Lutetia, Vulgari Nomine Paris, Urbs Galliae Maxima
To lift your mood on the Ides of April, come take the Inaugural Ricochet Pariscope walk with me tomorrow at 7:00 pm local time. That’s 1:00 pm in Charleston, noon in Dallas, and 10:00 am in Oregon.
I’m not going to plan the route overmuch, because the whole point is that you can see something interesting and say, “Hey, what’s that thing, down there on the right?” But my general plan is to begin at the beginning of time.
Lutetia was the largest Roman city in Europe. It was founded on the island in the middle of the city, and it expanded to the Left Bank of the Seine: The neighborhood is still called the Latin Quarter. We’ll start our walk there, so the first thing you’ll see is large groups of Chinese tourists, souvenir shops, and the French military, looking stressed and trying to make sure nothing bad happens to the tourists.
Keep an eye out for the Roman architecture. In the strictest sense, you can’t see it: When the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, so did Lutetia, and by the beginning of the Middle Ages almost everything they’d built was gone. But we know what used to be there. In the mid-19th century, Baron Haussmann renovated Paris. Had he not done so, Lutetia would still be hermetically preserved below the city’s medieval layer, and we’d know almost nothing about it.
It’s tempting to think that the mistakes made by Paris’s postwar architects were owed, among other things, to their obscene arrogance and their contempt for history. But Haussmann, too, was obviously nothing if not arrogant and indifferent to history: He took a glance at the ancient Roman forum, the aqueducts, the public theater, the basilica — all of which had been buried for more than a thousand years — and buried it again, this time for good. “Unbelievable as it may be,” writes Thirza Vallois, “most of the original Roman amphitheater that was unearthed in 1867-68, during Haussmann’s renovation, was demolished in 1870 to make room for a city bus depot.”
But Paris was even more beautiful after Haussmann’s renovation than it had been before. Why? Because the Romans seem to have discovered architectural principles upon which you can’t improve, save to add decoration or embellishment. Even though Haussmann and his contemporaries were indifferent to the physical relics of antiquity, they ascribed entirely to these principles.
How do you recognize a Roman building? It looks pretty much like a Greek or an Etruscan building, but with some important innovations. The Romans used new materials, by the standards of the time. They were the first to use concrete. (Ricochet has an in-house concrete expert, to whom I direct all further questions about this: He knows way more about this than the rest of us ever will.)
Alright, but apart from the concrete, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Okay, but besides the arches and domes, what have the Romans ever done for us?
They appreciated that even though they were able to build without columns, that didn’t mean they should. They had the insight to see that architecture is a language. You can’t suddenly start building things without the columns and expect people to understand what they mean.
Columns, domes, and arches mean, “built by a major-league empire that means to be here forever.” It’s an architectural language everyone in the world understands, because sooner or later, everyone was either colonized by the Romans or colonized in turn by the people they colonized. (Do the words “column” and “colonize” come from the same root, I wonder? Anyone know?)
Alright, but besides the concrete, the columns, the domes, the arches, and inventing the architectural style that everywhere in the world, to this day, means “We’re an empire and we’re here to stay,” what else have the Romans done for us?
Well, they were the first to build cities in neatly-organized grids, with many public spaces, in a systematic, organized way. Haussmann approached the problem of urban planning much as a Roman would.
The Parisian renaissance was inspired by the Italian renaissance, which was inspired — of course — by the Romans. So what Haussmann proved is that it is possible to tear down large parts of an ancient city down and rebuild it to make it more practical — or more hygienic, in this case — without destroying the city aesthetically. So long as you strictly follow Roman rules.
French art historians sometimes sneer at the French Renaissance as “derivative,” in that the French were mimicking the Italians rather than creating something new. The period of which they’re most proud is French classical, which they view as original. But it isn’t. It’s still based on the traditional columns and proportions of Roman architecture. (And on Italian renaissance decoration: You can add a lot of decoration to a Roman building without doing it any harm.)
In other words, Paris is Roman all the way down, and to the extent any building deviates from its Roman heritage, it’s always ugly.You’ll see what I mean tomorrow.
Any questions before we go? And hey, does anyone know how to put columns and a dome on this widget?