Roman Through Paris

 
Lutetia

Lutetia, Vulgari Nomine Paris, Urbs Galliae Maxima

To lift your mood on the Ides of April, I hereby invite you to 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.

Before we go, have a look at these wonderful watercolors by the French archaeologist Jean-Claude Golvin. That’s the best I can do to show you ancient Lutetia for now, since we don’t yet have a time-travel streaming-video app. (But stay tuned: If Dan Hanson’s right about the progress we’ve made in VR, I should be able to do that pretty soon.)

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?

They figured out how to go beyond trabeated systems for holding up roofs. If you see arches and domes, it means “Romans was here.”

Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, known as the greatest architect in British history, built this section of New Delhi. Notice the architectural language he built it in.

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.

United-States-Supreme-Court-building-631.jpg__800x600_q85_crop

When Americans are serious, we speak Roman, too.

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.

2458497-universites-la-guerre-entre-normale-sup-et-jussieu

The Jussieu university campus is in the Latin Quarter, but there’s nothing Roman about it. It’s criminally ugly.

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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 16.51.54

If you’re in doubt about the rules of architecture, Vitruvius will set you straight.

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?

Published in General
Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 75 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    I’ve always enjoyed visiting the museum with the Roman architectural remains and recreations of Lutetia that is underneath the plaza in front of Notre Dame.

    • #1
  2. Gaby Charing Inactive
    Gaby Charing
    @GabyCharing

    You love Lutyens, I love Lutyens, but the greatest British architect? Greater than Sir Christopher Wren? I don’t think so. However, now we know you’re an out-and-out classicist, we can suspect you’ve little sympathy for modern architecture that departs from classical principles. Fair enough. Check out Quinlan Terry. It’s unfortunate, I think, that the most prominent high-tech building in Paris, the Pompidou Centre, is by that fifth-rate architect Sir Richard Rogers (they all pick up knighthoods, you’ll notice) and is absolutely awful. The Po-Mo Musée du Quai Branly is OK, but not much more. For some really good modern architecture I’ll have to invite you all to London!

    • #2
  3. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Why, Claire, what a nice birthday present!  I will make an effort to be there, sounds very interesting.

    • #3
  4. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Gaby Charing:You love Lutyens, I love Lutyens, but the greatest British architect?

    Perhaps. Certainly in the major leagues. I was absolutely astonished when we turned a corner in Delhi and I saw that. I hadn’t heard of it, wasn’t expecting it, and it conveyed exactly the message Lutyens meant to convey. It said “The Empire was here” more than anything I’ve ever seen in the seat of the Empire.

    Greater than Sir Christopher Wren? I don’t think so. However, now we know you’re an out-and-out classicist, we can suspect you’ve little sympathy for modern architecture that departs from classical principles. Fair enough. Check out Quinlan Terry. It’s unfortunate, I think, that the most prominent high-tech building in Paris, the Pompidou Centre, is by that fifth-rate architect Sir Richard Rogers (they all pick up knighthoods, you’ll notice) and is absolutely awful.

    And Renzo Piano, who is just unexcelled in fraudulence.

    The Po-Mo Musée du Quai Branly

    Musée du Quai Branleur, more like it. It’s not “okay,” I reckon you’re just saying, “It could be worse,” which is true — but we wouldn’t know that were it not for Montparnasse.

    is OK, but not much more. For some really good modern architecture I’ll have to invite you all to London!

    I’ll accept.

    • #4
  5. Gaby Charing Inactive
    Gaby Charing
    @GabyCharing

    It seems Paris gets the worst of everything. The Gare Montparnasse is brutalism at its most oppressive. Contrast it with Sir (!) Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre, one of the finrst buildings on the London riverside; or Marcel Breuer’s old Whitney Museum in NYC (the new one is by Renzo Piano – what were they thinking of?). La Défense is an appalling example of whatever it’s an example of. I’m going to make it my business when I’m in Paris next month to seek out examples of good modern architecture. I fully expect to fail. I shall try to join you tomorrow evening.

    • #5
  6. David Sussman Contributor
    David Sussman
    @DaveSussman

    Pariscope. ISWYDT.

    Hope to join you!

    • #6
  7. Del Mar Dave Member
    Del Mar Dave
    @DelMarDave

    What a great, fun idea!!  I will do my best to make it, especially since I’ve never gotten out of the airport and into the city.

    • #7
  8. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    That is so cool.  I too will try to participate for a little while.  Thanks.

    • #8
  9. MLH Inactive
    MLH
    @MLH

    The ides of April was on the 13th.

    • #9
  10. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Claire,

    Criminal ugliness? Is there like a misdemeanor criminal ugliness charge and then a full felony criminal ugliness? Will you be accompanied by the Aesthetic Division of the Paris Police in case any of the buildings try to get rough?

    Listen, I will be out of the loop tomorrow. If there is consensus, I vote for Landscape mode as I will watch your tour in luxury on my gigantic 24″ monitor at home (when I get back there).

    Here is an example of extreme Landscape mode.

    https://youtu.be/Qk9oWo7IQMI

    Sorry, I can’t be there, either in the flesh or virtually. I’ll see it later.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #10
  11. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    Gaby Charing:It seems Paris gets the worst of everything. The Gare Montparnasse is brutalism at its most oppressive. Contrast it with Sir (!) Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre, one of the finrst buildings on the London riverside; or Marcel Breuer’s old Whitney Museum in NYC (the new one is by Renzo Piano – what were they thinking of?). La Défense is an appalling example of whatever it’s an example of. I’m going to make it my business when I’m in Paris next month to seek out examples of good modern architecture. I fully expect to fail. I shall try to join you tomorrow evening.

    I like the Louvre pyramid and underground ticketing area. Also the Grand Arche at La Defense.

    • #11
  12. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    Claire, there were some good things in the middle ages, mainly the Gothic cathedrals.

    • #12
  13. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    RushBabe49: Qu

    Happy Birthday R.B.!

    • #13
  14. Eric Hines Inactive
    Eric Hines
    @EricHines

    Will we see any of Asterix’ encampments?

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: (Do the words “column” and “colonize” come from the same root, I wonder? Anyone know?)

    Col: stick, stake.  onize; suffix meaning who are theseumn; suffix meaning dew whut.

    Thus: col+umn; “If I jam this stick here, will it hold up that roof?” and col+onize; “Strange people.  Very dangerous.  Jam a stake in them and take over.”

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: 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.

    Is it that, or is it independently developed?

    Eric Hines

    • #14
  15. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Eric Hines: Is it that, or is it independently developed?

    Of course it is. They were very explicit about the inspiration.

    • #15
  16. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    I love this post and the comments.

    • #16
  17. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    MLH:The ides of April was on the 13th.

    So it was!

    On Ricochet, “Learning Roman history” is just another word for “things we do together.”

    • #17
  18. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    MLH:The ides of April was on the 13th.

    So it was!

    On Ricochet, “Learning Roman history” is just another word for “things we do together.”

    Also, I bet someone here knows the answer to my question about “columns” and “colony.” The online dictionaries I’ve looked at don’t suggest that they share an etymology, so maybe it’s just a coincidence. But I’d love to know for sure from someone with a good command of Latin. We have many such people on Ricochet.

    We also have a number of classicists who know a lot more about Roman architecture than I do, and I’d love to hear their thoughts about this subject.

    • #18
  19. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Marion Evans:Claire, there were some good things in the middle ages, mainly the Gothic cathedrals.

    Yeah, those Gothic cathedrals were “good,” alright. Better than “okay,” I’d say.

    If this works well tonight, they’ll be the subject of their own broadcast. Paris is worth a mass.

    • #19
  20. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    RushBabe49:Why, Claire, what a nice birthday present! I will make an effort to be there, sounds very interesting.

    Happy birthday! I’m honored that you’d spend this auspicious day with me. Looking forward to having you on the trip.

    • #20
  21. MichaelC19fan Inactive
    MichaelC19fan
    @MichaelC19fan

    My mindless professor question:

    Which bank is the Left Bank? Would one be facing towards the upstream direction or downstream?

    • #21
  22. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    MichaelC19fan:My mindless professor question:

    Which bank is the Left Bank? Would one be facing towards the upstream direction or downstream?

    The Left Bank is south; the Right Bank is north. It’s left if you’re facing upstream.

    • #22
  23. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    I goofed on the time – thought it was today 12:00 central. It didn’t last long – and your finger kept getting in there – also a little hard to hear you – with the street noise I guess.  Cool for a first start, but how would you interact if I got the timing right?

    • #23
  24. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Front Seat Cat:I goofed on the time – thought it was today 12:00 central. It didn’t last long – and your finger kept getting in there – also a little hard to hear you – with the street noise I guess. Cool for a first start, but how would you interact if I got the timing right?

    You didn’t goof. I was just practicing.

    • #24
  25. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Front Seat Cat:I goofed on the time – thought it was today 12:00 central. It didn’t last long – and your finger kept getting in there – also a little hard to hear you – with the street noise I guess. Cool for a first start, but how would you interact if I got the timing right?

    You didn’t goof. I was just practicing.

    So it’s still on for 12:00 Central – US?

    • #25
  26. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Front Seat Cat:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Front Seat Cat:I goofed on the time – thought it was today 12:00 central. It didn’t last long – and your finger kept getting in there – also a little hard to hear you – with the street noise I guess. Cool for a first start, but how would you interact if I got the timing right?

    You didn’t goof. I was just practicing.

    So it’s still on for 12:00 Central – US?

    Yep! A little less than three hours from now. I’m looking out the window and hoping it stays sunny. It was raining a bit ago, and the weather forecast says it will again — but it’s sunny, now.

    • #26
  27. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    I just saw the first clip.  I don’t have to be on live, it’s recorded.  I didn’t realize that.  Great.  I’ll get to the next clip a little later on.

    • #27
  28. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Front Seat Cat:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Front Seat Cat:I goofed on the time – thought it was today 12:00 central. It didn’t last long – and your finger kept getting in there – also a little hard to hear you – with the street noise I guess. Cool for a first start, but how would you interact if I got the timing right?

    You didn’t goof. I was just practicing.

    So it’s still on for 12:00 Central – US?

    Yep! A little less than three hours from now. I’m looking out the window and hoping it stays sunny. It was raining a bit ago, and the weather forecast says it will again — but it’s sunny, now.

    Go to dictionary – look up dingbat – you’ll see my picture……

    • #28
  29. Tenacious D Inactive
    Tenacious D
    @TenaciousD

    MichaelC19fan:My mindless professor question:

    Which bank is the Left Bank? Would one be facing towards the upstream direction or downstream?

    It’s the river’s left (i.e. facing with the current).

    • #29
  30. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Front Seat Cat:

    Go to dictionary – look up dingbat – you’ll see my picture……

    Go to my practice video — you’ll see my thumb.

    It’s actually hard to remember not to put your thumb over the camera, not to accidentally switch off the phone, and not to trip over the curb. Those happened on my dry runs: and I don’t feel practiced, yet. So if I disappear mid-broadcast, don’t worry. Odds are I wasn’t abducted by aliens, live. Odds are I found some new way to screw it up.

    • #30
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.