One of my favourite Impressionist paintings contains a snapshot in time of the Avenue de l’Opéra, one of the new boulevards created by Napoleon III in the mid-19th century. While pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles come and go along the wide street, the elegance and space of what was, in effect, a new cityscape, has the charm and character which is so definably Paris. I never tire of looking at this masterpiece by Camille Pissarro, one of several he made of the Avenue.
But our story begins a little earlier than this work, which was painted close to the turn of the 19th century. When Napoleon I’s nephew got himself elected as France’s first president in 1848, and then declared ‘Emperor of the French’ four years later, he set out to leave his mark upon the country and Paris in particular.
He’d had a long time to think about how to do this, having been exiled from France for many years (another story altogether). Back home and in power, he worked swiftly to modernise the economy, expand France’s overseas empire, engage in a few wars (as one would) and, most importantly for our story, commissioned a grand reconstruction of Paris. For this he engaged a Parisian-born official with a career in public administration, GeorgesEugène Haussmann.
MAN WITH A PLAN
In 1850, Napoleon started an ambitious project to connect the Louvre to the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, by extending the Rue de Rivoli and creating a new park – the Bois de Boulogne – on the outskirts of the city. Under the then incumbent Prefect of the Seine, progress was slow to say the least, so various provincial prefects were interviewed for the job. The new prefect would be tasked with the mission of making the city healthier, less congested and grander. Haussmann’s approach to problems shone through, he got the job and the rest, as they say, is history.
At this point, Paris was still a medieval city with winding side streets, little or no sanitation, limited water supply and problematic traffic circulation. Inspired by his travels and time spent in London, Napoleon installed a map of Paris in his office and together the two men marked with coloured lines where they wanted to install the boulevards of Paris. Napoleon thought this would be a grand mechanism for the deployment of his troops. However, they never served as such. Instead they created a city of light, charm and character which never fails to inspire.
Although much of the existing city was medieval, Haussmann and his workers tore down hundreds of old buildings in the “gutting of old Paris” as he described it in his memoir. Some 80km of new avenues were created, connecting central points of the city. By 1859 he had completed the grande croisée, a major crossroads in the centre of the city. He continued to build boulevard after boulevard all over Paris, and by 1870 one in five Parisian workers worked in the building trade.
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