September 23, 2010

The Oldest House in Paris

Text from (I have added the images)


When Baron Haussmann remade the face of Paris, he relegated much of the medieval city to the wrecking ball.

"House of Nicolas Flamel, and of Pernelle his wife.
To preserve the memory
of their charitable fundation
The town of Paris restored in 1900
the early engraving dated of 1407."

Yet despite his efforts, pockets of the past still remain, ready for discovery. If you are willing to search, you can still find them—including some of the oldest houses in Paris.
Actually, there are several contenders for the title, all of them to be found on the Right Bank rather than the Left, near the historic church of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais (4th) and the former abbey church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs (now part of the Musée des Arts et Métiers, 3rd). They reflect the division, already well-established by the twelfth century, between the university on the Left Bank, a burgeoning commercial district on the Right Bank, and the seat of government (the royal palace) on the Ile de la Cité.

Take the house of Nicolas Flamel. The name may mean something to you, as he shows up rather prominently in the first Harry Potter story, and Victor Hugo refers ominously to him in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Flamel has gone down in history, or in the shadows of history, as a dedicated alchemist who discovered
the Philosophers’ Stone and its secret of eternal life. Since the Philosophers’ Stone was also capable of turning base metals into gold, subsequent seekers have not been surprised to learn that Flamel was a wealthy man.
In addition to any time he may have put in at his laboratory, Flamel was a successful manuscript copyist and dealer as well as a major community benefactor. In 1407 he built the sturdy stone structure at what is now 51 Rue de Montmorency (3rd), setting aside the top stories as a kind of homeless shelter, while turning the ground floor into a money-making tavern (which now houses a popular little restaurant, the Auberge Nicolas
Flamel). If you look carefully, you can make out some of the original carvings on the façade, including angels, Flamel’s initials, and a Latin inscription invoking the inhabitants’ prayers. Flamel, who only asked that his impoverished lodgers pray for him and his wife, was also a generous benefactor to the Church of Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie, whose tower still remains at the corner of Rue de Rivoli and Boulevard de Sébastopol (4th). In remembrance of his good works, two tiny streets to the immediate north of the Tower of Saint-Jacques were named for him and his wife, Pernelle. Rue Nicolas-Flamel and Rue Pernelle (4th) still exist, and the spot where they cross provides a wonderful view of the dramatically lit tower by night. The house of Nicolas Flamel is certainly the oldest stone house in Paris, but the nearby half-timbered structure at 3 Rue
Volta (3rd), located in back of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, was long considered the oldest house in Paris.

Saint-Martin-des-Champs, which faces the old Roman road (now Rue Saint-Martin) from Paris to the sea, dates from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with roots that go back long before that. Like other abbey churches in the area, a small village grew up around its protective walls, and 3 Rue Volta may once have belonged to a leading dignitary of the village of Saint-Martin. Despite its obvious age, this contender’s title has recently been challenged: instead of dating from around the year 1300, experts now say that the house that presently occupies 3 Rue Volta may be a seventeenthcentury replacement for the original.

The last two rivals for the oldest-house prize thrust up their half-timbered structures at 11 and 13 Rue François-Miron (4th), behind the church of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais, whose tower foundations date from the thirteenth century, and whose history extends several centuries before that. As with 3 Rue Volta, these houses line an ancient roadway of Roman origins, this one connecting Paris to points east. The tall gabled structures of 11 and 13 Rue François-Miron date from the fourteenth century and give perhaps the best feeling of what medieval Paris looked like. Although various ordinances and age itself greatly altered their appearance over the centuries, they have recently been restored to their former glory, with plaques proclaiming that No. 11 is the House at the Sign of the Mower (reaper), while No. 13 is the House at the Sign of the Sheep. At the corner, an old sign for the Relais Saint-Gervais adds to the atmosphere of this special part of Paris.
These are of course small treasures, in a city that fairly bursts with riches of a larger order. But for those who value the many layers of history upon which present-day Paris is built, these remnants of the past are a delight to discover.

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