The Stone Place

Titles, Money, Power, Baubles and the Ritz

Paris:- Tuesday, 3. July 1996:- Grey stone reflected the grey sky today as I walked into the Place Vendôme to get a replacement ink cartridge. I have been here before, but seldom, and it still does not look like a place to get prosaic commodities and I have doubt, but this is the given address.
vendome4.jpg (10k) The buildings are the light yellow, bone-colored stone with their black, blankly staring windows; all buildings uniform height and age, and the whole thing is paved edge-to-edge with stone and the only green thing in sight, is the base of the column in the centre. There is a film production truck, and there are many big black and grey-black cars. There are so few people about, so little traffic threading its way through the metal pylons, that it could be a very large prison yard between exercise periods.
I guess it is like the avenue Foch: heavy wealth means a need of sheer space, either for security - nothing to hide behind - and few visual distractions - or just for the comfort of elbow-room. To me, it is a big stone yard.

According to the story, in 1686, Louis XIV - nicknamed 'Sun King,' I think - was persuaded to make an 'ornamental place' for Paris, by one of his ministers, the Marquis de Louvois.

This clever fellow had all sorts of compelling arguments to use: fix up the traffic mess between the rue Saint Honoré and the... some other street, plus make a place for the convent of the Capucines, founded in 1601, and there was the Hôtel of the Duc du Retz, bought by Louis in 1685 for 660,000 livres - in short, Louvois was not only a member of the court 'in-crowd' but was also charged with financing the army - and Louis, at the time, was waging war with just about everybody, on all fronts including in the colonies and he was winning some, losing others, but it was going on a long time and the armies were huge - some 200 thousand on each side - and this is what the money was for.

Work on the place Vendôme started then in 1686, but stopped on the death in 1691 of 'the harsh' Louvois, 'swollen by ill-gotten-gains, food and vices,' and recommenced in 1699 when the wars were decided by treaty in 1697, after having caused nine years of chaos.

The huge octagonal was - and is - indeed 'ornamental' - but it was completed as a modern real estate deal between the city and six well-known speculators. They put up the facades - the corinthian columns and the 110 arcades and the two stories of high windows, with nothing but empty lots behind them. These they sold off in 27 lots and all the buildings - private mansions, or 'hôtels' - were completed by 1720.

A recent acquaintance of ours, the Scottish banker, John Law, of the rue Quincampoix, wanted to put one of his counting houses in the place - but was blackballed by a cabal of upper-crust residents - so he sold his seven lots there at a huge profit and moved elsewhere.

There is a considerable history about each of the hôtels in the Place Vendôme, but it reads like sort of a society column; full of tales of riches, greed, lies, deceptions and some of the descendants may still be around, so there is no room for it here. The ministry of Justice took over numbers 11 and 13 in 1815 and it is still there, after being restored under Napoléon III.

ritzhot.jpg (16k) Having the history in one hand and walking around and looking closely at the facades may turn up surprises, but I had no history with me today. Without one, I was much surprised to 'discover' the Hotel Ritz at number 15. Surprised because I thought it to be elsewhere, somewhere around Concorde. César Ritz turned the old hôtel Gramont, built in 1705, into the Ritz in 1898 and it is still gloriously there. Other high-class bauble shops have been in the place a long time, and the banks - well - they come and go, because they're still in the same business as 200 years ago: real estate speculation.
The Place Vendôme was the first public place to be illuminated by gas and the lights were turned up, on 7. June 1825.

It is hard not to notice the 44-metre high column in the centre of the place. While the buildings have remained more or less constant, except for their owners, the column has had a turbulent history, as there is nothing much else to focus on.

This too is long, too long, but here goes: first, Louis XIV on a horse, put up in 1699 and toppled 12. August 1792 - but a foundry date was discovered on the bottom of one of the horse's hooves - 12. August 1672. This was off a marble pedestal, which was re-used by Napoléon for ideas of Roman - Trajan (52-117 AD) - grandeur, then with Charlemagne on top, but this item was given back to Aix-La-Chapelle, and finally 1250 cannon, won at Austerlitz, were melted and cast into the column, which was finished in 1810. The statue on top changed identity from Napoléon to a white flag to a Fleur-de-Lis, and back to Napoléon again in 1833, and with a new pedestal made of Corsican granite and yet another Napoléon, placed on top on 4. November 1863. On 16. May 1871 the column was knocked down and the painter, Courbot, whose idea it was, was fined the 350,000 franc repair cost and it ruined him - and as usual, he died in poverty in foreign lands.

While I am quickly upturning stones, I should mention that the name of the place was supposed to be called 'Place des Conquêtes' but was named 'Louis-le-Grand' instead. From 1793 to 1799 it was called 'Les Piques' and after that it became Vendôme, except in 1871 when the Commune called it 'Internationale,' and Courbot was still a hero.

vendome1.jpg (16k) Today there are Rollers and Mercs galore and their waiting drivers and I am trying to imagine why there is nothing green or growing here - and remembering coming through with a sleety rain in the face with no shelter - and I suppose I can look down at the stone floor or up at the slate-grey sky, but instead I find my ink cartridge and take the lively rue Saint Honoré to the rue Royale, to look for a passport photographer - because one never knows when one will need that paper, to get out of town fast and die of old age in obscurity and poverty.

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