Friday, June 27, 2008


If Saint-Denis is the foundation of the Gothic style, then the thirteenth-century chapel of Sainte-Chapelle is its apotheosis. To the extent that the Gothic style was about verticality and light, Sainte-Chapelle is its utmost expression, rising on narrow ribs of stone and with walls made almost entirely of glass. The following picture more or less fails to do it justice, but it's the best I could get on our recent visit:


The amazing thing about the chapel is that, while the stonework was damaged during the Revolution and the Grand Reliquary which held the Crown of Thorns and other relics was melted down, none of the thirteenth-century stained glass was broken. This rather boggles the mind, but the result is some spectacular glass still visible in the vertical windows. Here's a sample, from the lower chapel apse:


The chapel was built at the behest of King Louis IX (St. Louis), who purchased the Crown of Thorns and other relics from King Baudoin (Baldwin) of Constantinople during the Crusades. Famously, the relics cost more to buy than the chapel cost to build. But the presence of the relics in the heart of the French royal palace (the chapel was on the grounds of the Palais de la Cité) made Paris one of the major centers of Western Christendom.

The Palais de la Cité survives in part in the form of the Conciergerie, which I wrote about earlier; but for the most part the site is now occupied by the Palais de Justice. The upshot of this is that the Sainte-Chapelle now stands in the courtyard of what is effectively the supreme court of Paris. So getting in is a bit of a trial, so to speak, involving metal detectors and x-ray machines.

In the nineteenth century, Sainte-Chapelle was among the buildings restored by Viollet-le-Duc, who repaired much of the damaged stonework and renewed the polychromy of the interior. It is one of the few medieval churches that has a polychromed interior, although the extent to which this reflects the original appearance of the chapel is open to debate; certainly there was originally wall painting inside the chapel. But there is something a bit Pre-Raphaelite about the gilding and the fleurs-de-lis that are everywhere now. This photograph gives you a sense of it: it represents my efforts to photograph the only surviving thirteenth-century wall painting in the place, an Annunciation.


The flash does tend to heighten the effect of the colors, but still you get a sense of the color, which is rich almost to the point of garishness. On the other hand, the glass and some of the surviving pictorial quatrefoils on the walls are pretty brightly colored too, so Viollet-le-Duc may have been on to something. One of the areas where he restored the stonework most thoroughly was on the royal portal in the upper chapel, through which the king would enter the chapel (via a porch attached to the palace proper). The panels of stone depict stories from Genesis, including the Creation, the Fall, and the story of Noah's Ark. Though obviously nineteenth-century in style, they are charming. Here is a partial panel showing the building of the Ark:


This is all unpainted, as is all the exterior sculpture on the chapel. One of the things that strikes me as nineteenth-century about it is the use of a Romanesque round chapel in the background. In a thirteenth-century relief, I might expect the background architecture to be that of the time and place where the relief was made: in this case, High Gothic. But Viollet-le-Duc was well read in archaeology and art history, and knew that some of the earliest Christian churches were built in a Roman style (of course here I feel compelled to point out that Noah was not a Christian, but V-le-D probably wasn't thinking the same way). In this he gives himself away with a kind of historical consciousness that was not characteristic of the period he was emulating.

Fête champêtre

Versailles is about 30 minutes outside Paris on the commuter rail, and my friend Eric lives near the chateau grounds. We went out for a Sunday picnic with him and his wife and utterly adorable kid. It must be admitted that there's nothing quite like a bottle of wine, a baguette and a jar of foie gras under a tree in Marie Antoinette's back yard (though I think in fact we were sitting in her former cow pasture, which takes some of the romance off). There are some beautifully parklike corners of the grounds and people from the city and the local towns (including a whole flock of Girl Scouts) were picnicking and playing soccer and whatnot. The more formally planted part of the grounds require a ticket to visit, and we went in to see the famous fountains, which these days are accompanied by Baroque music playing from hidden speakers among the trees. The fountains are pretty lovely, hidden among high box hedges trimmed into, if not a maze proper, a sort of series of lanes and byways in which a person could easily get lost.

The grounds are the ultimate example of the classical European garden, with topiary shrubs trimmed to within an inch of their lives, and everything planted in geometric lines and shapes. They open out to a terrace behind the chateau, and the following view:


No shade, acres of gravel; intolerable on a hot day, in fact, despite the plantings.

The question here is "Why?" and the answer appears to be "Because they (the kings of France) could." Like the Forbidden City, Versailles is an example of architecture which expands horizontally to express its dominance and power. American urbanites are accustomed to verticality as a sign of power and wealth, like the Sears Tower in Chicago. But the chateau de Versailles has only a few stories: it is rather its all-encompassing sprawl and the repetitiveness of its facade (which only emphasizes the way it goes on and on) that make the point of royal power.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Quai Branly vs. the Musée de la Marine

Last week we visited two museums with major exhibitions on the Pacific: the Musée du Quai Branly and the Musée de la Marine. The Quai Branly houses art from collections that were previously held at the Musée de l'Homme (as ethnographic material) and the Musée national des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie: hence, the result is a collection of art from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas (with significant omissions, like most of China and Japan). The Musée de la Marine is dedicated to the history of seamanship and marine exploration in France. Both were impressive in their own way; but ironically it was the Musée de la Marine which came away more strongly than the famous if controversial Quai Branly.

The building at Quai Branly has been open for two years and is alternately hailed and vilified for its architectural choices. When evaluating new architecture in Paris it must be pointed out that compared to other cities Paris is extraordinarily architecturally consistent, thanks to the 19th century Haussmann plan which also created its main avenues and oblique intersections. It often strikes me that it is probably more difficult to innovate architecturally in Paris than elsewhere, because the city is so uniform over all. Still, one would hope that it wouldn't be completely impossible.

The architect of this building chose not to build right to the edge of the sidewalk, which is the pattern for most Parisian buildings. If they have open space on the lot, it is usually in the form of an interior courtyard. In this case, by contrast, the footprint of the building is considerably smaller than the lot itself. The Quai Branly edge of the lot, notionally the front, is faced with a giant curtain wall of clear glass, on which the names and images of special exhibitions and events are applied (how is not clear: with decals or paint, it appears). One part of the building is built up to the sidewalk, and this part is the famous "living wall" of mosses and saprophytic plants: a strangely organic effect, sort of anti-architectural. Behind the glass wall is a lush and jungly garden, which one passes through to reach the building. The museum itself is elevated on pillars above the ground, so that it is quite open below, except for a restaurant on one side and the bookstore/entry point on the other. The facade of the museum, up above, is made of large projecting blocks of different, saturated colors.

Given the enormous space the building occupies, it is remarkable how little of that space is used for actual museum displays. The washrooms are two stories below the entry foyer, down endless flights of shallow steps, and the exhibitions are two stories above, in the main body of the museum. The exhibition spaces are reached by a very long walk up a winding, serpentine white ramp that moves through nothingness. When we visited, the space of the ramp was somewhat relieved by a series of video installations by Trinh T. Minh-Ha, projected on the floor of the ramp, but these were soundless loops of crashing waves, exotic scenery, and the faces of brown people; on the whole, not much more diverting than the structural pillars and ductwork one also passes on the way up, and what one was supposed to learn from the video was not at all clear.

The exhibition spaces are similarly organic in shape, with curving walls and ramps, though they are filled with the usual rectangular display cases. The light is unusually low, even for a collection which includes materials like basketwork, feathers, kapa cloth, and so on, which may be damaged by excessive light. The overall effect is of excessive theatricality: as though the museum were trying to exoticize and dramatize the collection.

This is the surprising part, because the collections of the museum really don't need dramatization. They are uniformly high in quality, and one object after another had us ooh-ing and aah-ing. Spectacular wood carvings from Melanesia, tapa cloth like we'd only seen in books, shell-disk jewelry from the Solomon Islands, Maori hei tiki, and so on, to the tune of several thousand objects: it was a parade of familiar object types, for those of us who live in the Pacific, but of a quality that we'd never seen before.

We had gone particularly to see a temporary exhibition of famous artifacts from Polynesia, including incredibly rare figural statues from Hawai'i, akua hulu mano (feather gods), 'ahu'ula (feather cloaks), featherwork and wickerwork helmets, and many other things collected in Polynesia in the late eighteenth century by Captain Cook and other explorers. Again, these were familiar object types, but examples so fine and rare that we were really awed.

So the quality of the collections is really tremendous. We had only energy to see the Polynesian and other Oceanic collections, and to breeze through the Asian section of the museum. We missed Africa and the Americas entirely. But a few oddnesses began to come to our notice (besides the theatricality of the exhibition style). For instance, among the collections of artifacts from around the Pacific were paintings by living Aboriginal artists of Australia. There was no contemporary kapa cloth, no contemporary Abelam yam masks, no other forms of contemporary Pacific art production; only contemporary Aboriginal paintings. This seemed to say something a little odd and possibly unsavory about the status of the Aboriginal Australians. Similarly, the Asian collections were strangely truncated: Japan was represented by textiles of the Ainu, and China by ethnic costumes and silverwork of the southwestern minority peoples. This above all else tended to highlight the status of the Quai Branly collections as the art of "uncivilized" peoples. It's not as if there isn't folk art from China and Japan, but the ethnic majority of each of these regions was totally ignored.

Of course, looking at the exhibition from the point of view of French museology, it really only seems to reproduce the existing problems of the two museums whose collections were combined to form the Quai Branly. Both of the earlier museums had collections that were formed by colonial collecting habits: the "cabinet of curiosities" crossed with the nineteenth-century grand exposition. There is a long history in this kind of museology (which isn't confined to France, by any means) of exhibiting objects as aesthetic curiosities with little to no contextualization. In its work, the Quai Branly did better than some exhibitions we've seen in Paris, like the exhibition of Oceanic materials from the Barbier-Mueller collection (of Geneva), which were on display at the incredibly froufrou Second Empire house museum, the Musée Jacquemart-André. Those pieces were shown with only a place of origin and a name: there wasn't even any information on materials or methods of construction, to say nothing of function. The Quai Branly did better, with some wall text on each of the pieces and even some recorded ambient music and embedded video. But the pieces themselves were still shown in relative isolation: their relationship to each other was unclear, as was their relationship to the viewer.

By contrast, the Musée de la Marine's exhibition on the famous voyage of the explorer Lapérouse was a smoothly integrated narrative whole, which left the reader with a strong sense not only of the importance of its subject (who was, ironically, an explorer who visited only places that had been visited before by Europeans) but of its connection to the present day. The relationship between artifacts, images, text and video was always clear and informative. It was really a textbook case of an excellent exhibition.

The exhibition began (after we had walked through the body of the museum, which contains everything from Napoleon's imperial barge to a giant Fresnel lens from a lighthouse to a strangely insectoid diving-suit from the nineteenth century) with a large-screen video projection re-enacting the wreck of Lapérouse's ship on the reefs of Vanikoro. There was next a small chamber of oil paintings, including Lapérouse himself, but also including some famous (and to us, familiar) paintings done by the artists who accompanied other explorers to the Pacific. It was really a shock to see John Webber's original painting of the death of Captain Cook at Kealakekua Bay.

The next section of the exhibition was devoted to the planning of the expedition, including bills of sale for equipment (which seemed dull but would come to have a point later) and, best of all, the large-scale maps reflecting what was known of the Pacific in 1785, with all the previous known voyages marked. Lapérouse basically travelled to areas which had been mapped and visited previously (though he was the first European to set foot on the island of Maui) and these maps gave a strong sense of what was known and what was unknown at that time, and who had done the observing; the maps distinguished between coasts observed and coasts inferred, and some things we now recognize were missing at that point. But in fact, many of the major island groups were visible: the Carolines, Yap, Pohnpei, and Guam, Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, Hawai'i, Easter Island, the Solomons and so on.

There was then a long hall flanked on either side with niches, one for each major stop on Lapérouse's voyage: Monterey (CA), Maui, Alaska and the Aleutians, Macau, Manila, Korea, Sakhalin Island, the Kurils, Hokkaido, Kamchatka, Samoa, Tonga, and Australia. His last recorded landfall was at Botany Bay in Australia. Fortunately all this was well documented because he was in the habit of sending materials home as frequently as possible. The overall sense one got from this part of the exhibit was of the deeply scientific and technological nature of the expedition: the botanical and ornithological collection that was done, the ethnographic drawings, the astrolabes and sextants and telescopes, the essays on celestial navigation written by members of the expedition, and so on. This was the point at which the bills of sale became relevant, as the bill of sale for 35,000 brass pins was juxtaposed with a mass of prickly metal recovered from the archaeological dig.

After the sections on the expedition itself, there was a brief recounting of the disappearance of Lapérouse's ships, which failed to return to France as planned in 1789. In 1791, Rear Admiral Joseph Antoine Bruni d'Entrecasteaux made a search expedition to find Lapérouse, but was not successful, although he did come close to Vanikoro (where in fact the expedition had been lost on the very dangerous reefs). It wasn't until the 1820s that an Irish ship's captain, Peter Dillon, purchased objects on nearby Tikopia that clearly had belonged to the Lapérouse expedition. He inquired after where they had been found, and it was in this way that the area of the wreck was identified. Some artifacts in the exhibition had been purchased from local people in Tikopia in the 1820s and 30s; the rest had been excavated from the wreck sites on the reef, starting in 1964 and continuing today. The exhibition concluded with a video of the 2000s excavations on the reef, which were attended by a descendant of Lapérouse and a descendant of d'Entrecasteaux. This video formed the end of the grand circle of the exhibition: from the wreck on the reef to the discoveries of the present day, including entomological collecting and ethnolinguistic work that was also done by members of the excavation team.

This was a really effective way to bring the show back to the present day. It worked much like the Louvre exhibition on Babylon which we had also seen, which began with the Law Code of Hammurabi and moved through the conquests and the historical imagination of Babylon, till it ended at the late 19th century archaeological discovery of Babylon, which had been the source of the objects seen at the beginning of the show. We came away with a strong sense of the expedition and a strong sense of its importance to the French historical imagination (Rex: "They obviously really cared about Lapérouse.")

By contrast, the Quai Branly exhibition came across as non-narrative and unfocused, overly theatrical and strangely obsessed with a category, the non-civilized Other, into which peoples from the Nootka to the Igbo to the Ainu were expected to fit. Its problems are not new ones; my sense is really that the reason the Quai Branly has been so controversial is that, when it was announced that the old colonial-era museums were being dissolved into a new collection, it was hoped that this would be accompanied by a reassessment of the basic museological premise of the museum, and of its strategies of display. This doesn't seem to have happened, clearly. I will be interested to read the various critiques of the museum (Sally Price's book is one: Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac's Museum on the Quai Branly) by people who've thought about this question more than I.

It is sometimes surprising to encounter what seems to be rather old-fashioned thinking about non-European peoples in the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité. From the point of view of US-style approaches to equality and diversity (in which "separate but equal" is historically and legally acknowledged as inequality), the romanticization and exoticization of the Quai Branly does seem obviously excessive (although the same kind of thing of course does happen in the US, as witness the most recent Indiana Jones movie). There is an old, possibly colonial form of French egalitarianism that begins to explain this, a point of view in which everyone has the same opportunity to become civilized (to master the French language, to read the Great Books of the French canon, etc.). There is perhaps a stronger sense here (more tenable in a smaller country) that equality requires some degree of shared culture. I don't know enough about the history of the place to know how correct this assessment is, but it seems one way to reconcile France's strong history of liberal social policy with the oddly colonial attitudes about culture which sometimes seem to persist.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The longest day

Sky over the Tuileries garden, 10.20 PM tonight, June 21.

This is northern Europe, and the sun goes down late in the summer. Tonight was the longest day of the year, and the sun set around 10.20 PM. Ever since the early 1980s, this night has been the "Fête de la musique" in Paris and other French cities, in which musicians from the Paris Opera House orchestra to pick-up bands and lone accordionists play live music all night (if the Afro-French ensemble currently playing reggae-flavored Beatles covers just outside our apartment is any measure) in the streets of Paris.

We walked the streets from about 6 to 10, roaming from a tango band playing for scores of couples in a covered passage near the Opera to an unbelievably perky bunch of identically dressed multi-ethnic teenagers doing what we suspect to have been French hip-hop gospel music in the Place Vendome, all over central Paris and finally back to our neighborhood. It was a good night for observing Paris, too, with clear midsummer light suffusing everything, from the statuary on the facade of the Opera:


to the fancy post-Byzantine woodwork on the facade of a Georgian restaurant:


to the antique street signs that still survive above the street-level shop windows:


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lieux de mémoire

As a historian of art I am, of course, obsessed with the past, and as many of these entries reveal, with the discovery of the physical traces of the past that remain visible on the landscape. I am also currently writing the section of my book's introduction that deals with theories of memory and commemoration. Here are some notes I took from an essay by Robert Nelson on the Hagia Sophia:

The tourist/flaneur: “For such an audience, Hagia Sophia can be understood as what Pierre Nora has termed a place or site of memory (lieu de mémoire), as opposed to an environment of memory (milieu de mémoire), the way the church functioned, I would argue, in the Middle Ages.”
“A milieu de mémoire is communal, belongs to public life, functions through a network of associations with diverse places, spaces, and groups, relies upon metonymic constructions, and, like human memory, condenses, abridges, alters, displaces, and projects fragments of the past, making them alive in the present for particular groups.” They change over time, exist in the present, their representations “favor the present tense.”
“In contrast, lieux de mémoire, like the discourses that conserve and analyze them, employ the past tense to describe the depersonalized object and assume that a gulf separates past and present.”

[Robert S. Nelson, "Tourists, Terrorists, and Metaphysical Theatre at Hagia Sophia,” in Nelson, Robert S., and Margaret Olin, ed. (2003). Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, p 74.]

A lot of what we have been seeing lately are lieux de mémoire, like the Egyptian obelisk that stands as a monument to French colonialism in the Place de la Concorde, or the Tuileries gardens, preserved in the absence of the long-burned-down palace. St-Denis is like this, with its royal effigies in a state that has no king; St-Denis is still an active site of Catholic worship, so I wonder whether the parishioners of the church feel any kind of connection to Pepin and Bertha and the rest of them, or whether they feel that they've merely been allowed to conduct religious services in what is properly a state-run memorial. The part of the church that contains the effigies is separated from the part which contains the altar and pews (chairs actually) by an iron railing, and the "necropolis" (basically the apsidal chapels and crypt, plus the upper aisles of the nave) can only be entered by those who buy a ticket. The gigantic Gothic tomb of King Dagobert is the only one which can be approached from the sanctuary. So the parishioners of St-Denis really only have half a church, a rather strange situation.

The interior of Notre-Dame (not its magnificently restored and cleaned exterior) seems to function more as a milieu de mémoire, in that not only is it an active site of worship, but also, there is little or no information visible in the church about what has been lost of its historic adornments and treasures. Rather than focus on the missing medieval interior, it proudly displays a cross donated by Haile Selassie and church plate used by Pope John Paul II. The history is secondary to the meaning of the place today, although that's probably not what the thousands of tourists think. One would indeed have to ask a parishioner, or a local person.

The thing that I'm realizing is that when I am searching for the traces of the past, on the ground or in the walls of Paris, I'm really looking for some kind of access to the milieux de mémoire of people of the past. It might be impossible, on some level, to access that kind of relationship between people of the past and the sites they occupied; but it's precisely what I'm interested in - the way in which people used places and images and objects to make meaning of the spaces in which they lived and moved. Ultimately, this is what is motivating my book as well.

Nos ancêtres, les Gaulois

As much as one tries to avoid stereotyping, it must be admitted that there are some pretty spectacular noses to be seen walking around the streets of Paris. Politeness precludes documenting this visually, so you’re going to have to take our word for it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dead French kings

We needed something to do on Saturday that wasn't work. So we decided to go to St-Denis, home of the basilica where all the French kings since Clovis (who died in 511, during the late Northern Wei) are buried. Like many medieval churches, it was built on the foundations of several older establishments: in this case, the first site was a Gallo-Roman cemetery where St. Dionysus (later Denis), the legendary first bishop of Paris, was said to have been buried after his martyrdom on the hill (Montmartre) overlooking Paris. The story goes that after being beheaded, he picked up his head, tucked it under his arm, and marched north to the site of the present basilica before dropping dead at last. The ancient cemetery was larger than the current footprint of the basilica, which is the largest of the churches that have stood on the site, such that when they excavated a nearby garden, they found the fifth-century coffin of Queen Arnegunde, who was buried with a number of garnet brooches and belt buckles that resemble those from Sutton Hoo in England.

It is possible to visit the crypt of the basilica, part of which incorporates the crypt and foundation of the fourth-century church that appears to have been the original Christian building on the site. Legend has it that the first church dedicated to St. Denis was built by St. Geneviève, the famous patron of Paris, but this is supposed to have happened in 525, after she famously averted the invasion of the Huns under Attila, so if she really was involved it was probably in a renovation or rededication.

Crockets on the south transept archway.

The really famous architectural work at St-Denis was of course that done in the early twelfth century by the famous Abbot Suger, “abbé et homme politique” of the reign of Kings Louis VI and VII. Suger is famous for having laid the foundations of the Gothic style of architecture, pointy arches and all. He oversaw the planning and initial construction of the present basilica, although it was not completed until the thirteenth century. It was St. Louis (King Louis IX), at that point, who turned the building into the royal mausoleum, as well, commissioning sarcophagi and tomb effigies for the French kings who had preceded him, going back several centuries to the first Louis (Clovis). (This explains, among other things, why Pepin the Short doesn’t look particularly short, and why he’s wearing fashions that would have been way ahead of his time.) Suger himself can still be seen at the feet of the Virgin Mary in a pane of twelfth-century stained glass that still survives in one of the apsidal chapels.

Pepin and Bertha, in their twelfth-century effigies.

Nearly all the French kings since then have been entombed at St-Denis, and there are spectacularly over-the-top marble catafalques and biers bearing the images of everyone from Henri IV to Marie Antoinette. Not surprisingly, I preferred the crypt, with its weighty Romanesque stonework and homely historiated capitals. On the latter, the figures are arranged in the arched spaces of a little colonnade, but the sculptor has a tendency to “break the frame” - as when one monk reaches out to clasp the hand of the monk in the next niche, or when a priest leans out past his columns to whack a surprised-looking demon with a stick. (The crypt was too dark for our little camera, and the pictures I took didn’t come out well at all.) Just under the altar is the original crypt of the Gallo-Roman chapel, which looks like a half-finished archaeological site with limestone coffins and mismatched stonework stretching back into the dusty gloom.

This is a detail of the remaining original statuary on the basilica facade, a series of roundels depicting the Labors of the Twelve Months.

Leaving the basilica, we stopped for late lunch at a cafe, wondering what to do next. There were signs for a “musee d’histoire et d’art” and we decided to investigate. The museum, it turns out, is located in a disused Carmelite convent that once housed Soeur Marie de France, the sister of Louis XIV. As a result, it has an extremely fancy eighteenth-century chapel beside a plainish earlier cloister and residential complex. Within the cloister, exposed hand-hewn beams contrasted with plastered and white-painted walls on which moralizing quotations had been painted in a scholastic hand (“Find Christ in your sisters, and treat them as you would treat Him;” “My yoke is easy and My burden is light;” that sort of thing).

The museum itself is charmingly eccentric. The first room we entered was an exhibition of the tools and paraphernalia associated with the Carmelite establishment’s function as a hospital for local people. There was a fully fitted-out eighteenth-century apothecary room with faux-Chinese blue and white jars, and cases of mortar-and-pestle sets, scales, surgical tools, and other terrifying objects. Having finished looking at this stuff, it appeared that we had run out of museum, which was perplexing since Arnegunde’s jewels were supposed to be kept there, and certainly a history of St-Denis that started with Louis XIV would be leaving quite a lot out. But we could find nothing else but a chinoiserie armoire and what looked like a contemporary artwork meditating on the role of the sisters of the convent as caretakers of the village.

The rest of the museum, it turned out, was along another arm of the cloister, and did contain wonderful exhibits of objects of everyday life excavated from the village center. There was everything from leather shoes and a cap woven from byssus (“sea silk”) to coins, pottery, and a wonderful collection of works-in-progress from a medieval workshop that produced bone rosaries. These were oddly interspersed with contemporary artworks by local people that responded to the history of the place. My favorite of these was a tin basin of water placed on a mirror, so that the legend “As I have washed your feet, so must you wash each other’s feet” (in French), painted in reverse on the outside of the basin, was reflected in the mirror. This was accompanied by two large bars of translucent pink soap cast in the shape of a pair of feet. Upstairs, in the nuns’ dormitoria, were exhibits of objects, personal possessions, clothing, and paintings relating to the lives of the Carmelite nuns, again interspersed with modern works. At the end of that floor were several rooms installed with Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture apparently designed and made in St-Denis, and on the third floor was an entire exhibition dedicated to the Commune of 1871 and the St-Denis Communards.

St-Denis itself is usually described as an industrial suburb in the process of reinventing itself, which has become much less depressed since the national stadium of France was relocated there. It is much more African and Near Eastern than Paris proper, and on Saturday the market square was full of people selling clothing that catered to local tastes and immigrant populations (burnooses and the long coats-with-trousers that one sees many Muslim women wearing; headscarves by the yard and then some; as well as bluejeans, skirts, underwear, synthetic purses, luggage, batteries, and cheap electronics). It was awesome. People talk about St-Denis as if the influx of immigrants represents a contact between East and West that the medieval town never saw. But those Labors of the Months on the thirteenth-century facade are decorated with pearl-roundel borders:


derived from Sassanian Persian textile models of the kind that were being traded to Europe as early as the time of Charlemagne. The same border exactly is seen on sixth- to ninth-century Chinese Buddhist shrines like that of Bhiksu Huicheng at the Guyang cave at Longmen, which is dated around 502.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Unexpected finds

I had heard that a few medieval houses still survived in the Marais, but the emphasis must be placed on the word few. Several trips to the neighborhood later, I hadn't found any until the other day when my friend Liz took us on a long walk to her favorite couscous restaurant. Here are two that were probably built in the 15th century, after the decree forbidding house-fronts from projecting out over the streets (the projecting fronts made it easier for fires to jump across narrow streets).


Meanwhile, I went to my usual vegetable market at the bottom of rue Mouffetard, but for once approached it from the east instead of coming down the narrow street from the north. Turning my back on the church of St-Medard, I saw this wonderful housefront that I'd passed many times already without ever seeing, because I never looked up beyond the canopied shop windows:



The hechsher (kosher certification) from the Paris Beit Din is hung in the window or on the facade of all the delis and restaurants in the Marais. There is no question of missing it, as it is invariably a large poster printed in hunter orange. The picture really fails to do justice to the eye-popping color.


D'Artagnan, the grocer

The motto of the Parisian grocers' guild was apparently "All for one and one for all:"


Clearly they must have sold plenty of Three Musketeers.


Main dishes in France, according to restaurant menus at least, are served not only with A side dish, but with THEIR side dish(es). So you can get "magret de canard et ses garnitures" (breast of duck with its garnishings) or "piece de boeuf et ses jus" (piece of beef and its juice). It's enough to make a person feel as if she ought to ask permission before eating what appear to be someone else's potatoes au gratin and salad.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Octopi wearing bikinis, part two

OK, you saw the Orangina commercial (scroll down several entries if you didn't). Now we have finally located the milk-production board commercial. Enjoy the weirdness!

Liberal Judaism in France: a theory

So we've been wondering a bit about the state of Judaism in France. On the one hand, this is a liberal state in which freedom of religion is one of the rights of the citoyen. France was the first European state to emancipate and enfranchise its Jews, in 1791. And it certainly has a history, over the last 200 years at least, in which Jews were generally well integrated into public life, despite some incidents of anti-Semitism. Indeed, many prominent French intellectuals, like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Bernard-Henri Lévy, are Jewish. On the other hand, there are apparently fewer than ten liberal synagogues in the entire country, with a population of around 600,000 Jews. We have seen black hats and tichels of every variety around the Marais, along with black velvet kippot, tallit katan with or without tassels hanging out, beards of all lengths, payot or no payot etc. -- suggesting, in other words, a wide variety of the Orthodox flavor of Judaism. Where, then, are the Reform Jews (or even the Conservative ones)?

A solution to this question was proposed by my friend Liz, who's writing a Ph.D. about the history of the Dreyfus affair, read through gender. Dreyfus, of course, was another integrated French Jew. Liz pointed out that there's a general lack of moderate religious practice in France: that to claim to be a faithful Catholic, for example, is often tantamount to claiming right-wing political affiliations. To be liberal and integrated, in France, is usually to be secular. Thus there is little call for institutions to support those who are both liberal and observant (as we are). It's sort of interesting to imagine, but also a little bit sad, not least because it seems to be another nail in the coffin of religious moderation in the Western world.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Arles. Ici: Arles.

This was the announcement that told us when to get off the train at Arles station. We found we had a day to kill in Marseille between checking out of our hotel and our train leaving at 7.30 pm. So we decided to day-trip to Arles, which is a scenic and historic backwater town on the Rhone, where among other people Van Gogh did most of his painting. I was more interested in its Roman architecture and the twelfth-century church of St. Trophime.

Arles, like Marseille, was founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BCE, but they quickly lost it to the Celts in 535 BCE. In the second century BCE, it became the Roman town of Arelate, and since, unlike Marseille, it was on the winning side of the power struggle between Caesar and Pompey, it kept its laurels, so to speak, and was designated as a retirement colony for veterans of the Sixth Legion.

The old city of Arles is about a ten-minute walk from the train station. I was a bit spacey that day: this is a picture taken from the point at which I turned to Rex and remarked, "I wonder where the Roman arena is?"


It's a very impressive piece of engineering: stone instead of concrete, but really beautiful in its proportions. The best part? It's still in use for everything from bullfights (the Provencal kind, where the bull isn't killed) to rock concerts. In the picture below you can see the numbered gates so you can match the location of your seat with the right entry. This is in fact a Roman system (at the Colosseum, your "ticket" was an ostrakhon -- a potsherd -- with your seat number on it), but the thing is, the original numbers have all worn off the Arles arena.


The church of St-Trophime also blew me away, with its beautifully preserved 12th century portal. This guy has apparently been waiting for his pizza since 1175:


while inside the cloister, memorial plaques for the canons of the establishment are located around the walls:


This one is dated 1221 (click for an inexact translation).

Wine country

The land around Marseille is rough limestone with a skim of clay soil, supporting scrub pines and bunchy weeds. It's obviously poor agricultural land; you couldn't herd anything but goats on it; but it's pure gold for the cultivation of grapes and olives. Here's a view of the vineyards (right middle ground) from the fortified hill town of Le Castellet (AOC Bandol, if you want to know):


The vineyards sometimes use tall, narrow cypress trees, or Lombardy poplars, which have much the same vertical habit, as hedgerows. This seems to produce an unnecessarily high hedge, but it is very scenic. It is also a popular region for the fancy homes of the very rich, as in the left foreground (note swimming pool).

The town itself was very pleasant, with medieval walls:


and shady, narrow streets:


Lavender and rosemary grew everywhere, often interspersed with wild poppies. This particular fortified town is developed for tourism (meaning there is some parking, and most of the shops sell Provencal specialties like artisanal olive oil, lavender, Marseille soap, and of course wine). Still, it's a remarkable old town. The narrowness of the streets is purely medieval, of course, and the limestone of the walls and cobbles makes it seem to have grown organically from the bluff on which it is situated.

The coast is marked by "calanques," basically fjords in the limestone sea cliffs, which are amazing geological formations. This one isn't limestone but an outcropping of pudding stone at La Ciotat. From across the bay it looks like the Sydney Opera House.


We also stopped in the town of Cassis, namesake of a Honolulu restaurant started by a Marseillais of Greek descent, and wandered its narrow streets:


Portrait of a maritime city

Marseille is, before anything else, a port town; and the nautical motifs of a city that produced, among other notables, the first explorer to circumnavigate the British Isles and then write about it (Pytheas, c. 320 BCE), are everywhere. Images of ships seem to be a kind of statement of local identity. Herewith a selection. First, a building in the Vieux Port area, apparently a kind of museum-cum-art-center:


Next, a ship bracket on the Chamber of Commerce building (Marseille is said to have had the first Chamber of Commerce in the world):


A bracket, possibly for a lamp, in the 19th century basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde:


Mosaic lunette behind the altar of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde:


The basilica itself is a shrine to the gratitude of Marseillais sailors to their tutelary saint. It is hung with ex-votos in the form of military medals, helmets, life rings, paintings (and see my Flickr page for a few close-ups of the paintings):


And, more difficult to photograph, large scale models of particular ships that had been wrecked were hanging from the ceiling of the nave, ex-voto gifts from the survivors of the wrecks. Here is my attempt to capture them:


Note the anchor motif in the mosaic behind.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Derangement d'installations

Blogging now from the free wifi in the Marseille train station. The super high-speed TGV trains have been "perturbed" by "violents orages" (violent thunderstorms), which one assumes must futz with the sensitive machines and the fancy rails they run on. A number of trains have been delayed. What one forgets about European train stations is that people usually don't spend much time in them. You stand on the platform 10 minutes before the train arrives, everyone gets on, and it goes a couple of minutes later. So you don't get a very good sense of the throughput of a station like Marseille-St. Charles (the main Marseille station) until things get backed up and there are hundreds if not thousands of people just standing around, with their luggage.

Fortunately there is a football game on and people are crowding around the few sets in the station, which are all tuned to the game. A minute ago there was wild cheering across the enormous nineteenth-century train shed. You'd think they'd announced that the scheduling snarls had been untangled, but no - the home team seems to have won the game.

Les cafés

Rex said suddenly, "I don't know why the US hasn't figured this out. Caffeine and alcohol, delivered from the same source. It's genius!"

Saturday, June 7, 2008


Today I saw the Mediterranean Sea for the first time. Marseille is a port on the Côte D'Azur, 790 km (490 miles) from Paris. The extra high-speed train makes the journey in an amazing 3 hours, which is like going from Boston to Baltimore (or even a bit further) in the same amount of time. The landscape through which the train passes changes gradually from the flat post-medieval agricultural land around Paris to hilly, wooded regions with lots of cattle (all that cheese clearly has to come from somewhere) and finally to a distinctly Mediterranean landscape of limestone mountains, scrub pines, olive trees, grapevines and sun. I've left the camera's upload cable in Paris, so no pictures till we get back, but a few thoughts on the place.

Marseille is a lot grittier than Paris: the dress is more casual, the faces are more multiethnic, the architecture more Mediterranean, the graffiti more prolific (and political), the crowds (or so we are told) less strictly law-abiding. There are many Africans and Middle Easterners living here, and there probably always have been. The feel of the place is more run-down, more lived-in, with shutters banging loose and laundry hanging out to dry. The local travertine, used in building, is usually covered with stucco and painted, so that houses are a faded yellow or orange or turquoise, and everywhere there is urban grime.

The center of the city is a superb natural port which the Greeks quite sensibly snapped up as soon as they saw it in the 6th century BCE. As Massalia, and later Massilia under the Romans, it was part of the first Roman province outside Italy (hence, Provence), a major exporter of wine, on the wrong side of the power struggle between Julius Caesar and Pompey, and an outpost of early Christianity; later it became a Visigothic city, a Carolingian trading post, and one of the first French ports of call for the Black Plague. It's now, as it has been for 2600 years, a working port, overseen by the basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, which overlooks the harbor from the southern massif.

The main street of town, leading down to the Old Port, is called La Canebière, after the merchants who made and sold rope made from cannabis (ahem, hemp) for the rigging of ships.


I can't get over the fact that the word for "avocado" and the word for "attorney" in French are the same: avocat. Many a distinguished townhouse front bears a discreet brass plaque announcing the services of M. Garnier or Mme. Pineau, avocado. Some legal problems evidently require an additional degree of authority, and then you must consult an avocat au barreau or "avocado at the bar."

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Everyone is learning Chinese

My French is near-nonexistent, at least for the purposes of speaking, though the saving grace is that I can understand most of what I read. The only languages other than English that I speak with any fluency are Asian ones (really just Chinese, though I try to make claims for Japanese). And occasionally my Chinese has come in handy, as when I buy vegetables at the Place Monge from Mr. Tan. But for the most part it is not at all useful here, impending Olympics notwithstanding.

Today I stood in the Metro over a fiftyish man seated in one of the folding seats. He was poring over a xeroxed sheet with drawings of various articles of clothing (a hat, a skirt, a jacket, etc.) which were painstakingly labeled with inexpertly formed Chinese characters, and annotated at great length in French. In the margins were the verbs daì (戴) and chuān (穿), both meaning "to wear" but used for different articles of clothing。 The former is used for something that rests on you, like a hat or wig but also watches and jewelry; the latter is used for things you "pass [your body] through" like shirts and pants. You can also chuān roads, tunnels and obstacle courses, which gives a better sense of the word's meaning.

Octopi wearing bikinis

OK, there is only one octopus wearing a bikini in this ad. Still, it is one of the more amazing visions we've seen in the last week, which also included animated skeletons dancing in the fountains jetting from the udder of a gigantic cow (a milk ad, natch).

We haven't watched any television per se but the televisions on in various restaurants have given us an eyeful. "Naturellement pulpeuse" actually means "Naturally juicy" - I'm not sure that "pulp" has the same implications as a term of, uh, cultural critique in French as in English. But it really ought to, after this ad.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Post-colonial eating

Many of the best restaurants here, as you might expect, are Algerian, Vietnamese, Lebanese -- you get the idea. We just had dinner at the Foyer Vietnam, which is apparently where Ho Chi Minh used to get his pho back in his college days. He's still up on the wall, looking down benignly on all the diners.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sundays on the Seine

On Sunday afternoons the road which runs at river level along the right bank of the Seine is closed to traffic and opened to bicycles and roller-skates. We rented bikes from the awesome Vélib public bike-rental automats and noodled along under the Seine bridges toward the center of town. The entire bank of the river is paved and enclosed in stone walls; it's an intensely built environment. There are still enormous iron rings set into the stone walls where, one presumes, boats were once moored, and some of them have worn away the stone in which they are set:


Many of the bridges have sculpture under the roadbed, that is only visible from below. Here, bracket masks in the form of, well, I'm not sure what. Guys with seashells for eyebrows.


And this one made me think immediately of Napoleon, but I don't know if that's right.


Medieval Paris, here and there

The Conciergerie is the oldest surviving part of the original royal palace on the Île de la Cité, and unlike so much of Paris, it looks really medieval:


For a view from a similar angle, painted in 1412, see the June page from the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Barry, a famous late-medieval book of hours.

It is also possible to see fragments of the city wall built in the twelfth century under the king Philippe Auguste, still surviving here and there around the city:


This guard tower protrudes into a schoolyard (or possibly a park, it was hard to tell) in the Marais, the historic (at least since the 15th century) Jewish quarter of Paris. The Marais is full of kosher delis and Judaica shops, and we'll be going back to visit more thoroughly; this time what I noticed, besides a lot of challah and chopped liver, was the memorial plaques on every school we passed, commemorating the children who had been deported from the school with the cooperation of the Vichy regime from about 1942-1944.

Dead-end streets of Paris

I can't help thinking that the name of this street sounds more like a social crisis than a cul-de-sac:


Here's what the impasse leads to: not a fish market, anyhow.