Illuminating portrait of the first modern city, 17th-century Paris, which could “hold a visitor’s attention with quite different splendors.”
DeJean (Romance Languages/Univ. of Pennsylvania; The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual—and the Modern Home Began, 2009, etc.) focuses on two kings, Henry IV and his grandson, Louis XIV, who lived 250 years before Baron Haussmann, the great public works leader who massively renovated Paris during the mid-1800s. When the author examines how the Pont Neuf, completed in 1607, was the key to the birth of the city, readers will immediately understand why it was designed and constructed there. Crossing the Seine at the Île de la Cité, it included the first sidewalks anywhere, and it was the first bridge in Paris to offer a gathering place with a view of the river. Suddenly, ladies and gentlemen were out promenading, seeing and being seen. Adding Place des Vosges (originally a silk factory) and the mansions on Île Saint-Louis gave the population the first true neighborhoods. People-watching on the streets raised awareness of fashion and introduced various forms of communication, as well as the first forms of advertising. Pedestrians began to shop using the first shopping guide, printed in 1690. Of course, thievery rose with the presence of the elite, so the first street lighting was installed. Since there was light, the shops stayed open well into the evenings—hence, the “city of light.” Both Henry and Louis built central Paris in just over 100 years, and we can still walk and explore what they left for us. “Paris caused urban planners to invent what a city should be,” writes the author, “and it caused visitors to dream of what a city might be.”
Dejean obviously knows and loves Paris, and she provides coherent history that effectively explains the evolution of a city built by a few prescient men.