Hidden Gardens of Paris
ÎLE DE LA CITÉ
SQUARE DU VERT GALANT
ENTRANCE: from the Pont Neuf, descend the staircase behind the statue of Henri IV
MÉTRO: Pont Neuf
Astride the Pont Neuf, Henri IV seems to welcome us to the Île de la Cité, "the head, the heart, the very marrow of the whole city."5 The leafy green triangular square behind the bridge is named for that lusty gallant on horseback who loved his city mightily, especially its wine, women, and good times. Once you descend the staircase and enter the square, Vert Galant presents a magical combination of delights: a strong, wide river, flowers and grass, a riverbank shaded with willows and a prospect of magnificent architecture: the Louvre on the right and the gold-domed Institut de France on the left. There's also, in early evening in all seasons, a fair portion of privacy, a promise of intimacy.
This romantic western tip of the boat-shaped Île de la Cité--the original settlement of the Parisii, a Celtic tribe subdued by Caesar--is a fitting introduction to the City of Light. For from the beginning, Paris has been an object of affection: (the Romans called it Lutetia)--Cara Lutetia, "my beloved Lutetia," in the words of the late Roman emperor Julian in 358 AD.6 As king, le Vert Galant Henri IV (1589-1610) declared his intention "to make this city beautiful, tranquil, ... desiring to make a whole world of this city and a wonder of the world."7 Such triumphs as the elegant Pont Neuf (the "new bridge" is the oldest bridge in Paris), the Place Dauphine opposite the bridge, and the Place Royale (later renamed Place des Vosges) show his genius as architect and urban visionary. His energetic love life--he had two wives, at least fifty-six mistresses, and households full of bastards--also won him the heart of Parisians (until his serial amours began to bore and irritate).
But Henri the obsessive lover was above all a peacemaker. Born and raised a Protestant by a rigidly reformist mother, he converted to Catholicism, the religion of the majority, to end the long religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that by the end of the sixteenth century had left Paris starving and looking like a bomb site. Detesting religious partisanship, he drafted and signed the Edict of Nantes (1598), which put toleration of the religion he had renounced on the books. Sounding like a Dalai Lama, he explained:
Those who honestly follow their conscience are of my religion, and as for me, I belong to the faith of all those who are gallant and good ... . We must be brought to agreement by reason and kindness and not by strictness and cruelty which serve only to arouse men.
The fanatical Catholic who stabbed him to death, François Ravaillac, was not persuaded.
But to this day, in the words of André Maurois, "together with Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, and Saint-Louis IX, Henri IV remains one of France's heroes." He declared kindness and mercy the primary virtues of a prince.8
PLACE DAUPHINE Enter through rue Henri Robert on the east side of Pont Neuf. Henri IV designed this hideaway for his son Louis XIII--the dauphin--who was nine years old when his father was assassinated. Some of the low brick buildings are of Henri's period; the trees are new and small, having only recently been planted to replace the white chestnuts that were attacked by a virulent pest. Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, who loved the village-like Place, lived here.
PONT DES ARTS The footbridge connecting the Left Bank to the Louvre carries a lively traffic of musicians, painters, students, lovers, tourists, and children, with a wide view of the Seine and a rear view of the Square du Vert Galant. Pierre Auguste Renoir's painting Le Pont des Arts (1868) was the first he sold to the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, one of the most important advocates for French impressionists in Europe and the United States.
SQUARE HONORÉ-CHAMPION Through an arch to the right of the Institut de France on the Left Bank's Quai de Conti, a statue of the eighteenth-century philosopher Voltaire stands atop a small green mound bordered with flowers. Without this immensely influential leader of the Enlightenment, the Declaration of Independence (and the American Revolution) would never, according to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, have come to pass.
LES BOUQUINISTES The quintessentially Parisian version of bookselling. The large green standing boxes full of books and prints line the quais on both banks of the Seine. The first ones were located on Pont Neuf.
HIDDEN GARDENS OF PARIS. Copyright© 2012 by Susan Cahill. Photographs copyright © 2012 by Marion Ranoux. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, NY NY 10010