paris's incomparable pont neuf -- 6/09/20

Today's selection -- from The Seine by Elaine Sciolino. Paris' incomparable Pont Neuf:

"It took a bridge to make a city. Henri IV made it happen. The year was 1598. The king had ended the Wars of Religion by signing the Edict of Nantes, a visionary act of reconciliation that gave France's one million Protestants religious and civil freedoms. Twelve years later, Henri would be assassinated. But in that moment of peace, France was united, and Paris was his. He celebrated by fulfilling a dream of his brother-in-law and predecessor Henri III: to build the first bridge span­ning the Seine across the Île de la Cité, uniting the three disconnected parts of Paris -- the Left Bank, the Right Bank, and the island between them that defined the heart of the city. In constructing it, Henri IV cre­ated an intimate, permanent bond between Parisians and the lifeblood of their city, the Seine.

"A triumph of design, architecture, and technology, the Pont Neuf was so revolutionary that Henri IV inaugurated it in 1607 by crossing it on a white stallion. Today, it is still the oldest bridge in Paris, but it was so modern at the time that it was given the name 'New Bridge.' At 72 feet wide, it was built broader than any of the city's streets. At 761 feet long, it was and still is the longest of the Paris's 35 main bridges (there are 37 in all, if you count the ring road around Paris that crosses the river upstream at Charenton/Bercy and downstream at Saint-Cloud/Issy).

"Before the Pont Neuf, Paris bridges were built at least partially in wood, which made them weak and vulnerable to destruction by fire and floods. Since the Middle Ages, bridges were cluttered and weighed down by houses whose owners paid for the right to build there. For example, the Pont Notre-Dame, built before the Pont Neuf, was lined with houses on both sides, which made it too narrow and crowded for traffic.

"The Pont Neuf was the first bridge in the city to be built entirely of stone, making it much sturdier than the other four bridges in Paris. Instead of houses, there were paved, raised walkways -- the first on a Paris bridge -- and the first sidewalks in Paris. The most renowned Renaissance architects took charge of embellishing it, engraving twelve low structural arches with nearly four hundred stone masks. The mas­carons were relics of a traditional method of warding off evil spirits; they depicted barbers, dentists, pickpockets, loiterers, and more.

"Henri IV's victory project would turn out to alter the architecture of the city in ways he couldn't have predicted. As part of the bridge­building project, two small islands, Île du Patriarche and Île aux Juifs, were joined to the Île de la Cité, enlarging its surface and making room for the Seine to flow more easily. Even today, the Pont Neuf has the feel of a bridge that holds the city together.

"The Pont Neuf became the most identifiable symbol of Paris, a sort of Eiffel Tower of the Ancien Régime. It also became a social and cul­tural hub for tout Paris. People came just to see the river from a bridge that finally offered unobstructed views. The vista was so exceptional that the seventeenth-century travel writer Francois Bernier proclaimed it 'the most beautiful and magnificent view in the entire world.' On the bridge you could have a tooth pulled, take a fencing lesson, watch a bullfight, enlist in the army. Vendors loudly hawked their goods -- hot coffee, chilled oysters, Italian oranges, and live poultry; skin whiten­ers, wooden legs, glass eyes, false teeth. They competed for space and attention with acrobats, pickpockets, prostitutes, umbrella renters, sell­ers of secondhand books, and charlatans who hoodwinked passersby with promises of miracle cures.

"A dose of bottled water from the Seine would let you live to be 150, they claimed; why not buy some? A seventeenth-century poet who went by the name Sieur Berthod poked fun at their pitch: 'I have, Monsieur, a very good remedy .... My balm is a cure for stomach indigestion, for eye pain. My elixir is marvelous. It would bleach the devil's skin.'

The Greek artist Nonda(1922-2005) working on his "Trojan Horse"
under the arches of the Paris Pont Neuf bridge in 1963. Copyright @ The Nonda Estate

"Like the Eiffel Tower today, the Pont Neuf became part of the urban iconography, featured in paintings, engravings, drawings, and prints. Some of the first daguerreotypes in the late 1830s used the Pont Neuf as a subject. One image, portraying the bridge's statue of Henri IV on horseback, inadvertently captured a workman resting near its base, making it one of the first photographic images (perhaps the very first) of a living human being.

"The Pont Neuf was restored and reconstructed several times. A bronze statue of Henri IV from 1618 (the first equestrian statue erected in Paris) was melted down to make cannons during the French Revo­lution, only to be reborn in 1818, when Louis XVIII built a copy of the original. The mascarons have also been reconstructed since the 1850s, bearing silent witness to Henri's expansive vision.

"The structure itself has always been a magnet for celebratory art installations. When Louis XIV married the infanta Maria Theresa of Spain in 1660, for example, they arrived at the Pont Neuf to discover a one-hundred-foot structure built in their honor on the Place Dauphine just east of the bridge. Atop an obelisk was a tapestry of a chariot carrying the king and queen pulled by a rooster (a symbol of France) and a lion (a symbol of Spain), and above that a statue of Atlas carrying a globe decorated with fleurs-de-lis.

"More than three centuries later, in 1963, Greek painter and sculptor Nonda built, exhibited, and lived on the Pont Neuf in a Trojan horse he created from steel, wood, and newspaper. In 1985, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude covered the bridge in 450,000 square feet of silky woven polyamide fabric the color of golden sandstone. Nine years later, the Japanese fashion designer Kenzo Takada decorated the bridge with thirty-two thousand pots of pink, red, and yellow begonias.

"The bridge looks much as it did when Henri first rode his horse across it."



Elaine Sciolino


The Seine: The River that Made Paris


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2020 by Elaine Sciolino


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