The Complete Guide To: Elegant France

Without the vision of Napoleon III and his planner Baron Haussmann in the 19th century, Paris would not be the city we know today. But the influence of the Second Empire spread beyond the architecture of the French capital.

Margaret Campbell
Saturday 12 October 2002 00:00
Comments
When was the second empire ­ and what was so significant about it?

Exactly 150 years ago, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, French President since 1848, was following in the footsteps of his better-known uncle and organising a plebiscite to validate his 1851 coup d'état: by the beginning of December 1852, he'd been declared Emperor. Between 1851 and 1870, when the Second Empire ended in humiliating defeat with the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Bismarck's Germany, and Napoleon III's exile and rapid demise in Kent, the Paris ­ and France ­ we know today took shape. Industrial prosperity fuelled the emergence of a leisure-seeking middle-class, and the arts boomed (though not without the odd scandal).

In what way did paris change?

Under Napoleon III, a major urban-planning programme was implemented by Baron Haussmann, city prefect. Before 1851, the fabric of Paris was still quite medieval, so entire districts, with their rabbit warrens of narrow streets and overcrowded, unsanitary buildings, were erased, to be replaced by long, wide boulevards ­ which, not coincidentally, lent themselves to easier riot control. With the exception of the Champs- Elysées, the 12 imposing avenues now radiating out from the Arc de Triomphe owe their current form to the "Haussmannisation" of Paris. The Ile de la Cité, the city's historic core, lost countless small churches and private mansions, major traffic routes were opened (such as boulevard de Sébastopol), and the city was extended to include former suburbs such as Chaillot and Belleville. As Emile Zola described in his novel La Curée, the construction trades boomed, as the well-off built ornate new homes, while the dispossessed poor were obliged to move away from the centre.

What else did haussmann do?

The typical six-storey apartment blocks lining the grands boulevards are pure Haussmann ­ designed to be modern and sanitary. However, they aren't the only kind of Second Empire architecture. The quintessential example of this ornate style is the Opéra Garnier, an opulent extravaganza in the heart of Haussmann's new metropolis, commissioned by the emperor after an assassination attempt in 1858 (the new opera would have a secure imperial entrance). The architect Charles Garnier himself described his work as "the Napoleon III style", and it incorporates baroque and classical influences. The exterior is decorated with friezes and sculptures, including Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's La Danse, considered so scandalous when first unveiled that attempts were made to deface it.

Inside, the marble staircase, mosaics and plush velvet seats in the auditorium contrast sharply with the more recent ceiling painted by Chagall. The Palais Garnier (00 33 1 40 01 22 63; www.opera-de-paris.fr) is open daily from 10am-5pm (access to the auditorium may be restricted), and costs ¤6 (£3.80) for adults. October's main attraction is Martinu's Juliette, ou la clé des songes. Rossini's La Cenerentola is coming up in December. The box-office is open from 11am, with prices for performances ranging from ¤7 (£4.40) to ¤109 (£69).

Also, back in the mid-1800s, only a small section of the Louvre was open to the public, and Napoleon III kept a suite on the first floor of the Richelieu wing (which also housed the French Ministry of Finance until the 1980s). The crystal chandeliers and rich upholstery give an idea of his taste for wealth. The façade of the Richelieu wing was restored and the Cour Napoléon set out during the Second Empire. (Open daily except Tues, admission for adults ¤7.50 (£4.70) until 3pm, and ¤5 (£3.15) thereafter).

Did haussmann only do posh?

A cholera epidemic killed 18,500 Parisians in 1832, and another eight-month outbreak in 1849-50 carried off 600 people a day. While the basis for a decent water and sewage system had been laid in 1825, this clearly wasn't adequate, and Haussmann oversaw a massive extension to this vital service. A century and a half later, the Paris sewers are a tourist attraction. Entry to Les Egouts is opposite 93 quai d'Orsay (Métro Alma-Marceau), where there's a museum and a section of the sewers to explore. Open Wednesday to Saturday, 11am-4pm, ¤3.80 (£2.40).

I need some fresh air

So, in Napoleon III's opinion, did the Parisians. He'd been extremely impressed by London's parks during an earlier exile, and decided that his redesigned Paris should enjoy the same amenities. The Bois de Boulogne and de Vincennes, former royal hunting grounds to the east and west of the city, were donated to the city and landscaped by Adolphe Alphand. He also laid out the smaller English-style Parc Montsouris in the south, the hillside Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, created on the site of a quarry and rubbish dump, and Parc Monceau, located in a typical Second Empire neighbourhood. Meanwhile, the new avenues were lined with trees and small gardens (avenue Foch being the best example).

You mentioned the arts...

"Impressionism" as a term wasn't coined until 1874, but the artistic currents that gave rise to it were extremely active throughout the Second Empire: Monet, Renoir and Cézanne began sharing ideas in 1860. The 1863 Salon des Refusés, sanctioned by Napoleon III, allowed unorthodox painters to exhibit, and Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe caused a sensation. For an overview of this intensely productive period, visit the ground floor of the Musée d'Orsay, 1 rue de la Légion d'Honneur, closed Mondays, admission ¤7 (£4.40). As well as Manet, highlights include paintings by Courbet and Delacroix, and sculpture by Carpeaux .

What about literary life?

Again, it was flourishing. 1857 was a key year, with the publication of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal and Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Both caused a public outcry and resulted in court cases against their creators, but Flaubert got off more lightly than the poet. Emile Zola described the seamy underside of Haussmann's glittering city in his novels, and Victor Hugo, who loathed Napoleon III, was in exile in the Channel Islands. Flaubert, Maupassant and Balzac used to gather in the Café de la Paix (12 bvd des Capucines, opposite the Opéra), with its Garnier-designed interior. Baudelaire's grave can be visited in Montparnasse cemetery, while Zola lies in splendour in the Panthéon.

What about the rest of france?

Second Empire buildings are to be found all over France, but some are more poignant than others. The villa now housing Dinard's Musée du Site Balnéaire was built for Eugénie in 1868 but never used by the imperial family. Victor Baltard's iron and glass structures for Les Halles were pulled down when the fruit and vegetable market was sent out of town in the 1970s: the original egg and poultry pavilion is now in Nogent -sur-Marne (there's a second in Yokohama, Japan). In Amiens, the Musée de Picardie building (constructed 1867) is a good example of how provincial towns followed the capital's trends.

Napoleon III and his Spanish wife, Eugénie, met in Compiègne, the royal hunting residence in Picardy, and it became their preferred autumn residence. In fact, it practically became a second court, where they held glittering soirées to which the great and the good were invited (or not). The castle is now the Musée National du Château de Compiègne (00 33 3 44 38 47 00) and incorporates a Second Empire museum (where many of Eugénie's style-setting dresses are on display) and a museum of vintage cars. The Second Empire section isn't open every day, so it's best to check in advance. Admission ¤4.50 (£2.85).

Biarritz was another of the couple's favourite spots. In fact, the resort's very existence owes much to Eugénie, who fell in love with a small fishing village which was then expanded into a grand holiday destination for the well-heeled of Europe. The imperial grandeur has now faded, but the beaches are splendid (with some of the best surfing waves in France), and Eugénie's villa is now the luxury Hôtel du Palais (00 33 5 59416 400). Prices range from ¤300-¤450 (£190-£285) for a double room. The Chapelle Impériale (avenue de la Marne) was built for Eugénie, while the nearby Orthodox church was built for all the Russian aristocrats who joined in the fun.

In Normandy, Deauville was developed in the 1860s by Napoleon III's half-brother, the Duc de Morny, and the roving imperial couple often visited its racetracks, helping to make the town's name as another exclusive resort.

Isn't there a corsica connection?

These Bonaparte boys were indeed from Corsica, and Napoleon III made sure that the family's success didn't pass unnoticed in their home town. He had the first Napoleon's birthplace in Ajaccio transformed into a museum in 1869, and the Empress Eugénie and the Imperial Prince turned up for the ribbon-cutting. The museum now tells the Bonaparte clan's story, providing insights into the Second Empire and the imperial couple's travels. Maison Bonaparte, rue St Charles, Ajaccio (00 33 495 214 389), admission ¤4 (£2.50).

Napoleon III also had the Chapelle Impériale (rue du Cardinal Fesch) built as a family sepulchre, although neither he nor his uncle are actually buried there. Following Napoleon III's lead, tourism boomed on the island, and thermal spas, such as those at Guagno-les-Bains, began attracting stressed-out city-dwellers.

How did all these imperial travellers get around?

When Napoleon III became French President in 1848, there were only 1,322km of railway track; by the time he headed into exile in 1870, that figure was 18,000. Industry had boomed, and people were acquiring a taste for travel. In response, the railways expanded and new lines were opened throughout the country. The Strasbourg line opened in 1852, when the Gare de l'Est was inaugurated, while today's Gare du Nord was opened up to passengers for Lille and Calais in 1863.

Where can I live like an emperor?

The intimate and glamorous Hôtel Scribe, at 1 rue Scribe (00 33 1 44 71 24 24) in Paris's 9th arrondissement, was built at the request of the Duc de Morny to house the Jockey Club in 1863, and was the site of the Lumière brothers' first film projection. A double room costs from ¤534-¤648 (£337-£410), but great special offers are frequently available, depending on the date of your stay (phone for information). Further from the centre, Pavillon Puebla, rue Botzaris (00 33 1 42 08 92 62), was built in the new Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, and is now an elegant restaurant serving a Spanish-influenced cuisine.

Where can I find out more?

The Musée Carnavalet, 23 rue de Sévigné (00 33 1 44 59 58 58, Métro St-Paul. Closed Monday, admission free) in the Marais (ironically, one quartier that escaped the transformations) traces the capital's history, and has several rooms devoted to Second Empire Paris. Paintings and maps show the scale of what was done, while furniture and items such as the cradle given by the city of Paris to the Emperor on the birth of his son give some idea of how the wealthy lived.

The riviera without nice?

How france increased its territory

It's hard to imagine today's France without Nice and the Savoy. The country's borders took on their modern shape in 1860, when France accepted Italian unification in exchange for the Savoy and Nice. For once, the Treaty of Turin increased France's territory without warfare. Although Annecy still has a distinctive Italian feel, and Nice is often dismissed as "not particularly French" by French people from other regions, their peaceful annexation was one of Napoleon III's major foreign-policy achievements.

A stylish influence

How second empire baroque architecture spread

Two World Fairs were held in Paris during Napoleon III's reign (1855 and 1867). Their most enduring legacy was the spread of Second Empire baroque architecture, and specifically the mansard roof ­ where the lower part is steeper than the upper section.

It was used both as a decorative feature and to create additional space, and became popular in North America. Both private homes and municipal buildings (such as City Hall in Philadelphia) were influenced by the style, which was sometimes so ornamental that it has been described as being the result of "a horror of unadorned surfaces".

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in