Two ancient Gallo-Roman roads frame the Saint-Sulpice neighbourhood. To the north is the ancient Rue du Four, formely called the Chemin d’Issy et de Sevres. In the Middle Ages, this was the natural extension of Rue Saint-Andre-des-Arts and Rue de Buci, beyond the city ramparts. It keeps its name between the present-day Carrefour Mabillon (Place d’Acadie) and Carrefour de la Croix-Rouge where it becomes Rue de Sevres.
On the south side of the neighbourhood, Rue de Vaugirard shares basically the same outline as the old Roman road from Lutetia (Paris) to Dreux (83km west of Paris). The limit between the Saint-Sulpice and the Notre-Dame-des-Champs neighbourhoods has become a bit blurred due to recent urban development.
If you stroll regularly through the 6th arrondissement, you get a sense of how religion is the unifying element and cement the entire southern part of the Saint-Germain sector. This is especially true from the mid-18th century and the construction of the new Saint-Sulpice church. Through the ages, all the convents and oratories have disappeared. The flame, however, has been taken up by religious teaching institutions. The sale of religious articles, long a specialty in this part of Paris, has sharply declined. A few shops continue to operate, carrying on the tradition of selling articles that locals long referred to pejoratively as “saint-sulpiceries”. Christian bookshops are another noticeable feature of the neighbourhood.
Place Jacques-Copeau is a quaint square located beside Boulevard Saint-Germain and across from the Abbaye de Saint-Germain-des-Pres. In the square is a statue of Diderot sculpted by Jean Gautherin in 1884 for the centennial of the philosopher’s death. With his relaxed body and vivacious expression, Diderot is clearly enjoying a witty conversation with Puffles and Honey who are very interested in hearing his dogma-free point of view 🙂
The narrow Rue des Ciseaux takes us to Rue du Four.
Of all the street names that it has carried throughout the centuries, its 13th century name Vicus Furni (oven street) has stuck. Back then, the neighbourhood residents were all required to come bake their bread in the community ovens owned by the abbey that stood at the corner of this street and present-day Rue de Rennes until 1470. As a religious power, the Saint-Germain-des-Pres community had all the prerogatives of a lord, minus the military might. The bread trade has ended, but it was a happy coincidence when, in 1932, Mr Poilane founded his famous gourmet bakery just steps away from Rue du Four at 8 Rue du Cherche-Midi. The former name of nearby Rue Madame was Rue Gindre (an old French word for baker’s boy) and is a reminder of the area’s baking history.
A few croissants to keep us going…
Three things greatly changed the aspect of Rue du Four: the construction of Boulevard Saint-Germain in 1878, the creation of Rue de Rennes at about the same time, and the widening of the street in the early 20th century. It has lost its old-fashioned charm as a narrow, bustling street; in its time, it must have had a look and feel similar to Rue de Buci or Rue Saint-Andre-des-Arts today. A few old facades on Rue du Four remind us of its distant past. But Haussman-period architecture and, to a greater degree, the moderate-income housing of the 1930s, changed the face of this street which, from the mid-16th century, had to be paved due to the heavy traffic.
Between Rue du Four and Place Saint-Sulpice, there is a labyrinth of tiny, narrow, original streets that make up a veritable enclosure in this neighbourhood. It is merely a three-block area, but while strollong through it, you feel as if you can get lost in the centuries old ambiance. The “reserve” is framed to the north and south by Rue du Four and Rue Saint-Sulpice, respectively, to the east by Rue Mabillon and to the west by Rue des Canettes. Rue Princesse dead-ends at Rue Guisarde. This old working class neighbourhood remains authentic. It is ancient now. Development began in the 13th century. Rue des Canettes dates back to 1260. Growth occurred in the 15th century in parallel with the success of nearby Saint-Germain fair. This and the Saint-Andre-des-Arts neighbourhood are the two 6th arrondissement areas where the ambience has changed little over the centuries. The main business draws today are the restaurants and wine bars that line the sidewalks.
Liquids have given old Rue des Canettes all its colour. Its very old name (literally Ducklings Street) comes from a sign that featured the young acquatic birds. The sign is no longer, but at number 18 there is an early 18th century bas-relief medalion that keeps the memory alive.
It was on this street at number 8, back in 1840, that the “Cenacle des Buveurs d’eau” (The Water-Drinkers’ Club) met under the leadership of one Henri Murger, the author of the famous Scenes de la Vie de Boheme. An incident of far greater historical importance, a pre-revolution plot, as murky as the riverbed of the Seine, yet involving a scandalous, scintillating diamond necklace, was hatched by a man who moved to number 17 in 1820, many years after he and his wife discredited the French monarchy with the famous diamond necklace affair. The man was Count de la Motte.
A cafe (yet another liquid element) on the corner of Rue des Canettes and Place Saint-Sulpice takes up part of the building that replaced the Academie Royale de Manege, which provided an education and boarding to the sons of France’s most illustrious families in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was demolished when the square was created.
Like other establishments in the Saint-Germain district, this cafe could have given itself a pompous name, but in choosing the humble epithet “Cafe de la Mairie” (the cafe by the city hall), it deliberately bucked a bombastic, self-aggrandizing trend in the profession. It was a winning choice. As a sort of antihero in a guild that has had its share of prestige and stars (particularly in this neighbourhood of Paris), this establishment is one of the most charming in the area. Its spacious terrace is shaded by plane trees that create a refreshing place to sit on hot summer days.
Rue Guisarde was created in 1620 on the site where Hotel de Sancerre and the Hotel de Roussillon once stood. It leads to Rue Mabillon. Its name may be derived from the Guise family’s name. In the 1580s, during the time of the Catholic League, there were many partisans of the Guise family in this neighbourhood.
Nearby Rue Pricesse was named in honour of Catherine of Lorraine, sister of Henri le Balafre (“Henry the Scarred”), the Duke de Guise whome Henri III had assassinated in 1588 in the Chateau de Blois. The street has kept its 17th century charm. The old houses with their narrow facades have high windows that look out onto the street, as if astonished it is no longer an alley. The ambience here is as charming and warm as on Rue des Canettes. In fact, this tiny three-block area off Place Saint-Sulpice is Saint-Germain’s equivalent of the Latin Quarter’s Rue de la Huchette, in the community around Saint-Severin church.
During the Reign of Terror, business was booming for pubs on these two streets, which had been renamed Rue des Sans-Culottes and Rue de la Revolution. As at the nearby Cafe Procope, people gathered here to catch up on the latest news and to solve the world’s problems… During the massacre of September 1792, the sinister Captain Stanislas-Marie Maillard sent in troops to chase out nonjuring priests, “enemies of the interior”.
The first teaching institution in the Saint-Sulpice and Notre-Dame-des-Champs area was established in 1688 by Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, who founded the first of his many schools for indigent girls at 12 Rue Princesse. His commitment to the religious education of the poor had taken shape as the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in 1680, which now runs schools in 82 countries.
A stroll down Rue Princesse wouldn’t be complete without a bow to Jean-Baptiste Chardin, the 18th century painter of the family life of the bourgeoisie, depicted as sweet, harmonious and serenely poetic. He rented a house on the corner of Rue du Four until the death of his first wife in 1735. In 1744, he and his second wife moved into number 13, where they lived until 1757.
After the rise and fall of the great basement jazz clubs in the 1950s, Saint-Germain-des-Pres’ golden age, came the trend of private clubs. Two of the most prestigious added sparkle to this street. The one at number 15 Rue Princesse naturally called itself Le Club Princesse, but regulars referred to it as Chez Castel. Meanwhile, Regine, up on Rue du Four, opened her first exclusive Paris nightclub in an old basement jazz club under Cafe La Pergola, now a fashion boutique.
At the intersection, a right onto Rue Mabillon took us to an age-old trading centre: known in the Middle Ages as the Foire Saint-Germain, it became Marche Saint-Germain after the Revolution. Across the way from the market is the little Musee du Compagnonnage devoted to its wood craftmen. A commemorative plaque honours “Tourangeau l’intrepide”, the president of the “Duty and Freedom” faction of this historical and influential woodworkers’ guild, arrested and deported in 1944 to Mauthausen. At this spot, in a courtyard below, you can see the level of the ground in the Middle Ages.
After strolling along the south side of the market, down Rue Lobineau, we turned right onto Rue de Seine to reach Rue Saint-Sulpice. This very old east-west artery connects the Odeon quarter to the Saint-Sulpice quarter. Beyond the Place Saint-Sulpice and its church, the name of Rue Saint-Sulpice changes to Rue du Vieux-Colombier. This is where 19th century novelist Alexandre Dumas placed the lodgings for Mr de Treville’s Royal Musketeers in his classic action novel. Rue du Vieux-Colombier took us up to Rue de Rennes, which, since the 1870s, has framed the Saint-Sulpice quarter to the west. Rue de Vaugirard to the south and Rue Garanciere to the east sew up this small neighbourhood with its massive and imposing church.
Suddenly, we are whisked away from this eat-drink-and-be-merry quarter into one of prayer. We move from the fair to the faith. Flippant Alfred Jarry, who lived at 20 Rue Cassette in the early 20th century, used to call this quarter “La Grande Chasublerie”, a taunt referring to the shops offering liturgical and other religious accoutrements in the great church’s shadow.
Renamed as a single street in 1851, the various segments of Rue Saint-Sulpice previously had their own respective names. The artery has existed since the founding of the Saint-Germain fair nearly nine hundred years ago.
The old mansion at 21 Rue Saint-Sulpice, on the corner with Rue de Tournon, was built for Marguerite de Savoie (1560). In the 17th century it was known as the Hotel de Plaisance, then the Hotel de Chatillon. Between 1827 and 1830, whille the young Honore de Balzac was trying to start his career in publishing and printing on Rue Visconti, he lived in an apartment in this mansion. A dedicated coffee lover even in his youth, he would often head up to Rue Monsieur-le-Prince where, beside the old home of Blaise Pascal, he could purchase the beans for his precious nectar, and candles by the light of which to scribble late into the night, stimulated by the caffeine.
Rue Saint-Sulpice runs along the northern side of the church from Rue Garanciere to Place Saint-Sulpice. In the 18th century, the name of this part of the street was Rue des Aveugles (Blind People’s Street), because it bordered a tiny cemetery of the same name created in 1664. It was the third parish cemetery. Since the Middle Ages, it has been customary to create parish cemeteries beside their churches. Saint-Sulpice’s first cemetery was on its south side. When the church was rebuilt in 1646, the cemetery grounds were covered by the enlarged building. A second cemetery was then set up on Rue de Grenelle in the Fabourg Saint-Germaine. The Cimetiere des Aveugles located on the church’s northern side was surrounded by buildings and was used for over a century (up to 1784). Its entrance, with massive gate posts, was located at about number 36 of today’s Rue Saint-Sulpice. Architect Godde, credited for restoring the Saint-Germain-des-Pres church, was inspired by the old gate posts in designing the entrance to the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in 1825.
There was a time when strolling through this neighbourhood offered only a narrow view of the imposing facade of the Saint-Sulpice church. Prior to the 19th century, the church did not have its vast esplanade, instead it overlooked the narrow Rue Ferou and the high walls of the Grand Seminary. With the lack of space and the requirement to respect the line of the street, the church portico had to be placed between the columns.
Actually a hodgepodge of styles, this church is also one of the largest in Paris. Its dimensions are roughly equal to Notre-Dame’s. While the impressive and austere facade respects ancient classical lines with its two superimposed porticos, it seems to have been slapped onto the structure. Before becoming the architect of the church in the 18th century, Servandoni had been a theatre set designer, and he seems to have applied the same principles to his new job. His plan to make the towers higher was clearly inspired by medieval architecture.
Inside, the staggeringly high nave with its barrel vault is supported by massive arcades. Along the side aisles, the two large fonts, giant seashells, where a gift to 16th century monarch Francois I from the Republic of Venice. These royal endowments to the church from Louis XV sit on 18th century marble pedestals carved by Pigalle.
Immediately on the right is the famous Chapelle des Saints-Anges. Eugene Delacroix worked on decorating it from 1849 until he died in 1863. Maurice Barres greatly admired it during his pilgrimages here. The most famous of the Delacroix frescoes is without a doubt Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, the painter’s impassioned artistic and spiritual testimonial. It stands opposite The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple. In the ceiling of the dome is Saint Michel’s victory over Lucifer.
Over the entrance to the church is the great organ case designed by Chalgrin. It is decorated with charming statues by Clodion and elements by Duret. The organ itself, originally built by Francois-Henri Clicquot, is an 1862 masterpiece by Aristide Cavaille-Coll. His 6500 pipe, 101 stop instrument has a reputation as one of France’s most impressive symphonic organs.
One of the church’s secular curiosities is the meridian traced in 1727. In his 1958 book entitled Les Eglises Parisiennes, Amedee Boinet writes, “Pierre Lemonier oversaw the project. He erected a ten-meter-high obelisk in the northern end of the transept and laid out a line of brass to trace the meridian in the church’s paving stones, ending at the obelisk. He had a small lens with a 24m focus inserted into the southern window of the transept, which had to be laid flat for the operation. Lastly, he positioned a brass plaque, which has been preserved, on the floor, to indicate the exact spot where the sun’s rays fall on noon of the summer solstice.” The calculation, however, was off. In fact, the Paris meridian is slightly to the east of this neighbourhood.
For over a century, the church’s vast crypt contained the the sepultures of privileged parishioners. It has been said that Racine’s mistress Marie Champmesle and Moliere’s widow Armande Bejart were buried here. Some of the greatest orators of all time preached in the church itself. Sermons by Bossuet, Fenelon, Fletchier and Massillon filled the pews.
Unlike the Saint-Germain-des-Pres church, Saint-Sulpice was not shut down by the Revolution in 1790. And so, in December of 1790, a very Parisian wedding ceremony was held within these walls. Lucile Duplessis was wed to Camille Desmoulins, her neighbour from the Odeon quarter. All of Paris’ top Revolutionary figures attended. Maximilien de Robespierre was the groom’s witness. During the Reign of Terror, however, church services were replaced by the Cult of the Supreme Being and the church was consecrated as a Temple of Reason.
Renamed Temple de la Victoire, Saint-Sulpice hosted a banquet for five hundred guests held on November 5, 1799 (just four days before Napoleon’s coup d’etat ending the French Revolution) in honour of Generals Moreau and Bonaparte. Moreau had just returned victorious from his campaign in Italy and Bonaparte from his in Egypt. The Directoire held a lavish event and even called for subscriptions to finance the ceremony. Tapestries and the enemies’ flags were hung in the nave. The organist for the event was the youngest in the Couperin dynasty. In reality though, suspicion was rampant and the plot to overthrow the governing Directoire was ready to be launched.
In the 19th century, Saint-Sulpice returned to its previous existence as a peaceful neighbourhood church. The 1808 demolition of the Grand Seminary across the street created a huge empty space and finally enabled to large structure to break out from its confinment.
When Place Saint-Sulpice was laid out, it gave the church a much needed esplanade. As early as 1764, architect Servandonni had drawn up plans for a square similar in design to that of Place Vendome, lined with rental buildings whcih would present uniform facades. The model property is the one still standing on the right angle of this square and Rue de Canettes. While the outcome is not what the architect had planned, the square does have its charm. Its grace is due to the combination of tall, leafy plane trees and Visconti’s 1844 fountain. The fountain’s main figures are statues of the four great bishops who preached at Saint-Sulpice: Flechier, Massillon, Bossuet, Fenelon.
The grand square was laid out on the site of the old cemetery and the ruins of the demolished 17th century Grand Seminary. Around 1820, the architect Godde began designing lovely new seminary buildings along a private lane parallel to Rue Bonaparte. Following the passage of the 1905 law regarding the separation of Church and State, the buildings were assigned to the Ministry of Finance.
Apart from Rue Bonapart, a busy through street leading to Boulevard Saint-Germain and to the Seine River, the rest of the neighbourhood streets (Garanciere, Servadoni, Ferou, Madame and Cassette) have a provincial air about them that is unique to this arrondissement.
Rue Palatine (named for the wife of Prince of Conde) borders the south side of the church. Laid out in 1646, when the church was enlarged, this street covers part of the old 13th century cemetery that once flanked the edifice. The old residence of Duke de Rochechouart, which once stood at number 5, was home to Louis de Bonald. After the Revolution, he and Joseph de Maistre expounded the theory of the absolute monarchy.
Rue Garanciere was laid out in the 16th century. Talleyrand was born at number 4 on February 2, 1754. He studied at the Grand Seminary down the street and was neither the first nor the last of its students to scale the wall at night for an assignation with a sweetheart. On the odd-numbered side of the street, most of the buildings are the rear sides of mansions located on Rue de Tournon. Number 9, the old Hotel Concini (a man loyal to Queen Marie de Medicis, assassinated on the orders of young Louis XIII) later became a Garde Republicaine barracks. At number 11 we see the small Hotel du Nivernais which was home to historian Thureau Dangin in 1820 then to economist Frederick le Play in 1850.
The mansion at number 8, built atop the ruins of Hotel Garanciere around 1640 is especially interesting. Without a doubt, it is the loveliest building on the street. Unfortunately the street is not wide enough to allow us a fuller view of the superb pilastered facade, the upper part of which is trimmed with a delicate row of rams’ heads. The brickwork on the right side of the facade, in the purest Louis XIII style, suggests the majesty of the original mansion. Renovated in the 19th century, the building served from 1819 to 1849 as the district city hall. None of the original architectural elements remain in the courtyard, the centrepiece of a dramatic riches-to-rags story. In 1651, the mansion was inherited by a certain Lord of Sourdeac, an odd character. After his extravagant teen years, the young man became smitten with theatre. In 1652, he hosted the premiere of Corneille’s opera-tragedy Andromede, before it was staged at the Theatre du Petit-Bourbon. Corneille was a master of the special theatrical effects of his time, which required incredible machinery. It takes more than will to become a patron of the arts and Sourdeac was soon bankrupt. He had to sell his mansion in Paris (where Adrienne Lecouvreur later began her career as a tragedian, in 1715) and spent the last years of his life among actor friends, running the box office of the Theatre Guenegaud on Rue Mazarine.
On hot sunny days, Rue Garanciere, like its narrow neighbours, is a haven of cooler, refreshing temperatures. A lovely fountain set in a wall near number 10 as been flowing with water to assuage the thirst of passersby since 1715, a thoughtful gestures by the Princess of Palatinate, Elizabeth Charlotte.
On Rue de Vaugirard, near the intersection with Rue Garanciere, there is a standard meter that was placed on the wall by the Convention. The decision was taken to impose the new decimal system nationwide, replacing the Ancien Regime pied and toise. Several meters in marble were affixed to walls in Paris during the Revolution to serve citizens as a reliable measuring stick. The one here is the only one remaining in its original location.
Rue Servandoni in 1620 was known as Rue des Fossoyeurs (literally grave-diggers street) as those who buried the dead at the old cemetery lived at number 1. With its row of dwellings dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, this street, named Servandoni in 1806, is the charming twin of the neighbouring Rue Ferou. Number 12 was the first Paris home for Alexander Dumas’ character d’Artagnan.
A commemorative plaque near number 15, mentions Condorcet’s stay here when he went into hiding after being branded as a Girondist traitor by the Montagnards in the Assembly, soon after the start of the Reign of Terror. The widow of his friend, the sculptor Francois Vernet, housed him through the fall and winter of 1793, until March 25, 1794. In these more peaceful times, it is a pleasure to stop and admire the old facades here. Some of the buildings on this street have carved doors, such as number 14, with its bas-relief representing an architect unrolling a floor plan. The doorway leads to a narrow courtyard framed by an ivy-covered building. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the street was home to a certain number of religious communities, including a home for abandoned children.
In 1945, a young woman from the provinces took a room in a boarding house on this street. She would become an icon for an entire generation: Juliette Greco. She met Anne-Marie Cazalis here. They teamed up as a singing duo and were a big hit. Writer William Faulkner resided here during his stays in Paris.
Rue Ferou was carved out of the Ferou estate in the 16th century. In 1936, the first block, which once run along the Grand Seminary, was named for Henry de Jouvenet, a journalist and politician who resided for many years at number 6, and who was the writer Colette’s second husband and the father of her only child.
The beautiful mansion at number 6 was the home of Mademoiselle Luzy, a delighful actress courted by Talleyrand, but who was moved into this address by her “sponsor”, a certain Mr Landry, around 1767. Built by Marie-Joseph Peyre, one of the architects of the Odeon, it is a sign tastes were again turning to classical themes. Two varnished terracotta sphinxes stand guard over the gateway.
Next door, at 8 Rue de Ferou, is the small townhouse where Mme de La Fayette lived around 1650 (the main entrance is on 50 Rue de Vaugirard). The publishing company Belin has had its headquarters here since 1777. Belin holds two records. For one, it is the oldest publisher in Paris. Secondly, it has the longest running book in print, Le Tour de France par deux enfants, by Genevieve Bruno, published in 1877. In The Three Musketeers, this address was only steps away from Atho’s house, where the first duel with the cardinal’s guards took place.
In the middle of Allee du Seminaire is a neoclassical fountain called Fontaine des Arts et de la Paix, erected in 1806 on Place du Chatelet, and later moved to this site. Espercieux ornamented it with delicately carved bas-reliefs, representing the arts, farming, trade and peace.
In the 17th century a vast complex of buildings went up at 80 Rue Bonaparte, in an area framed by three other streets: Mezieres, Cassette and Honore-Chevalier. It was for Jesuit novitiates. Unfortunately, one of the city’s purest examples of Jesuit architecture was demolished in 1763, when the Jesuits were expelled. The premises became the seat of the Grand Orient de France. This Masonic lodge had a special hall reserved for large gatherings of the Neuf-Soeurs literary circle, which included the intellectual giants of Paris. When Voltaire was initiated as a Freemason on April 7, 1778, a few weeks before his death, this is where the ceremony was held, due to its importance.
The 6th arrondissement’s city hall at 78 Rue Bonaparte dates from 1849. It was built on the site of the old convent of the Bernardines de Sainte-Cecile, which had become the Hotel de Charost in the 18th century. From 1795 to 1850, the arrondissement had an itinerant city hall; it was successively moved from Rue Mignon (near the Odeon) to Rue du Vieux-Colombier, then to Rue Garanciere. In 1860, the arrondissement numbering system changed and the 11th became the 6th.
Rue du Vieux-Colombier curves northward slighly as it runs from Place Saint-Sulpice to Carrefour de la Croix-Rouge. It changed names several times from the end of the 13th century to the middle of the 17th, when its present name, which had also been used in 1293, finally stuck. It comes as no surprise that it referred to the old dovecote of the Saint-Germain-des-Pres abbey. The continuation of this street beyond the intersection with Rue de Rennes puts it in the Cherche-Midi quarter.
Like most ofthe streets in this quarter, by 1850 Rue Vieux-Colombier had welcomed numerous convents and religious institutions. This Saint-Sulpice quarter’s temporal realization of the spiritual was mirrored by the Latin Quarter’s along Rue Saint-Jacques and past Rue Soufflot. In 1651, upon the request of Anne of Austria, the Augustinian sisters set up their convent at number 4 and 6. The nuns lost their convent during the Revolution and Masonic lodges took over the premises until 1806.
The 1823 fire station at number 11 has a lovely facade and a neoclassical pediment that incorporates firefighting emblems. It is located in the buildings for an old parish orphanage named Orphelins de la Mere-de-Dieu, founded in 1680. When it was closed in 1793, the Soeurs de la Charite used it as a shelter before moving to their complex on Rue du Bac.
Rue du Vieux-Colombier has also had its share of famous laymen. The three Le Nain brothers came to Paris in 1629 and kept their art studio here until 1648, when Antoine and Louis died. The artists were quite successful, commissioned to paint works for Anne of Austria, the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, Paris aldermen, and neighbourhood convents. Poet and critic Nicolas Boileau also lived on this street from 1661 to 1683, but the exact address is unknown. Among his many guests were Moliere, La Fontaine and a young Racine. They came to read their works and enjoy a good dinner. Once Racine met the lovely Miss Duparc, however, he scarcely kept company with his friends.
The various parts of Rue Madame were joined into a single street in 1824, when its last two-block segment was carved out, taking it all the way south to intersect with Rue de Vaugirard. Only the part between Rue de Rennes and Rue de Vaugirard actually belongs to the Saint-Sulpice neighbourhood. The oldest segment of the street runs from Rue du Vieux-Colombier to Rue de Mezieres. Formerly called Rue Gindre, it dates from teh 16th century. Its present day name honours the wife of the Comte de Provence, alias Monsieur, the brother of Louis XVI (‘Monsieur’ was the title usually given to the king’s elder brother). The street cut through several Luxembourg plots that Monsieur owned.
Rue Cassette cuts through an area full of 17th and 18th century buildings. There are next to no cars here. The street is calm and serene. A large convent was erected in 1659 in the stretch from number 12 to 16. It was built for the Adoration perpetuelle du Saint-Sacrement formerly located at 11 Rue Ferou. It was here that late the 17th century figure Madame Guyon chose to withdraw from the world. She was the spiritual leader of a circle of deeply religious aristocrats whome she introduced to quietism, a movement centred on self-abnegation in an effort to silence the mind and soul and reach the ultimate goal: the ecstasy of God’s love. She was imprisoned twice in the Bastille for her heterodox religious beliefs. Her enemy was Bossuet, a leader of Gallican orthodoxy, but Fenelon, an equally promising ecclesiastic, supported her. Between her two terms in prison, she stayed at the convent on Rue Cassette.
The only vestige of the Jesuit novitiate buildings among the odd-numbered houses on Rue Cassette is number 21. Two doors down, at number 17, the Peres Blancs welcomed the founder of the order, Cardinal Lavigerie, archbishop of Algiers, whenever he had to visit Paris. The Dukes de Cosse-Brissac once owned the mansion at number 25. Sophie Rostopchine, better known as the Comtesse de Segur, a woman who thrilled generations of young readers, lived for some time at number 29, a mansion no longer standing.
It was also here, at the junction of Rue Cassette and Rue de Vaugirard that Alexandre Dumas located the first encounter between d’Artagnan and the three musketeers.
At number 70, the Saint-Joseph-des-Carmes church was the site of one of the French Revolution’s bloodiest episodes.
The mendicant order of Discalced Carmelites (Barefoot Carmelites) was a monastic community that formed in Italy, in response to the preaching of Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish mystic. In 1611, they received an invitation to come to Paris. In fact, they joined Carmelite sisters who had come from Spain and were following Saint Teresa of Avila’s rules at the Incarnation convent located on Rue Saint-Jacques.
While waiting for the convent on Rue de Vaugirard to be completed, the Discalced Carmelites lodged on Rue Casssette. In 1613, Marie de Medicis laid the first stone of the chapel, which was completed in 1620. Over the years, the Carmelites’ territory grew. In the large garden, the Carmelites cultivated the herbs they used to make their famous licorice-flavoured water sold under the brand name of Eau des Carmes Boyer.
The famous Carmelite white that makes walls look like marble was used on all the convent buildings erected behind the church and those to its left towards Rue d’Assas. Deconsecrated in 1845, the convent, which had been home to a Carmelite community since 1797, was given to the archbishopric for Catholic centres of learning. In 1875, the Institut Catholique took over the buildings and set up its various departments.
Saint-Joseph-des-Carmes is an attractive church built in Jesuit style with a classical pediment. The only departure from austerity is the pair of statues in niches gracing the facade. The church choir is topped by a dome of Italian inspiration. It was the second church in Paris to be built in this style, the first was the Petits-Augustins’ convent church on Rue Bonaparte. Behind this dome, a little campanile rises, a highly unusual touch for a Parisian church. This is yet more Italian influence.
A doorway on the right opens onto a vestibule with a clerestory, which, in turn, leads to the Carmelite church. After leaving noisy Rue de Vaugirard, we finally found ourselves steeped into a world of silence and prayer. As we moved toward the high altar, we looked up to the ceiling to admire the beautiful 17th century fresco by Bertholet Flamael (a native of Liege). It tells the story of the prophet Elijah carried to heaven in a whirlwind. The Carmelites consider Elijah their founding father. On either side of the choir are statues of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila. In the transept is a delicate Virgin and Child by Antonio Raggi, inspired by Bernini. The Sacred Heart Chapel and the Saint Elijah chapel have some very fine paintings framed by sculptures of angels, the work of Simon Vouet, First Painter to the King in 1627.
The memorial to Monsignor Affre, the archbishop of Paris killed by a gunshot in February 1848, while trying to reason with insurgents in the Saint-Antoine neighbourhood, is a reminder of the violent deaths this convent saw. The September 2, 1792 massacre of nonjuring priests has become the symbol of the furor of the French Revolution.
After this massacre, the last monks were sent away. The convent became a prison. Alexandre de Beauhamais and his wife Josephine were but two of the illustrious prisoners held here. The former suffered the guillotine while the latter was saved and marched on to a glorious destiny: empress and first consort of Napoleon. After the Reign of Terror, the premises of the convent were rented to a cabaret owner who turned it into a ballroom. In 1797, Miss de Soyecourt, a Carmelite whose father had been jailed on the Carmelites’ premises, bought the buildings to house a community of young nuns.
In 1845, the convent was sold to Dominicans to make room for a teaching institution. Father Lacordaire and Catholic writer Frederic Ozanam taught there. After a law favouring religious instruction was passed in 1850, the Institut Catholique bought the property and, in 1875, commissioned new buildings to be built on Rue d’Assas in a style reminiscent of Flemish neo-Gothic.
Intially a law school, by 1877 the Institut Catholique had opened a school of arts, followed by a school of sciences. It then added to School of Oriental Languages. The university has steadily grown. It is now endowed with a business school, ESSEC, which has since moved to Cergy-Pontoise.
Among the flukes of history is the happy coincidence that two fundamental experiments in modern history took place a mere 40 years apart in practically the same place. In 1851, at 28 Rue d’Assas, just across from the Institut Catholique, physicist Leon Foucault conducted an experiment proving, with his famous pendulum, the Earth’s rotation. A sculpture on the facade on the Rue de Vaugirard side of the building celebrates his accomplishment. In 1890, Edouard Branly, a professor at the Institut Catholique, set up his radio-conduction experiments in the university laboratories. He laid the groundwork for wireless radio transmission.
After a long walk, on the way back to the hotel, we found ourselves in front of a Parisian specialty…
They leave the rhum on the table in case you want more…
Brasserie Vagenende, 142 Boulevard Sait-Germain, on the site of a turn-of-the-century patisserie is the latest jewel in the crown of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and one of the most beautiful brasseries in the 6th district of Paris. The recent renovation of Vagenende has breathed new life into the original Art Nouveau decor for which the building is listed on the supplementary inventory of historic monuments. Its many frescos, mirrors and original curved wood trim give it a stylish and glamorous feel.