Friday, June 14, 2019

Mythologizing Paris: The Archaeology of Modernity

From Cabinet Magazine:
One of a series of nineteenth-century annual maps depicting the projected road construction of Paris. This 1859 map 
includes the cut for the new rue Monge (indicated by one of the brown lines in the lower right), which would uncover 
the arènes de Lutèce.
The life of Théodore Vacquer was lived under the star of anonymity, isolation, and failure. A failed engineer, a failed architect, a highly ambitious author who wrote copiously, if largely indecipherably, yet published next to nothing, Vacquer was an individual whose rebarbative character was such that even his friends referred to him as “a wild boar” and “a permanently rolled-up hedgehog.” His desperately unglamorous portrait reveals an oblique gaze half hidden from view by his spectacles, the demeanor of a funeral parlor director, and the rough, embarrassed hands of a workman, not an intellectual.

This exemplar of personal failure was an archaeologist employed by the City of Paris who spent all his life excavating, viewing, and reflecting upon the distant past of his native city. Born in 1824, he attended all (and directed many) substantial excavations in Paris between the 1840s and his death in 1899. His life and work thus overlapped with the period in which Paris was refashioned and mythologized as the city of modernity under the inspiration of Baron Haussmann, Emperor Napoleon III’s Prefect of the Seine from 1853 to 1870. In essence, Vacquer was Haussmann’s doppelgänger. For in order to refashion Paris as the city of modernity, Haussmann and his ilk had first to dig down beneath millennia of construction into soil at the historic heart of the city, uncovering a past almost totally unknown and largely unsuspected. Haussmann operated through the erasure of topological features and the material culture and vestigial traces of a discardable past: Vacquer made of those very processes of destruction and reconstruction the substance of his life and work.

As Haussmann created a new city out of the filthy, disease-ridden and crime-infested hellhole described in the novels of Balzac and Eugène Sue, Vacquer located a lost one, namely, Roman Lutetia. The Roman baths currently visible on the Boulevard Saint-Michel had long been known (though in fact they were invariably mistaken for the palace of the fourth-century AD Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate, who had briefly resided in the city). Through extensive observation and excavation, Vacquer also identified for the first time the late Antique/early medieval rampart on the Île de la Cité, the Roman street plan, a theater on the Rue Racine, a forum and associated buildings on the Rue Soufflot, cemeteries out beyond the Luxembourg gardens and in the south-east of the city close to the Gobelins, and, nearby, an amphitheatre (the arènes de Lutèce). All this was literally terra incognita for more than a millennium-worth of Parisians.

One might have anticipated these discoveries chiming in well with the imperial, classical idiom that had long been a tradition in Parisian urban planning. Indeed, Haussmann’s reconstruction of the city—with its quasi-rectilinear street grid, its wide, triumphalist roadways, and its visually aligned power-monuments—drew heavily on this idiom. Yet Haussmann, like virtually all municipal and national officials, largely ignored the Roman remains that Vacquer uncovered. This refusal to respond positively to such an astonishing range of Lutetian finds may seem surprising. Yet if Parisians bathed in an aura of Romanitas, they preferred their city to be compared to Rome itself, not the provincial hick town that Lutetia had been. Vacquer’s ruins and finds were judged simply not grand enough to be worthy of preservation. They contributed nothing to the myth of modernity that Haussmann was busy constructing. In any case, the practice of conservation of heritage (patrimoine) was still relatively in its infancy at this time, and focused less on urban neighborhood sites than on major monuments. And these had been in short supply in Roman Lutetia. If there was grandeur to be found in Paris’s ancient past, it lay in the city’s medieval remains, not its Roman ruins. (Exactly the opposite was true of Rome itself, whose archaeology in the same period consisted in the callous discarding of the medieval strata so as to reach as the classical substructures that lay beneath.)....

Between 1500 and 1900 Paris went from 8th largest city in the world with a population of around 185,000 to 3rd largest in the world with a population of, depending on how far out from the city center you measured, 2.7 to 3.6 million.
Back in the day those big cities were aromatic, see the first link below, if interested.

"When Paris’s Streets Were Paved With Filth"
Faux Paris
"What Makes Paris Look Like Paris?"