An Alley With a Past

photo: rue visconti, from r seine

A little street filled with a lot of history.

The Quartier Latin's Rue Visconti

Paris:- Wednesday, 26. May 2000:- No matter how you enter the Rue Visconti, neither entry promises much. It is no wider than an alley - three metres from wall to wall - and it is not long either - 176 metres; a bit like an over-long one-lane bowling alley, with narrow sidewalks on both sides.

But I don't start here. I start out by looking up the history of the Grand Palais under 'W' for Winston Churchill. 'V' for Visconti is just before the non-entry at Winston Churchill. It is a non-entry because it was the Avenue Alexandre III up until 1966.

At the listing for Avenue Alexandre III, all it says is when the Grand Palais was built - from 1897 to 1900 - by Girault, assisted by Deglane, Louvet and Thomas. Sounds like a firm of lawyers.

It adds that the Grand Palais was used for all sorts of exhibitions, without mentioning 'art' at all. Horse shows! The western part has housed the Palais de la Decouverte since 1937. The whole listing is so short that it includes the Petit-Palais as a bonus; built at the same time, and is considered by some to be a 'bijou' for its less-than-grand proportions.

Dimitri - my unofficial expert for Paris' Russian lore - says the street name was really Avenue Nicolas II, after Czar Alexandre's son, and only the bridge was Alexandre III, which it still is. This I can confirm, but without any date for the street-name change from son to dad.

With so little to go on, I decide the Rue Visconti - handily listed nearby 'Winston' - is more suitable for treatment. Instead of 'grand' we have an alley; a very old alley in the Quartier Latin.

The whole Rue Visconti is 74 metres shorter than the Grand Palais, but its historical listing is 694 times as long. This is because it started out at the beginning of the 16th century, 300 years earlier.

It went up to the actual numbers of 14 and 15, before being punched through all the way to the Rue Bonaparte from the Rue de Seine, in 1540.

Just as the Rue Bonapartre was not called that then, the Rue Visconti's first name was Marais-Saint-Germain - to set it off from the Marais-du-Temple. Howeverphoto: visconti, near bonaparte dubiously it got its first name, it became Visconti in 1864, after the architect who had done Napoléon's tomb at the Invalides and had died 11 years before.

Early Huguenots 'adopted' this obscure side-street and for a time is may have been known as 'La Petite Genève.' Their first synod was held here from 25 to 29. May in 1559, with François de Morel presiding. In a surprise raid in 1586, all escaped except four.

In 1589 Bernard Palissy was not so lucky. He was seized by the 'Seize' and locked up in the Bastille where he died two years later, at the age of 80.

Starting at Rue de Seine and in 1547, the first house belonged to a discount salesman. It consisted of two parts separated by a courtyard. The left wing became the Cabaret du Petit-Maure in 1618 and the courtyard which was used for illegal dueling disappeared in 1750 when it was filled in with a newer building.

The building beyond also started out in 1547, was rebuilt in 1749 and became the Hôtel des Beaux-Arts in 1822. Alibard left it on Sunday, 26. June 1836 with the intention of shooting king Louis-Philippe with a gun disguised as a cane. Like many others, he took his shot and missed; then Louis-Philippe took his head in exchange.

Roger du Plessis-Liancourt, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, had a large hôtel in the Rue de Seine and he branched out into the Rue Visconti in 1640 at number 10. He took on number 12 two years later, then number 14 after another two years.

The hôtel at number 12 was purchased by Clément de Ris in 1777. His son, Dominique-Clément, a senator, and 'friend' of Madame Lætitia Bonaparte, was kidnapped in 1800 and the case was never solved. This kind of thing still happens occasionally.

Number 14 went, as part of a dowry, to François VII de La Rochefoucauld, Prince of Marcillac, in 1699. It changed hands a couple of times, coming into the Louvencourt family, who had the Marquise de Pierrecourt as a tenant.

She was the girlfriend of Maréchal de Lowendal, but when he wasn't looking, she had close relations with another tenant. How do people remember these things? Other families owned the hôtel later and the sculptor Denis Foyatier lived in it too.

Across the street, thanks to a gift from Françoise de Bonier made on Thursday, 14. February 1636, les Dames de la Visitation were set up to let rooms to persons 'of good life, catholic religion, Roman version.' They had the house next doorphoto: north side, dir east on visconti too; also built in 1552. Each of the houses brought in 800 livres of rent money per year.

One of their tenants was the secretary of the Maréchal de Saxe. Seven years later, in 1757, the Marquis de Courtivon, reputed scholar and Académie des Sciences pensioner, moved in.

He was credited for having been wounded while saving the life of Maréchal de Saxe in a campaign in Bavaria. The Marquis de Courtivon died at 1785 at 70, which was not bad considering all the plagues that were common.

The famous actress Adrienne Lecouvreur lived at number 16, which had been built in 1682 for Augustin de Louvencourt, the boss of the budget office. When he died, his wife moved into number 14 in 1699.

Adrienne Lecouvreur debuted in Strasbourg and didn't play in Paris until she was 27. She specialized in tragedies and was highly regarded - so she had a long line of famous boyfriends, including the Chevalier de Rohan, Lord Peterborough, a Guards officer who donated a daughter, François de Klinglin who donated another daughter, and finally, the illustrious Maréchal de Saxe.

When he was nominated in 1775 as Duc de Courlande, she pawned her silver, her jewels and her coach, to send him 40,000 livres. Even if Maurice de Saxe, son of Aurore de Koenigsmark and in line for the kingship of Saxony was a smart captain and a brilliant Maréchal, he was a dud as a scholar and never learned to write.

The cultivated and clever Adrienne Lecouvreur did her best to teach him a modicum of manners, but writing he could not master.

After his great victory at Fontenoy, he - who would turn out to be the great-grandfather of George Sand - was put up for the Académie and he turned it down flat, writing in his refusal, "Il veule me fere de la Cadémie, sela m'iret comme une bage à un chas" - which more or less means 'I can't spell for beans.'

Adrienne was also a great pal of Voltaire. When she died at 38 in 1730 there was some mystery surrounding her death.

Some said she died of heartbreak on account of Maurice de Saxe's other close girlfriends, but evil-minded tongues said that she had been poisoned by Marie-Charlotte, who was thephoto: old sign, rue des marais 20 daughter of Prince Sobiesky and grand-daughter of the King of Poland.

This Marie-Charlotte had married, in 1723, the Prince de Turenne and was widowed ten days later. Then she married her brother-in-law, Charles Godefroy, the Duc de Bouillon - but she didn't poison him or Adrienne Lecouvreur.

Fontenelle, Dr. Fayet, Maurice de Saxe and Voltaire were present when she died around 11 in the morning on Thursday, 23. March and they witnessed no foul play.

In 1826, when Honoré de Balzac was 26 he lived in a building at numbers 17 and 19, built at the back of the Ormesson property which fronted on the Rue Jacob. He had his print shop on the ground floor and he lived in a small apartment upstairs.

Although helped by the secret consul of Madame de Berny - the 'Madame de Mortsauf' in 'Lys Dans la Vallée' - who was 22 years older than him, Balzac flopped as a printer and Madame de Berny's son turned the shop into a type foundry. Stendal's 'Le Rouge et le Noir' was printed in it in 1831. Meanwhile, Balzac brought out 'Les Chouans' in 1829.

The same building housed a bunch of painters, including Delacroix who lived in it from 1836 to 1844, with his atelier on the second floor. In addition to some major paintings, he also did portraits of George Sand and Chopin here. The dwarf armless painter, César Ducornet, was also a resident. He painted with his right foot.

'La Galante Duclos,' Marie-Anne Duclos de Châteauneuf, was a tenant at the house at number 20, built in 1682. She started out at the Comédie-Française at 23 in 1693, and played in tragedies for 40 years.

When she was 55 she married her 17 year-old 'companion,' Duchemin. This didn't last long, but she picked up a new boyfriend at 60 and presumably lived happily ever-after because there's nothing about her death.

Other tenants were Victor Mérimée's son Prosper, who stayed until 1838, while writing 'Vénus d'Ille,' 'La Double Méprise' and 'Les Ames du Purgatoire.' Then he moved to Spain.

Many of the odd-numbered houses went right through from the Rue Jacob to the Rue Visconti, which must have been like an alley, because near the Ruephoto: grocery, cor rue seine Bonaparte end several of them had stables, and the extra-wide, extra-high doors for them are still here. The hôtel at number 21 had two stables for horses and space enough for four carriages as well.

Opposite, the master carpenter Pierre Sinson built his house around 1678 and it was sold to abbot Louis Tiberge in 1724 for 30,000 livres, which were used then instead of francs.

The Rue de Seine entry to the Rue Visconti.

Among its tenants were the widow of the Duc de Melfort, whose grandson was much appreciated by the Duchess d'Orléans; and therefore believed to be the father of Louis-Philippe whose nickname was 'Philippe Equalité.'

Others were the Marquis de Foucauld de Magny, the Marquis de Riantz - husband of Colbert's grand-daughter - the English Admiral George Rodney and the general, Baron de Montfort.

Number 24 is at the corner of the Rue Bonaparte on a property owned by Martin Freete in 1560. In 1595, the poet Nicolas Vauquelin bought it for 17,000 livres. He was also lieutenant-general of the magistrates of Caen, became the tax-collector for César de Vendôme and later, that of the Dauphin in 1609.

Nicolas Vauquelin quit the court after the death of Henri IV, perhaps in disgrace, perhaps for bad manners. But he was rich so he lived the high-life, with a harp player named Jeanne Dupuy, who he discovered playing for tiny fractions of 'livres' in the street.

They had dress-up 'bucolic' parties and used an underground passage to the Rue Jacob so they could take part in other fêtes of dubious taste. He died in 1649 with 82 years on his clock, and left the house to his nephew.

But shortly afterward, his house was subdivided. The part that is now number 24, was rented by Jean Racine in 1692. As an orphan he was brought up by a religious order called the Solitaires at Port-Royal. He left it at 17 when it was closed.

Racine lived at a multitude of addresses in the Quartier Latin. He went through some struggles of conscience and quit the theatre, only to return to it - possibly at the prodding of Madame de Maintenon.

He died on Tuesday, 21. April of 1699 - at 60 - a lot younger than other people in the street with far less in the way of scruples.

He died of a combination of four major ailments, and possibly of heartbreak, a fifth - out of desolation at being out of favor with Louis XIV - for whom he apparently worked as a 'historiographer.'

But as a successful playwright, he left a home that housed 14, with enough room for a courtyard, stable for two horses and a carriage, plus a four-wheeled town-chair.

When he arrived in the Rue Visconti, he had long given up having actresses for girlfriends - mainly because La Champmeslé had quit the stage. His very pious wife, Catherine de Romanet, produced seven children; six girls and one boy - who was Louis Racine and who wrote inspirational poems that were of limited popularity.

About 50 years later, Clair Leyris de Latude - or Mlle. Clarion - lived here. She started out with the Comédie-Italienne at 13 in a piece by Marivaux. She played in Rouen, started her 'vie galante' in Lille and debuted at 20 on Thursday, 19. September 1743 as Phèdre at the Comédie-Françaire - where she stayed for 22 years.

A rival of Mlle. Dumesnil, Mlle. Clarion is remembered as having perfect diction and a 'passionate accent.' She is also remembered because she had the good sense to quit while 42 and at the top - as a result of objecting to play with an actor she didn't like. Louis XV had her portrait painted by Van Loo, dressed for her part as Médée.

The most recent date mentioned above was 156 years ago. Since then a certain number of houses, hôtels - or back gardens of places in the Rue Jacob - have been replaced by a Ville de Paris kindergarten.

Looking into the narrow street from either Bonaparte or Rue de Seine, you can't see this utility building - so it is pretty easy to imagine the whole street being back there, then.

Since the roadway is so narrow the Rue Visconti is one-way; from the direction of Bonaparte. For thephoto: view from seine to bonaparte first 40 metres from the Rue de Seine, there are a handful of little galleries on both sides.

Today the one I notice most has a dozen drawings - engravings? - by Jules Pascin, who was a 'Dômiste' from Bulgaria and who was 'Monsieur Montparnasse' in the '20s even though he lived on the edge of Montmartre.

He doesn't 'fit' into the Quartier Latin's Rue Visconti which is very much older. But like others who did live in this street, he did die of heartbreak, in 1930, by hanging himself from a doorknob. His funeral was reportedly one of the biggest ever held in Paris.

If you are around the art galleries in this part of the Quartier Latin and the incessant traffic in the Rue de Seine and the Rue Bonaparte are getting you down, just sneak into the Rue Visconti, where you can slide back - at least 156 years - in time, in light and shadow, in colors that are not intense.

For food and drink, you will have to bring your own. There is a tidy little grocery shop right at the corner of the Rue de Seine and it can take care of all you will need.

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