How a Simple Bridge Made Paris the City It Is Today

Then, again.
May 7 2014 5:03 PM

The Birth of the Pont Neuf

How a simple bridge made Paris the world’s first modern tourist destination.

The Pont Neuf was the first bridge to cross the Seine in a single span.
The 1734 Bretez-Turgot map showing the Pont Neuf, the first bridge to cross the Seine in a single span.

Courtesy of Bloomsbury

Excerpted from How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City by Joan DeJean, out now from Bloomsbury USA.

The invention of Paris began with a bridge.

Today, people simply flash an image of the Eiffel Tower to evoke Paris instantly. It’s the monument that offers immediate proof that you are looking at the City of Light. In the 17th century, the Eiffel Tower’s role was played by a bridge: the Pont Neuf. The New Bridge was Henri IV’s initial idea for winning over the people of his freshly conquered capital city, and it managed that daunting task with brio. For the first time, the monument that defined a city was an innovative urban work rather than a cathedral or a palace. And Parisians rich and poor immediately adopted the Pont Neuf: They saw it as the symbol of their city and the most important place in town.

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The construction of a new bridge over the Seine was initiated by Henri IV’s predecessor, the last king of the Valois dynasty, Henri III, who laid the first stone in May 1578. Some early projects conceived of a very different bridge, most notably, with shops and houses lining each side. In 1587, construction was just becoming visible above the water line when life in Paris was upended by religious violence. With the city in chaos, work on the bridge ceased for more than a decade.

In April 1598, Henri IV signed the Edict of Nantes: the Wars of Religion were officially over. A month earlier, the new king had already registered documents announcing his intention to complete the bridge. Henri III had offered no justification for the project; his successor, characteristically, laid out clear goals for it. He presented the bridge as a “convenience” for the inhabitants of Paris. He also characterized it as a necessary modernization of the city’s infrastructure—Paris’ most recent bridge, the Notre-Dame bridge, was by then badly outdated and far “too narrow,” as the king remarked, to deal with traffic over the Seine, which Henri IV described as rapidly expanding because new kinds of vehicles were now sharing the bridge with those who crossed on horseback and on foot. The new bridge would be financed in a previously untested manner: The king levied a tax on every cask of wine brought into Paris. Thus, as city historian Henri Sauval, writing in the 1660s, phrased it, “the rich and drunkards” paid for this urban work.

No prior bridge had had to deal with anything like the load the New Bridge was intended to bear—most significantly, a kind of weight that in 1600 was just becoming a serious consideration: vehicular transport. Earlier cities had only had to contend with transport that was relatively small and light: carts and wagons. In the final decades of the sixteenth century, personal carriages were just beginning to be seen in cities such as London and Paris. Nevertheless, with great foresight, each of Henri IV’s documents on the Pont Neuf adds new kinds of vehicles to the list of those to be accommodated. He was thus the first ruler to struggle with what would become a perennial concern for modern urban planning: the necessity of maintaining an infrastructure capable of handling an ever greater mass of vehicles.

The New Bridge became the first celebrity monument in the history of the modern city because it was so strikingly different from earlier bridges. It was built not of wood, but of stone; it was fireproof and meant to endure—it is now in fact the oldest bridge in Paris. The Pont Neuf was the first bridge to cross the Seine in a single span. It was, moreover, most unusually long—160 toises or nearly 1,000 feet—and most unusually wide—12 toises or nearly 75 feet—far wider than any known city street.

The bridge proved essential to the flow of traffic across Paris: Before, just getting to the Louvre from the Left Bank had been a famously tortuous endeavor that, for all those not wealthy enough to have a boat waiting to ferry them across, required the use of two bridges and a long walk on each side. The New Bridge also played a crucial role in the process by which the Right Bank became fully part of the city: In 1600, its only major attraction was the Louvre, whereas by the end of the century, the Right Bank showcased important residential architecture and urban works, from the Place Royale to the Champs-Élysées. In addition, whenever a major event transpired in seventeenth-century Paris, it either took place on the Pont Neuf or was first talked about on the Pont Neuf.

The 18th-century map above depicts the statue of Henri IV positioned in the middle of the bridge, the first public statue in the history of Paris. Parisians immediately turned the novel kind of monument into the most popular meeting place in the city. They created expressions such as “let’s meet by the Bronze King,” or “I’ll wait for you beneath the Bronze Horse.”

The enthusiasm with which Parisians welcomed the bridge helps explain why it became one of those rare public works that actually shape urban life. On the New Bridge, Parisians rich and poor came out of their houses and began to enjoy themselves in public again after decades of religious violence. The Pont Neuf became the first truly communal entertainment space in the city: Since access cost nothing, it was open to all. The greatest nobles disported themselves in ways amazingly unorthodox for a setting where anyone could see them. In February 1610, the 16-year-old Duc de Vendôme (Henri IV’s illegitimate son) was seen running around on the bridge engaged in a “heated battle with snowballs.”

And on the other end of the social spectrum, it was at the base of the Pont Neuf that public bathing in the Seine became popular, giving the least fortunate Parisians the chance to cool off from the summer heat. Soon after the bridge was opened, bathers and sunbathers began to congregate just below the bridge, in full view of all those crossing the Seine.

François Colletet’s periodical Le Journal (The Daily), reports that during the long hot summer of 1716, the police were obliged to step in when nude sunbathers were spotted, “on the riverbank by the Pont Neuf, where they were lying and walking about completely naked.” An order was issued “to forbid men from staying out on the sand by the Pont Neuf in the nude.” The Pont Neuf was a great social leveler.

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