whisper or ironic smile, like this quirky little fountain:
Paris beckons, and for several years I’ve responded, wandering its streets for hours, meditating on a city that ebbs and flows between preservation and impermanence. I ventured into Parc Georges-Brassens, which has safeguarded its past as a horse slaughterhouse by keeping its market stalls and clock tower.
I strolled through Parc Monceau, which maintains the kitschy fake ruins installed by its former aristocratic owner.
I meditated on Paris’ ancient layers in the reconstructed Gallo-Roman amphitheatre, part of which was lopped off by Haussmann’s creation of Rue Monge.
I explored neighbourhoods that have become laboratories for urban renewal and modern architecture, such as the ZAC district around Diderot University.
I peered into elegant, offbeat storefronts . . .
. . . and encountered unexpectedly sublime park benches.
And I visited memorials to a dark chapter in the history of Paris.
I dream, sometimes literally, of returning to Paris. COVID-19 happened, so the trip I’d planned for fall 2020 got postponed. The images and musings that I’ll post over the next few weeks are my love letter to Paris, and my pandemic therapy.
The murals painted onto the blank canvases of Paris buildings and walls open up imaginary spaces. By turns playful, philosophical, and poetic, they fill Paris’ art gallery of the streets.
I never intentionally visited any of these murals (you won’t find them on GoogleMaps). I came upon them by chance. Around the corner always lay the possibility of surprise.
By the time you read this, some of the murals will no doubt have vanished. Although some are considered treasures to be restored periodically, others are more ephemeral, giving way to new imaginings, new visions.
The international nature of the explosion of street art is evidenced by the origins of the artists below.
Fabio Riéti (Italian-French)
Fabio Riéti, one of the earliest practitioners of modern street murals, believes that
Street art is made for the passer-by who doesn’t go there at all for that, but to go and buy bread, and who is pulled by the ear as he comes across a work.
I’d make a special trip to see a Riéti mural, but his point is well taken. Coming across a mural involves the passer-by in the process of discovery, and later, in viewing an old friend. I was fortunate to stumble upon two of Riéti’s works.
At the bottom of the stairs, Glenn Gould accompanies a violinist. At the top, an open-armed little girl awaits the man climbing the stairs with a suitcase.
Luggage is a recurring motif in the murals of Riéti, as in his L’Escalier above. Early in his life, he twice escaped Nazi deportation due to his Jewish surname. His family moved from Italy to France and later to the United States. After the war, he returned permanently to France.
Trompe l’oeil mural of J. S. Bach, by Riéti:
Riéti, who has painted scores of murals in several countries, sees street art as democratic at heart, connecting passers-by with the material world around them and with one another, provoking dialogue:
Many young people walk around with a tablet in their hand and no longer have any connection with the urban landscape. It’s a new and dangerous thing, which ends up locking us into a virtual life instead of a material one. In this respect, the city should be seen as one big apartment. The painted walls are paintings in the background of this common apartment, made for everyone, for anyone.
Gonzalo Borondo (Spanish)
Les Trois Ages:
Hallucinogenic mural on Rue Lahire:
Mural on the wall of an OpenBach building, a multidisciplinary art space:
Tourbillon de Poissons (Swarms of Fish), in the Quartier Asiatique:
Seth (French) & Faile (American)
You don’t always have to be on foot to view street murals. Some are visible from elevated metro lines.
Unfaded depicts patterns of Portuguese and Parisian ceramic tile as if printed on panels of wallpaper torn in diagonal strips to reveal past layers of patterns beneath. The archaeological process of revelation is driven by a sensual and chance aesthetic. The tear patterns, however, make it ambiguous which layers are older and which are newer.
One of the layers is simply sky blue, no pattern. Is nature the blank slate staring at us behind all those peeled-back layers of human artifact?
Jana & Js (Austrian-French)
Paris observes herself observing herself . . .
For decades, speculation has murmured over the relationship between Tintin and Captain Haddock, creations of Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Street artist Combo seems to state the obvious in his depiction of the two in an amorous embrace:
More . . .
A building that lives up to its address on Rue des Artistes:
Silver leaf pattern on a building around the corner from Tchann bookstore:
Ghostly trompe l’oeil trees and park benches on a wall abutting Square des Missions-Étrangères:
A splash of tinker-toy colour in the Marais:
Wall of an OpenBach building
Near Université Paris-Diderot:
Mural at preschool:
A mural in Paris’ Chinatown:
Detail: Your children will come from all countries:
A still from Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid:
Monumental trompe l’oeil door. Note the apartment balconies to the right, and the “tiny” street lamp. If we’re living in a dollhouse, what would happen if we entered the giant door?
Alice in Wonderland “Drink me” & “Eat me” at an open market entrance:
A colourful cubist woman enlivens grey high-rises:
A moment in time:
A tinkerbell liberty angel reigns supreme:
I’m thinking of you:
An unusual artwork embedded in a wall near Rue Mouffetard
Chance mirror art:
La Butte aux Cailles
This village on a hill, a haven for artists, deserves special mention for its ever-changing gallery of street art.
Inscribed on the ceiling of an archway near Pont Neuf is a verse by 17th-century poet Claude Le Petit, from his collection Paris ridicule.
In the poem, Le Petit satirizes the newly-constructed Pont Neuf as a rickety magnet for rogues and a viewing platform for the sewage-laden waters of the Seine. He ponders the difficulty of knowing whether the bigger beasts are on the bridge or under it.
Such scandalous verses could only have fanned the flames when the 23-year-old poet was burned at the stake for being an atheist and—worse—for insulting the aristocracy. He was granted the favour of first being strangled.
Rimbaud and the Naughty Fellows
Speaking of épater la bourgeoisie . . .
Arthur Rimbaud’s long poem “The Drunken Boat” is calligraphed along a narrow Left Bank street. An inscription commemorates the 17-year-old Rimbaud’s recitation of the poem at an infamous 1872 meeting of Les Vilains Bonshommes (The Naughty Fellows) at a nearby restaurant.
The decorous members of the literary and arts club were scandalized by Rimbaud’s vertiginous imagery, by turns sublime (“golden birds” in “delirious skies”) and disgusting (“bluish wine stains and splashes of vomit”).
In turn, the enfant terrible, appalled by the genteel verses of the Naughty Fellows, threw a violent tantrum shouting “Merde! Merde!”
Thus did Rimbaud’s brief association with the Naughty Fellows come to a suitably catastrophic end.
You are here . . .
Monumental mural helps you navigate the labyrinthine streets of the 13th arrondissement. Or not, if you like wandering aimlessly like a good flâneur.
On a ceramic map, Étienne de la Hire points out your location.
Statues sometimes take shelter on buildings, discretely tucked into a corner or prominently carved into facades. I chanced upon only one sculpture-in-a-niche below: Saint Catherine. Sometimes, you need an address. And you need to look up.
A sexy Saint Catherine
Historically, Saint Catherine of Alexandria is revered in France as a virgin martyr and prayerful confidant of Jeanne d’Arc. In her niche on Rue de Cléry, she’s portrayed as a sensual, nubile virgin. If her gown didn’t have cuffs and a neckline, one might reasonably assume that she was nude.
In the image above, she clasps against her body palm fronds, symbolic of martyrdom. At her feet leans a cracked breaking wheel, allegedly destroyed by Catherine’s mere touch before it could be used as the instrument of her torture and death. She was unable to cheat the executioner twice: Emperor Maxentius had her beheaded.
Traditionally, she’s the patron saint of unmarried women and milliners. Why milliners? On Catherine’s feast day, unmarried French women customarily wore a hat — simple or fanciful — and prayed for a husband. Enterprising French milliners took their cue from this custom and embraced Catherine as their patron saint as well.
Because of her association with the breaking wheel, Catherine rather morbidly — and ironically — became the patron saint of wheelwrights.
The merry knife grinder
I first thought that the niche sculpture below represented a medieval tradesman. Turns out it’s a copy of an 18th-century sign advertising the services of a knife grinder.
This one sharpens a knife and raises a wine goblet — no doubt a handy life skill. Water flowing from a pierced clog rinses and cools the whetstone. And unless I’m mistaken, wine splashes from the goblet.
The sculpture’s nickname is “Gagne-Petit,” low-paid worker.
Cleric with little boy
Christians and Pagans
There must be a good story or two surrounding the pre-Haussmannian edifice below, whose facade sports four sculptures in niches — two Christian and two pagan. The building is located on Rue Grégoire-de-Tours, named after the 6th-century bishop and historian.
The figure in the lowest niche, a bearded man holding what looks like a plumed pen, could be a representation of Grégoire-de-Tours, since that saint is often depicted with the attributes of book and writing implement.
Next storey up is Demeter, goddess of the abundant harvest, carrying a cornucopia and cluster of grapes:
Next up, a nun or saint in earnest prayer:
Laid-back Dionysus casually claims the uppermost niche. He slouches, loins barely covered with a lion’s pelt (one side slipping down suggestively). One arm leans on a grapevine plinth, the other rests on his head. Like Demeter, he holds a cluster of grapes, dangling them next to his head (also suggestively).
The facade’s cool classicism radiates a tranquil symmetry: the column of niched statues resides between vertical rows of identical recessed windows. And the horizontal bands at each floor balance the verticality of the niches and windows.
The whole facade is so harmonious that the mingling of nun and party god barely registers.
The egalitarian mix of Christian and pagan is another mystery of Paris with her often incongruous layers of history and myth.
Pagan gods on Hôtel de Rome
Eight statues and two busts — all Greek mythological figures — adorn the busy Neoclassical facade of the early 19th-century Hôtel meublé de Rome (furnished rooms for the “home-away-from-Rome”).
Whereas harmony and simplicity reign at the Christian-pagan facade, the dynamic rhythms of the Hôtel meublé de Rome keep the eyes pinging like a pinball machine:
Significantly, the height of ceiling and window decreases for each successive floor. This diminishing height creates a perspective illusion, making the building seem taller.
It also confirms that the building’s original function was not aristocratic hôtel particulier but hotel or apartment building (also indicated by its advertisement of “meublé,” “furnished”). Thus each floor would have held one or more tenants. This kind of apartment building or hotel, rather than single-family mansion, became more common after the French Revolution.
Buildings like the post-Revolution Hôtel meublé de Rome often displayed the social stratification of their tenants. Rental of a more prestigious — and expensive — lower storey apartment meant fewer stairs to climb and higher ceilings in your living quarters. The lower floors also had better facade decorations. Your higher rent bought you a whole god plus maybe a lyre and a fancy cornice.
Rental of the upper floor meant more stairs to climb and lower ceilings in your living quarters — and you only got the head of the god.
Caryatids & Atlantes
Caryatids are a phenomenon of ancient Greece. Nameless curvy women holding up a temple’s roof for eternity: a perfect marriage of function, aesthetics, and patriarchy. Traditionally, caryatids represented women who had resided in a Peloponnesian town that had, to their eternal sorrow, supported Persia during the Greco-Persian Wars. Thus, being a prop supporting an edifice was originally a symbolic punishment for women who happened to live on the losing side of a war.
Caryatids — and their male counterparts, Atlantes — have enjoyed a revival ever since the Renaissance. They’ve been part of the architectural syntax in almost every period since then. Even so, most of Paris’ surviving caryatids and Atlantes date from the second half of the 19th century.
Paris’ caryatids fascinate with their ability to absorb various meanings according to the wishes of the sculptor or the needs of their clients, or in keeping with the zeitgeist.
Since the nameless caryatids have lost much of their association with ancient Greek slavery, they are free to become associated with the ideals of the French Revolution, icons of industry and capitalism, or movements of social reform.
The swan song of Hôtel Fieubet
On a quiet corner of the Marais sits an exceedingly ornate mansion, Hôtel Fieubet, that now houses a primary and secondary school:
The edifice was first built as an hôtel particulier during the late 16th century. Over the centuries since then, the aristocratic townhouse was sold at least four times and renovated as many.
Twenty-five years after the French Revolution, Hôtel Fieubet was retrofitted as a sugar refinery.
In the mid-19th century, it was purchased one last time by a private owner, who began an ambitious restoration project. He hired sculptor Jules Gros to decorate the facade in the arguably regrettable Italo-Spanish Baroque style. The overabundance of carved detail became the swan song of Hôtel Fieubet.
On the eastern facade, the four curiously armless (and rather lifeless) Atlantes seem as superfluous as the cornucopian excess, jumbled tools of labour, and gratuitous disgruntled lion that they support.
Below: The two caryatids in the courtyard at least have the dignity of retaining their arms to grasp garlands of fruit and jewelry. However, these figures didn’t fare much better under Gros’ busy chisel. The illusion that they are upholding anything, be it Greek temple or aristocratic treasury, is laid bare. They have lost the appearance of usefulness.
Before the owner could finish his restorations, his money dried up, and large portions of Hôtel Fieubet’s facade remain a tabula rasa. No overflowing cornucopias, no supporting cast of caryatids or Atlantes. Peace and quiet, except for the schoolchildren.
The Four Caryatids of the Wallace Fountains
The most ubiquitous caryatids in Paris are the four that adorn the forest green Wallace Fountains that you encounter everywhere. These caryatids, with the help of their curled Ionian capitals, appear to hold up a reservoir of water that trickles down for the benefit of the thirsty passerby.
During the 1870s, British philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace donated hundreds of these public fountains to his beloved Paris. He wanted to provide free, clean drinking water to all residents after Paris’ aqueducts were destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War.
Another war, more oppressive weight on women. Plus ça change . . .
However, these caryatids are no longer oppressed slaves but bearers of Victorian reformism: one of the four is an allegory of Sobriety. Indeed, the Wallace Fountains themselves are part of an international program of so-called “temperance fountains” intended to promote their potable waters as a healthy alternative to alcoholic beverages.
Water flows from the Wallace Fountains in all except the coldest months. And yes, it’s still potable.
Caryatids holding up the evening paper (and writing it)
One of the traditional industries of Rue Montmartre is journalism and newspaper publication. The Revolution of 1848 saw a thriving newspaper market on that street. In 1883, the evening newspaper La France moved into its large new headquarters at 142 Rue Montmartre:
The two outer figures are identical Atlantes wearing lion pelts — paws and tails dangle on the columns that constitute the lower half of the men’s bodies. The Atlantes do the heavy lifting of the newspaper’s stone banner.
The inner two females are differentiated not only by their faces, poses, and draping, but also by their professional attributes of journalism and typography. They are not true caryatids, as they bear a different kind of weight: the responsibility of writing the news and presiding over the printing press.
One holds paper and plumed pen.
The other is surrounded by typesetting and printing tools: a printing press frame and cylinder. And I think I see a compositor’s forme to the left of her feet.
She holds a liberty torch — symbolic of enlightenment in the French republic and perhaps also emblematic of the ideal of journalistic truth setting people free.
The erotic Atlantes of the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin
The sensuality of the four Atlas figures on the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin (1873) is undeniable:
Their upraised arms and elbows, muscular form, and contrapposto attitude (raised hip accentuated by the drapery) are reminiscent of Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave or Rodin’s The Age of Bronze.
I’m thinking also of the identical sculptures lined up along the roof of an Art Deco police station in Paris. These sculptures, based on The Dying Slave, are also undeniably erotic.
The fashionable angel-caryatid of Rue de Turbigo
She’s colossal, self-possessed, and soignée. And she blends so well with her building’s facade. She’s a bit camouflaged, but once I became aware of the Angel of Rue Turbigo, I was in awe.
The hybrid angel-caryatid was born during Haussmann’s re-creation of Paris. Haussmann, in order to raze medieval structures and raise grander ones, invited developers to finance construction in exchange for the right to profit from the sale or lease of the properties.
One developer, Demangeat, was entrusted with building along a slight bend in Rue de Turbigo, creating an obtuse angle along the facade. Demangeat wanted to disguise and beautify the building’s angle. It was a dilemma of aesthetics. What’s more, the solution would have to conform to Haussmann’s building regulations: no protrusion of the ornament, and no obstruction of light entering adjacent apartments.
Demangeat advertised a contest at the Académie des Beaux-Arts and selected the winning submission: a monumental angel in relief — in effect, a caryatid. The angel’s long body is sheathed in a gown whose gathered folds resemble a fluted Greek column — a column that cloaks the angle of the building. And her counterbalancing horizontal wings conceal the balcony support for the fifth floor.
One more note about the aptness of the design, which is the polar opposite to the caryatids in the courtyard of Hôtel Fieubet. There, the caryatids’ jewellery languidly spills from their drapery in an overt symbol of aristocratic wealth.
By contrast, the Rue de Turbigo angel proudly yet matter-of-factly wears an haute couture bodice, earrings, a beaded necklace, a little handbag, and tassels adorning everything but her wings.
She’s a prosperous bourgeois angel. Her attributes also reflect the fashion industry of Rue de Turbigo: textiles, garments, and accessories.
The modesty plinth
Below are struggling male and female weight-bearers:
Where modesty or prudishness dictates, the loins of otherwise nude statues are most often sheathed with drapery. Above, plinths rise up like stone fig leaves.
Paris’ passages — paired caryatids and Atlantes
Caryatids and Atlantes grace the entrances to some of Paris’ passages. Only a few of these early 19th-century Parisian shopping arcades survived Haussmann’s draconian reconfiguration of streets.
La Cour du Commerce St-André
The oldest surviving passage in Paris is La Cour du Commerce St-André, (1776). Straddling the entrance are two figures representing Hermès, god of commerce in this context.
Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé
The caryatid and Atlas at the entrance to the Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé (1828) are not Greek gods but allegories of Commerce and Industry. Very 19th century.
Early in the 19th century, sculptures of animals depicted without their human “masters” were not considered worthy artistic subjects. Sculptors who specialized in animals were ridiculed by the press and derisively called “animaliers.”
However, important commissions from aristocrats offered respectability to animal sculptures and their creators. Commissions for the 1878 Paris Exposition solidified the reputations of prominent animaliers, who kept the epithet.
Animal sculptures at the 1878 Paris Exposition
Four animal sculptures were commissioned to decorate the 1878 Paris Exposition. They occupied a large fountain in front of the Palais du Tracadéro. Now they’re exhibited near the entrance of the Musée d’Orsay.
Horse with a Harrow
A horse without harness stands proudly, left leg lifted high, looking back at an overturned harrow. The animal, whose muscular body and wild nature the sculptor has emphasized, is decidedly not a beast of burden.
Young Elephant Caught in a Trap
A panicked baboon screeches as it observes an elephant calf whose foot is caught in a noose.
The Indian rhinoceros sculpture was enormously popular at the 1878 Paris Exposition. Was the woolly rhinoceros perhaps known to the public from cave paintings — at Rouffignac, for example, discovered in the 16th century?
Two cast iron bulls were also exhibited at the 1878 Paris Exposition. Currently they decorate the entrance to Parc Georges-Brassens (former site of a slaughterhouse).
I read somewhere that after the 1878 Paris Exposition, the commissioned animal sculptures were mothballed for safekeeping in a storage area.
So there’s a place in Paris where art sleeps? If so, how can I get there?
Bear nabs thief in Jardin des Plantes
Frémiet, the same animalier who sculpted the trapped elephant calf for the 1878 Paris Exposition, also created the violent Cub Hunter:
The Lion of Belfort
The imperious lion at Place Denfert-Rochereau is a smaller version of the gigantic one in the town of Belfort, commemorating the courage of the residents in staving off the Prussians (1870-1871). The sculptor, Frédéric Bartholdi, is best known for designing the colossal Statue of Liberty for New York Harbor.
Lion safeguarding universal suffrage
At Place de la République, which celebrates the democratic values of the French Republic, a lion dutifully protects a ballot box.
In Montmartre, a man is caught in the act of passing through a stone wall.
This unsettling sculpture is based on “Le Passe-Muraille,” a 1943 short story by Marcel Aymé. The main character, M. Dutilleul, is a Walter Mitty type, a bland and old-fashioned middle-aged creature of habit. Suddenly and accidentally endowed with the magical ability to pass through walls, he secretly embarks on a series of escapades such as burglaries, while still holding his day job as a low-level bureaucrat oppressed by his boss.
In the end, he accidentally ingests medication that extinguishes his superpowers at a most inopportune time: exactly at the moment he’s passing through a garden wall, returning home from a passionate tryst with a married woman.
The sculptor portrays Dutilleul as stuck, mid-stride, unable to escape the wall that forever after holds him prisoner.
The story imagines freedom, not only from confining walls but also from oppressive bosses and prison wardens. Written during the Nazi Occupation of Paris, such a fantasy — even though it ends badly for the protagonist — must have inspired in French readers a vision of liberation.
Lunar Bird Square
Communing with the moonbird . . .
I can’t imagine a better playground for children than this little park that culminates in the large totemic Lunar Bird by Joan Miró. The rounded bronze solidity of the bird may have rendered it flightless, yet it practically levitates. Its head tilts skyward, and its little protuberances — wings, horns, beak — reach into the air on high alert.
Vestigial wings suit this monumental hummingbird.
The children seem to be inspired.
Garden tools jut out behind The Centaur, who seems to be created entirely from scrap metal.
Yet the mythical beast also radiates dignity and poise.
More about this distinguished centaur in my upcoming post on the Cimetière du Montparnasse.
Bulgarian-French cross pollination
I happened upon a sidewalk exhibit by Bulgarian-French sculptor Jivko, whose work echoes archetypes of the ancient world and fairy tales of Eastern Europe.
The dragon of the water facility
At a water control plant, a steel-and-plastic dragon slithers through pavement like a sci-fi hallucination.
The work perhaps dips into the dragon iconography of the sculptor’s Chinese heritage. It also wryly references the urban myth of creatures that grow in sanitation culverts, like the alligators that supposedly live in the sewers of New York City.
The dragon’s ribbed tubular shape (resembling a vacuum cleaner hose) and ridge of dorsal plates give it a tongue-in-cheek rather than scary appearance. At night, its colourful neon lights enthrall clubbers spilling onto Place Augusta-Holmes.
A sculpture garden for Nelson Mandela
A balloon sculpture and “grassy” fence in Jardin Nelson Mandela offer a colourful contrast to the somber Gothic backdrop of Église St-Eustache.
The exploding canoes of Diderot University
Dozens of aluminum canoes and boats explode next to a student walkway on the campus of Diderot University.
Nancy Rubins, creator of Monochrome for Paris, brushes aside literal notions about her work that don’t necessarily deepen one’s experience of it. The number of boats used, or the sculpture’s placement near the Seine River, are not as relevant as the use of the boats to create something new. She likens the work to the growth of molecules into crystals.
A canary yellow Wallace Fountain with a background of crystallizing canoes:
Mystery at Place Nationale
Le Mystère reaches its full potential at Place Nationale.
Les Colonnes de Buren
The black-and-white striped columns in the courtyard of Palais Royal were created by Daniel Buren way back in 1986. Even so, to this day the controversy following their installation haunts descriptions of them, similar to Pei’s still-notorious glass pyramid at the Louvre.
Children, however, don’t seem to find anything controversial about the columns. They’re more concerned with inventing games to play around them.
Below — as I understood the game — the girls were safe from the marauding boys as long as they occupied a column.
Homage to Rimbaud
Below, L’Homme aux Semelles Devant (The Man with Soles in Front) pays homage to poet Arthur Rimbaud.
The sculpture puns on Paul Verlaine’s nickname for Rimbaud, “l’homme aux semelles de vent” (the man with soles of wind). If I disregard the sculpture’s pun, I admire the work’s edginess.
Two sculptures by Ossip Zadkine
La Naissance des formes (The Birth of Forms)
Bas-relief of antler-man, somewhere on Rue Falguière
Diderot, philosopher and encyclopedist of the French Enlightenment, was a skeptic, a materialist, a radical questioner of the authority of church and state.
Below, Diderot lifts a plumed pen and pauses at the brink of expressing a rational thought.
Diderot’s insistence on freedom of thought, and his critical examination of the social, political, and religious order of l’ancien régime, placed him in danger with the ruling authorities. The massive encyclopedia project that he edited with Jean d’Alembert was so controversial that he was imprisoned and his work censored.
But he was steadfast in his conviction that an encyclopedia must not simply rely on knowledge that is palatable to reactionary institutions. Below is an excerpt from Diderot’s own entry for “encyclopedia”:
One must examine and overturn everything, without exception or accommodation. . . . One must crush foolish old beliefs and tear down barriers that reason has not erected. One must grant science and the arts the freedom that is so precious to them.
Alfred Vulpian was a pioneering 19th-century physician and neurologist who discovered adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone. His statue faces the Faculté de Médecine, where he taught.
That’s all that I was able to glean from a bit of research, without diving into the complexities of Vulpian’s scientific method.
But perhaps this is an opportunity to note the place names and public works — sculptures, monuments, bridges, parks, squares, and streets — that honour persons for their contributions in various fields. The recognition of scientists, writers, musicians, poets, artists, composers, mathematicians, Resistance fighters, Revolutionaries, and statesmen adds another layer to the urban fabric, another set of signifiers expanding the complexity of the cityscape.
The wanderer encounters these eponyms more or less at random, like names in a cemetery. One creates connections within the Parisian palimpsest and becomes involved in the intricacies of remembrance — itself a kind of wandering.
Another reason that Paris is a flâneur‘s paradise.
And since André Chénier kindly invited me to his street in Paris, here’s the first stanza of “Jeune Captive” (“Young Captive”), a poem that he wrote from prison after being arrested by the Committee for Public Safety at the height of the Terror, awaiting his turn for the guillotine:
Ears of corn ripen, respected by the scythe. Without fear of the grape press, summer vines drink dawn’s sweet gifts. And I– like them, beautiful and young — no matter how troubling and worrisome the present, I don’t want to die yet.
Rodin’s Monument to Balzac
Balzac, erupting night and day from his colossal cloak, became my landmark for home when I spent several weeks in a nearby apartment.
A passage from Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet describing the town of Saumur speaks to the accumulation of moments and emblems that constitute a microcosm of French history:
Here a Protestant attested his belief; there a Leaguer cursed Henry IV; elsewhere some bourgeois has carved the insignia of his noblesse de cloches, symbols of his long-forgotten magisterial glory. The whole history of France is there.
Paris has found a myriad of ways to deliver water to her citizens in public spaces, and every fountain, cascade, and spout has its own story and personality. Below are some of them, in rough chronological order of their creation.
Fontaine des Innocents
The Renaissance-style Fontaine des Innocents sits on a large square, formerly the site of Saints-Innocents, an overcrowded medieval cemetery.
To the horror of Parisians, the bodies of the cemetery, buried one on top of the other, became so heavy that they crashed into the walls of adjacent cellars. To solve the problems created by city cemeteries, the skeletal remains of millions were exhumed and relocated to a subterranean limestone quarry on the Left Bank. These bones, of course, form the decorative ossuary of the Catacombes.
During Haussmann redo of Paris, Fontaine des Innocents was moved to the square, which is now mostly empty except for the crumbling monument.
But I realize I haven’t said anything about the fountain itself. It’s a Renaissance beauty — not to get overly technical, but it’s a real Romeo and Juliet trysting place. I hope someday the City of Paris will restore it. The world needs the lovers’ children.
Octagonal pond with putti fountain, Jardin du Luxembourg
Jardin du Luxembourg’s landmark octagonal pond was built for Marie de’ Medici, widow of Henri IV. Now it’s a public pond where adults forever unwind and children eternally navigate toy sailboats.
Medici Fountain, Jardin du Luxembourg
Fontaine des Quatre Saisons
The colossal edifice of Fontaine des Quatre Saisons seems absurdly disproportionate to the tiny mascarons dispensing water in trickles (see the two to the right of the couple above).
The water-spouts near the ground are easy to miss amid the dry grandiosity towering above them.
At the time of the fountain’s construction during the reign of Louis XV, Voltaire complained:
A fine piece of architecture, but what kind of fountain has only two faucets where the water porters will come to fill their buckets?
Fontaine du Fellah
The Egyptian-influenced Fontaine du Fellah is one of several Parisian public fountains commemorating Napoleon’s military campaigns:
Above the fellah (Egyptian peasant), an eagle spreads its wings, symbolizing Napoleon’s power over the conquered people.
Below the fellah is mounted a mascaron of a lion’s head — but to me, it resembles a death’s head. An unpleasant lion, in any case.
Napoleon’s Fontaine du Fellah was a copy of an ancient statue. Not Egyptian, but Roman. Antinous, a favourite of Emperor Hadrian, donned an Osiris costume and modeled for the sculpture. So Napoleon’s fellah is an imitation of an imitation. Exoticism twice removed. Still, he carries Napoleon’s water.
However . . . do I see a hint of irony in the Archaic smile playing about the lips of this fellah?
Fontaine du Palmier
The phallic triumphal column of Fontaine du Palmier presents a more ambitious monument to Napoleon I’s military adventures:
The victory column echoes Roman antecedents. Napoleon III added sphinxes to the base, all the rage in Paris since his uncle’s conquest of Egypt.
Fontaine Charlemagne checks the boxes of fountain tropes: putto inside vaulted niche hoists giant clamshell and slouches in basin supported by dolphins.
It was installed in 1840, the same year as the similarly-styled monumental fountains of the Place de la Concorde. This one is putto-sized.
Fontaine Charlemagne is located next to Lycée Charlemagne on Rue Charlemagne. A triple eponym in one spot.
The enormous Fontaine St-Michel was an Haussmannian project designed to cover the end of a building. A proposal to include a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte was nixed in favour of the Archangel slaying Satan.
The reddish marble columns upstage even the drama of the archangel: their unusual colour makes a big statement in a city awash in cream-grey limestone and patinated bronze. But the red marble with white veins is patriotic if not Parisian: it originates from the Languedoc region.
Raban Maur, medieval monk-scholar, described the marble as a mixture of foam and blood. Fooey.
The allegorical fountains of Square Émile-Chautemps
The modest but fetching Haussmanian fountains of Square Émile-Chautemps consist of allegorical figures. Below: Agriculture and Industry.
Three little lion’s-head mascarons spout water into drains at Fontaine Sainte-Geneviève.
Nice shade of blue.
Fountain of the Four Corners of the World
Located in Jardin Marco Polo, the Fountain of the Four Corners of the World was created for Haussmann’s urban reconstruction:
One critic described the dynamic female nudes representing the cardinal points as “wild” and “vulgar.”
Below, a friendly Wallace Fountain. Designed and financed by British philanthropist Richard Wallace, these dark green fountains provided clean drinking water to Parisians following the devastation of the city during the Franco-Prussian War (1870).
Below: A Wallace Fountain with the monumental Fontaine Saint-Sulpice looming in the background.
In recent years, the commonplace green has been updated. Below, a canary yellow Wallace Fountain offers a drink on the campus of Diderot University
Nancy Rubins’ Monochrome for Paris, made of canoes, explodes in the background.
A periwinkle blue Wallace Fountain:
Delacroix Fountain, Jardin du Luxembourg
Fountain across from Mosquée de Paris
Below, the pretty Hispano-Moresque fountain of mosaic tiles and marble sounds a sympathetic vibration with the Mosquée de Paris across the street.
A waterfall from the 1937 Paris Exposition
The monumental waterfall below survives from the 1937 Paris Exposition. Parc Kellermann was later created around it.
At the bottom of the waterfall, I looked up and saw a man standing tall on the parapet above. I snapped the photo, he grinned, and I smiled back. It was a moment of comradery.
The waterfall, however, hasn’t aged well.
Like a cool drink of water, the Fontaine Souham with its shiny steel half-spheres beckons the passerby.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s colourful Death and Firebird sharply contrast with Jean Tinguely’s black metal contraptions in celebrated Fontaine Stravinsky. The water-spouting sculptures are motorized.
Stravinsky Fountain and the Columns of Buren were both part of a 1980s public art initiative by the City of Paris.
Ice floes buckling at Place du Québec
The sidewalk at Place du Québec erupts to reveal an underground fountain. The artist intended the work to represent the springtime breakup of ice sheets on St. Lawrence River.
The fountain of Jardin Vercingétorix-Brune
Forlorn, dry, and surrounded by overgrown weeds and artless graffiti, the little fountain of Jardin Vercingétorix-Brune has seen better days. Fountain and park are slated for renovation in 2020.
This sadly playful (playfully sad?) mosaic fountain is dedicated to French sculptor Maillol. It deteriorates at its location along Passage Aristide Maillol. Like the fountain of Jardin Vercingétorix-Brune, it needs some TLC.
A leaf for James Joyce
Leaf-shaped drinking fountain in Square James Joyce:
I’m not sure whether the tonic leaf is associated with Joyce, but the following passage from Finnegans Wake could make it so:
My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I’ll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff!
“Rubin’s vase” fountain, Place de la Garenne
In 2000, the Paris water management company sponsored a competition for the design of new public drinking fountains to be called “Millennial Fountains.” The winning fountain below is based on the idea of an optical illusion called “Rubin’s vase,” in which the viewer alternately sees either a vase or two faces in profile.
The use of the female form for this public water source resonates with the caryatids of the Wallace Fountains.
The salamanders of the Bièvre River
Lovable Salamanders of the Bièvre inhabit parks that generally follow the course of the now-subterranean river. The one below is located in Square Paul Grimault.
I love the story of Marcel Marceau rescuing Jewish children from Nazi-occupied France. He’d dress a group of children in “scout” costumes and lead them in a “nature field trip” until they had safely crossed the border into neutral Switzerland. During their dangerous journey, he kept them quietly entertained with his mime routines.
The signature of “Bip,” Marceau’s clown character:
Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918)
On the grave of Guillaume Apollinaire is inscribed his heart calligram:
Mon Coeur pareil à une flamme renversée.
(My heart, like an inverted flame.)
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967)
As I was wandering through Père Lachaise last year, I struck up a conversation with a Parisian tour guide who was just finishing with a group. He asked me which graves I wanted to see, and I mentioned a few names. I’m glad I had my good walking shoes on, because he led me on an as-the-crow-flies tour, zigzagging through the cemetery, unerringly arriving each time at the requested burial place. Needless to say, I — who flunked three-dimensional space — gave him a nice tip.
Below, he stands beside the common grave of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
A carafe, that is a blind glass.
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.
Gertruce Stein, from Tender Buttons
Théodore Géricault (1791-1824)
As a student, Géricault bucked the prevailing Neoclassical tradition of painting and chose themes with emotional and dramatic intensity. The subject of his monumental Raft of the Medusa still reverberates with its startling originality and pathos.
The painting portrays an actual event: the shipwreck of a naval frigate. Passengers and crew were left by the incompetent captain to die as they drifted helplessly on a raft constructed to save themselves.
Géricault’s large-scale painting in the Louvre overwhelms with the passengers’ brutal suffering and death, and with their waning hope as a ship on the horizon sails on, oblivious to the desperate men waving their shirts.
The subject brings to mind countless disasters at sea, including Africans captured into slavery, who suffered and died during the Middle Passage (of which Géricault would have been aware).
Sculptor Antoine Étex pays tribute to Géricault’s art with his creation of bas-reliefs, which impress by their technical feat of translation from one art form to another.
But the star of the tomb is the gisant or recumbent sculpture of the painter, reclining casually in the manner of Etruscan tomb effigies, wearing a loose-fitting smock and holding palette and brush. The hollow cheekbones and deep-set eyes suggest Géricault’s illness of tuberculosis, which contributed to his early death at the age of 32.
Victor Noir (1848-1870)
What a cruel joke the sculptor played on M. Noir. Maybe he was rooting for Noir’s opponent in the duel that dispatched the man whose reclining likeness has become a fertility charm. It’s reported that Noir’s metallic bulge has been rubbed so often that it’s quite literally wearing away, micron by micron.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
Enough ink and other fluids have been spilled (and lipstick smeared) over Jacob Epstein’s majestic monument to Oscar Wilde.
Jean Carriès (1855-1894)
Sculptor Jean Carriès specialized in miniatures and masks, both of which are featured on his tomb:
A little harder to see are an angel and a pitcher — and between them, a mysterious little eye.
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Chopin, Polish exile in Paris, is buried at Père Lachaise — all but his heart. He instructed that organ to be removed and buried in his beloved Poland.
At Chopin’s burial at Père Lachaise in 1849, an orchestral arrangement of his Marche funèbre was performed. And for his funeral in the church of La Madeleine, Chopin had requested a performance of the Requiem of Mozart, a favourite composer.
Something that I had forgotten about Chopin — and that is still surprising when I think about it — is his devotion to the music of J. S. Bach. The late Baroque composer’s music had been all but forgotten until Mendelssohn reintroduced it to the world.
On the surface, it’s hard to think of two composers more different. Yet Chopin studied the works of Bach and assigned them to his piano students. Chopin’s 24 Preludes for piano, written in all the major and minor keys, were inspired in part by Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
On a more stylistic level, Chopin can be contrapuntal — not only because he wrote a handful of fugues — and Bach can be bel canto to rival Bellini. I always thought of Bach as something of a Romantic, in a clockwork universe kind of way . . .
Chopin’s heart being in Poland, literally and figuratively, did Chopin find Bach’s polonaises among his dance movements?
Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891)
Haussmann, responsible for Paris’ architectural daily bread of wrought-iron balconies and Mansard roofs, is buried in a Neoclassical crypt:
Art Nouveau cutouts decorate the nicely patinated door.
The urban transformation of Paris during the second half of the 19th century was visionary and egalitarian in its treatment of parks. Napoleon III directed green spaces to be incorporated into every neighbourhood of Paris, even as the city expanded to twice its size due to the annexation of suburbs:
Do not miss an opportunity to build, in all the arrondissements of Paris, the greatest possible number of squares to offer Parisians, as has been done in London, places for relaxation and recreation for all families and all children, rich and poor.
Haussmann describing the instructions of Napoleon III on creating parks
The Littlest Park in Paris: Jardin Alice Saunier-Seïté
Inevitably, Paris has its smallest public park. It features its own little insect hotel.
Square d’Alleray-Labrouste-Saint Amand
Visiting this little park with the long name feels like entering a public living space within the city of Paris. The al fresco apartment offers a threshold, rooms, doorways, furniture, plumbing, and windows through which one can peer, becoming a voyeur within the rooms of the public apartment.
The interior spaces of Square d’Alleray-Labrouste-Saint Amand recall Riéti’s description of street art as democratic at heart, “paintings in the background of this common apartment, made for everyone, for anyone.” If the city is for Riéti a “common apartment,” this park invites a visit to a home whose rooms are delimited but not private. One strolls through both a living room and a commons.
Jardin Juan Miró
Paris’ avant-garde park.
Below, the path in the form of train tracks evokes Petite Ceinture, the defunct railway that encircles Paris. That railway is now being developed as a series of parks.
Jardin de la Dalle d’Ivry
The amphitheatre with potted-plant spectators.
Place de Furstemberg
Lovely, tranquil Place de Furstemberg is surrounded by 18th-century buildings, including the last residence of Eugène Delacroix (now a museum dedicated to the painter’s life and work).
The place is home to four pawlonia trees with big floppy leaves in the shape of hearts.
Square Henri Galli
Below: the base of one of the eight towers of the Bastille, the fortress-prison destroyed during the French Revolution
About a century later, the tower was rediscovered and excavated during the construction of a metro line. The tower’s base now resides in nearby Square Henri Galli, where it offers a secluded spot for youth to chill.
Carolina, the sculpture of a prepubescent girl, is no Lolita. She’s an in-your-face, streetwise being. Smart, defiant, and fearless beyond her years.
The park also features an 1830 statue that once provided water for the Marché-aux-Carmes. It shows the Janus-faced allegories of Commerce and Abundance:
Perhaps the young man below is reading about himself reading about himself sitting on an open book . . .
Two female sculptures in Square Adolphe Chérioux: muse and mother
Two contrasting images of women in fin de siècle Paris face each other at Square Adolphe Chérioux: the allegorical muse of history . . .
. . . and a nursing mother of two.
The Zola-esque image of motherhood,seen through the lens of its time, is perhaps not the sentimentalized vision of mother and children that it might appear at first glance. The nursing mother, appearing exhausted, turns her head away from her children. If she bore the stigma of being a single mother, she would’ve been shunned by society as “immoral,” and she’d be reduced to living in poverty. If she needed to work outside the home — whether she was married or not — she wouldn’t have been able to care for her children or to hire a nursemaid.
It was a dilemma begging for social reform at the turn of the century. Émile Zola, in fact, advocated strongly for charitable nurseries for working mothers.
The allegorical muse, on the other hand, had no such worries.
A place for the rights of children
The bronze sculpture My Sailor Boy (1927) is a good entry into the remarkable life and work of Chana Orloff. The boy, modeled on the artist’s nine-year-old son, resonates with the park’s dedication to children’s rights.
There’s a solidity to the boy’s simplified geometrical volumes. If he’s sad, he wears it with dignity.
Place des Droits de l’Enfantwas dedicated in 2009 on the 20th anniversary of the International Convention on the Rights of Children. That convention promotes:
the fundamental rights of all children, regardless of their origin, their language, their religion, or their sex.
A reminder of an ideal.
Against the backdrop of the town hall of the 15th arrondissement stands a statue created by Antoine Bourdelle, depicting his fellow sculptor Carpeaux. Dressed in his artist’s cloak and looking very mustachioed, Carpeaux holds in his left hand a miniature nude female.
There’s something dynamic about the surfaces and drapery of Bourdelle’s sculptures:
Square du Clos Feuquières
Volute depicts a female nude twisted into an artistic helix:
“Volute”: shaped like a scroll or spiral. It can refer to the whorls on a snail’s shell, the carved wooden scroll on a violin, or the curled Ionic capital of a Greek temple. And now, the pose of Laniau’s nude in Square du Clos Feuquières.
Below: blue-green arbors supporting clouds of wisteria past their bloom:
A pergola whose wisteria vines have been trained to braid through its anchors:
Pergola base and mature wisteria vine, admired by a grandfather and his budding horticulturist:
Place Edmond Michelet (opposite Centre Pompidou)
The faceted sculptures below represent Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, architects of Centre Pompidou. These untroubled and disengaged forms of massed planes are the work of Xavier Veilhan, who has created a series of male architects in a similar style. The sculptures rest on an elevated platform high above the pedestrians and buskers in the place.
Dalida, Italian-French chanteuse born in Egypt, suffered sadness in her life like nobody’s business. A number of friends and lovers committed suicide. She herself, after years of struggling with grief and depression, succumbed to suicide. Her signature song is a cri de coeur: “Je suis malade” (“I’m sick”).
Beloved internationally, Dalida was posthumously granted a quiet space devoted to her memory, in her own beloved Montmartre neighbourhood.
I like to think that the breast rubbings are gestures of solace, not crass appeals to luck.
Dalida gazes toward Sacré-Cœur in the hazy distance:
I’ve felt close to the music of Bartók since childhood, when I learned piano pieces from his Mikrokosmos. Bartók was not only a composer but also an ethnomusicologist, a pioneer in the collection and analysis of folk music in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.
His own compositions assimilated the syntax of the folk music that he had recorded. Using what he called his “musical mother tongue,” he created wholly original works with complex harmonies and irregular, sometimes driving, rhythms.
Parc Montsouris was designed by Adolphe Alphand, a prominent landscape gardener for Haussmann’s transformation of Paris. Four underground limestone quarries had to be filled in order to stabilize the park’s terrain.
One of the celebrated black swans of Parc Montsouris stands with one leg on a sun perch:
Somehow, the fake log handrails refuse to annoy me.
The métro cuts right through Park Montsouris. To lessen the impact on the park’s aesthetics, a trench was dug for the tracks.
Along the western edge of the park stands a statue of Thomas Paine, major figure of 18th-century European and American Enlightenment. During the 1930s, Americans commissioned the sculpture for placement in Paris.
The timing of the statue’s creation in 1936 was no coincidence. As storm clouds of tyranny threatened Europe, many Americans turned to Paine as a champion of democracy and freedom of thought.
What is surprising is the sculptor selected for the commission: Gutzon Borglum. Earlier, Borglum was involved in creating the shamelessly racist glorification of the Confederacy at Stone Mountain in Georgia. Borglum, an anti-Semite and white supremacist associated with the KKK, sounds like an incongruous choice for the sculpting of Paine. Seems Borglum was also an opportunist.
I like to think of the presence of Helen Keller, an admirer of Thomas Paine, at the unveiling of his sculpture.
On the base of his statue, Paine’s words are inscribed:
Independence is my happiness and I view things as they are without regard to place or person. My country is the world and my religion is to do good.
Place Henri Mondor
A startling statue of Georges Danton, captured mid-harangue, stands on Place Henri Mondor:
Danton, fierce and controversial figure of the Revolution, rose to power in the fledgling democracy. When the Revolution turned on itself in a bloodbath of violence, Danton himself was condemned to the guillotine.
Place Alphonse Déville
On the monumental pages of this homage to writer François Mauriac is engraved a list of his works.
Place de Breteuil
The marble monument to Louis Pasteur is located within a traffic roundabout. The sculpture obliges by giving interesting views from all sides.
Below, two cows and a cowherd testify to Pasteur’s development of an anthrax vaccine for farm animals:
Pasteur learned that cows were infected with anthrax in a field where sheep that had died of the disease had been buried. Pasteur tested the earthworms, which showed the presence of anthrax. He correctly surmised that the earthworms were bringing anthrax from the buried sheep to the surface, where the cows grazed.
Below: the nearby Pasteur Institute, an active research complex with branches the world over. It recently installed the Titan Krios, one of the most powerful electron microscopes in the world. Among a host of worldwide research centers, the Institut Pasteur is studying COVID-19 to develop a vaccine.
Gare de Lyon – Place Louis Armand
The statue of a smiling Chinese man pays homage to the long-neglected contributions of workers recruited from China to provide support for the Allied Powers during World War I. They worked for low wages, often under harsh conditions. Thousands died of ill treatment, injuries from shelling and landmines, and diseases, including the 1918 flu pandemic. The acknowledgement is considered overdue.
Below, two of the four allegorical bas-reliefs on the exterior of Gare de Lyon: Engineering and Steam Power. These Art Nouveau carvings extol the benefits of transportation to industry and commerce. Gare de Lyon opened in 1900, as part of the Paris Exposition.
One evening, a Parisian poet-friend invited me to walk along Canal St-Martin, where we met up with another fellow poet, an engaging eccentric who wrote me a verse on the spot. I wrote him one in return. I’ve lost touch with him, but I still have his poem.
A tour boat passing through one of the locks:
The 19th-century grisette haunts me. She’s the low-paid working woman: street vendor, factory worker, seamstress. Think Mimi from La Bohème. Some grisettes resorted to prostitution. It could be a hard life.
The type of the grisette could be molded to entertain a fantasy of “old Paris,” in which lower class women were viewed as being readily available as lover or literary inspiration. The 1911 statue La Grisette de 1830 near Canal St-Martin is, to be sure, a sentimentalized portrait.
Even so, her countenance betrays desperation, not the eternally cheerful muse that later generations made of her.
Bassin de la Villette
The largest artificial lake in Paris functioned as a reservoir.
Bassin de l’Arsenal
The underground part of Canal St-Martin flows into the marina of Bassin de l’Arsenal, which flows into the Seine. In the distance is the Colonne de Juillet at Place de la Bastille.
Aristide Maillol’s sculptures of female nudes, some of them allegorical: treasures of the Jardin des Tuileries.
Gaston Lachaise’s fertility goddess who can also whup your ass.
A Dubuffet masquerader:
The Sons of Cain by Paul Landowski:
I braved the dust of the Tuileries to check out Statues Die Too, three totemic sculptures in limestone:
The Vowel Tree momentarily fooled me. How will I view it next time?
Jardin des Plantes
Comte de Buffon, French naturalist, greets you at the entrance to the gardens:
Buffon’s chair leg pins down an anguished lion rug:
One of the greenhouses of the Jardin des Plantes:
The flower beds of Jardin des Plantes are groomed by a small army of gardeners who regularly snip spent blooms. A company called Nova Flore Jardin produces new varieties, such as the dahlia below dubbed “French Cancan”:
Not many curves in this botanical garden, just runways of the latest floral fashions.
The sculpture Cub Hunter depicts an enraged mother bear attacking a hunter who has killed one of her cubs. Although the hunter’s knife has found its target, the she-bear is poised to clamp down on his jugular.
Outside the zoo, which occupies almost half of the botanical gardens, I observed a raven engaged in earnest conversation with two snowy owls, plotting the great escape.
The Jardin des Plantes is more than just charming new dahlia varieties.
The Gallery of Evolution
(More on the architecture of the Gallery of Evolution in my upcoming post on Art Nouveau.)
The Gallery displays specimens from its impressive insect collection. Below, the harmless “peanut head bug” evolved eyespots to mimic a creature more ferocious than the benign lunch that it really is. Its monstrous head provides a similar defense. Neither failed to deter the collector.
Below: The green-and-black Malaysian butterfly evolved jagged patterns on its wings to resemble a certain green-and-black Malaysian bird in flight — the butterfly’s insurance against predators seeking insects. Both bird and butterfly are protected because their jagged patterns resemble thorns. Evolutionary mimicry can be complicated . . .
Some pretty grasshoppers:
The Fake Ruins of Parc Monceau
About twenty years before the French Revolution, the green space that’s now Parc Monceau was purchased by Louis Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans.
Louis-Philippe was an aristocrat who embraced some of the ideals of the Enlightenment. On his purchased land, he created in 1778 a public park based on the English model of the “folly”: gardens decorated with structures that imitated architectural “curiosities” from other lands or times. Intended to be amusing and thought provoking, the objects in the duke’s park are sometimes fantastical, sometimes miniature, and often built intentionally as ruins.
A Classical colonnade built around a reflecting pond. The scaffolding suggests that this imitation ruin has itself fallen into ruin.
About ten years after the park was finished, and on the eve of the French Revolution, a new wall was constructed around the city — not for defense purposes, but for the collection of customs taxes by an elite and very wealthy group of “tax farmers.” The park lay just inside the unpopular wall, and a neoclassical rotunda housing customs offices was built along its northern boundary. The upper level was presented to Louis-Philippe as an observation deck, so that he could enjoy an elevated view of his park.
During the French Revolution, the duke adopted the liberal ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité. He fed the poor, renounced his nobility, and joined the Revolutionary Jacobins. He changed his name to Philippe Égalité and opened the doors of his inherited Palais Royal to the public, renaming it “Palais Égalité.” He even voted in favour of executing his cousin, King Louis-Philippe XVI.
But becoming a model citoyen of the new republic couldn’t save him from the infighting and suspicions of Revolutionary factions. Citoyen Égalité was guillotined in 1793.
I know I’ve walked in the rain through Jardin du Luxembourg, but I can’t remember.
The octagonal pond
I never tire of watching children push their rented sailboats into the wind with a stick. They follow the journey of their boats as they sail across the octagonal pond, and then rush over to wherever it lands to give it another strategic shove. Fortunately, the children never tire of their sport.
Below, a boy’s sailboat bears Spain’s country abbreviation and flag colours.
Nothing digital or battery-operated for rent here:
The ogre of the Medici Fountain
The quiet, shady grotto of the Medici Fountain invites relaxation with a bag of macarons.
I like to know something of the history of a place. However, digging into the Medici Fountain’s complicated chronology of construction, ruin, and layers of renovations, doesn’t offer as many rewards as pulling the thread of the insanely jealous cyclops clad in bronze patina at the far end of the grotto.
The giant green cyclops looms jealously over Galatea (the river nymph whom he loves) and Acis (her mortal lover). The two lovers are rendered sensually in a white marble embrace.
Briefly: Galatea spurns the cyclops, who in a rage hurls a chunk of mountain at the fleeing Acis, killing him. But Acis gets the last laugh: Galatea transforms him into an immortal river god, who proceeds to split the colossal rock that killed him and to flow forth eternally as a mountain spring.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this cyclops is a complicated monster. He boasts to Galatea that he owns herds of sheep whose mothers nurture their “well-warmed lambs” with “bulging udders.” Yet he himself neglects to tend his animals. He claims to love Galatea, extolling her virtues to the skies. At the same time, he despises her for not returning his love and calls her every name in the book.
The Greek gods, all too human.
The storied beehives of Luxembourg Gardens
One of these days, I’ll be at the right place at the right time to buy a jar of honey produced at the apiary of Jardin du Luxembourg.
Surprise movie filming in Jardin du Luxembourg
I was at the right place at the right time.
Sculptures of the Jardin du Luxembourg
Queens of France and Celebrated Women
Around the main gardens and the octagonal pond stand twenty statues of celebrated women (royalty, legends, muses). The statue of Marguerite de Navarre portrays the very image of thought.
She and her King-of-France brother supported artists, writers, and intellectuals. They also hosted a salon called “The New Parnassus.” Marguerite de Navarre herself was a writer of remarkable poetry and fiction.
In short, she was a key player in ushering in the French Renaissance.
Fountain-Cenotaph for Eugène Delacroix
To the lower right, Apollo applauds as the allegorical figures of Time and Glory swoop up to a bust of Delacroix to deliver palm fronds and a laurel wreath.
Monument to Paul Verlaine
Baudelaire, memorialized in stone etched with an excerpt from his poem “Les Phares” (“The Beacons”):
George Sand (a.k.a. Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) wearing her fem attire:
Leconte de Lisle
Leconte de Lisle, a French poet born on the island of Réunion, receives a prominent cenotaph in the form of an angel carrying a bust of the leader of the Parnassian school of poetry.
Gabriel Vicaire (a.k.a. “Adoré Floupette”)
Under the campy pseudonym “Adoré Floupette,” Gabriel Vicaire collaborated with a fellow poet to publish Les Déliquescences (1885), literary satires of the excesses of symbolist and decadent poetry.
Aside: Sixty-odd years later, these two rapscallions inspired the Australian hoaxers who conjured up the fictitious life and works of Ern Malley.
Liberty Enlightening the World
Smaller models of New York Harbor’s Statue of Liberty keep popping up in Paris. Below: a copy of the bronze model that Auguste Bartholdi created while he was constructing the colossal statue:
Broken link of slavery: Le cri, l’écrit
Bronze sculpture commemorating the abolition of slave trade and slavery:
Le Triomphe de Silène
Below, the boisterous tangle of arms and legs culminates in the flabby, naked, and sloshed Silène, foster father of Dionysus. Silène seems to be the only one carousing — the others struggle to keep his chaotic limbs astride his donkey, and get trampled in the process. Even babies crawl dangerously underfoot in this ludicrous orgy.
Note the smart kid feeding the donkey an apple:
The Mouth of Truth
According to an ancient Roman legend, the mouth of Truth will snap shut on the hand of a liar.
The Mask Vendor
At the base of the bronze statue are masks of illustrious French creative types: Corot, Dumas, Berlioz, Carpeaux, Faure, Delacroix, Balzac, and Barbey d’Aurevilly. In his left hand, the seller advertises a mask of Victor Hugo.
The Greek Actor
A young Greek actor rehearses his role, script in hand, his mask cavalierly pushed up so he can read his lines.
From Horse Slaughterhouse to Parc Georges-Brassens
Parc Georges-Brassens is dedicated to the singer-songwriter, who lived nearby. The archway at the entrance announces the site’s former function as a slaughterhouse and meat market:
The meat- and fish-processing complex operated for about 80 years from the 1890s until it closed in 1979.
As architects designed a park on the site, they preserved some of the features of the slaughterhouse, such as the gateway above. The iron-framed market stalls built during the 1890s were also salvaged:
These must have seemed to Parisians worth saving, especially after the debacle of the 1971 destruction of Victor Baltard’s pavilions at Les Halles.
To their credit, the park’s architects also rescued the clock tower and belfry, part of the old auction market:
View from the belfry:
The sculpture below pays homage to the workers, this one shouldering a slab of meat:
Another sculpture memorializes those in the meat industry who lost their lives in World War I:
Below, a water feature in Parc Georges-Brassens. Maybe this underground fountain relates to blood drainage from the slaughterhouse. Or maybe it’s just a water feature.
Terraced artificial rocks for children to clamber on, or for adults to sit and chat.
A public theater in the south-east corner of the park:
1889 sculpture of a donkey pulling a cart (not sure why it’s in the park).
At the main entrance to the park are sculptures of two alpha bulls by 19th-century animalier Isidore Bonheur.
If you have time to kill before catching your train at Gare Montparnasse, Jardin Atlantique provides a peaceful respite from the hurry-scurry of a major train hub. You don’t even have to cross a street to get there — Jardin Atlantique lies directly above the maze of corridors and platforms of Gare Montparnasse.
Below, an aerial view of the park from the Observation Deck of the adjacent Tour Montparnasse, with train tracks trailing to the south. The west side of the park features tennis courts and table tennis, while the paths of the east side connect themed garden “rooms.”
Jardin Atlantique, surrounded on three sides by prosaic office buildings, might not look like much from above. However, a stroll around the park reveals a surprising variety of trails, plants, and sculptural walls. Below, a boardwalk passes through the Room of Waving Grasses:
A relatively new addition to Paris’ green spaces, Jardin Atlantique was created in 1994.
An elevated boardwalk:
The park commemorates the historic role of Gare Montparnasse in connecting Paris with the northwest coast of France. Below, the wavy blue fence and pine trees evoke the coast of Brittany.
The lamp posts along the sunning deck suggest the masts of a ship.
A sculptural wall in the Room of Blues and Mauves:
The circular Room of Silence:
A pool reflects the natural surroundings of the park. It also provides a watery window into a corridor where travelers pulling luggage navigate the limbo of the train station.
Ping pong tables and tennis courts along the western side.
A fountain sculpture in the center of the park:
A viewing platform (in case you don’t have time for the Observation Deck at the top of Tour Montparnasse):
There’s more to explore in Jardin Atlantique. Hopefully I’ll be in Paris again, with time to kill waiting for a train . . .
Paris outdoes even herself in transforming mundane street and park furniture into vehicles of elevated consciousness. In Jardin Joan-Miró, ordinary park benches metamorphose into enigmatic sculptures that are also familiar and useful.
Ditto the undulating layers of this sidewalk bench:
Benches in the form of open books invite a meta-reading experience:
Fences also have captured the imagination of artists, as in the spectacular Birds of Passage gracing a vocational high school. It was created by teachers and their students, and inspired by the lyrics of a song by Georges Brassens.
Bas-reliefs of celebrated persons who lived in the Grands-Moulins neighbourhood, such as Louise Bourgeois and Olivier Messiaen, enlighten an otherwise nondescript fence at Diderot University:
Below, the angles of the fence echo the geometrical theme of the Tour Triangle complex beyond (under construction):
Tour Triangle is a pyramid-shaped skyscraper to be built at the southern border of the City of Paris. The triangular structure in the distance (above) isn’t that tower (as I first thought), but rather a monumental canopy at the entrance to a pavilion. The Tour Triangle itself hadn’t yet risen as of 2019. More about the enormous and controversial undertaking of Tour Triangle in a later post.
While we’re at Tour Triangle, here’s some edgy seating on the grounds:
Eye-catching bridge railing at Jardin Joan-Miró:
Below, I’m reposting two wavy-line fences of Jardin Atlantique, the park above Gare Montparnasse. They seem to epitomize Paris’ talent for creating public spaces that are stylistically contemporary but that also memorialize the past. The waves and pine trees evoke the scenery of Brittany, which was historically connected to Paris by a railway leading to Gare Montparnasse.
“Scribbled grass” fence at Les Halles:
Below, a lovely low fence at Jardin de la Place Souham. Like a shadow lantern, the fence’s perforations create meditative patterns on the stone walkway, as do the tall backlit grasses.
Mock log railings add counterfeit rusticity to Parc Montsouris:
I’ll end this post with an unassuming apartment complex that has been transformed by park benches and greenery into an inviting place to call home.
I love opportunities for an elevated view of Paris, which reinforces in my brain the location of landmarks and major routes. I wasn’t blessed with a reliable sense of direction, and the streets of Paris seem like a confusing tangle of starburst intersections and roundabouts that set my mental compass spinning out of control.
For sheer height and panoramic sweep, few vantage points can beat the 56th-floor Observation Deck of Tour Montparnasse. And the views have the merit of not including the tower itself . . .
But for the sheer pleasure of climbing to the top in the open air, you need a belvedere on a hill.
Parc de Belleville
One of my favourite places in the neighbourhood of Belleville is the park designed and built in 1988 on a hill. At the top is a viewing platform with a charming mosaic map of landmarks.
. . . not to mention views worthy of the pleasant climb.
Sunning decks and a wading pool — for me, the very image of summer in Paris.
Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
Just north of Parc de Bellville is the hillside Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Whereas the former is modern, the latter is very 19th century, designed by Adolphe Alphand, a prominent landscape gardener for Haussmann’s creation of parks throughout Paris.
In the Temple de la Sibylle, perched atop a craggy outcropping on an island, is enshrined the Romantic picturesque — a quality that would have appealed to Parisians of the late 19th century. Sibyl, the female prophet of ancient Greece, was the oracle to which one would travel to hear her tell the future, even if, as in OedipusRex, it didn’t do any good to know it.
But Alphand’s appeal to the sublime in his design for the park belies the land’s chequered past. For five-and-a-half centuries, until 1760, the bodies of executed persons were displayed at the top of the hill. What’s more, the park became a dumping ground for everything from garbage to sewage to animal carcasses from slaughterhouses. Pretty revolting material from which to hatch a charming reverie.
Perhaps the Temple de la Sibylle (seen in the distance below) symbolized a purification of the place through the sacred temple devoted to the future.
A suspension bridge designed by no less than Gustave Eiffel leads to the island belvedere.
The Temple de la Sibylle offers phenomenal views of Montmartre and Sacré-Cœur.
Parc Kellermann was born of the 1937 Paris Exposition. The primary pavilions were at the Place du Trocadéro, but the future Parc Kellerman also boasted several. Some features from 1937 still exist in the park.
At the entrance is a set of “boulders on sticks”–more properly known as Rocks in the Sky by Didier Marcel. In the background is the 1937 Exposition-era art moderne shelter built of concrete and bricks.
The shelter is decorated with plaques of athletes in bas-relief from the 1937 Exposition, in the style of the period:
A formal garden . . .
. . . leads to a parapet featuring a waterfall down a steep wall, and a bucolic view beyond.
The scene from the parapet is a bit easier on the eye than the crumbling and discoloured waterfall, which hasn’t aged well since 1937.
Parc Kellermann’s “functional faucets” cascade could use a re-imagining. Or at least a cleaning. Or is the discoloration part of its charm?
An aside about some 1930s Parisian sculptures
Garden of the Monument to French Mothers
Adjacent to Parc Kellermann is a Stalinesque monument to French mothers, who doubtless deserve better.
This low point of socialist realism is from the same period as the 1937 Paris Exposition. Compare the monument to the colossal waterfall at Parc Kellermann—both created in the style of art disenfranchised. The inscription glorifies the self-sacrifice and deprivation of mothers in bearing patriotic sons who will serve la patrie.
Below: A panoramic photo of the monument, in case you wish to see the adorants on either side:
Place Hubert Monmarché
Memorial to the War Dead (1934) is from the same general period and style as the Monument to French Mothers: symmetrical, allegorical, austere.
In the center of the monument: a poilu (affectionate nickname for World War I infantrymen). To the lower left, aristocrats from l’ancient regime, and above them, Revolutionary soldiers. To the right: a grieving mother and child.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés is one of the oldest churches in Paris. Its medieval Romanesque tower, dating from 1000, is the oldest structure of that church.
On the grounds surrounding this church are two parks with treasures of their own.
Gothic Ruins and a Picasso: Square Laurent Prache
There’s something compelling and mysterious about ruins, like these fragments of Gothic tracery and arches in the gardens of Square Laurent Prache:
These fragments were salvaged from the destroyed abbey adjacent to Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés. During the French Revolution, the abbey was appropriated, and the monks expelled or executed. The abbey was repurposed as a factory for saltpetre, an ingredient in gunpowder. When a fire broke out, the explosion destroyed the abbey. Today, parts of the monk’s former residence rise from the garden bed next to the church.
The park is also home to Picasso’s Dora, in the likeness of his companion. Picasso dedicated the sculpture to poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had died of influenza during the 1918 pandemic, complicated by a head wound he received as an infantry officer during World War I.
For the love of ceramics: Square Félix Desruelles
The other park adjacent to the ancient church, Square Félix Desruelles, holds two treasures relating to the art of ceramics.
Sèvres showcase at the 1900 Universal Expo
The monumental and colourful ceramic wall on the edge of the park celebrates Sèvres, the national ceramics industry. Created by Sèvres for the 1900 Paris Expo, it decorated the facade of the Palais des Manufactures Nationales. When that structure was demolished, the Sèvres monument was salvaged and moved to the Square Félix Desruelles.
The detail below shows the monument’s range of colours and the depth created by the friezes and the recessed semicircle.
Statue of Bernard Palissy, polymath and artist of ceramic critters
The bronze statue below memorializes Bernard Palissy, 16th-century polymath and ceramics artist. Palissy wears a potter’s apron over his gentleman’s doublet and puffed trunk hose:
Palissy created ornate oval platters in a rustic style, decorated with life-like creatures such as lizards, moths, frogs, snakes, and crustaceans. He often took casts of dead animals to sculpt them more precisely. Below, Palissy holds one of his ceramic platters with a snake at the center:
Just as saints are depicted with “attributes” associated with their lives, Palissy is surrounded by objects symbolizing his artistry as well as his vast and varied knowledge.
Behind Palissy’s right foot lies a kiln. Next to his left foot are crystals, indicating his interest in geology, and a large mollusk shell, representing his knowledge of natural history.
The kicker about the shell? It refers to Palissy’s innovative and science-based thinking about the origin of fossils.
Palissy bows his head in sadness. An outspoken Huguenot (French Protestant), he died miserably, imprisoned in the Bastille for his religious beliefs.
Square René Viviani (next to Église St-Julien-le-Pauvre)
This hospitable square is adjacent to Église St-Julien-le-Pauvre, the 12th-century Gothic church built around the same time as the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Viviani Fountain, full of tenderness and sadness, speaks to the sculptor’s artistic rendering of his pain as a Holocaust survivor into figures of exquisite, transcendent emotion.
At the entrance to a shady slice of heaven with park benches stand ancient stones piled up like cairns:
These venerable old stones were removed from Notre Dame during 19th-century renovations by Viollet-le-Duc.
Next door are the gardens of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, where you can stroll by a 12th-century stone well with a wooden wheel that has aged to the color of the grey stones.
The well is accessible from both sides of its jagged wall, which appears to have been sledgehammered. French Revolution?
The locust tree below may not look like much, but it’s the oldest tree in Paris. It was planted in 1601 by the gardener of Henri IV. Its hoary old branches are propped up by planks, but its leaves appear as young as spring shoots. On display here is Paris’ veneration of arbres remarquables.
Square André-Lefèvre (next to Église Saint-Severin)