CHARLES FRANÇOIS BOSSU (1813 – 1879) was a French photographer who photographed architecture, landscapes and the urban environment. He is much better known though as Charles Marville, the pseudonym he adopted around 1832.
Charles Marville, photographic self-portrait, c. 1861
Marville worked as an illustrator of books such as Histoire Pittoresque de l’Angleterre and La Seine et ses Bords (the Seine and its Banks) before taking up photography around 1850.
In 1858 he received his first commission from the Paris authorities, to photograph the renovated Bois de Boulogne − the first of Baron Haussmann’s modernising projects for Emperor Napoleon III.
By the early 1860s, Haussmann’s urban development scheme to transform Paris was gathering pace. Although Haussmann was keen to eradicate parts of old Paris, he wanted to preserve their memory: ‘The City of Paris must disregard nothing, forget nothing, neglect nothing of its past.’
In 1862, Marville became the official photographer of Paris and he was commissioned to photograph the pre-modern city before its demolition. He made 425 photographs of the narrow streets and crumbling buildings, which collectively became known as the ‘Album du Vieux Paris.’ The complete series of photographs are held by the Musée Carnavalet and the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris.
One of Charles Marville’s photographs that fascinates me is one he made of Place Saint-André des Arts in the 6th arrondissement.
Place Saint-André des Arts: Charles Marville
The remarkable thing is that, despite the destruction and reconstruction that occurred in the surrounding area in the 1860s, this little corner of Paris, which takes its name from the ancient church of Saint-André-des-Arts which was demolished during the French Revolution, remained completely untouched by Haussmann’s wrecking ball.
Place Saint-André des Arts: August 2015
Like Charles Marville and his successor, Eugène Atget, I too document the city of Paris, but in my case in sound rather than in pictures. Whenever I come across a photograph of a part of Vieux Paris that has survived almost untouched I can’t resist recording the contemporary soundscape around it.
Place Saint-André des Arts in Sound; August 2015:
Charles Marville died in Paris in 1879. His ‘Album du Vieux Paris’ allows us to see Paris as he saw it before its late nineteenth century transformation and we can compare what he saw with what we can see today.
But when it comes to the sounds of Charles Marville’s Paris we lack a reference point. There are no recordings of the urban soundscape of the time and descriptions of the sounds of Paris in literature during Haussmann’s transformation of the city are few and far between.
So, while we can capture and archive the contemporary sounds of Paris we can, alas, only imagine the sounds that Charles Marville would have heard while he photographed Place Saint-André des Arts.
FOUNDED BY NAPOLEON III in 1863 as an asylum, the Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Anne in rue Cabanis in the 14th arrondissement is now not only an official monument historique, it’s also a hospital specialising in psychiatry and neuroscience.
The origins of the hospital date back much further though.
On 7th July 1651, the governors of the Hôtel-Dieu and representatives of the Queen regent, Anne of Austria, signed a contract in which the Hôtel Dieu gave up buildings and land of the Maison de la Santé in Faubourg St Marcel in exchange for which the Queen regent gave twenty-one acres of land to establish a hospital. A condition was that the new hospital should take the name of the patron saint of the Queen regent, mother of Louis XIV: Saint Anne.
The hospital began as a farm, la ferme Sainte-Anne, which employed inmates from the nearby Asylum de Bicêtre, a notorious prison and lunatic asylum, but where in 1793, Superintendent Philippe Pinel is credited as being the first to introduce humane methods into the treatment of the mentally ill.
In 1863, Napoleon III decided to create a psychiatric hospital in Paris on the site of la ferme Sainte-Anne. The Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Anne was to be a clinical asylum marking a shift of emphasis towards research into and the treatment of mental illness.
The French architect Charles-Auguste Questel took charge of the project and work proceeded over a period of four years. The hospital was inaugurated on 1st January 1867 and the first patient was admitted on 1st May of the same year. Most of the original buildings still exist and are still in use.
The asylum in 1877: Revue générale de l’Architecture et des Travaux Publics, 1877, n°4 (volume 34ème)
Le pavillon Magnan de l’hôpital Sainte-Anne
In the years that followed, the Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Anne expanded its role beyond just the psychiatric treatment of its patients. Departments for general surgery and dental surgery were created to provide treatment for patients from all the asylums is the Département de la Seine along with an obstetric department and laboratories for radiology, microphotography and biology.
A major breakthrough occurred in 1920 when the French psychiatrist, Edouard Toulouse, set up the Comité d’hygiène mentale, a mental health committee designed to seek the most effective medical and social means for treating mental illness. In 1922 this resulted in the Centre for mental disease prevention, which aimed to improve the treatment of patients by developing outpatient as well as inpatient centres.
Another breakthrough came in 1952 when the French psychiatrist, neurologist, writer and member of the Académie française, Jean Delay, along with J. M. Harl and Pierre Deniker discovered that a high dose of chlorpromazine produced a considerable reduction in the agitation and aggression of those patients with symptoms of schizophrenia. Chlorpromazine was released onto the market in 1953 by Rhône-Poulenc and given the trade name Largactil and it’s still in use today.
Today, the Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Anne has seven adult psychiatric units, two child and adolescent psychiatric units as well as an addiction unit. It also has centres for neurology, neurosurgery, neuroradiology, neurophysiology, neuropathology, anaesthetics, dentistry, physical medicine and rehabilitation.
The hospital is also a teaching hospital for students of the faculty of medicine at the Université Paris Descartes.
I went to explore the Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Anne and discovered that the site covers thirteen hectares (32 acres), including seven hectares (17 acres) of protected green space. Some of this green space is reserved for patients but most of it is accessible to the public.
On one side of a staff car park close to the central pharmacy I discovered some sounds of summer.
Sounds of the Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Anne:
One of the modern additions to the hospital is the new home of the Clinique des Maladies Mentales et de l’Encéphale (CMME), a sixty bed psychiatric unit supervised by four university professors.
The unit specialises in four main areas; eating disorders, mood disorders (including recurrent depression resistant to treatment, seasonal affective disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety disorders), suicidal patients and addiction.
Clinique des Maladies Mentales et de l’Encéphale (CMME)
The CMME is one of several new developments at the hospital so as I walked past it I was not surprised to discover the sound of construction work pervading the air. I stopped to capture the sounds of nature and construction work competing with each other.
Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Anne – Outside CMME:
Walking around the grounds of the hospital looking at some of the original buildings I couldn’t help but imagine what this place must have been like when the treatment of mental illness was in its infancy, even though France was quite enlightened in its approach by the standards of the time.
In 1838 France enacted a law to regulate both the admissions into asylums and asylum services across the country allowing mentally ill patients to gain access to treatment for their disorders in specific and appropriate institutions. This law remained in force until as late as June 1990 when it was revised.
Outside the Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Anne in rue Cabanis stands the controversial Le plancher de Jeannot / Jeannot´s floor, a chilling reminder of the effect that mental illness can sometimes have.
Inside the three panels are sections of a fifteen square metre wooden floor engraved with a message of eighty lines by a young man named Jeannot.
Jeannot was born in 1939 in a small community in the Béarn department in the south of France where his parents owned a farmhouse and some forty hectares of land.
In 1959, Jeannot’s father committed suicide. Jeannot, one of his sisters and his mother continued to live in the house but the family gradually became more and more isolated. Jeannot began to exhibit paranoid behaviour and he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital but he reacted so violently that he was unable to be treated. When his mother died in 1971, Jeannot buried her in the house, under the staircase.
Over the next few months, using a hand drill to make small holes, which he then connected with lines cut out with a knife and a gouge, Jeannot composed a text on the wooden floor of the living room. In brief, the text says that religion is the cause of evil in society,
Soon after completing the text Jeannot died, probably starving himself to death. Together with his mother he was buried in the local cemetery. His sister continued living in the house, alone. She was found dead in 1993.
The house was sold but the brocanteur who dealt with the house clearance noticed the inscriptions on the floor. Finding this unusual, he made contact with a psychiatrist, Dr Guy Roux. Dr Roux bought the floor from the new owner of the house. He later sold it to the pharmaceutical company Bristol Meyer Squib.
Le plancher de Jeannot was exhibited for the first time in the year 2000 at an international psychiatric congress in Paris as part of an exposition entitled 50 ans d´expression en milieu psychiatrique. It was later exhibited in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris where it gave rise to a heated public debate around the question: is it acceptable to present as a work of art the expression of someone in such psychological distress?
In 2007, Jean Pierre Olié, professor of psychiatry and chief psychiatrist of the Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Anne became involved and it was arranged that the floor, cut into three parts, should be put on display outside the hospital in the rue Cabanis.
The complete text of Le plancher de Jeannot: Click to enlarge
“A sick thought can devour the body’s flesh more than fever or consumption.”
Guy de Maupassant : Le Horla et autres contes fantastiques
The days of ‘lunatics’ and ‘asylums’ may be gone but the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness still persists. It may be less now than in the past but it’s still there.
Institutions like the Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Anne have contributed significantly to the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness but it’s up to of the rest of us to come to terms with the fact that mental illness is exactly what it says, an illness – an illness that one in five of us will suffer from at some point in our lives.
“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shames us all”.
SET IN A SHALLOW basin in Place Stravinsky in the shadow of the Centre Pompidou, sixteen works of sculpture move and spray water into the air.
La Fontaine Stravinsky was part of a larger sculptural programme, launched by the City of Paris in 1978, to build seven contemporary fountains with sculptures in different squares in the city. As well as la Fontaine Stravinsky, the project included new fountains at the Hotel de Ville and within the gardens of the Palais Royal. These were the first public fountains to be built in Paris since the fountains of the Palais de Chaillot were constructed for the Paris Exposition of 1937.
The basin containing the sixteen sculptures sits above the offices of IRCAM, the Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique, an organisation devoted to promoting modern music and musicology. The founder of the IRCAM, the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, suggested the works of the composer Igor Stravinsky as a theme for the fountain.
The sixteen sculptures therefore represent:
L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird)
La Clef de Sol (the Musical Key of G)
La Spirale (The Spiral)
L’Elephant (The Elephant)
Le Renard (The Fox)
Le Serpent (The Serpent)
La Grenouille (The Frog)
La Diagonale (The Diagonal)
La Mort (Death)
La Sirène (The Mermaid)
Le Rossignol (The Nightingale)
La Vie (Life)
Le Cœur (The Heart)
Le Chapeau de Clown (The Clown’s Hat)
Because of the IRCAM rooms below, the Fontaine Stravinsky was designed to be as light as possible with the basin being very shallow and made from stainless steel and the sculptures made of plastic and other lightweight materials.
Funding for the Fontaine Stravinsky was provided by the City of Paris who paid two million French francs for the project, which was matched by a further two million French francs from the French Ministry of Culture.
Originally, the commission for the fountain was given to Jean Tinguely, best known for his kinetic art, or sculptural machines. It was envisaged that the fountain would have been entirely composed of his black-painted mechanical sculptures but, in May 1982, Tinguely asked that brightly coloured works by his second wife, Niki de Saint Phalle, also be included. This proposal was resisted at first because it was thought that the brightly coloured works would visually overwhelm the dark works of Tinguely but, after much descussion, it was agreed that it would be a joint project by Tinguely and Saint Phalle.
I went to the Fontaine Stravinsky the other day to try to capture the different sound textures from each of the sixteen sculptures but when I arrived I found that the basin had been drained and routine maintenance work was going on. Far from being disappointing, it gave me a chance to see the inner workings of the kinetic art.
All sixteen statues move and spray water and the cables and hoses that feed them are laid along the bottom of the basin.
There are a host of cafés and restaurants in the thirteenth century rue Brisemiche running alongside Place Stravinsky so I decided to head off for something to eat while the maintenance work was being carried out.
When I returned the basin was being refilled and the sculptures were bursting into life.
Sounds of la Fontaine Stravinsky:
I walked around the perimeter of the fountain pausing to explore the sonic texture of each of the sixteen statues. Some of the textures are quite distinctive but others, the more delicate ones, tend to be overshadowed by their more raucous neighbours – but they are there if you listen very carefully.
I recorded in the evening so I was not surprised to capture the sounds of the gentlemen from the Mairie de Paris arriving in their smart, green, electric truck to replace the large translucent rubbish bags beside the fountain. I was though surprised to capture the sound of the water to the fountain being turned off for the night from a stopcock behind the neighbouring Eglise Saint-Merri. The sudden absence of running water seemed to leave a curious sonic vacuum in the air.
THE GLORIOUS SUNSHINE that we’ve been enjoying in Paris over the last few weeks completely deserted us last Sunday. Successive days of temperatures in the high 30s gave way to a leaden grey sky and heavy rain. But the change in the weather did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowds gathered in the Champs Élysées to watch the final stage of this year’s 102nd edition of the Tour de France.
Starting in Utrecht in the Netherlands on Saturday 4th July, this year’s Grande Boucle was made up of 21 stages covering a total distance of 3,360 kilometres. After two stages in the Netherlands, the Tour crossed Belgium and northern France before moving south for the gruelling mountain stages in the Pyrenees and the Alps.
The stage profiles this year included nine flat stages, three hill stages, seven mountain stages with five altitude finishes, one individual time-trial stage, one team time-trial stage and two much needed rest days.
Stage 20 Profile – Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Toussuire – Les Sybelles
After the penultimate gruelling stage from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Toussuire – Les Sybelles in the Alps, including an ascent up the tortuous Col de la Croix de Fer and the Alpe d’Huez, this year’s final stage of the Tour was much more leisurely. It is customary that the result of the Tour de France is settled at the end of the penultimate stage so, barring something completely unexpected happening, the final stage is largely a procession for the victor. Of course, there are still points to be scored and prize money to be won so the final sprint finish in the Champs Élysées is always exciting.
Stage 21 Profile – Sèvres – Grand Paris Seine Ouest to the Champs-Élysées
This year’s final stage, a mere 109.5 km from Sèvres – Grand Paris Seine Ouest to the Champs-Élysées in Paris, saw the Tour pass very close to my home. Entering the outskirts of Paris, the 160 riders crossed the Bois de Boulogne, rounded Porte Maillot and headed up the Avenue de la Grande Armée before turning right into rue de Presbourg. From here their route took them to the Trocadéro, the Tour Eiffel, Les Invalides, the Assemblé Nationale, the Louvre and then into rue de Rivoli and ten laps of the Champs Élysées.
An hour and a half before the riders were due to appear I took up position in rue de Presbourg, a narrow street leading to the Trocédero. Armed with my microphones and camera I was preparing to capture the riders passing so close to me that I could reach out and touch them.
As I waited a procession of team buses passed me, each a temporary refuge for the riders before and after each race stage.
Then, right on cue, three motorcycles from the gendarmerie hove into view heralding the approach of the convoy of official cars, press photographers and TV cameramen on motorcycles, the medical cars, the ambulances and the team cars surrounding the peloton, all 160 riders tightly bunched together.
The Brits are coming! Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome in the yellow jersey
Rue de Presbourg – The Peloton:
As you can hear, it took seven minutes for the convoy of attendant vehicles to pass but, as is the way with the Tour, you wait for hours and then the riders pass in the blink of an eye.
So, with the riders and their entourage safely on their way I made off for the Champs Élysées to record them negotiating ten laps of la plus belle avenue du monde before a dramatic sprint finish.
Tour de France 2015 in the Champs Élysées:
André Greipel won the final stage, his fourth stage of this year’s Tour de France despite Bryan Coquard’s final rush.
Chris Froome was declared the overall winner of the 102nd Tour de France and also King of the Mountains, making him the only British rider to have won the Tour twice and the first rider since Eddy Merckx in 1970 to claim the yellow and polka-dot jerseys in the same Tour.
The other podium finishers were Nairo Quintana who came second and his Movistar team mate, Alejandro Valverde, was in third place.
Last year’s winner, Vincenzo Nibali, was in fourth place and the two-time Tour winner, Alberto Contador, was in fifth place.
Peter Sagan won the points competition for the fourth straight time, Nairo Quintana was the best young rider, Romain Bardet was declared the the most aggressive rider of the whole race and the Movistar team won the team classification.
And spare a thought for Sébastian Chavanel, the Lanterne Rouge, the last man in the general classification, who finished with a time 4 hours 56 minutes and 59 seconds behind the winner.
This year’s Tour de France has been as exciting as ever and not without controversy but Chris Froome claimed the maillot jaune, the yellow jersey, after Stage 7 and with brilliant support from his team mates in Team Sky, and despite several serious challenges from Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali in the mountains, he successfully defended it to the end.
Bravo to Chris Froome and Team Sky for not only winning this year’s Tour but also for showing such resilience in the face of some remarkably inept journalism. And thanks too to all the other riders, including those who didn’t make to the end, all of whom showed enormous courage, determination and panache in the face of what seems to most of us to be an impossible challenge.
THE WORLD LISTENING PROJECT is a not-for-profit organisation devoted to understanding the world and its natural environment, societies and cultures through the practices of listening and field recording.
In July each year the World Listening Project promotes World Listening Day celebrating the listening practices of the world and the ecology of its acoustic environments.
The theme for World Listening Day this year was “H2O”, reflecting on water, metaphorically in how we listen, or through creative events inspired by water and sound across the globe. The 2015 theme resonates at a time where we need to shift our collective thinking and actions towards water globally.
Since the theme of World Listening Day this year was water, I decided to explore the sounds of la Seine, the river that arcs its way through the centre of Paris, for my contribution.
Rather than seeking out the typical sounds of the river, waves lapping or boats creaking for example, I decided to set up my microphones at a very popular Parisian beauty spot to see what sounds I might capture.
The place I chose, the western tip of the Île Saint-Louis, is in fact in the centre of the river with river traffic passing on both sides.
The Île Saint-Louis, named after King Louis IX, whose piety and generosity led him to be canonised in 1297, is one of two natural islands in la Seine, the other being the Île de la Cité. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, King Louis XIII, along with the queen mother Marie de Médicis, decided to implement an urban plan first devised by Louis’ father, King Henri IV, which transformed the Île Saint-Louis from little more than a cow pasture to a much sought after conclave of elegant residences where wealthy businessmen and politicians came to live away from the noise of the inner city. Today, the Ile Saint-Louis is one of the most authentic seventeenth century neighbourhoods in Paris.
The western tip of the Île Saint-Louis is much frequented by tourists and locals alike.
Pêcheurs à la ligne à la pointe ouest de l’île Saint-Louis. 1935. © Albert Harlingue / Roger-Viollet : Image courtesy of Paris en Images
I set up my microphones on the tip of the Quai de l’Île Saint-Louis pointing downstream towards the Île de la Cité and the Hôtel de Ville and began to record.
I didn’t move the microphones to follow any particular sound but rather just left them in one place to capture the ambient sound just as one would do with a long exposure photograph.
Sounds from the Quai de l’Île Saint-Louis:
I was immediately reminded that while the banks of la Seine might be romantic for some, la Seine is and always has been a working river. The industrial barges passing by remind us that this part of the river was once the commercial heart of the city.
The Port Saint-Landry was the first port to serve Paris but it was soon surpassed in importance by the Port de la Grève, which was situated alongside the wall on the right in the picture above. The port was controlled by the Prévôt des Marchands and it was the entry point for a wide variety of merchandise including wine – mainly Burgundy and Champagne, wheat, hay, fish, wood, charcoal and soil.
Les bateaux sur le port de grève. Plan de Gomboust, 1652
All the goods shipped in by river were unloaded on a grève, a kind of beach made of sand and gravel which gave its name to both the port and to the Place de Grève, the open space in front of the Hôtel de Ville, depicted so graphically by the poet, novelist and dramatist, Victor Hugo, in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
Anyone living in France today will be all too familiar with the expression faire grève, which means to go on strike. Originally though it had quite the opposite meaning. It referred to the unemployed men who would stand around the port actively seeking casual work.
The sounds I recorded from the Quai de l’Île Saint-Louis may perhaps not be the most elegant sounds I’ve recorded along the banks of la Seine but I think they are nevertheless important.
Both locals and tourists, young and old, come to the Quai de l’Île Saint-Louis in great numbers to relax, to meet friends, to picnic, or just to admire the view. With other things on their mind it’s easy to imagine that they are perhaps scarcely aware of the busy, work-a-day sounds around them.
But the sounds are there and if we care to listen to them carefully we can hear the engines of commerce plying la Seine as they have for centuries and much else too.
These sounds are really what World Listening Day is about – understanding the world through the practice of listening.
Quai de l’Île Saint-Louis: Image via Wikipedia
And while on the World Listening Day theme of water, la Seine is not a place you would want to plunge into for a quick dip. But Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, has pledged to have us bathing in the river after the 2024 Olympic Games she hopes will be held in the city. We shall see!
LE QUATORZE JUILLET, or la Fête Nationale Française, is the French National Day, commemorating the 1790 Fete de la Federation held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789.
Each year, La Fête Nationale is celebrated throughout France but the centrepiece event takes place in Paris with the défilé, the parade of military and civilian services, marching down the Champs Elysées to be reviewed by the Président de la République.
And each year, when all eyes are on the Champs Elysées, my eyes turn skywards to the défilé aérien, the fly-past by aircraft from the French L’Armée de l’Air and helicopters from the air force, the navy, the army, civil security and the police.
This year, this wonderful piece of aerial choreography was masterminded by Général de division Jean-Christophe Zimmermann, commandant en second de la défense aérienne et des opérations aériennes, Paris.
Watching and waiting for the défilé aérien
2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of France and the l’Ordre national de la Libération, France’s second national Order after the Légion d’honneur, instituted by General De Gaulle, Leader of the “Français Libres” – the Free French movement – with Edict No. 7, signed in Brazzaville on November 16th, 1940. Admission to the Order is meant to “reward individuals, military and civil organizations for outstanding service in the effort to procure the liberation of France and the French Empire“.
To mark this anniversary the French aerobatic display team, the Patrouille de France, opened proceedings by paying a tribute to the French Resistance by flying twelve Alphajets in a formation representing the Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of the Free French movement.
The Free French Air Forces (FAFL) were honoured with a C135 tanker aircraft from flight refuelling group 2/91 “Bretagne”, followed by four Rafale C jet fighters of 2/30 squadron “Normandie-Niemen” and four Mirage 2000 multirole jet fighters of the 2/5 fighter squadron “Ile de France”.
La Fête Nationale 2015 – The Aircraft:
While listening to my recording of the aircraft passing you can see the composition of the entire aircraft procession in the chart below.
Click on the image to enlarge
Apart from the Patrouille de France formation the highlights for me were the magnificent Airbus A400M multi-national, four-engine turboprop, military transport aircraft with its delicious throaty growl and, bringing up the rear, the Airbus A340 strategic transport aircraft.
Appearing in the defilé aérien for the first time, this A340 from the transport squadron 3/60 “Esterel” took part in a recent operation to transport of 17 tons of emergency humanitarian cargo to Nepal following the earthquake that struck the capital, Kathmandu, in April this year.
Airbus A400M: Image via Wikipedia
About an hour after the aircraft passed it was the turn of the helicopters.
La Fête Nationale 2015 – The Helicopters:
While listening to my recording of the helicopters passing you can see the composition of the entire helicopter fleet in the chart below together with some interesting facts about the height, speed and distances flown by all the participants in the défilé aérien.
Click on the image to enlarge
I’ve been fascinated by flying and anything that can fly for as long as I can remember and to see all these aircraft and helicopters passing overhead is always a highlight of my year.
And every time I see flying displays like this I am reminded of the poem, Locksley Hall, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in which he foretells the future with prophetic accuracy:
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)
AS WELL AS BEING a plein-air gallery of street art, the pavilion at the top of the Parc de Belleville also affords a panoramic view across Paris.
While the Parc de Belleville vies with Montmartre for the distinction of being the highest point in Paris, the Parc de Belleville is unchallenged as the highest park in the city and the view from the top is quite spectacular.
Designed by the architect, François Debulois, and the landscaper, Paul Brichet, the Parc de Belleville covers 45,000 square meters of hillside in the 20th arrondissement stretching from rue Piat in the northeast to rue Julien-Lacroix in the southwest. It was opened to the public in December 1988.
In medieval times the fertile land and natural springs on this hillside were perfect for cultivating grapes and so vineyards appeared. From the fourteenth century onwards, taverns and guinguettes also began to proliferate. Guinguettes were drinking establishments that also served as restaurants and dance halls. Up until the mid nineteenth century Belleville was outside the Paris city limits and was exempt from the tax on alcohol so the taverns and guinguettes offering cheap drink were hugely popular.
In the mid nineteenth century a gypsum quarry was carved out of the hillside and that attracted a population of seasonal workers who worked on Baron Haussmann’s Parisian construction projects during the winter and returned home in the summer to tend their fields. Itinerant workers together with cheap drink didn’t exactly enhance the reputation of the hillside and the area was dubbed ‘insalubrious’.
In the nineteenth century this hillside was also known for the grand party organised each year for Mardi Gras. On the last day of the Mardi Gras celebrations huge crowds came to witness the ‘Descente de la Courtille’, named after the cheap taverns and restaurants that lined the rue de Belleville.
The Open-Air Theatre
Today, the Parc de Belleville has a small museum, the Maison de l’Air, designed to highlight the importance of fresh air and the problems of pollution. There is also a wooden playground for children and an open-air theatre all set against a background of some 1,200 trees and shrubs and 1,000 m² of lawn.
A feature of the Parc de Belleville that makes full use of the sloping hillside is the Fontaine de Belleville. The name is perhaps a little misleading because it’s really a water cascade rather than a traditional fountain. It falls for 100 metres down the hillside making it the longest water feature in Paris.
I went to the Fontaine de Belleville to explore the different sound textures as the water falls from the top of the park to the bottom. Although I’ve been to the Parc de Belleville many times I’ve never managed to be there when the entire water cascade has been working … and this visit was no exception. Some stretches were inexplicably dry and others were subject to construction work but I was nevertheless able to explore most of the cascade.
Sounds of the Fontaine de Belleville:
At the top of the park the cascade begins its descent in two parallel streams separated by a walkway. Each stream falls over two flights of steps into a pool at the bottom. I began recording the sounds at the foot of the pool where excess water was overflowing into a drain. Presently a little girl appeared and, bedecked in her summer dress, she jumped into the pool with a splash. This was obviously fun because she kept on doing it completely oblivious to my microphones.
Moving on, I passed part of the cascade nestling in the pavé and then I came upon more steps where the cascade again splits into two. I stopped to record the water trickling over the steps on one side.
I found these sounds particularly interesting. First, the sonic texture of the water seemed to be gentler and better defined at this point than it was further up the hill. Second, the speed of the water varied which changed the sonic profile. And third, there was a curious sound in the background which sounded a little like the rumble of thunder. On this particularly hot summer’s day I can confirm that it wasn’t thunder but rather the rumble of the water emerging from the previous section of the cascade from a hole at the back of the top step in what seemed like a procession of large bubbles. As each bubble burst the flow of water increased. I found this absolutely fascinating to listen to.
Moving on again, I became aware that this water cascade does not operate entirely thanks to gravity, it requires assistance. At the end of the pavé circle is a pool where the sounds of water compete with the mechanical sounds of the pumping system.
I recorded sounds from the edge of the pool where the sonic texture of the water changed to more of a hiss competing with the sounds of the pumping system and where the sound of occasional birdsong provided a welcome counterpoint.
I ventured down some steps to stand underneath the pool where I found the sounds of the water falling over the edge neatly relegated the sounds of the pumping system back into second place. The pumping system is required not only to assist the flow of water down the hillside but also to pump it back up to the top again. It follows therefore that the mechanical sounds of the pumping system are as much a part of the sound tapestry of the cascade as the sounds of the water itself.
This graffiti covered section of the cascade did not carry water so I could only imagine what it might sound like if it was in full flow.
Below this point a large section of the cascade was being renovated so it too was out of action, which was rather a shame because it’s the part of the cascade that usually attracts most visitors especially on a hot summer’s day. But all was not lost; this section at the bottom of the cascade leading to rue Julien-Lacroix at least was still open.
I found exploring the Fontaine de Belleville and listening carefully to its sounds a fascinating way to spend a morning.
Listening to the little girl splashing in the pool at the top and the children at the bottom doing much the same I was reminded of a line from the poem by Richard Wilbur, A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra;
“Happy in all that ragged, loose collapse of water, its effortless descent and flatteries of spray…”
MANY PERIODS OF French history interest and fascinate me but perhaps none more so than the period between 1871 and 1914, years characterised by optimism, relative peace, economic prosperity, technological and scientific innovation and a flourishing of the arts – a period that became known as La Belle Époque.
The term La Belle Époque, which means little more than ‘the good old days’, wasn’t coined until much later when the period could be viewed through the prism of history. Although debate surrounds the precise dates used to define the period, 1871 to 1914 seem the most logical since La Belle Époque was sandwiched between two catastrophes, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the subsequent bloody events of the Paris Commune and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Set against these events, it’s easy to see how the intervening years came to be seen as a golden age.
Hanging on the wall of a gallery in the Musée Carnavalet, a museum dedicated to the history of Paris, is a painting that for me at least epitomises La Belle Époque.
Une Soirée au Pré Catelan (1909): Henri Gervex (1852 – 1929): Musée Carnavalet
Painted by Henri Gervex using oils on canvas, Une Soirée au Pré Catalan is 217 cm high and 318 cm wide and it depicts an evening scene at the prestigious Pré Catelan restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne.
In 1905, the architect Guillaume Tronchet was asked by the City of Paris to build Le Pré Catelan, a luxury casino and restaurant. The casino didn’t materialise but the restaurant did. In 1908, the celebrated Parisian restaurateur, Léopold Mourier, owner of the restaurant Foyot, the Café de Paris, the Pavillon d’Armenonville and later Le Fouquet’s, bought Le Pré Catelan and made it one of the most fashionable places in town.
It was Léopold Mourier who commissioned Une Soirée au Pré Catelan, presumably to advertise just how fashionable a place Le Pré Catelan was.
So let’s take a closer look at the picture:
In the foreground we see a group of three people. The lady on the left in orange is Madame Gervex, wife of the painter.
The lady with her back to us is the celebrated American heiress and socialite, Anna Gould, daughter of the financier, Jay Gould. She was married to Paul Ernest Boniface de Castellane, elder son and heir apparent to the Marquis de Castellane. They divorced in 1906 after he had spent about $10 million of her family’s money. The gentleman in the group is Anna Gould’s second husband, Hélie de Talleyrand-Périgord, Duc de Sagan, cousin of her first husband.
Inside the restaurant we see three more celebrated figures.
Seated at a table on the right is a rather portly gentleman looking directly at us. This is the Marquis Jules Félix Philippe Albert de Dion de Wandonne, pioneer of the French automobile industry. The Marquis and the engineers, Georges Bouton and Charles Trépardoux, formed a partnership in 1883, which became the De Dion-Bouton automobile company, once the world’s largest automobile manufacturer.
Seated at a table on the far left is the moustachioed figure of the Brazilian aeronaut, Alberto Santos-Dumont. He designed, built, and flew the first practical airship, demonstrating that routine controlled flight was possible. Following this pioneering work, Santos-Dumont constructed a heavier-than-air aircraft, the 14-bis. On 23 October 1906 he flew this to make the first verified powered heavier-than-air flight, certified by the Aéro Club de France and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
And seated at a table in the centre wearing a black hat and a coquettish countenance is Anne Marie Chassaigne, a former dancer at the Folies Bergère, now known as Liane de Pougy, a noted demimondaine and one of the most famous women in France at the time, constantly sought after by wealthy and titled men. Although we can’t see a companion we can assume that she’s not dining alone.
We can see three people leaving Le Pré Catelan.
One is Arthur Meyer, a French press baron. He was director of Le Gaulois, a notable conservative French daily newspaper eventually taken over by Le Figaro. With him are the Count and Countess Greffulhe who are about to get into their car.
Such was the fashionable clientele in Le Pré Catelan one evening in 1909.
Although now owned by Sodexo, the giant French food services and facilities management corporation (that’s a fancy way of saying they provide food and hire out meeting rooms), Le Pré Catelan under it’s head chef, Frédéric Anton, is still a very fashionable place. With three Michelin stars it’s among the best restaurants in Paris.
Today, from the outside, the restaurant is hidden from view behind a large hedge, presumably to deter the paparazzi but inside it remains pure Belle Époque.
Image: Le Pré Catelan
I’ve spent many hours looking at Une Soirée au Pré Catelan, absorbing the atmosphere of La Belle Époque. I can see the optimism in the faces of the Marquis de Dion and Alberto Santos-Dumont foretelling the day when the motor car and air travel will become common currency.
I can see the pride in the face of the Countess Greffulhe under her feathered hat knowing that she helped the artist James Whistler and actively promoted the artists Auguste Rodin, Gustave Moreau and Gabriel Fauré, who dedicated his Pavane to her. She is no doubt proud too that she was a patron of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and helped Marie Curie to finance the creation of the Institut du Radium and Edouard Branly to pursue his researches into radio transmission.
With my Belle Époque eye I can see that it would be perfectly normal for a rich socialite like Anna Gould, or a high-class courtesan like Liane de Pougy, or a press magnate like Arthur Meyer to be found at Le Pré Catalan. They were after all what we would now call ‘celebrities’ and after the ignominy of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the hiatus of the Paris Commune they were surely entitled to a little joie de vivre.
Maybe so, but La Belle Époque was never the reality of life in Paris or in France. There was a large economic underclass who never experienced much of the Belle Époque’s wonders and entertainments. Poverty remained endemic in Parisian urban slums for decades after the Belle Époque ended and the Dreyfus Affair exposed the dark realities of French anti-Semitism and government corruption. No wonder that some of the artistic elite saw the fin de siècle in a pessimistic light.
Today, a hundred years on from the end of the period we call La Belle Époque, Le Pré Catelan remains a preserve of the rich and famous. If you have to look at the prices on the menu then you shouldn’t be there.
But the gardens of Le Pré Catelan are free to all and it was while walking through the gardens that I had time to think and to contemplate how I could express Une Soirée au Pré Catelan not only in words but also in sound.
A simple water sprinkler gave me the answer … use the natural sounds recorded in the Musée Carnavalet sitting in front of the painting, morph to the natural sounds in and around the Jardin du Pré Catelan and then back again to the painting.
And this is the result.
Une Soirée au Pré Catelan:
Even though I bristle at the excesses of the rich and the plight of the economic underclass, both then and now, and although I’m very aware of the danger of slipping into an overly romanticised view of history, I remain fascinated by La Belle Époque. I’m quite sure I shall return to the Musée Carnavalet to contemplate Une Soirée au Pré Catelan and visit the Jardin du Pré Catelan many more times. I shall though leave my rose-tinted spectacles at home!
STEPPING OUT OF the Métro station La Chapelle in the 18th arrondissement it’s easy to forget that you’re in Paris.
Historically a working class area with a predominantly immigrant population, the Quartier de la Chapelle is lively and extremely cosmopolitan. A large Sri Lankan community together with smaller Turkish, Pakistani and Chinese communities as well as an influx over the last ten years or so of ‘bobos’ (a term coined by the American journalist David Brooks to describe a group of “highly educated folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success”) make La Chapelle a diverse and fascinating neighbourhood.
The Quartier de la Chapelle straddles the array of railway tracks entering both the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est and it is in rue Pajol, a street alongside the railway approaching the Gare de l’Est, that an impressive urban renewal project has been undertaken.
Originally known as rue de la Gare du chemin de fer de Strasbourg, the name rue Pajol was adopted in 1865 in honour of Général d’Empire Pierre Claude Pajol, a distinguished cavalry officer in Napoléon’s Grande Armée.
An interesting fact about rue Pajol is that in 1870, Joseph Meister and Marie-Angélique Sonnefraud married and settled at N° 22. In 1885, their nine-year old son, also Joseph Meister, was bitten by a rabid dog. He became the first person to be inoculated against rabies by Louis Pasteur and the first person to be successfully treated for the infection.
Today, the Hindu Temple de Ganesh de Paris Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam dedicated to Genesha, the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune, stands at the southern end of rue Pajol while at the northern end, adjacent to the railway tracks of the Gare de l’Est, is the impressive Halle Pajol, which opened early in 2014 after three years of construction work.
The Halle Pajol
Funded by the City of Paris and designed by JAP (Jourda Architectes Paris) led by Françoise-Hélène Jourda, the new Halle Pajol emerged from an old SNCF warehouse built in the 1920s but long since abandoned. The City of Paris bought the site in 2004 and earmarked it for redevelopment. The idea was to enhance the district by providing increased public amenities and improving the urban landscape through the creation of green spaces while preserving the architectural heritage of the original building.
What had become an unsightly piece of industrial archaeology has now been transformed into a centre for the community comprising the largest youth hostel in the capital, a library – the Vaclav Havel Library (named after the former President of the Czech Republic), offices, an auditorium, shops, a bakery and cafés.
The Halle Pajol
The Halle Pajol has been designed with sustainability in mind. Along with its elegant wooden frontage it produces its own electricity from 3,500 M2 of photovoltaic panels in the roof.
As well as the Halle Pajol itself, this urban development also includes some 9,000 M2 of green space. Named after the philosopher, economist and revolutionary socialist, Rosa Luxemburg, the Rosa Luxemburg Gardens comprise covered and uncovered gardens stretching alongside the railroad tracks blending in with the surrounding landscape.
As with the Halle Pajol, ecology rhymes with economy. Almost all materials used in the gardens, the crushed tiles, the pavers and the rails, all come from the original building.
Under the Halle Pajol, a 2,500 M² covered garden provides a quiet space; a place to stroll and discover a variety of plant species including birch, cedar, wild flowers and aquatic plants. The garden is irrigated by rainwater collected on the roof.
The covered garden extends outside and includes play areas for children. Outside, the garden is covered with decontaminated soil to a depth of one metre and is planted with local species including pine, ash, mountain ash and flowering cherry.
Alongside the rail tracks, two plots of 100 M2 kitchen gardens have been established and made available to neighbourhood associations. Local residents can go there and grow flowers or vegetables.
In addition, small plots are available for children to create their own gardens.
The sounds outside and inside the Jardin Rosa Luxemburg:
In the north, the garden follows the topography leading pedestrians by successive slopes out onto rue Pajol and rue Riquet.
In the last few weeks a 1,010 M² extension to the Jardin Rosa Luxemburg has been opened with two lawns and a wooden playground suitable for children from 3 to 8 years, which includes a giant wooden elephant, giraffe and crocodile.
Sadly, the award-winning architect and driving force behind the Halle Pajol and the Jardin Rosa Luxembourg, Françoise-Hélène Jourda, passed away on 31st May 2015.
This post is dedicated to her memory.
OPENED IN JANUARY 1825 as la Cimetière des Grandes Carrières (Cemetery of the Large Quarries), Montmartre cemetery was built in the hollow of an abandoned gypsum quarry previously used during the French Revolution as a mass grave. Located near the beginning of Rue Caulaincourt in Place de Clichy its sole entrance was constructed on Avenue Rachel under Rue Caulaincourt.
Avenue Rachel looking towards the entrance to Montmartre cemetery
Halfway between the traffic-strewn Place de Clichy and the fin de siècle Moulin Rouge cabaret, the Avenue Rachel may be a calm and reassuringly quiet street today but in February 1847 this street was lined with hundreds of people gathered to mourn the passing of a French courtesan and mistress to a number of prominent and wealthy men. Charles Dickens was there and reported, “One could have believed that she was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so deep was the general sadness.”
Today, her body lies entombed in the cemetery’s 15th Division. Few flowers adorn the tomb and even the picture once attached to the front of it has gone. It seems that she has been abandoned.
The tomb as it is today
The tomb as it once was: Image courtesy of Paris en Images
Many will know her as Marguerite Gautier, the main character in La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas the younger, or as Violetta Valéry, the leading soprano character in Guiseppi Verdi’s opera La Traviata but few will remember her for who she really was, Alphonsine Plessis, who died from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-three.
Alphonsine Plessis: Portrait by Édouard Viénot
Alphonsine Rose Plessis was born on 15th January 1824 at Nonant-le-Pin in Normandy. She was the daughter of Marin Plessis, an alcoholic who offered her to men from the age of twelve. At the age of fifteen she moved to Paris where she found work in a dress shop and by the time she was sixteen she had become aware that prominent men were willing to give her money in exchange for her company in both private and social settings. One of her suitors, Agénor, son of Duc de Guiche, took care of her education and turned her into a well-mannered lady. By now she preferred to be called Marie and she also added the faux noble “Du” to her name making her Marie Duplessis.
Watercolour of Marie Duplessis at the theatre, by Camille Roqueplan
By the age of twenty, Alphonsine Plessis or Marie Duplessis as she now preferred, had reached the height of the Parisian demi-monde. She was taken up by the elderly and very wealthy Comte de Stackelberg, a former Russian ambassador to Vienna. He kept her in high style, paying her bills, importing her carriage horses from England, and providing boxes in the best theatres in Paris. She was briefly married to one of her lovers, the French nobleman, Count Édouard de Perregaux, as a result of which she became the Comtesse de Perregaux.
Her apartment on the elegant boulevard de Madeleine was filled with 18th-century furniture, paintings, silks and her modest collection of 200 books. Here, many of the brilliant minds of France gathered at her dinner parties, including Honoré de Balzac, Theophile Gautier, and Alexandre Dumas, fils. For almost a year, between September 1844 and August 1845, Alphonsine was the mistress of Alexandre Dumas, fils and then, towards the end of her life, she is believed to have become the mistress of the pianist and composer Franz Liszt, who reportedly wished to live with her.
Alexandre Dumas, fils, was so enamoured of Alphonsine that he based his romantic novel, La Dame aux Camélias, on her. The novel appeared within a year of her death. In the book, Dumas became ‘Armand Duval’ and Alphonsine ‘Marguerite Gautier’. Dumas also adapted his story as a stage play, which in turn inspired Verdi’s opera La Traviata.
Poster for the world premiere of La Traviata
In both Alexandre Dumas’ book and in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera the heroine’s death is described as an unending agony during which she is abandoned by everyone and can only regret what might have been.
In real life, Alphonsine died from what is now called tuberculosis but was then called consumption, a disease that in the nineteenth century accounted for one in four deaths. She was aged twenty-three. Within a few weeks of her death her belongings were auctioned off to pay her enormous debts.
Despite her appalling start in life, Alphonsine aspired to make her way in ‘society’. She became one of the nineteenth century’s grandes horizontales, courtesans who were able to maintain lavish lifestyles and who influenced the dress and tastes of cultured women while inspiring other pretty but poor young women with high ambitions.
She was a popular courtesan with a catalogue of lovers and was not shy about taking advantage of their wealth and position to enhance her own status. She hosted a salon where politicians, writers, and artists gathered for stimulating conversation, she rode in the fashionable Bois de Boulogne, she attended opera performances and had her portrait painted.
But, despite her apparent success, just like Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias and Violetta in La Traviata, Alphonsine died abandoned, regretting what might have been.
I’ve been fascinated by Alphonsine Plessis for a very long time. My first reading of Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias captivated me and Verdi’s La Traviata can reduce me to tears in the blink of an eye. Both of course are fictions inspired by Alphonsine Plessis but both I think capture the essence of this ultimately tragic young woman.
Standing beside Alphonsine’s tomb in Montmartre cemetery the other day I decided to produce something to convey my fascination with Alphonsine Rose Plessis:
Alphonsine Plessis – Montmartre Cemetery:
Placing microphones around the foot of Alphonsine’s tomb I recorded the ambient sounds on a sunny summer afternoon. I then added the sounds of the ‘Fantasia sur La Traviata’ composed by Pierre Agricol Genin and played by two exceptional musicians, Barbara Hill on flute and Laurie Randolph on guitar. For those familiar with La Traviata, this music depicts the life and death of Violetta, and by extension, of Alphonsine Plessis. The subdued ambient sounds provide both a contemporary context and echoes of the past, they are after all the sounds that Alphonsine hears and has heard every day lying in this place.
My especial thanks to Barbara Hill for permission to use this recording of ‘Fantasia sur La Traviata’.
Poster for a performance of the theatrical version of La Dame aux Camélias, with Sarah Bernhardt (1896)