Napoleon's Greek Arch

photo: front face of madeleine church

One of Paris' best Christmas season music halls.

Turns Into a Church In the Place of Plenty

Paris:- Thursday, 23. September 1999:- If you have been standing in the Place de la Concorde trying to admire the sundial effect created by the Obelisk without success, you may as well turn in to the Rue Royale, and admire Paris' only Greek temple instead.

Everybody in Paris calls it the Madeleine, but its full name is church of Saint Mary Magdalene, or Sainte-Marie Madeleine, according to my map. Plain 'Madeleine' makes it clear to everybody.

It didn't start out this way. Back in 1238 it was located at number eight in the Boulevard Malesherbes. How this could be when the creation of this boulevard wasn't decreed by Lucien Bonaparte until 1800; was named Malesherbes while still unfinished in 1824, and wasphoto: plantation on madeleine steps officially opened by Napoléon III on 13. August 1861. How indeed?

The 'original' Madeleine church, at its original location, lasted for only about 550 years. It was rebuilt in 1366 and again around 1487, made the seat of a parish in 1639, rebuilt again in 1660 and finally demolished by an over-excited property speculator in 1798 who paid 150,000 livres for it. Exit Madeleine I.

The Madeleine's 'plantation' give its steps a 'sofa' effect.

The area of the place for the present church of the Madeleine II, was ordered - decreed; same thing - in 1808. But this is upstart Bonaparte history because a more prestigious church was foreseen back in 1757 - one to compliment the high tone of the neighborhood - for which the ancient church was too small and perhaps a bit shabby.

The Rue Royale, coming up from Concorde, started out as Louis XIII's city wall. Somewhat as it is now, it opened in 1758, after being called the Chemin des Fossés-des-Tuileries - or Tuileries Moat Road - in 1714.

One architect built all the townhouses along it in fine style and the ones that the Communards didn't burn down can still be seen today. But back then - 'BR' - before the Révolution - very fine people lived in them and the neighborhood needed a fine church to match.

Two key dates seem to be associated with the Place de la Madeleine. Lucien's 1808 decree, and the general idea that all of the surrounding streets - except the Rue Royale - were opened around 1824 - long after Lucien was elsewhere.

One of them, the Boulevard de la Madeleine was also part of the Louis XIII city wall, until it became aphoto: traffic in rue royale section of the Grands Boulevards in 1680. During the Révolution it was called Cerutti - no apparent relation to 'Cerruti 1881,' coincidently located at the Rue Royale side of the place.

The view towards the Rue Royale, Concorde and the National Assembly.

At number 15, the Cercle de l'Union, begun in 1851, was known for 'anglomanie,' and served dinners for six francs, not including wine. This club endured until 1949. Continuing manifestations of 'anglomanie' can still be found along the Grands Boulevards today, but not for six francs.

The Trois-Quartiers department store started up on the corner of the Boulevard de la Madeleine and the place in 1829, after getting its name from a theatre piece of the same name. The owners later finessed the name into the high-rent 'quartiers' of Madeleine, Tuileries and Champs-Elysées.

The neighborhood was talking about an 'agreeable finishing touch' to the Rue Royale and Louis XV obliged by posing the new church's first stone on 3. April 1764. This 'agreeable' touch required the church to face north-south rather than the traditional east-west. An omen?

Contant d'Ivry started it off and dropped dead working on it in 1777. Couture followed, but the Academie d'Architecture demanded that it form a Greek cross and have a dome like the Panthéon - rather than be like a Latin cross like Les Invalides as foreseen by Contant d'Ivry.

Then the Bonapartes got into the act. They thought it would be better as a stock exchange, or a good location for the Bank of France. Or a temple, or a theatre - even a banquet hall for official functions. Other ideas made it the Bibliothèque Nationale or the Opéra.

On 2. December 1806, Napoléon decreed it to be the 'Temple de la Gloire,' dedicated to the Grande Armée. He made it clear he wanted no church, but a temple - a monument; 'Like one in Athens!' Paris had none of these at the time.

The architect Vignon won the imperial nod. The Empire fell and Louis XVIII kept Vignon on the job. The catch was that it was to be a church again, not a monument; to be Greek outside, but Latin inside.

This called for 52 Corinthian columns, each 19.5 metres high. Insidephoto: madeleine's public toilet there are three cupolas on top of arches supported by columns. The result is, nothing in the Madeleine resembles a church. Vignon died in 1828 after working on it for 22 years.

Underground shoeshine parlours are rare, and Paris has only one 'best' public toilet - this one.

When Huvé took over, there wasn't much left to do except the sculptures and other decor, and he directed this from 1830 to 1842, when, after 85 years of work, the new Madeleine church was finished.

The architect Vignon is buried in the church. So too is the Abbot Deguerry, who from 23. March 1842 until he was shot by a Commune firing squad, never ceased to pester the Ville de Paris to add a cross to the church.

The small flower market on the east side of the Madeleine opened in 1834. Just in front of it, the RATP has a kiosk offering bus tours in Paris and to other destinations. On the opposite side of the church there is a kiosk where you can get half-price tickets for same-day theatre and concert performances. For some reason, the steps of the church are currently serving as a plantation.

Facing the Madeleine on the Boulevard Malesherbes, is the building where Marcel Proust lived as a child. Around the corner in the Rue de l'Arcade, is the house of ill-repute Proust furnished from goods left to him by inheritance.

Just to the east of the church's main entry, is Paris' nicest public toilet. Its art nouveau interior was opened in 1905 and it contains one of Paris' most splendid shoeshine chairs, plus the rest of its original decor.

For some reason, I have always been indifferent to the Madeleine. The Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde is like an exclamation point in the middle of a tremendous space - whilephoto: place de la madeleine the Greek-like Madeleine seems so... odd. A bit like a fortress under attack by relentless traffic swirling around it.

But my feeling is better about it today. I think it is because it is sunny - more Greek than ever - even Athens in the rain is not stunning. The plantation on the church's front steps is an asset, and the free view down the Rue Royale on a clear day makes coming to Paris worth the effort.

As in all Paris, the Place de la Madeleine is also full of cars, buses and trucks.

Finally, if a lot of stone makes you feel hungry, the Place de la Madeleine is a delicatessen - with fineries to eat to match the clothing and jewels of the rest of the neighborhood.

I was going to come here yesterday, on Paris 'carless' Wednesday. But when I saw the Madeleine was just outside the traffic-free zone, I decided against it. Putting it inside the 'zone' would make it - more Greek. Didn't Athens shut down its traffic squalor?

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