Promenades de Paris - La Place Vendôme
Promenades de Paris - la série:
• le Louvre et les Jardins des Tuileries
• Le Palais-Royal
As with the other promenades we've taken in Paris thus far, we'll use le Métro to arrive at the beginning point of our walk. Nous prenons ligne 1 du Métro à Palais-Royal-Musée du Louvre. We will begin where we last walked, at le Palais-Royal. Stepping out of the Métro station, we turn west-north-west onto rue Saint-Honoré.
Saint-Honoré is the patron saint of bakers. When Louis la Vache opens his boulangerie, it will be called Boulangerie-Saint-Honoré. As tradition goes, a young man named Honoré became the Bishop of Amiens in 554. During his service a number of miraculous events occurred, which spared farmers, millers, and bakers from natural disasters. Residents of France connected the miracles with évêque Honoré and in 1204 a Parisian boulanger built a chapel to commemorate him. Today, the chapel is no longer standing, but the name, Saint-Honoré, is etched in a gate leading to Faubourg and rue Saint-Honoré in the heart of Paris.
As we saunter along rue Saint-Honoré, at numero 256 is Café Verlet. We are drawn to this cozy lunch spot by the pleasingly pungent aroma of freshly ground coffee. Crossing la rue, at numero 213 is the boutique Colette, named for the writer-actress who has une place named after her which we saw when we visited le Palais-Royal. Boutique Colette offers an eclectic assortment of clothes and accessories and is known as being the style mecca of Paris. In its basement is a water bar where customers sit at large, spartan tables and order from an extensive selection of bottled waters. Ne vous faites pas de bile - don't worry - there's food, too.
We'll turn right up rue du Marché-Saint-Honoré. At numero 10 is Le Rubis (the Ruby), a wine bar famous for how little it has changed. Here among dust-covered bouteilles du vin, we could satisfy our appetite with hearty lentils with ham hock, salami sandwiches and a nice, puckery tarte au citron.
At the north end of la place du Marché-Saint-Honoré, we will find a branch of the famous Parisian boulanger, Poilâne. We could step in for a pastry, had we not had the tarte au citron at Le Rubis. At numero 33 is Philippe Model, famous for chapeaux, hats, as colorful as Easter eggs, delicately perched over the store.
We'll pause for a moment and note the actual building of le Marché-Saint-Honoré. Louis la Vache is often very critical of modern architecture. Louis in particular hates le centre Georges Pompidou, a structure he feels would make sense (as a joke) in Legoland, but is horribly out of place in its location just north of Forum des Halles, not that Louis is fond of the current structure at les Halles. Louis is almost as critical of l'opéra Bastille. But, in Louis's opinion, le Marché-Saint-Honoré is modern architecture that works. It is a glass and steel structure that recalls the lamentably destroyed Forum des Halles, the former central market designed in 1872 by Baltard during the Haussmann renewal of Paris. It also, to a lesser degree, brings to mind another fine XIX ème siecle glass and steel structure, le Grand Palais. Le Marché-Saint-Honoré is a structure of grace and lightness. It is not truly a marché, but there is a fine furniture store, an Audi dealer and some offices for BNP Paribas in the structure. Louis thinks that perhaps in the past there was a market on the site, but he hasn't so far been able to verify that guess.
Now we'll step out of le Place du Marché-Saint-Honoré north onto rue d'Antin and then we'll veer onto l'avenue de l'Opéra, site of the beautiful Opéra Garnier.
Passing the opéra house, we'll turn left and south onto rue de la Paix and head toward la Place Vendôme. The world's most famous joaillers, jewelers, have set up shop along this street.
Entering la Place Vendôme, we might feel as though we've stepped into a vast and elegant outdoor salon. The façades surrounding us, serene and majestic, enclose the stately space almost completely, and their rhythmic regularity is so satisfying that even the traffic passing through does little to mar the place’s aristocratic allure. Instead of a chandelier, the great bronze candlestick of Napoléon’s column provides a central focus, and it’s easy to imagine the occasions when XVIII ème siecle aristocrates danced here to celebrate royal weddings.
Today, la Place Vendôme is still a magnet for Old—and New—Money, as doormen usher guests into the Ritz Hotel and as façades that once fronted private mansions glitter with the city’s densest concentration of diamonds. Shop windows of jewelers like Boucheron, Bulgari and Chaumet attract not only serious buyers with Swiss bank accounts, but strolling groups of recreational window shoppers.
If the whole ensemble resembles a Hollywood set, it’s not surprising. In fact, la Place Vendôme was just that: an empty stage lined by imposing façades with nothing behind them and, in 1957, "Love in the Afternoon," with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper was filmed here. Originally planned as the home of a royal library, scholarly academies and embassies, the place was launched in 1686, when Louis XIV authorized the construction of la Place des Conquêtes between a monastery on the rue de Castiglione and a convent on la rue de la Paix. Existing properties between them were expropriated (including the mansion of le Duc de Vendôme, whose title would eventually give the place its name), and work began the following year.
Under the direction of architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart construction continued for several years, but the project stalled in 1691 when money ran out. Finally the City of Paris, with the help of a group of speculators, took it up, renaming it la Place Louis-le-Grand, in 1699. The developers divided up most of the plots among themselves, and Hardouin-Mansart resumed work with another architect, changing the shape from the original rectangle to an octagon.
At this point, the façades looked much as they do today, with arched ground-floor windows, two floors of rectangular windows flanked by Corinthian pilasters and a top story of alternating rectangular and oval mansard windows. Projecting sections on the east and west sides matched the angled corner structures, and only two streets cut into the place, rue de la Paix to the north and rue de Castiglione to the south.
Behind those façades lay vacant lots, waiting for buyers to build what they pleased. Even today, an aerial view of la Place Vendôme shows an amazing hodge-podge of structures behind those matching fronts. And from the beginning, the whole ensemble was designed as a setting, not for a column but for a statue of the king.
Unveiled in 1699, the statue, enclosed by an iron fence and standing on a white marble pedestal, resembled the one that stands in la Place des Victoires today. Over 20 feet high, it depicted the bewigged Louis XIV astride his horse, dressed as a Roman emperor, facing la rue Saint-Honoré with his arm extended to the right.
The value of the lots went up and down like shares on a nervous stock market, and the first building was not completed until 1702. Most went to financiers and fermiers-généraux (wealthy tax-collectors), giving rise to a popular jingle about royal statues: Henri IV was on the Pont Neuf with his people, Louis XIII in la Place des Vosges with his gentlemen and Louis XIV in la Place Vendôme with his financiers. By 1720, five years after the king’s death, all work was finished.
Shortly before its completion, all remaining lots were bought by an enterprising Scotsman who would have a huge impact on France’s economy. John Law, who’d studied banking in Amsterdam, had written a book called “Money and Trade Considered with a Proposal for Supplying the Nation with Money.” Although the Scottish parliament rejected his proposal, Law received permission in 1716 to try his plan in France, heavily in debt as a result of Louis XIV’s extensive wars.
But in Law’s opinion, reduction of public debt was only an incidental result of his plan. He saw money as a creative force that would stimulate a larger national product and an increase in national power. The Mississippi Company he created acquired a trade monopoly on the French Louisiana territory, then bought out the French East India Company. His bank, which became the state bank, was soon pouring out paper money, and Law was made controller-general of France. A speculative frenzy ensued.
The plan worked well at first, and by 1719 Law, who lived with his family at 23 Place Vendôme, was the most courted man in France. But the “Mississippi Bubble” soon burst, the result of political intrigue and speculative complications. Although none of it was directly attributable to Law, he and many others in France were ruined. On le 17 juillet 1720, a mob attacked his mansion and he narrowly escaped lynching. He died nine years later in Venice, a poor man.
Law was only one of a colorful cast of characters in la Place Vendôme. Numero 16 was once the home of Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer, whose experiments gave us the word “mesmerize.” Mesmer was convinced that astrological forces influenced health by means of an invisible fluid, and that a person could transmit these forces to others through “animal magnetism.”
He became famous in Austria for therapeutic sessions resembling seances, during which patients sat around a liquid-filled vat, holding hands or grasping iron bars protruding from the solution, while Mesmer walked behind them, placing “healing” hands on them. Accused of practicing magic, he left Austria for Paris.
Moving into la Place Vendôme in 1778, he was soon attracting so many patients that he launched a two-tiered system: the rich got the doctor himself, the poor his valet. When the mansion became too small for his thousands of patients, he moved to le X ème arrondissement. He was eventually discredited; in 1784 an investigative commission including Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier found that any cures were the result of “individual imagination.” Mesmer retired rich but died forgotten in 1815.
La Place Vendôme remained la Place Louis-le-Grand until the Revolution, when a mob toppled the king’s statue and sent it to a foundry (only the huge left foot, now in le Louvre, survived). Renamed la Place des Piques (lances), the square in which the nobility once danced at royal weddings was soon displaying their guillotined heads.
In 1799 it was finally named la Place Vendôme, and when Napoléon wanted to commemorate the Battle of Austerlitz, he ordered that “there shall be erected ... a column [like that] erected at Rome in honor of Trajan. The column shall be surrounded by a pedestal adorned with an olive wreath, on which there shall be a statue of Charlemagne.” But it didn’t turn out that way. Raised in 1806, the stone column was covered with a spiraling bas-relief depicting the story of the battle, cast from the melted bronze of over a thousand Austrian cannons. Four years later it was topped by a statue, not of Charlemagne but of Napoléon, dressed as a Roman emperor.
From then on the column was subjected to the whims of successive regimes. After Napoléon’s 1814 defeat, the statue was replaced by a giant fleur-de-lis. In 1833 Louis-Philippe erected a new statue of Napoléon, this time in a long overcoat and little hat (now at the Invalides). Napoléon III replaced this with a copy of the original statue, which toppled, along with the entire column, in 1871 during the Commune, largely at the instigation of painter Gustave Courbet. In 1873 the column and its statue were restored and re-erected at the artist’s expense, leaving him ruined.
Some art critics claim that the mammoth column (132 feet) spoils the proportions of la Place Vendôme, which was designed to hold a smaller statue. But, as John Russell writes in his book “Paris,” “this is a case in which affection must be allowed to override aesthetics; most of us, I think, would be sorry to see the column pulled down.”
A walk around today’s Place Vendôme will gives us an opportunity not only to acquire (or admire) some of the world’s finest jewelry, but to stroll through history. Let’s start at numero 1: L'hôtel de Vendôme stands on the site of the private mansion that gave the place its name. Now a beautifully appointed boutique hotel, it once housed the embassy of the Republic of Texas, from its declaration of independence in 1836 to its admission to the Union in 1845.
Numero 7 houses the contemporary diamond designs of the jeweler Fred, and, in the adjoining courtyard, the discreet boutique called JAR (for Joel Arthur Rosenthal). By appointment only, select clients are admitted to this reclusive American-born jeweler’s atelier, where one-of-a-kind creations are displayed in a museum-like setting. For the rest of us, the window usually displays one exquisite item.
The Ministère de la Justice occupies numeros 11 et 13, where the Revolutionary leader Danton lived with his wife in 1792. At the time, he was Minister of Justice (a coincidence, since the building did not house that ministry until 1815). However, he lost power as the Reign of Terror gained momentum and was guillotined in 1794. An interesting Revolutionary relic remains on the building - a standard metre in marbre, marble, placed there in 1795 to familiarize Parisians with the new unit of measurement.
Le Ministère is flanked by the Ritz Hotel, where the ghosts of Proust, Coco Chanel and Hemingway still haunt the halls. It’s hard to imagine now what a groundbreaking event its opening in 1898 was. César Ritz, the Swiss farm boy whose hard work and original ideas elevated him from waiter to hôtelier, was managing a luxury hôtel in London when he decided to create a small, intimate and exclusive Paris hôtel, equipped and decorated with the very best, regardless of expense. The first Paris hôtel to offer private baths and suites of rooms, and the first to bear his name, it was a work of art. And although Ritz’s obsessive attention to detail nearly led to a nervous breakdown, his hôtel was a success from the start. Today, having a drink at one of the hôtel’s three bars - the charming terrace Bar Vendôme, newly decorated Bar Cambon or atmospheric Hemingway Bar—is a great way to experience the undeniable Ritz allure.
An awning at numero 21 still carries the name of legendary couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, a reminder of the days when her elegant and witty fashions, some embroidered with designs by Jean Cocteau, were sold in her boutique at this address.
Where Law was nearly lynched, the Dubail and Cartier boutiques (numero 23) start an unbroken line of jewelers that encircles the rest of la Place. Parisian jewelers began settling here at the end of le XIX ème siecle, and it’s been the center of the trade ever since. One of the first was Boucheron (Numero 26), which opened here in 1893. Its neighbor, Van Cleef & Arpels, moved into numeros 22 et 24 in 1906, giving it an unrivaled eight windows on la Place. For those whose budget doesn’t stretch to serious stones, most shops have introduced affordable boutique lines; some even carry perfume and accessories like handbags and sunglasses.
We wander from window to window to admire the displays. Tucked into the corner at Numero 20 is legendary watchmaker Breguet. Napoléon and Wellington both wore Breguet watches at Waterloo, and he even supplied the imprisoned Marie Antoinette with a simple watch, perhaps to count her remaining hours.
Breguet’s neighbor, Mauboussin, a sixth-generation family firm known for surprising color combinations of precious stones, recently renovated its boutique, creating the most accessible and inviting shop on the Place. Jewelry and accessories are displayed in a luminous decor of soft apple green, turquoise and lavender, with Deco-inspired chairs and sculpted wood tables. Its most unique feature is the cave à diamants, where glass cases, equipped with an ingenious sliding jeweler’s loupe, display unset diamonds along with their quality ratings and price, ranging from a modest .19-carat stone at 240E to a 2.26-carat dazzler at 27,850E.
Continuing past Chanel and Piaget, wel find that Comme des Garçons and Swatch now occupy Dr. Mesmer’s former clinic at Numero 16, while Chaumet, at Numero 18, is housed in the building where Frédéric Chopin spent his last months and died in 1849. The Chaumet boutique is typical of these security-heavy shops, where we must ring for entry. Inside, at velvet-topped tables, prospective buyers admire sparkling necklaces and brooches carried out from back rooms on little trays. One of Paris’ most historic jewelers, Chaumet, founded in 1780, created Napoléon’s coronation crown and Josephine’s tiaras, as well as exquisite gems for everyone from Russian countesses to American actresses. The array of glittering windows continues through Bulgari, Patek Philippe, Mikimoto, Dior, Repossi and Buccellati, with Damiani closing the circle at la rue de Castiglione.
Although all the shops empty their windows at closing time, la Place Vendôme remains one of Paris’ loveliest spots at night, when facades are bathed in soft light and the central column glows with artful illumination. That’s when we think of another famous inhabitant, the Comtesse de Castiglione. As a young beauty, the “divina contessa,” mistress to Napoléon III, entertained all of fashionable Europe. In later years, no longer the toast of the town, she moved into an apartment at numero 26 where she lived alone, so distressed at the ruin of her looks that she covered all the mirrors, shrouded the walls in black and emerged only after dark, heavily veiled.
Perhaps it’s just as well that the madwoman of la Place Vendôme, as she came to be known, can’t see her former home today. Because la Place Vendôme, ageless and ever-fashionable, remains just as splendid today as it was when the Sun King had it built over three hundred years ago.
Having window-shopped les bijouteries and having absorbed a bit of the history of this pretty square, we now turn south on rue de Castiglione and continue on toward rue de Rivoli. Before reaching rue de Rivoli, we cross rue du Mont Thabor. On our right at Numero 36 is Le Soufflé, which specializes in just that. We could step into the pretty salon du thé, Angelina at 226, rue de Rivoli for a steaming and satisfying tasse du chocolat à l'ancien, or for the anglophones among us, we could stop into the British-owned W.H. Smith librarie at Numero 248 before boarding le Métro at Concorde for our trip home.
The Place Vendome: Architecture and Social Mobility in Eighteenth-Century Paris