PARIS FROM 1500 - 1789
The city becomes a European capital
The Italian Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and the discovery of the routes to India and America put an end to the Middle Ages as new perspectives opened for Europeans.
The Renaissance and the Reformation were felt very strongly in Paris. The French Renaissance was born partly in Paris, and the Reformation forced Parisians to choose a camp according to their conscience.
Horizons continued to widen in the course of three centuries because all the continents established links: from the middle of the 17th century the presence of the court in Paris permitted the birth of an elite culture which was echoed in all the European courts.
This period was troubled, like the Middle Ages, but Paris had acquired such an importance that the fortunes of the king and of the kingdom were frequently played out in the city. The power was more and more concentrated there, which also caused the French kings to mistrust the City.
The Renaissance in Paris in the 16th century:
Expeditions by the kings of France in Italy were the occasion for them to discover the Italian Renaissance, which was a cultural movement characterised by a renewal of interest in antiquity. The Roman and Greek taste for architecture, philosophy and above all their mythology were rediscovered. At the same time, a new benevolence towards mankind imposed itself, inspired by the ancients, called Humanism.
King Francois 1st (king from 1515-1547), brought from Italy the pattern for the ideal city. He began to pave the quays of the Seine and he brought about the first attempts at aligning the streets. But above all he gave impetus to a new intellectual life which established itself on the left bank. The Sorbonne district after 1550 became the largest centre of education and of publishing in Europe. Calvin and Erasmus, for example, studied in the austere college of Montaigu.
But it was after the death of Francois 1st that the Renaissance style appeared in Paris: many Italian artists brought new inspiration to building, but little remains of the work accomplished. The tower St Jacques was built and churches such as St Germain l`Auxerrois, the Hôtel de Ville, the Pont Neuf - the first stone bridge across the Seine - and the rue Montorgueil.
During the construction of the Tuileries, and above all the Louvre (the old fortress was razed by Francois 1st), sculpters such as Jean Goujon and Pierre Lescot created the French Renaissance style. The sculptures of Jean Goujon on the wing of the Louvre separating the two courtyards foreshadowed the French classic style of the 17th century, a sober, measured style. Pierre Lescot also designed the Pont Neuf which was opened in 1607 by King Henry IV.
The religious wars in Paris in the 16th century:
The entire 16th century was marked by the conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Paris, seat of power, remained catholic but the major stages in the conflict were played out there. In 1572 the St Bartholomew massacre was the peak of the horror, marking long afterwards the minds of the people. The conflict came to an end when the pretender Henry of Navarre, a Protestant, agreed to convert to catholicism. He became King Henry IV and issued the Edict of Nantes (1598), an act of tolerance, which appeased the conflict (until 1685). It was than that he uttered his famous “Paris vaut bien une messe.” (Paris is well worth a Mass).
Paris in the 17th and 18th centuries:
The 17th century marked a turning point in the urbanisation of Paris. When Henry IV entered Paris, a fever of construction took hold of the city. It was not until the 19th century that a similar growth was resumed.
For the first time, the plans took account of the totality of the city. Sufficient bridges were constructed. But above all, what was constructed was of the highest quality: the Louvre, the Tuileries, the Botanical Gardens, the Luxembourg and the future Palais Royal, the district of the Marais, with its numerous grand private houses, the Place Royale (the Place des Vosges of today) and the Place Dauphine were created, and also hospitals (Saint Louis, the Val de Grace), streets and churches.
During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), the rate of construction slowed. Louis XIV wanted to make Paris into a new Rome. It was to remain just a project. His relations with Paris were always ambiguous. From 1671 to his death in 1715, during the last 44 years of his reign, he came to Paris only 28 times - often, just to attend one Mass. Louis XIV always remembered the night in his childhood, when he was forced to flee the capital then gripped with La Fronde (a revolt of the members of parliament and nobles who took advantage of his minority). He built his chateau at Versailles just outside Paris. Versailles thus became the seat of power, even though those who went to the court still often lived in Paris.
Louis XIV did, however, raze the walls of Paris. He finished the Louvre, where he stayed rarely, and had built les Invalides and the Institute. The architects of Versailles also built in Paris: Jules Hardouin Mansart completed the Place Vendôme (1698), Le Vau built large houses in the Marais, the whole realised in the classical style – the opposite of the baroque style then prevalent throughout the rest of Europe.
In the eighteenth century Paris enjoyed an ever-increasing importance in the kingdom: Paris was the centre of a new network of roads, allowing access to the whole country. Louis XV sent royal officers as stewards to investigate and to represent him everywhere. At the same time, the parliament of Paris – which was the most powerful parliament in the country – attempted to limit the power of the King. The quarrel between king and parliament occupied the whole century.
In the city, Louis XV created the Place Louis XV (which eventually became the Place de la Concorde) in 1749, and the Champs de Mars with the military academy between 1752 and 1770. After 1730, the fashion for the district of the Marais diminished in favour of the Faubourgs St Germain and St Honoré, where large private construction projects took place. At this time, Paris extended towards the West, the length of the Seine. In 1724, the route which now corresponds with the Champs-Elysées, was traced in a zone sparsely inhabited at that time. In 1772 it was extended up to the present-day Pont de Neuilly. The future Avenue de la Grande Armée and the principal axis routes of Paris were created.
Having followed the Italian fashion, principally in the 16th century, Paris played a central role in the culture of Europe. The life of the court of Versailles was copied throughout Europe, starting with Louis XIV. For example, the architecture of Versailles inspired the plan for the canals of St Petersburg, the plan of Washington and the châteaux of numerous German princes.
Parisian fashion, taste and style were diffused throughout the 18th century. The international language was French. In literary salons discussion was free and the latest important books were read. Philosophers such as Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet became the stars there. They were often invited to other European courts. They freely criticised and examined minutely all the problems of society. The monarchy was not spared. Diderot published the Encyclopedie – the first of its kind. The work was condemned for its attack on the Church. They defended the new values in vogue such as merit or usefulness and condemned that which was obtained by divine right or by nepotism.
The French revolution found part of its origin in this movement baptised “Les Lumieres” (the Lights).
Text: PJ - Director History Department of www.parisrama.com
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