Posts Tagged ‘Père Lachaise’

The tour Montparnasse is the only skyscraper in Paris. Whatever its architectural merit, its viewing terrace gives wonderful views over the capital. From above, you get a different sense of the scale of the cityscape – the green expanse of the parks and cemeteries, the proximity and juxtaposition of landmarks, the great scars of the railway lines.

In the foreground are views of the jardin Atlantique, a late twentieth century park, placed dramatically on top of the Montparnasse railway station.

jardin AtlantiqueAlso adjacent is the 19th century Montparnasse cemetery, which seems surprisingly large viewed from above.

Montparnasse cemeterySlightly more distant, in the 6th arrondissement, is the lush, 17th century jardin du Luxembourg, with the iconic cemetery Père Lachaise (the city’s biggest green space), located in the 20th arrondissement, visible beyond.

jardin du LuxembourgTo the west is the 101 metre high, golden dome of Les Invalides with its grand esplanade leading to the Seine.

InvalidesAnd, of course, arguably the original ‘skyscraper’ in Paris, here’s la tour Eiffel straddling the half-mile long processional space of the Champs de Mars with, as backdrop, the business district at la Défense.

Tour EiffelOften, it’s the little details of the city that catch my eye – a cluster of plants, a sign, the face on a sculpture – so it’s good to be reminded of the large scale and drama of this splendid place.

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Next week I’m off to Philadelphia for a few days.  I’ll be speaking at a symposium at the UPenn School of Design, called Foreign Trends on American Soil. It promises to be a fascinating look at the many influences on landscape design in the US. My paper will compare Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris with its American interpretation at Mount Auburn in Massachusetts.  And I’m looking forward to attending a related lecture by Blanche Linden at UPenn on preservation problems in historic rural cemeteries, and to visiting the gardens of fellow blogger and shade plant specialist Carolyn Walker.

Sadly I’ll just miss the Philadelphia Flower Show, which is happening this week. Its theme this year is “Springtime in Paris.” Philadelphia is a city with strong historical, political and cultural links to the French capital; it would have been fascinating to see how exhibitors are interpreting the topic.

Instead, I shall console myself with a few photos taken this morning in parc Monceau of, well, springtime in Paris.

corylopsis ?paucifoliaPhotinia leavesForsythiaMagnolia budsCherry blossom

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If you’re interested in exploring hidden treasures, curiosities, and esoterica, you may want to join in the second international “Obscura Day.” On April 9th, a host of tours and events are being organised around the world to encourage us to poke around in fascinating by-ways and neglected corners.

Here in the French capital, I am delighted to be joining a tour organised by Adam from the award-winning blog Invisible Paris. He will be introducing us to the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, an abandoned Victorian plant nursery in the Bois de Vincennes. Other planned events include a candlelit tour of a shell grotto in Margate, a visit to the catacombs in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery, a tour of an underground temple in Turin, and a visit to a mad topiary garden in South Carolina.

If you can’t make any of the events, the Atlas Obscura compendium is worth checking out for curious places to visit at any time of the year. It recommends several in Paris that I do not know, as well as some old favourites, including the abandoned railway La Petite Ceinture and the cemetery at Père Lachaise.

La Petite Ceinture

La Petite Ceinture

Père Lachaise

Père Lachaise cemetery

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The title of this post is poet Charles Baudelaire’s description of a graveyard. His own tombstone can be found in the cemetery in Montparnasse

monument and oak tree

cross on metal doorOpened in 1824, Montparnasse was one of three rural burial grounds created for Paris after the closure of the capital’s squalid urban cemeteries, where unmarked, unmourned bodies had lain thirty deep.

Moulin de la CharitéNow part of the busy 14th arrondissement, the site once lay outside the city walls, and for many years had been home to three farms. Its oldest feature is the tower to the west, which was built in the first half of the seventeenth century as a wind-driven flour mill. After the Revolution, the area became known for its popular revelries, and the windmill was converted to a guinguette, a tricky word to translate, but which means a place in the Paris suburbs for eating, dancing and, perhaps above all, drinking local wine on weekends and holidays. Once within the new cemetery, the mill’s blades were removed and it became the home of the warden. Nowadays it is empty.

Today was my first visit to the Montparnasse cemetery, and I found myself comparing it with Père Lachaise, which I know well. Despite its name, Montparnasse does not share the elevated position of its better-known cousin in the 20th. The land is resolutely flat and the cemetery hemmed in by the buildings that surround it, most strikingly the Tour Montparnasse just to its west. It is hidden behind walls and fences, and only reveals itself as a vast burial ground after the visitor has found the main entrance on boulevard Edgar Quinet.

clipped hedge and trees

In style it also shares little with the picturesque layout of Père Lachaise. Montparnasse immediately feels more classically French, with clipped hedges, geometrically arranged graves and long, straight, tree-lined allées. It is also less sumptuous, with simpler monuments and fewer of the elaborate, costly chapels that form much of the character of Père Lachaise.

chrysanthemumsfallen leaves between graves

moss-covered tombMontparnasse today was strikingly flower-filled: everywhere were pots and tubs of fat chrysanthemums, pink cyclamen, heathers, and the last of the summer’s daisies. Combined with the many fallen leaves and patches of green moss grown luscious in the recent rains, they gave the cemetery a perfect sense of autumnal richness, with its promise of cold, barren winter to come. It reminded me of Baudelaire’s Chant d’automne.

Recently I heard a talk by Pascal-Hervé Daniel, who manages all of the Paris cemeteries. He spoke of the problems with theft at Montparnasse and elsewhere. Previously thieves used to take the sculptures and sell them as works of art, but now there is little call for busts of long-dead and oft-forgotten figures. Thieves are instead collecting metal features from the graves and melting them down for sale. It means recovery of the stolen artifacts is now often impossible, and the beautifully worked metal pieces are lost forever.

metal and glass doormetal grill

We learnt from M. Daniel that, from the outset, the graves at Montparnasse were intended to be permanently owned and cared for by the families whose members were interred there: in creating these new rural cemeteries, Napoleon had promised that people would be able to buy large burial plots “ownership of which will be assured, whatever may befall, for time immemorial.” But occasionally families no longer wish to keep up the grave, or there is no representative of the family left, and then the city will begin a long process to reclaim the plot and restore or remove its memorial. I saw one sad example of this today.

abandoned plot?The cemetery is open daily to visitors. As well as Baudelaire, it is home to the tombs of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, May Ray – and 35,000 others.

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Paris cemetery

Today, the cemetery in the 20th arrondissement of Paris is best known as the final resting place for such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison. But it is an iconic place for another reason, as I am discovering in my research for a symposium at the University of Pennsylvania next Spring.

Père Lachaise was the first metropolitan garden cemetery, laid out to the east of Paris in 1804. It marked a dramatic shift in burial practices, and rapidly became the model for a wave of similar style rural cemeteries throughout Europe and North America. Immensely popular with visitors and even tourists, its fame was such that citizens of Philadelphia and New York spoke of creating their own Père Lachaise without needing to explain its style or location.

Before Père Lachaise, burials had taken place in squalid and overcrowded churchyards in the middle of cities: the tenth century Cimetière des Innocents in Paris, for instance, received over two million corpses and became home to vast trenches of rotting bodies; it was a feared, hostile wilderness. By the mid-eighteenth century, increasing prosperity, individuality, and family affection led to a desire to be able to mourn and commemorate loved ones; while growing health concerns about putrefaction and vapours from urban burial plots led some to imagine a return to classical-style burial in picturesque landscapes.

Mount Louis at time of R. P. Lachaise

The Jesuit estate that was to become Père Lachaise, from François Marie Marchant de Beaumont’s guide to the cemetery, published in 1828.

Across Europe and North America, people began to argue for change, but it was Napoleon who finally made it happen. City burial grounds were closed and three sites were obtained to create new garden cemeteries just outside Paris. The first was Père Lachaise. Formerly a neglected Jesuit country seat with views over the city, the new cemetery combined elements of the existing classical French garden—axes, straight lines and allées of horse chestnut trees—with new sinuous paths, carriage roads and plantings inspired by fashionable English landscapes such as Stowe and Stourhead. In stark contrast with the horror of urban burial plots, Père Lachaise was imagined as an Edenic, idealised landscape, its curving pathways designed for sweetly melancholic promenades. For the first time, people could buy a burial plot in perpetuity, and engage in a more secular form of burial that celebrated the French ‘cult of ancestors’ over the old order of Catholicism and veneration of the monarchy.

Père Lachaise tomb by Pugin

the tomb of Héloïse and Abélard, as drawn by Augustus Pugin, c 1828.

To help market Père Lachaise to hesitant Parisians, famous figures such as Molière and La Fontaine were reinterred at the new cemetery. Even the purported remains of legendary lovers Pierre Abélard and Héloïse were transferred there. Its resulting popularity meant that Père Lachaise soon became crowded with commemorative monuments and family mausoleums filling the fenced private plots. In comparison with its many imitators, it was perceived as grand, dark and mysterious, with a mass of exquisite, expensive monuments, but perhaps as a less romantic and naturalistic landscape than many later examples of garden cemeteries.

It is easy today to overlook the significance of Père Lachaise as the early nineteenth embodiment of dramatic shifts in views on public health, familial sentiment, nature, and death itself. In its day it was a new style of burial ground that was ‘celebrated throughout the world.’

Cemetery today

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