How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

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by Joan DeJean

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Miranda Seymour
Wittily written and impeccably researched…
Publishers Weekly
Although 19th-century Baron Haussmann often receives credit for Paris’s iconic features, this witty and engaging work shows that it was the 17th-century Bourbon monarchs who first transformed Paris into the prototype of the modern city that would inspire the world. Penn professor DeJean (The Essence of Style) notes that Henri IV (1553–1610) was the first to consider the practical value of public works and how they could improve people’s lives. Besides centralizing France’s administrative functions, Henri IV built the first bridge to cross the Seine in a single span (the Pont Neuf) and the first urban public square (the Place Royale, now the Place des Vosges). Louis XIV took his grandfather’s plans even further by tearing down the city’s fortifications, replacing them with tree-lined boulevards around the city’s perimeter, and instituting a “grand design” that would influence Haussmann 250 years later. A charismatic and knowledgeable narrator, DeJean shows how an open city where men and women from all stations could congregate fueled the rise of the self-made man, the financier, the real estate developer, the artisan, the merchant, the Parisienne, and the coquette. With panache and examples from primary sources, guidebooks, maps, and paintings, she illustrates how Paris changed people’s conception of a city’s potential. B&w illus., 8-page color insert. Agent: Alice Martell, the Martell Agency. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Everyone thinks of Paris as being remade in the 19th century under the direction of Baron Haussmann, but DeJean argues that its real rebirth occurred as it emerged from the medieval past in the 1600s, knocked down its fortifications (the first European city to do so), and built areas for urban entertainment and shopping. From a University of Pennsylvania French scholar; some lovely illustrations.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-12-02
Illuminating portrait of the first modern city, 17th-century Paris, which could "hold a visitor's attention with quite different splendors." DeJean (Romance Languages/Univ. of Pennsylvania; The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual--and the Modern Home Began, 2009, etc.) focuses on two kings, Henry IV and his grandson, Louis XIV, who lived 250 years before Baron Haussmann, the great public works leader who massively renovated Paris during the mid-1800s. When the author examines how the Pont Neuf, completed in 1607, was the key to the birth of the city, readers will immediately understand why it was designed and constructed there. Crossing the Seine at the Île de la Cité, it included the first sidewalks anywhere, and it was the first bridge in Paris to offer a gathering place with a view of the river. Suddenly, ladies and gentlemen were out promenading, seeing and being seen. Adding Place des Vosges (originally a silk factory) and the mansions on Île Saint-Louis gave the population the first true neighborhoods. People-watching on the streets raised awareness of fashion and introduced various forms of communication, as well as the first forms of advertising. Pedestrians began to shop using the first shopping guide, printed in 1690. Of course, thievery rose with the presence of the elite, so the first street lighting was installed. Since there was light, the shops stayed open well into the evenings--hence, the "city of light." Both Henry and Louis built central Paris in just over 100 years, and we can still walk and explore what they left for us. "Paris caused urban planners to invent what a city should be," writes the author, "and it caused visitors to dream of what a city might be." Dejean obviously knows and loves Paris, and she provides coherent history that effectively explains the evolution of a city built by a few prescient men.
From the Publisher

“This lively history charts the growth of Paris from a city of crowded alleyways and irregular buildings into a modern marvel.” —New Yorker

“The greatest strength of How Paris Became Paris is the richness of its subject matter. DeJean is fluent with the material and has conducted thorough research, with many interesting primary sources . . . Well worth reading.” —Washington Post

“DeJean's depth and scope of research are impressive . . . Like its subject, DeJean's biography of Paris emanates charm and wit. What makes [her] analysis so intriguing is her capacity to weave strands of history together. With such rich context, How Paris Became Paris is more than a history: It's the best kind of travel guidebook.” —BookPage

“Illuminating . . . Dejean obviously knows and loves Paris, and she provides coherent history that effectively explains the evolution of a city built by a few prescient men.” —starred review, Kirkus Reviews

“Witty and engaging . . . With panache and examples from primary sources, guidebooks, maps, and paintings, she illustrates how Paris changed people's conception of a city's potential.” —Publishers Weekly (Top Ten Travel Books this Spring)

How Paris Became Paris teaches us a great deal about the origins of the modernity we have, and spurs us to contemplate the modernity we want.” —Make Literary Magazine

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Bloomsbury USA
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How Paris Became Paris

The Invention of the Modern City



Copyright © 2014 Joan DeJean
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60819-591-6


"Capital of the Universe"

What makes a city great?

Prior to the seventeenth century, the most celebrated European city was one famous for its past. Visitors made pilgrimages to Rome to tour its ancient monuments or its historic churches: they were seeking artistic inspiration and indulgences rather than novelty and excitement. Then, in the seventeenth century, a new model for urban space and urban life was invented, a blueprint for all great cities to come. The modern city as it came to be defined was designed to hold a visitor's attention with quite different splendors: contemporary residential architecture and unprecedented urban infrastructure rather than grand palaces and churches. And this remade the urban experience for both the city's inhabitants and its visitors alike. The modern city was oriented to the future rather than the past: speed and movement were its hallmarks.

And, as many Europeans quickly recognized, only one city was truly modern: Paris.

Near the end of the seventeenth century, a new kind of publication began to appear: pocket guidebooks and maps specifically designed for visitors who planned to explore a city on foot. These ancestors of today's guidebooks were created to introduce Europeans to Paris. It was a city that, their authors felt, had become such a revolutionary kind of place that it needed to be seen in this way to be understood. The genre began in 1684 with the first edition of Germain Brice's Description nouvelle de ce qu'il y a de plus intéressant et de plus remarquable dans la ville de Paris, soon translated into English as A New Description of Paris, destined to become the best-selling guide to any city until the 1750s.

Brice presented information street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, so that, as he explained in his preface, "in one walk, people can see a number of beautiful things." His guidebook's organizational principle indicates that Brice—a native Parisian and longtime professional guide for foreign visitors—had taken stock of the fact that tourism had spread beyond the happy few who traveled in private vehicles from one monument to the next, paying little attention to the surrounding areas since the urban landscape itself was of no particular interest. By the 1680s a new infrastructure had made walking easy, and there were sights aplenty all along the way. The city itself was the monument.

With the 1698 edition, Brice's guidebook also included a handy new feature: a fold-out map to guide visitors during their walks. As soon as Paris' infrastructure began to evolve at a rapid pace, a golden age began for French cartography. And since the cityscape was in constant flux all during the seventeenth century, new maps were continually issued. Each mapmaker told the story of Paris in a different way, with topographic maps, bird's-eye views, portraits.

The first map aimed specifically at the growing numbers of foreigners in the city was published by Nicolas de Fer in 1692. A contemporary periodical described it as especially useful to "those who know nothing about the city," and de Fer's organization is still being followed in today's tourist maps. On its left side, the map lists the streets of Paris in alphabetical order, and on its right points of interest: churches and palaces, but also bridges and embankments. The map is laid out in squares, numbered 1 to 14 horizontally and A to L vertically, each measured in steps, "so that someone can see in a glance how many he'll have to take to get from one place to another." De Fer was offering in effect a combined map and guidebook for tourists on foot—and in 1694, he published a small-format map (nine by twelve inches) that was easily carried about in one's pocket. This detail from that 1694 map shows how convenient it would have been for exploring the new Champs-Élysées neighborhood, just then becoming part of the fabric of Paris. No one saw the potential of de Fer's innovations more clearly than Brice—hence his decision to reissue his own guide in 1698 with a fold-out map and a listing, in alphabetical order, of the streets of the city.

There had been earlier books about Paris: Father Jacques Du Breul's 1612 work on its antiquities, for example. But these volumes—like works such as Andrea Palladio's 1554 introductions to ancient Roman monuments and medieval pilgrimage churches—were destined for visitors who measured a city's greatness by its history, and they focus on civic and religious monuments. John Stow's 1598 A Survey of London and Thomas De Laune's 1681 The Present State of London also have an antiquarian slant; they evoke modern-day London mainly as a center of commerce and the nation's financial hub. In contrast, guidebooks to Paris present a city bristling with creative energy, a cultural magnet, an incubator of the kind of ideas that could revolutionize urban life.

Recent research indicates that once a city acquires a reputation—as an exciting place or as one where nothing ever happens—that image tends to survive unchanged for long periods of time. The original guidebooks to Paris help explain how one of the most powerful urban images of all time was put into place.

Both Brice and de Fer had the same idea of why modern tourists might choose to visit a city. In Brice's opinion, visitors no longer wanted detailed historical information. Visitors now preferred a guidebook that included "an account of the latest trends in modern residential architecture, rather than the translation of [Latin] epitaphs in a cemetery." Thus, Brice, like de Fer, included recent architectural achievements—both private homes and innovative public works such as avenues—that in the course of the seventeenth century had become central to the experience of Paris.

What attracts visitors to a city? A guidebook such as Brice's, a map such as de Fer's, and other novel publications that were introduced in the 1690s all offered new answers to that question. Take the example of Nicolas de Blégny's volumes from the early 1690s, the first-ever insider's guide to a city. In Adresses de la ville de Paris and Le Livre commode, Addresses in the City of Paris and The Useful Book, Blégny includes information never before considered noteworthy, such as where to find the best Brie cheese or the most buttery brioches, the names of tailors who outfitted court notables, the addresses of caterers for "your special events," and the right source for every kind of luxury merchandise.

All these publications indicate that a new model for the city had been put into place in the course of the seventeenth century. According to that model, a great city should be more than a collection of major buildings or a monumental capital. A city was worthy of a visit because it was great in the here and now, because of its contemporary architecture, because its economic life, its cultural activities, and the range of entertainments it offered made it vibrant. Visitors who wanted to contemplate ancient monuments still went to Rome, but those in search of the novel and the cutting edge—in the arts and architecture, in technology, in commerce, in fashion, and in cuisine—were traveling to Paris to discover a very different experience. And they were doing so in new ways: they walked its streets with Brice's guidebook in hand, as English physician Martin Lister did in 1698, and as Louis Liger was still advising readers of his guidebook to do in 1714. They spent less time in churches and more in cafés and public gardens, less time touring cemeteries and more visiting shops. They wanted to eat well and be well outfitted as much as to tour a famous cathedral.

Paris had not always been a magnet for visitors. During the second half of the sixteenth century, France had been ravaged by de cades of war between Catholics and Protestants. By the century's end its capital had been reduced to a state succinctly summed up by the first great historian of the city's development, Michel Félibien: "In 1597, there was nothing splendid about Paris. It was in deplorable shape and lacked everything." In fact, at the turn of the seventeenth century, wolves roamed freely in the streets of the French capital. Between 1597 and 1700, that urban disaster was rebuilt and transformed. For the first time, rulers asked professionals—from architects to engineers—to study the city's layout, and they followed the professionals' suggestions to plan the capital's development. Because of the revolutionary public works that resulted from these collaborations and the manner in which these public works were woven into their surroundings, Paris became known as technologically advanced, the European leader in city planning and modern architecture.

Breakthrough projects only become origins, the inspiration for those who live elsewhere and for subsequent generations, when someone draws them to the attention of a broad public. As soon as urban planning began to remake Paris, a second transformation began: for the first time ever, a city was instantly elevated to legendary status—almost before the mortar was dry on the public works being celebrated.

All through the seventeenth century, every time its cityscape was redesigned in an important way, Paris benefitted from what would now be called a rebranding campaign. In a continuous stream of publications and images, writers and artists publicized the city's transformation from urban ruin to urban wonder and advertised the city as a destination, the epitome of a sophisticated, cosmopolitan place. In the Paris represented by playwrights and novelists, by historians of the city and the authors of guidebooks, by painters and cartographers and engravers, both the city and its inhabitants had a special glow: it and they were more elegant and more seductive than anywhere or anyone else. A mythic idea destined to survive for centuries thus took root.

The numerous visions of Paris then created reflect simultaneously the reality of a city being transformed and the fantasies about urban life of those who celebrated it. Many also surely served to some extent as propaganda. The stories they tell may not always be as completely factual as they claim to be, but they provide something very rare: a city's sense of itself. The vast and varied literature of Paris then produced shows us how the city represented itself to itself. These books and images also helped produce a new kind of city. They made Parisians proud and thereby created a sense of community. They also taught people how to use revolutionary public works and services—how to mingle in public gardens, how to take advantage of street lighting and public transportation to negotiate an expanding urban footprint. All these works combined show us the original vision of Paris as the key capital of modernity.

Paris' many admirers turned to hyperbole to give a sense of the excitement it now inspired: "a city that has no equal," "a microcosm of the world," "a world unto itself," "everyone's homeland." World traveler François Bernier declared that "all the most creative ideas originate in Paris." Playwright Pierre Carlet de Marivaux had a character categorically affirm: "Paris is the world. Next to it, all other cities seem mere suburbs." And one of the first true Europeans, the Marquis de Caraccioli, proclaimed it both "the capital of the universe" and "the metropolis of the universe."

What had been an urban wreck was now a legendary city.

Paris had become the country's capital and the official residence of the kings of France in 987, but its position was unstable for the following centuries. It was a theater of violence during first the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) and then the Wars of Religion (1562–98). In 1415, after the French defeat at the battle of Agincourt, their monarchs abandoned the city. In 1436, Charles VII reclaimed it from the English, but throughout the sixteenth century the kings of the Valois dynasty mainly ruled from their châteaux in the Loire valley rather than the Louvre. In 1589, when Henri III was assassinated by a religious fanatic, the Valois dynasty ended. Henri IV, his successor and the first king of the Bourbon monarchy, twice failed to take Paris by force. He finally won over through diplomacy a capital exhausted and ruined by de cades of war. The city he entered in 1594 was big—the largest west of Constantinople—but in no way a functioning capital. However, Henri IV was a fast worker.

By 1598, he had accomplished the first objective of his reign, peace, by promulgating the Edict of Nantes, which made religious tolerance official state policy, and by signing a treaty with the Spanish. He then reorganized the country's administration. During the Wars of Religion, provincial governments had enjoyed great autonomy. Henri IV began the process, continued by both Louis XIII and Louis XIV, by which Paris fully became the seat of the French government; administrative functions became increasingly centralized, and the French monarchy became increasingly absolute. But it was with his work as a builder that Henri IV changed Paris most profoundly.

Throughout a cityscape devastated by war, Henri IV started ambitious public works projects. In the little more than a decade before he was himself assassinated in 1610, he put Paris well on its way to becoming a place that could be billed as "the capital of the universe."

Indeed, the king conceived of his plans for Paris in just such grandiose terms. In March 1601, Paris' municipal government was informed that "His Majesty has declared his intention of making the city in which he plans to spend the rest of his life beautiful and splendid, of making [Paris] into a world unto itself and a miracle of the world." And he quickly put those intentions into action. A contemporary periodical, Le Mercure françois ("French Mercury"), informed its readers that "as soon as [Henri IV] became the master of Paris, you could see construction workers all over the city." Only six years later, the king wrote France's envoy to the Vatican, Cardinal de Joyeuse, with "news about my buildings." He listed the public works of which he was most proud and concluded: "You will hardly believe what a changed city you'll find."

A century later, the original historian of its municipal governance, Nicolas Delamare, confirmed the king's proud words: before Henri IV, it was as if "no one had done a thing to beautify the city." The list of accomplishments that both the king and his contemporary admirers proudly enumerated as the architectural highlights of his reign always began with the urban works referred to as "the two wonders of France": the Pont Neuf, a bridge that would revolutionize the way European cities related to their rivers, and the Place Royale, today's Place des Vosges, a square that would transform urban public space. Commentators stressed how "at the beginning of Henri IV's reign, Paris had wide stretches of barren terrain—fields, prairies, and swamps, uninhabited and devoid of construction." The king began making empty land into a novel kind of urban landscape, creating in the process "a city completely different from what it had been in 1590," as foreigners and Parisians who returned after even a few years away never failed to point out—"une ville nouvelle," a new city.

Paris became ever newer as the century progressed. Henri IV's son, Louis XIII, made far less grandiose plans. But he did see some of his father's most daunting projects through to completion—in particular, the idea of turning more "barren terrain" into one of the city's most elegant neighborhoods, one that still looks much as it did upon its completion in the early 1640s: today we know it as the Île Saint-Louis. And Louis XIII produced a son whose ambitions for his capital made him truly his grandfather's heir.

Two phrases from the pen of Louis XIV's chief minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, both from 1669, illustrate this. The first is a list of major construction projects that ends: "grandeur and magnificence everywhere." The second could be called the categorical imperative of Louis XIV's monarchy: "This is not a reign that does things on a small scale."

The total terrain built up during Henri IV's reign was in no way comparable to the massive development during the later de cades of the seventeenth century. Left Bank, Right Bank, at the city's periphery as much as at its center, edifices (even one as iconic as the Louvre) were then rebuilt, and neighborhoods were redesigned—or invented. This 1677 engraving depicting the remodeling of the Louvre's façade gives a sense of the kind of major construction site then found all over the city. It would have been impossible to walk fifteen minutes in any direction without encountering reminders of the fact that Paris was a city in transition, shaking off its past in a hurry.

And Louis XIV followed all these projects in the smallest detail. In May 1672, when Colbert wrote to ask if he was bothering the king with too many specifics, Louis XIV's reply was categoric: "I want to know everything about everything."

In London after the Great Fire of 1666, plans to modernize the devastated areas—including one by Christopher Wren that closely followed the Parisian urban model—were submitted to Charles II. But property owners concerned about their rights and taxes quickly began rebuilding. All thoughts of major change had to be abandoned. In Paris the combined efforts of a determined monarch and equally determined municipal authorities made it the first capital in modern history not to grow randomly from a village into an urban sprawl. Instead the new Paris became a vision of straight lines, right angles, and oblique radiating avenues—a vision that shaped many cities to come, first in Europe and later well beyond. In 1698, an English visitor remarked: "The streets [of Paris] are so incomparably fair and uniform that you would imagine yourself rather in some Italian Opera ... than believe yourself to be in a reall Citie."


Excerpted from How Paris Became Paris by JOAN DEJEAN. Copyright © 2014 Joan DeJean. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Joan DeJean is Trustee Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of ten books on French literature, history, and material culture, including most recently The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began and The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour. She lives in Philadelphia and, when in Paris, on the street where the number 4 bus began service on July 5, 1662.

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How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
A_Sloan More than 1 year ago
The Bridge to the Future For a paper that I am writing on urban history, I knew I would include Paris. I've only been there for three days, but it was just enough time to experiences it wonder, and now I know more reasons why! The significance of the Pont Neuf bridge revealed in this book opens the mind to how interwoven humans are with environment. She examines how the unique design of the bridge brought people together in new ways - from the fun of flirtation to unfortunate robberies. I am most inspired by DeJean's thorough study of how the most modern city in the world had its foundation laid in the seventeenth century. Her writing style is appropriate for most readers, although it may be too casual at times for serious historians. Quite frankly, I find it a breath of fresh air. If there is anything out there on this time period that has similar academic caliber as Cities Perceived: Urban Society, I'd be interested to know, but this is good for me right now! It's a great read that will certainly enhance the way you see the world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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