parisians and the seine river -- 4/21/20

Today's selection -- from The Seine by Elaine Sciolino. Parisians and the Seine River:

"The harmony between Paris and its river is no accident. Parisians left nothing to chance. The Seine has served as a mirror for the city's architectural treasures since the twelfth century, with the construction of the Louvre -- first a defensive fortress, then a royal residence, then a museum -- and Notre-Dame Cathedral. Paris became the first city in Europe to use its river to put its imposing architecture on display. Over time, the river was contained and landscaped to show off the structures of art and history that line its banks. The Seine allows Paris to present itself as a stage set, with the river cast as the pièce de résistance.

"In the nineteenth century, the Seine was plagued by raw sewage, the residents' garbage, putrid smells, and thick mudflats that revealed themselves at low tide. Then, in 1853, Baron Georges-Eugene Hauss­mann, who was given the title 'prefect of the Seine,' began to transform Paris, including its riverfront. He and his successors were determined to dominate the river, to channel the waterway into pleasant submis­sion. They lined the Seine with new stone quays to create a single continuous route and built bridges to improve commerce and harmo­nize both sides of the river. They demolished thousands of decrepit houses -- and uprooted thousands of poor Parisians -- to create water views and tree-shaded promenades. They constructed locks and dams outside the city to make the river's flow consistent and dependable. The architects outdid themselves. In 1991, the riverbanks earned the honor of being named a UNESCO World Heritage cultural site. That des­ignation applies only to the picture-perfect central area between the Pont d'Iena, at the Eiffel Tower, to the west, and the Pont de Sully, near Notre-Dame to the east. This is the Seine of romance; the commercial, industrial Seine farther east is left out. ...

"Napoleon intuitively felt the Seine's force, and once he was in power, he altered the river's life, defining it as the national river of France and launching ambitious public works projects to tame and reshape it. He saw it as a romantic inspiration as well as a practical asset and uni­fier of the nation. In a speech in Le Havre in 1802, he proclaimed its commercial importance as the connector of its three great port cities:

'Le Havre, Rouen, and Paris are a single town, and the Seine is Main Street.'

"During Napoleon's decade and a half in power, he oversaw the con­struction of three bridges and nearly ten thousand feet of stone quays in Paris. He eliminated about two hundred islands that had clogged the river between Rouen and Le Havre. He started, then abandoned, a scheme to make the Seine navigable westward from Chatillon-sur­-Seine, the first substantial town from the river's source, to Marcilly-­sur-Seine, where vessels could already travel through Paris and all the way to the sea.

1854 Charles Marville print of the Seine

"In 1805, Napoleon used the Seine as the basis for street addresses, a system that is still in place today. Numbers start at the point closest to the river and increase as they move away -- even numbers on the right, odd numbers on the left. For streets parallel to the river, the numbers get higher as they follow the river's westward course. Whether they are conscious of it or not, Parisians still use the river as their guide. In my long, lazy walks as a newcomer, the Seine was my compass. I loved that I knew where I was going, or not going, thanks to the Seine. If I fol­lowed the river, I would never be lost.

"After his humiliating retreat from Russia, Napoleon won one of his last battles in 1814 at Montereau-Fault-Yonne, where the Yonne River flows into the Seine. A bronze statue of Napoleon on horseback stands at their meeting point, inscribed with a bold pronouncement: 'Do not worry, my friends. The bullet that will kill me has not yet been cast.' His enemies captured Paris several weeks later, and Napoleon was forced to sign the Treaty of Fontainebleau, ending his rule as emperor of France.

"With his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 after a brief return to power, Napoleon retired to Chateau de Malmaison, his last residence in France, near the Seine, before his final exile to the island of Saint Helena, in the South Atlantic. Six years later, as he lay dying, he dictated a codicil to his will stating that he wanted his ashes to be buried near the river. His British captors denied the request, and he was interred more than four thousand miles away, on Saint Helena. The political winds changed, and in 1840, Napoleon's remains were carried to Paris along the Seine in a brightly painted frigate. His body was placed in five successive cof­fins nested and sealed in a red quartzite sarcophagus in the Hotel des Invalides. His words about wanting to rest along the Seine are inscribed at the entrance to his crypt: 'I wish my ashes to rest on the banks of the Seine among the people of France, whom I loved so much.'"



Elaine Sciolino


The Seine


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2020 by Elaine Sciolino


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