Today, Paris is a city of light and romance, full of broad avenues, picturesque bridges and countless tourists visiting to soak in its charms.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Paris was known for isolated monuments but had not yet put its brand on urban space. Like other European cities, it was still emerging from its medieval past. But in a mere century Paris would be transformed into the modern and mythic city we know today.
Though most people associate the signature characteristics of Paris with the public works of the nineteenth century, Joan DeJean demonstrates that the Parisian model for urban space was in fact invented two centuries earlier, when the first complete design for the French capital was drawn up and implemented. As a result, Paris saw many changes. It became the first city to tear down its fortifications, inviting people in rather than keeping them out. Parisian urban planning showcased new kinds of streets, including the original boulevard, as well as public parks and the earliest sidewalks and bridges without houses. Venues opened for urban entertainment of all kinds, from opera and ballet to a pastime invented in Paris, recreational shopping. Parisians enjoyed the earliest public transportation and street lighting, and Paris became Europe’s first great walking city.
A century of planned development made Paris both beautiful and exciting. It gave people reasons to be out in public as never before and as nowhere else. And it gave Paris its modern identity as a place that people dreamed of seeing. By 1700, Paris had become the capital that would revolutionize our conception of the city and of urban life.
But the French capital wasn’t always a stylish destination, says historian Joan DeJean. She’s written about all things French and fashionable, from the birth of luxury goods to the rise of the celebrity hair stylist (which began during the terribly chic reign of Louis XIV). In her new book, How Paris Became Paris, DeJean starts with a look at the dismal condition of Paris in the late 1500s. The long wars between Protestants and Catholics had ended, but the toll on the city had been immense.
“It was a city torn apart by warfare. Paris at that time is so desolate, so burned out, that contemporary observers talk about wolves roaming freely in the streets of the city,” DeJean tells NPR’s Renee Montagne. “Paris was also a city largely empty: huge spaces of empty terrain everywhere in the city. And the new king, Henry IV, had a lot of imagination and energy.”
Each facet of Paris’s long and varied history is captivating in a different way. Two new, richly researched books explore aspects of the city’s path in pursuit of the elusive question of just what gives Paris its inimitable character.
Well before we had anything resembling a city on our shores, Paris was defining core aspects of what we still regard as modern urban culture. In “How Paris Became Paris,” Joan DeJean presents the city’s role as a precursor of urban modernity by taking us to the 17th century, a decisive period of change for the city.
One of the milestones in the emergence of an urban culture came in the summer of 1606, when Parisians witnessed the opening of the freshly built Pont Neuf, or New Bridge. For the first time, people were able to walk, ride and drive over what was not just a new bridge, but a new type of bridge. It was an engineering feat, a broad structure suited to heavy traffic and therefore able to serve as the first real artery between the two banks, with a stop on the Île de la Cité in between. It was the first Parisian bridge built without houses, affording views of the water from the deck. It featured a broad space for pedestrians to circulate, elevated and protected from vehicle traffic by high stone curbs. Most important, it was not just utilitarian: It was treated as a place for urban civility and exchange, and it had a small square with a statue of the king, Henri IV, on horseback.