More than beautiful ornaments and a way to cross the Seine, Paris bridges are mirrors of history. They reflect impermanence, bad weather, political turbulence, and much more.
The Pont au Change that exists today was built in 1858-1860. As the link between the Place du Châtelet on the right bank and the boulevard du Palais on the Île de la Cité, it is an important part of the north-south transportation network. In the image above, we see it as it looked in 1831. But this is just the tail end of the story. Paris and Its Environs Displayed in a Series of Two Hundred Views (1831), from which this image by Augustus Charles Pugin is taken, tells us that the Pont au Change “has existed in one shape or other, from time immemorial.” The phrase “one shape or other” is important.
Cécile Renaudin, in Les Grandes Catastrophes à Paris, traces the bridge at the Pont au Change to 872 when it was a stone bridge. We are not sure how long the bridge that was there in 872 lasted, but according to Sophie-Marguerite and Serge Montens in Paris de Pont en Pont (Paris from Bridge to Bridge), there was a wooden bridge at this site called Pont du Roy (King’s Bridge) during the Middle Ages. It was destroyed in 1280. And again in 1296. And again in 1373. And in 1408, 1510, 1616, 1621 and 1651. After that, it was replaced by a stone bridge.
The flood of 1296 was particularly brutal. All of what was then Paris was under water. The rapid flow and volume of the flood destroyed two stone bridges, their mills and the houses which had been build on them. The mills were driven by undershot waterwheels suspended from the underside of the bridge and turned by the water flowing by.
The effect of ice could be even more disastrous than floods of water alone. For example, in 1408 when only three Parisian bridges spanned the Seine, severe cold, which froze the river, was followed by a rapid thaw, setting adrift loose masses of ice that destroyed all three bridges.
It may surprise some to learn that the Seine froze every so often. Modern Paris winters can be quite mild, but in 1514, it was so cold that wine froze and had to be cut by axes and sold by the livre (pound). In the winter of 1607-08, the communion wine in the chalice at the church of Saint-André-des-Arts froze and the priests had to use a stove to thaw it out.
When the great flood of 1616 took out the Pont au Change yet again, it was replaced quite quickly, but five years later fire destroyed the new bridge. Reconstruction did not start until 18 years later in 1639 and it was not finished until 1647. And four years later in 1651, it was gone again.
The engraving above by Felix Thorigny shows two views of the Pont au Change, 1660 (below) and 1680 (above). The bridge of 1660 is covered with three-storey houses. For many centuries, this was quite common in Paris and other cities such as London. Bridges were places of business and residence. Once known as the Grand Pont, it became the Pont au Change in 1141 after Louis VII, who reigned from 1137 to 1180, granted money changers the right to set up their stalls there. (Louis VII was also known as “Louis the Young,” although he lived to be 60; his father, Louis VI, was called “Louis the Fat”). One thing led to another and gambling stalls were eventually set up on the bridge during Carnival. However, this practice was abolished in 1604.
Paris and Its Environs notes that when the Pont au Change was “again carried away by a great flood in 1616, with all the houses that were upon it, some of the furniture…was washed as far as the town of St. Denis.” The bridge was rebuilt and the houses reappeared, not to be removed until 1788, by the order of Louis XVI.
The story of successive bridges at the same site is a common one. The Pont Royal today connects l’avenue du Général-Lemonnier on the right bank with rue du Bac on the left. This was the former site of Pont Rouge, built in 1632, reconstructed a number of times, and finally carried away by ice in 1684. The following year, Louis XIV financed the construction of the replacement, le Pont Royal, completed in 1688 and still standing as one of the oldest bridges in Paris.
The changing names of some Parisian bridges reflect France’s often turbulent history. Consider what is now Pont de la Concorde and was Pont Louis XVI at the time the image above was created. The bridge links the place de la Concorde, formerly Place Louis XV, on the right bank with Quai d’Orsay et Quai Anatole-France. The French Revolution led to the renaming of Pont Louis XVI and the beheading of the man for whom it was named.
Paris and Its Environs notes that first it became “Pont de la Revolution ; then it became the bridge of the Legislative Body, then of Concorde , then again of Louis XVI.” And that wasn’t the end. Although with the Restoration, the name had reverted to Pont Louis XVI, in an attempt to appease pressure from anti-monarchical republicans, Louis-Philippe changed the name back to Pont de la Concorde in 1830. By this time, Place Louis XV had become Place de la Concorde and so it all seemed to fit together very well. Perhaps too well. Consider the long gestation period and the source of some of the stone for the bridge.
Some bridges took a long time to get built. “In 1722 the city of Paris had been authorized by Lettres patentes to raise a sum of money for the erection of a bridge opposite the Place Louis XV.” Time passed. Nothing happened. In 1786 Louis XIV issued an edict to allow “a loan of 30,000,000 livres to be employed in embellishing Paris, out of which 1,200,000 livres were assigned towards defraying the expense of erecting this bridge.” By that time, France was in dire financial straits and tension was rising. Construction started in 1787 and finished at the end of 1790, but events had overtaken the bridge. A year earlier, on 14 July 1789, the storming and subsequent destruction of the Bastille freed up more stone for the building of the bridge originally intended to honour Louis XVI.
There is one other change we should mention. In the engraving above titled Pont Louis XVI, we see 12 large statues on the bridge. In 1810, Napoleon had the bridge adorned with the statues of eight generals who had died in action during the Napoleonic wars. During the Restoration, they were replaced by 12 monumental marble statues of four great ministers, four soldiers, and four sailors. But sometimes too much is simply too much. These colossal statues were too heavy for the bridge, were removed and taken to Versailles.
The existence of the much-renamed Pont de la Concorde reflects another important aspect of Paris history—its growth by increased suburbanization. The bridge was built to connect “the suburbs of St. Honoré and St. Germain, which, previously had no other direct mode of communication except a ferry established near the Hotel des Invalides”—unless one went as far as Pont Royal.
In addition to providing crossings and merchandising space, the bridges of Paris offered wonderful views of the river, its banks and the buildings of Paris. The image above is taken from the Pont Neuf looking towards the Pont des Arts. Paris and Its Environs described the view as “one of the most noble and striking in Paris.” It clearly shows the delicate iron work of the Pont des Arts, built in 1802-04, a bridge described as having “an elegant appearance but wants solidity and is only used for foot passengers.”
In the nineteenth century, Paris and London were vying to be the greatest city on earth. After praising the Austerlitz Bridge shown above, Pugin asserted that “the quiet river scenery of this plate will remind our English readers of some views of the Thames in the neighbourhood of the British metropolis, and particularly one just above Vauxhall. There is indeed a striking similarity in the light and elegant character of the Pont d’Austerlitz and that of the Vauxhall Bridge. Both are also models of that great modern improvement in aquatic architecture, the cast iron bridge.” It was also a place to appreciate “the placid flow and unpretending character of the Seine [that] always appears to us to form an agreeable contrast with the magnificent works of art on its shore.”
The bridges of Paris gave then, as they do today, a view from above the river. In an earlier era they also allowed one to get above the smells of the river.
This was true of both the Seine and the Thames, and Pugin mentions it, along with a useful tip for tourists. “The water [of the Seine] like that of the Thames, requires to be well filtered; and strangers find it needful to qualify the laxative qualities with wine or brandy.”
Text by Norman Ball. Images (except for one from Paris en Images) and all direct quotations from Paris and its Environs Displayed in a Series of Picturesque Views, The drawings made under the direction of Mr. [Augustus Charles] Pugin, and engraved under the superintendence of Mr. C. [Charles] Heath, with topographical and historical descriptions, 1831.