It’s still cold in Paris, but bundled up we still do a lot of walking. Today it was lunch at home and then a walk across the Seine with Notre Dame on our left, stopping at a little café on l’île Saint-Louis before reaching the Saint Paul Metro station and from there taking la rue de Sévigné right up to number 23 and le Musée Carnavalet, where right up until her death in 1696 Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, la marquise de Sévigné, lived.
Now the Museum, ancien hotel, or residence of the rich and famous during several hundred years, has some 100 rooms all dedicated to the history of Paris, a history which is for most of us, the history of France.
Walking through the rooms is walking through the history as told by brief texts attached to paintings, sculptures, and innumerable objects, many donated and many rescued from Parisian buildings that had been destroyed by war, revolution, or just time and the weather.
This history, much more than school history, comes alive through the hundreds of representations of people and events that one stops to look at among the tens of thousands of objects that fill the hundred rooms, and one finishes one visit with plans, resolutions even, to read up on Lutèce, le serment du Jeu de Paume, la Commune, and Juliette Greco, among the many other subjects and objects that have caught one’s attention.
The room dedicated to pre-history and Lutèce, or the Roman Paris, was particularly interesting. Because the Roman Paris, or the bits that remain of it, in particular the baths (thermae) of Cluny, named after the 16th century Hôtel de Cluny built around them, and les Arènes de Lutèce. Both “ruins,” now city parks, are within a few minutes walk of our apartment.
Here is Roman Paris.
And here is a description of the Roman Arènes or amphitheatre:
Erigées au premier siècle de notre ère, les Arènes de Lutèce sont aujourd’hui un oasis d’histoire gallo-romaine au milieu des immeubles haussmanniens qui l’entourent. Typique de l’architecture gallo-romaine, l’amphithéâtre était un haut lieu de combats de gladiateurs contre des fauves, pouvant accueillir près de 15.000 spectateurs. Le chaland peut d’ailleurs apercevoir des cages qui retenaient les bêtes antiques sur le côté de l’amphithéâtre. Comme tous les autres bâtiments de la ville, les arènes furent détruites lors des invasions barbares. Enfouies pendant des siècles dans le sous-sol parisien, elles furent redécouvertes lors du percement de la rue Monge au cours des grands travaux des années 1860.
Here is a model of what the stadium might have looked like in Roman times:
And here is what you will see today, if you visit there now, some 2000 years later. (You won’t see “les combats de gladiateurs contre des fauves,” although perhaps a game of boules, and certainly kids kicking a ball around.)
I often ask myself this question, “can we find in the history of Paris (France) a satisfactory explanation of why France is the way it is today?” And as I strolled slowly through the rooms and up and down the stairs of the museum I wondered what if any was the connection between what I was looking at and what France is today.
One famous exhibit in the museum does seem to have absolutely no connection to Paris before or Paris (France) afterwards. And in fact there are always those people and events that quickly assume a place for themselves, outside of the continuum of history, allowing one to directly experience them with little or no knowledge of the times in which they lived.
The greatest writers and artists certainly belong to this category. Less so the famous men and women who in this museum have only a part to play in the history of this city. Taken out of that context we would not know them at all.
The famous exhibit is the bedroom of Marcel Proust. There is absolutely no connection to be made between this and France today, or with the France of any time.
Proust did live and write in Paris, in fact he wrote much of his Remembrance of Things Past while sitting up (or lying down) in the bed shown below. But other than being this famous writer’s bedroom this exhibit has no special interest. Proust’s achievement stands no less out of the times in which he lived, out of the bedroom here exhibited, than out of the much, much earlier Roman Paris or Lutèce.
However, there are many people and events exhibited in the museum that are in a line taking us right up to today. The Serment dans la salle du Jeu de paume, à Versailles, that took place on January 20, 1789, is one. Here the tiers état, or what we would call the people, made a solemn vow “to never separate and to assemble together wherever the circumstances demanded it, right up until the time when the Constitution would be firmly established in the realm.”
“Les députés se réunissent” … [and swear] « de ne jamais se séparer, et de se rassembler partout où les circonstances l’exigeront, jusqu’à ce que la Constitution du royaume soit établie et affermie sur des fondements solides.» (The painter is Jacques Louis-David)
The connection with today is clear. For today the people are still swearing not to separate, not to stop demonstrating, not to stop striking, until their wishes are met. Evidently their wishes have not been met, and the “Constitution” is not yet on solid foundations.
In fact the Serment du Jeu de Paume has, wthin just 250 years, resulted in a state where forward movement, where progress, seem no longer possible. For the country, France, is divided, not between clergy, nobility, and the tiers état, but between and among the people themselves.
Todoay in the country, France, as in the countries of most of the developed world, there are only tiers état or people. The clergy and the nobility are no longer players on the scene.
In France in particular, and in other countries to a lesser extent, the divisions among the people, right from left, liberal from conservative, those with more from those with less, prevent them from working together. And instead they only fight with one another over the spoils, those spoils left behind by their former masters.
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