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Paris sits in a league shared by only a few other great capital cities, such as London or Moscow. Each was once the capital of an immensely centralized global Empire, around which their empires orbited. The Industrial Revolution supercharged the process of centralization as state wealth poured into the economy, and Malthusian forces squeezed people into the capital city. In Paris and around Europe, urban environments faced unforeseen stress from rapid migration as people fled rural poverty for the factories. However, in France, Paris was the only place worth migrating to.
Ancient cities were often greatly limited in their size. City walls or aristocratic privileges acted as artificial constraints on land usage, and food availability was a natural limit on the population size. There was no urban plan, and streets appeared and disappeared dynamically over time as taxes, fires, or shifting trade winds took their toll. We can imagine tall, thin wooden or half-timbered buildings packed together tightly, maximizing population density. Today, we envision medieval cities with soaring churches dominating grand plazas, but in the more distant past, these great edifices would have been hidden from the public eye, and the plazas filled with yet more homes. In wealthier neighborhoods, aristocratic city palaces with elegant gardens and high stone walls offered the only retreat from the city’s smell and noise.
These dense and ad hoc urban environments worked as long as the city grew slowly. With the rapid urban population growth starting in the 1750s, living conditions became apocalyptic. We can more easily understand the writings of Malthus, Hugo, and Marx when we imagine a medieval city filled over the brim with people. It comes as less of a surprise, then, that Paris was at the center of not one but two great European Revolutions. When Napoleon III looked at his city following the failed Revolution of 1848 (The backdrop for Les Miserables), he understood that the old city had to go.
The Baron’s City
With the embers of 1848 extinguished, the great powers of Europe began urban renewal programs that would extend into the 20th century. Prussia systematically dismantled most of medieval Cologne and started the construction of modern Berlin. Vienna and Brussels would similarly undertake colossal urban renewal programs. But these programs began at various points and continued slowly for decades, peaking in the 1880s. Paris, by contrast, was torn down and rebuilt in a remarkably short time, just 18 years.
Work began in 1852 under the direction of Georges-Eugène Baron Haussmann, appointed by Napoleon III, nephew of the first Napoleon, to build a capital city worthy of France. The speed of renewal shocked everyone, and the scale of the destruction quickly gathered opposition from all quarters of Parisian society. In 1870, Napoleon III relieved Hausmann from his post after criticism of his efforts had reached an apogee. However, his work was mostly complete (Haussmann’s original plan would eventually be completed in a modified form in the 1920s). The new Paris was now a uniform city of great avenues and stone facades, double in size.
Haussmann’s Axe cut down some of French history’s most significant architectural monuments. For example, he initially planned to have the Cathedral of Notre Dame torn down as a superfluous symbol of the ancien regime. Only Victor Hugo’s book, the “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” generated enough public outcry to save the building.
Today’s Paris is our inheritance from the Baron, and this guide will highlight the main sights that remain from ancient Paris. That is, the traces of France’s medieval kings and courts which survive today. The center of this story is the district of Marais, on the right bank of the Seine. Due to a stroke of good fortune, it was spared the systematic demolition seen elsewhere. I will stay within the ancient city walls of Medieval Paris and highlight a few of Haussmann’s achievements. The expansion of Paris following the Franco-Prussian War and World War I generated a new kind of architecture in each case, but the story of French Historicism and Art Nouveau is beyond the scope of this guide. Designed as a walking tour, everything on this list should is grouped together by location rather than chronology.
A Narrative of What Remained
If there is a single narrative to be seen in the architecture of the Ancien Regime, it is the relationship between the symbols of power and classical design. Already evident in the restrained development of the Renaissance style in the 16th century was a preference for simplicity. This preference for clarity of design fits well with the symbols of power from antiquity.
As the French monarchy assumed more power, the association with the Roman Empire of classical antiquity took on greater importance. The translation of Vitruvius into French and the discovery of Pompeii turbocharged interest in the antique. Throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the French state was obsessed with classical design and its related symbols. Somehow a preference for restrained design choices turned into the reconstruction of antique temples. In Paris, we can follow the development of French classicism from the Renaissance to Haussmann’s great project. Along the way, we may also see traces of more ancient traditions.
Guide to Paris: The Marais
The Marais district offers the best opportunities for immersion into the world of pre-Revolutionary Paris. On the map, I have marked some areas where the streets retain their narrow character and, in some cases, retain even their original 16th-century architecture. The following guide will highlight some of the main monuments in this city district.
Place des Vosges (P)
The Vosges are a low mountain range in the Alsace, and the connection to the square comes from the French Revolution when the new name replaced Place Royal. It is one of Europe’s oldest examples of urban planning, as Henri IV ordered its construction in 1605. Built in a uniform late Renaissance style from brick and blue stone, the plaza was inaugurated in 1612 to celebrate the engagement of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria.
In modern Paris, it is the only entirely preserved open environment that predates the Revolution.
Hotel de Sully, 62 rue Saint-Antoine
As the Place des Vosges became increasingly fashionable among the nobility, what is now the Marais district became the place to be.
Erected between 1624 and 1630, the Sully Palace is one of the first and few surviving estates from this period. Maximilien de Béthune, Minister of Finance for the French King, built the palace here, intending to be seen in the esteemed Place des Vosges.
The building represents an early period of the French Baroque and draws heavy influence from the palace and school of Fontainbleau.
Hotel de Angouleme Lamoignon, 24 rue Pavee
This palatial estate has a long history, with the foundations laid first in 1585. However, what we see is primarily the result of later renovations, especially in the early 17th century. The central building represents a later strand of the north Italian Renaissance based on the newly translated works of the ancient roman architect Vitruvius. The facade’s strictly classical design and layout are also found in other French buildings from the period, such as the Grand Gallery of the Louvre. A preference for classicism would define French architecture through to the present day.
The Hotel Carnavalet, the Museum of Paris, is one of the premier examples of the French Renaissance and one of the absolute must-visit sites on this tour.
Construction started in 1544 on behalf of Jacques de Ligneris, President of the French Parliament. Three of France’s greatest Renaissance architects participated at various points in the design and construction, Jean Bullant, Pierre Lescot, and Jean Goujon.
However, it doesn’t end there. François Mansart was an architect of the Baroque period, perhaps the defining French architect of the early Baroque. He was contracted in 1654 to renovate the building in the French Baroque style, and today the exterior primarily reflects his designs. This means a strict focus on symmetry and the use of classical motifs and patterns. We will meet Mansart again at the end.
The palace is open to the public as the Musée Carnavalet, which Baron Haussmann dedicated in 1854. The museum houses exhibit on French and Parisian history.
Hotel de Soubise (P), 60 rue des Francs-Bourgeois
Today the Hotel de Soubise houses the administration of the National Archives. The building, though, represents a strand of the French rococo style. Originally the site of a medieval fortified house, the Princes of Soubise redeveloped it in the 17th century for their own use. What we see today arose in 1709 due to an affair between Anne de Rohan-Chabot and Louis XIV, who financed a complete renovation of the palace. Built in the style of the late Baroque architect Pierre-Alexis Delamair, it sits in the same stylistic group as the Rohan Palace in Strasbourg.
One of the rooms from 1735, called the “oval salon” represents one of the earliest preserved strands of the Rococo style.
The church of Saint Gervais is one of the great medieval churches of Paris. Construction ended in 1530, and the transition to the Renaissance is evident throughout the building. The star vaulting, structurally redundant, and the loss of the triforium are the most visible in this regard. However, the church is most famous for its facade, designed by Salomon de Brosse.
The facade has a strict classical structure, with all three classical orders in the correct position and crowned with a classical pediment. Many famous Parisians noted the beauty of the facade, notably Voltaire, who lamented his inability to get a good view of it. Saint Gervais represents the transition into the almost stereotypical classicism of the French Baroque.
Medieval Houses, rue Francois Miron
The survival of these two half-timbered homes is all the more remarkable, considering that Paris restricted wood-framed housing in the 16th century to prevent fires. Though the buildings are not medieval per se, medieval Paris would have been filled with similar half-timbered homes. There are better places in France for immersion in the medieval city. There is not much more to say about them; enjoy the atmosphere.
Maison d’Ourscamp, 44-46 rue Francois Miron
The site of this house once housed a small order of Cistercian monks. Of their monastery, only the cellar remains. The basement vaults are one of the few traces of Early Medieval Paris. The house we see today was constructed in 1585 and is a typical example of the French Renaissance.
Hotel de Beauvais, 68 rue Francois Miron
This palace was built for the first mistress of King Louis XIV around 1660. Already evident in this building is an increasing departure from the strict classicism that traditionally defines the French Baroque. Though the facade is strictly symmetrical, the non-symmetrical plot of land and the use of a curvilinear courtyard demonstrate a willingness to experiment that would come to define the late Baroque.
Hotel Henault de Cantobre, 82 rue Francois Miron
This house of the late Baroque (around 1700) seems to hint at the Rococo style, which was just in its infancy. The playful decoration of the facade is a notable departure from the other buildings on this list.
Maison de l’abbaye des dames de Maubuisson, 12 rue des Barres
Around the corner from Saint Gervais is a remnant of a monastery that once occupied the site. We see a half-timbered house today, though only the stone-lower floors date to the middle ages.
Maison de Compagnons du Devoir, 82 ru de l’Hotel de Ville
Today, coated in plaster, the guild house of the mason’s union dates from the 14th century.
Rising out of the Rue de Rivoli is a medieval tower, a curious relic of a nearly forgotten church. The late gothic tower rises out of nothing and fills the space with a curiosity as to what the whole church might have once looked like. Very little evidence survives of the older church, which was the starting point for pilgrims on the Way of Saint James. We can glean some similarities from the tower with the late gothic lowland churches and bell towers.
Hotel de Sens, 7 Rue des Nonnains d’Hyères
The architect Tristian de Salazar constructed the current building between 1475 and 1519 for the archbishops of Sens, who were responsible for Paris. It represents the stately architecture of the late Gothic period, as France emerged victorious in the Hundred Years’ war. It originally included a much larger walled compound and gardens, of which a smaller portion remains. The building slowly decayed over the centuries, and by the middle of the 20th century, a neighborhood of low-quality tenement homes fully encased the medieval structure. These were torn down from the 1930s to the 1980s, and the building itself only barely survived.
Rest of Paris
Better guides exist to explain the long and colorful history of Notre Dam, but it goes without saying that the church is one of the places on earth worth visiting.
To summarize, the French court ordered a new cathedral representing the monarchy’s power and splendor. The Gothic style, up to this point, was primarily a French project, and Notre Dame represents the culmination of the early Gothic. Notre Dame affirmatively defined a single royal style, combining different strands of thought in the development of the Gothic. It was truly representative of the French court, and the style was replicated throughout the French kingdom. Driving this home was the iconographic scenes relating to the French kings along the facade and throughout the interior.
It’s also notable for its size and conservative style. Construction started in 1163 but carried on for over a century. By the time the interior was completed around 1260, the hallmarks of Notre Dame’s style would have been considered outdated. Yet, as a powerful symbol of the monarchy, a conservative Gothic would dominate French church construction until the end of the Hundred Years’ War.
Sainte Chapelle (P)
Another remarkable example of the High French Gothic is the chapel of Sainte-Chapelle. Various historical luminaries considered it the most beautiful building ever constructed by man. Rather than a church or building, we must consider Sainte-Chapelle as simply an oversized reliquary. The Kings of France, after all, built it as a home for the sacred Crown of Thrones.
Instead of a case of gold and gems sparkling in candlelit darkness, light from the sun filters through the most extensive collection of medieval stained glass in Europe. It fills the space with all multitudes of colors, the stories of the glass pull your eyes upwards and forwards, and it is hard to imagine a more hallowed space.
Similar to the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, it represents the aspirations of the Kings of France towards imperial glory.
Palais de Justice and the Conciergerie (P)
The Palais de Justice is a remarkable example of the architecture of the Restoration in the decades after Napoleon’s defeat. King Louis Philippe ordered a massive renovation of the ancient palace on the island, and construction started in 1835 and continued under different architects until 1879. Today we are presented with an eclectic collection of historicist styles favoring new interpretations of the Baroque.
More interesting are the fragments of the Conciergerie or the medieval Capetian palace on the island. It is easy to recognize from the outside, with its twin towers and overall castle-esque appearance. The interior is also worth visiting, where two rooms, the gothic vaults of the mighty hall of the guards, and the old kitchens are preserved.
Hotel de Cluny (P) – Musée national du Moyen Âge
The best-preserved example of civic architecture from the Middle Ages and the best-preserved remnant of roman Paris is the Hotel de Cluny. In 1340, the Monks of Cluny (an order whose primary residence is in Burgundy) acquired the ruins of the roman baths. They constructed a townhouse and a college in and around the ruins for their monks and illustrious visitors. Around 1500, the Bishop of Clermont rebuilt the townhouse, becoming a more general residence for high-ranking Clergy in the city.
By virtue of the almost fully intact roman bath house, the hotel remained unchanged through the centuries and became one of the first museums in Paris. Today it houses one of the most expansive collections of medieval artifacts in Europe, including the legendary tapestry cycle called the “Lady and Unicorn.”
Louis IX of France founded the College of Sorbonne in 1257, extending the University of Paris, which predated Sorbonne by a century. The college’s focus shifted to theology and played an essential role during the French counter-reformation. Cardinal de Richelieu, the grey eminence behind Louis XIV and alumnus of Sorbonne, is responsible for the grand baroque complex we see today. Construction started in 1622 and today represents the classical French baroque.
Several events conspired to bring about the Pantheon, one of Paris’s most remarkable architectural monuments. First was the discovery of Pompeii, which reignited interest in the classical world. French architects of the Baroque period were already well-trained in classicism, and this style emerged as a court favorite. The second was a deathly ill King Louis XV, who promised to rebuild a dilapidated gothic church on the site if he got better. Well, he did, and construction started in 1744. Similar church designs can be seen in St. Pauls’s in London and Fredrick’s Church in Copenhagen.
The Revolution turbocharged the association with the classical world, and the unfinished church was taken over and remodeled in the image of the Pantheon in Rome. Instead of a church, the Revolutionary governments used the model of the National Sepulcher in Lisbon. It is a monument to the heroes of the republic, though most of the interior decoration dates to later periods.
The royal regent Marie de Medici, mother of King Louis XIII, ordered a new palace to be constructed. As a Medici, she had grown up in the Priti Palace in Florence and thus requested that the new palace remind her of her childhood home. Constructed started in 1615 and lasted well into the 17th century. It is one of the earliest examples of the French Baroque.
Though it may have once been lavishly furnished, the palace spent much of its history used only in part. Louise Élisabeth, Duchess of Berry, inherited the palace a century later in 1715 and turned it into a den for hedonistic pleasure. By 1750, the palace was empty again and became one of Paris’s first museums. It was repurposed into the senate during the Revolution and later expanded to house a larger auditorium. Today it remains the seat of the French senate and is generally not open to the public.
Paris would not be complete without a grandiose symbol of the Counter-Reformation. The Baroque style throughout Europe is fundamentally tied to the goals of the Counter-Reformation. After the council of Trent in 1563, the Renaissance style of Catholic churches increasingly adopted the characteristics we know as the Baroque. Almost a century later, in 1637, the Wars of Religion still raged across Europe. Queen Anne of Austria, Wife of King Louis XIII, started the construction of Val de Grace.
Anne ordered the abbey constructed with no expense spared and contracted some of the most prominent architects of her time, including François Mansart. Based on earlier Renaissance and Mannerist models, such as St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, the dome and the facade of Val de Grace emphasize the clean lines and simple structures of French classicism.
For a viewer at the time of its construction, the church’s most striking feature would have been its scale. It was the largest dome constructed in France at the time and inspired a dome-building frenzy. This scale also extends to the interior, where we find France’s first significant ceiling fresco. Completed by Pierre Mignard in 1666, it was the most ambitious fresco project of the time.
The most significant monument to the Early and High Middle Ages in Paris is the church of Saint Germain des Pres. In contrast to Notre Dame, which was built as a symbol of the emergent Gothic style, the monks of Saint Germain built their church in the late Romanesque style, starting in the late 12th century. In contrast to the Gothic, which relied on new building techniques to enlarge windows and increase the building’s height, the late Romanesque of Saint Germain utilizes gothic design elements without changing the form of the building.
We can see transitional design elements used in the clustered stone capitals at the top of the arcades and portals. The 11th and 13th centuries saw a renewed interest in the natural world, and the abstract designs of the Early Middle Ages slowly transformed into realistic carvings. Distinctly un-romanesque is the choir, which was started later in the 13th century, and is more similar to designs seen in Artois and Champagne and seems to anticipate the arrival of the Gothic. Instead of a few windows, usually three, in an otherwise dark semicircular enclosure, we have a brilliant glass-and-light-filled chamber with three divisions.
What we see is essentially a Romanesque template filled in with Gothic details. Whether this counts as Romanesque or Gothic is a matter of debate, and similar churches, such as the cathedrals in Laon or Magdeburg, face a similar discussion.
The Louvre is a complex building to describe in a few words. The origins of the building we see today arise out of the palace complex started in 1528 by King Francis I. He ordered the palace built in the French Renaissance style, which is similar in theme to the palaces of Chambord and Fontainbleau. Of this original palace, only the Lescot wing remains today. Evident already by this period is a preference for strict adherence to the classical orders and simple, classical reliefs, which would reach its logical conclusion in later expansions of the Louvre.
In 1564, Catherine de Medici ordered the construction of the Tuileries palace nearby, in effect serving to expand the Louvre palace. In the following decades, the expansion would focus on combining the two courts with a gallery, though the Tuileries Palace served as the main royal seat in Paris. Of Tuscan origin, Catherine wanted a place to remind her of the Gardens in Florence, and so wanted the Tuileries palace and gardens built in the style of Italian mannerism. The Tuileries palace was destroyed by arson during the 1871 Paris Commune uprising, and only parts of the garden remain today.
King Louis XIII began a major restoration and expansion project in 1624, of which today, the main sight is the Pavillon de l’Horloge. Built in a more traditional baroque style, it extends the Renaissance themes from the Lescot wing but does not embrace the strict classicism it espouses. Renovations during the 19th century heavily altered the appearance of this part of the Louvre.
In terms of architectural history, the essential part of the palace is the Louvre Colonnade. Designed ironically enough by a committee comprised of Louis Le Vau, Charles Le Brun, and Claude Perrault, King Louis XIV selected their design in a competition. Construction started in 1667, and the design followed the strict rules of the Roman author Vitruvius. Though the building was a product of the Baroque period, the Baroque style is entirely absent from the design. It became immensely influential in French architecture as a nearly pure classicist construction. This influence can be seen in the contemporary Palace of Versailles and defined the stylistic preferences of French architects through the 19th century.
The French revolutionary government turned the Louvre into a museum in 1793, filled with the artifacts of the French court. During his campaigns, Napoleon greatly expanded the museum with items from all around Europe. Today it has perhaps the richest collection of art anywhere in the world.
Originally the city palace of the legendary Cardinal Richelieu, it was sold to Louis XIV, who used it as his residence when the Tuileries and Louvres did not suit him. It was passed on to the Duke of Orléans and then others. The palace we see today is a mixture of different styles, dominated by the neoclassicism of Napoleon III. It serves France as the seat for the Council of State and the Constitutional Council.
Le Grand Véfour (P)
One interesting excursion near the Palais Royal is the Restaurant Le Grand Véfour. This restaurant opened in 1784 under Antoine Aubertot, as the Café de Chartre. It was the first major modern restaurant to open in Paris. Though the contemporary institution bears no relation to the original one, the building retains its early 19th-century decor.
La Madeleine (P)
The exterior of this church is the closest we get to a replica of an antique temple. Napoleon I ordered this enlarged copy of the Maison Carrée from Nîmes as a monument to the dead soldiers from his campaigns. The building represents the ultimate journey of French Classicism from imitating Rome’s symbols of imperial power to outright derivative fabrications of imaginary Roman temples. While undoubtedly attractive as a piece of art from Napoleonic France, the interior was not finished until the 1850s, and it fails to meet the standards of style set by other works of the period. This is one of the buildings in Paris best enjoyed from the outside.
Palais Garnier (P)
The greatest achievement of Haussmann’s grand renovation of Paris is the opera house, also known as the Palais Garnier. It is quite literally the definition of the Napoleon III Style of architecture, as the architect Charles Garnier himself defined it as such. The style of Napoleon III can be described as the extreme opposite of minimalism. Any empty space is subversive to the purpose of the building and, therefore, should be filled with ornamentation that helps convey the meaning of the room or space. In terms of stylistic reference, it is an eclectic style of historicism combining French classicism with elements from the Baroque and Renaissance.
The opera house is truly spectacular, and even if you consider such ostentatious ornamentation superfluous, the scale of the endeavor is unimaginable. Nowhere else can you quickly immerse yourself in the opulent splendor of the French Gilded Age. In contrast to other more gaudy monuments to the Belle Epoche, this one turns the excessive glitter bomb of gold and stucco into a cohesive piece of art.
Place Vendome and Place Dauphin
Place Dauphin near the Palace of Justice and Place Vendome near the Louvre are two old city squares representing the French monarchy’s efforts at urban planning. In either case, very little of the original urban planning survives, but the overall public spaces have been preserved. The Place Dauphin is slightly better in this regard, as at least the two buildings facing the bridge have survived in their entirety.
Les Invalides (P)
King Louis XIV ordered this complex of military buildings in 1670 as a hospital complex for the wounded soldiers of his campaigns. The hospital’s facade is a monumental work of the more traditional baroque style, eschewing the strict classicism of the Louvres or Versailles. In stark contrast is the great dome of the church, which follows more clearly in the tradition of French Classicism. Several famous architects contributed to its construction, including Jules Hardouin-Mansart, a distant cousin of François Mansart. Its massive scale made it an ideal location for Napoleon I’s mausoleum. Besides Napoleon’s tomb, it underwent a few changes, and the church remains one of the leading architectural symbols of the ancien regime.
The architecture aside, today, it also houses the museum for the French military and covers its entire history from antiquity to the present day. It has a vast collection, including rare medieval armor and displays of weapons from every major European conflict. It is worth a visit.
Leaving Inner Paris
The basilica of Saint-Denis is another building whose history could fill volumes. For us, though, the building is a pilgrimage site for the history of the Gothic style. Here, the inspired Abbot of Saint-Denis, Suger, began the Gothic style as a cohesive concept rather than just incremental improvements in construction technology. Contemporary churches simply adapted incremental improvements to the Romanesque style, such as replacing round arches with pointed ones.
Suger sought a style that could represent the nascent French Kingdom. He was obsessed with using light and utilized innovations in engineering to remove walls and enlarge windows to maximize the amount of light filling the interior space. Starting in 1135, he renovated the Carolingian church. His choir of St. Denis survives today and represents the earliest moment of the Gothic style.
Vincennes Castle (P)
Largely built between 1361 and 1369, the castle of Vincennes is the largest and best-preserved royal residence in Europe. The castle’s Donjon, or keep, is unique for possessing intact interiors. It is an absolutely mandatory visit for people interested in medieval Europe and provides a unique perspective on the courtly life of the Middle Ages.
The Castle compound also possesses one of the best-preserved copies of the Sainte-Chapelle. These were constructed in the 13th century all across France as symbols of royal authority.
- Ayers, Andrew. The Architecture of Paris: An Architectural Guide. Axel Menges, 2004.
- Roubien, Denis. Paris Disclosed. Independently published, 2020
- Saw, M. Astella. Paris. DK Publishing, 2021.