Saint-Eustache from the Bourse du Commerce
The Bourse du Commerce is an impressive round nineteenth-century hall at the western end of les Halles.4 Being circular it invited an answering semicircle in front of it. And so the stage was built up, involuntarily, for the kind of set-piece that is normally achieved only through careful design.
The left-hand side is the rue de Viarmes. The view leads to Saint-Eustache, but it is curved, as though the picture-frame were made by Borromini. In between perspective and objective, two things nudge in. First, a fast right, is the snub-end of one of les Halles. Second, a slow, powerful left, is a wall of old stucco buildings, consecrated to individual effort and inscribed accordingly: Tabac des Halles, Au Pied de Cochon and so on. The whole lot lock into place to give the kind of view that you may have despaired of finding amongst all of the long avenues: a view to sum up the huge human reality of the city that nobody dared to bomb.
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A great and noble building wearing some mighty funny clothes. In all but length it is as big as Notre-Dame; but it was begun in 1532 and consecrated in 1637. So the style is the French Renaissance at its fussiest. Small orders clamber up huge piers on each others’ shoulders; every corner is filled with some kind of fretwork, topped up with ill-advised transcriptions from the Gothic. Yet the space and scale conquer everything and even turn it into a kind of mason’s holiday from the long-prescribed Gothic details. This is the rich expression of a rich, proud and free parish and, ironically, as Protestant as anything in Holland. Les Halles is the perfect neighbour for it. The organ has been famous for centuries, and no wonder. When it is playing the whole building seems to be inhabited by music, scraping out the ornate vaults, peering into the galleries. The detail feels like so much musical notation written on the walls; and, acoustically speaking, I suppose it may be.
Two of the furnishings are worth a special look. The banc d’orgues in the nave opposite the pulpit was given in 1720. It is a superbly designed bit of saturnine elegance – thick curves and elongated angels’ legs in wicked counterpoint. And Colbert’s tomb by Coysevox (1685-7; chapel next to the apse, on the north side) is for once free of allegory and arrogance: a humble human being kneeling in rich clothes and hoping to be forgiven.
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The French Covent Garden: the same kind of site embedded between Commerce and West End, the same traffic problem, the same threat – imminent, now- – of removal to the suburbs. There is even the same sense of market architecture hopelessly, irretrievably swamped by vegetables. What are the differences? More give-and-take in every way: les Halles handles meat as well as vegetables, and there is a flourishing street market on the edge of the wholesale trade. There are more cafes and restaurants, open longer and less split up into caff and toff. There seems to be less of the edgy bloody-mindedness of Covent Garden and there certainly is a profound understanding of the fact that women are personalities in their own right, not chattels that turn out to be useful for dustin’ ’n’ shaggin’. It adds up to humanity whole rather than stratified.
Fontaine des Innocents
Jean Goujon, 1550
South-east of les Halles in a small, leafy square, and newly cleaned, hence become innocent in the wrong sense. However, Goujon’s sculptures soon alter all that. Like the best Quattrocento Italians, he was able to puff out the stone in low relief and inject into it a disturbing dionysiac life. His nymphs are far from allegorical, and full of experience. Full breasts and infolded thighs suggest devotion beyond the line of public sculpture, and the fountain links hands with the Tempio Malatestiana at Rimini in a proof that sculpture can almost forgo the third dimension. One can see, here, how the poses later became robbed of life, and shoved into allegory – and in quite an unusual way. Because the fountain was originally against a wall, the fourth side is a nineteenth-century match by Pajou. It faces the entrance, on the rue des Innocents, and once you know about it the figures are full of what the French would call pudeur.
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