Paris is old. Really old, and its age fascinates me. As an American, I come from a country who is young, a mere baby to its European forefathers. As Turner discussed, American history is defined by space, by the west, by land. Thus, much of our history is absorbed by the very land that inspired it. I have stood on many former battle fields, walked in the tracks of the Oregon trail, and toured endless old west ghost towns. I am not disputing their beauty, or undercutting their importance, I am merely saying that ours is a history that often returns to nature. We know what was there, but grassy fields, eroding wood, and wild flowers disguise what happened many years before.
Yet in Paris, history remains all around us, with each colorful ruler of this city having added his mark. Palaces add their towers to the numerous gothic spires that dot the horizon, and even many of the residential buildings boast construction dates several hundred years past. I am constantly reminded of the history of this city, as so much of it still remains concretely in front of you. (I do want to pause and mention that if it wasn’t for the fact that Parisians had not seemed inclined to burn down or deface a major building every time there was a revolution, their would be even more historical sights to take in.) Some of the history is grand, incarnations of la gloire, “that illusive commodity so precious to French hearts” (Horne), and some is somber. Every day when I pick up the little girls I babysit from school, I am taken back by the plaque on the wall that commemorates the Jewish children removed from that school on a specific day during World War II. Then we stroll from a reminder of the Holocaust to play in the gardens built by the Queen Marie Médicis in the early 1600s.
My current metro book is Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris (which is wonderful, by the way) and I love how it helps me notice how every street sign, metro stop, and building have a story to tell. I can’t imagine how you could live in Paris, or even pass through without being sensible to the rich history that fills every inch of the city. I also don’t know how you can look at an aged city like Paris without feeling humbled. We like to think that we are the modern age, utterly more capable than all those who came before us. But when I look at something like Notre Dame, or the Louvre, I know that we’re wrong. There was a capability, a work ethic that existed before that we can’t match because we lack the inspiration. Yes, I realize that maybe that is idealistic, as much of gothic and monarchical Europe was built on the backs of those who didn’t have much of a choice, but the fact remains that people of power, people of imagination, and certainly people of faith left a history more striking and beautiful than any that our generation will leave. And they left it without making use of any of the luxuries or special equipment that we can’t seem to live without.* But then maybe the buildings and monuments we leave speak volumes about who we are and what we valued. Today our buildings are efficient, modern, and choose functionality over beauty.
Perhaps some of you readers don’t have favorite architectural, but the Art History student in me has always loved vaulted ceilings, and thus I am continually content here in Paris. Here are some of my favorite ceilings, in Sainte-Chapelle and next door in La Conciergerie, which I finally remembered to visit on one of the first Sunday’s of the month, as they are then free.
*Says the girl who whines that she doesn’t get wifi in her Parisian apartment with the great view.