Monday, August 17th, 2015
Last night, I arrive a bit late, having cheered on my husband on as he set off on the Paris-Brest-Paris ride in Saint Quentin en Yvellines, a suburb near Versailles. I’m back from Berlin and Saint Quintin, staying this time at 136 rue Montmartre, another Airbnb bargain. The red front door of my room enters a narrow white building decorated from top to bottom with two rows of classical statues in niches, and opens to a shabby, ancient spiral stairway. Though my room is plain with ugly and mismatched furniture, it’s roomy and spic-and-span, with a big comfortable bed with crisp clean bedclothes. My thoughtful host has every basic need stocked: bottles water of water chilled in the fridge (bubbly and still), decent coffee, soap and shampoo, even band aids (I can’t be the first traveler to have stayed here who have walked too far in shoes that are too new for a full day of walking. Two painful blisters are the inevitable result). I settle in happily, get a good night’s sleep, and then…
I head towards the Seine, towards the wonderful Saint-Germaine-des-Pres neighborhood and its environs across the river where many sites associated with my subjects are; I’m really looking forward to spending the bulk of my day here. On my way down towards the Seine down the rue de Louvre, I pass by the colonnade of the older part of the Louvre, which Thomas Jefferson admired very much.
Jefferson was forward thinking in science and human rights theory, but looked more to the past for his politics, art, and architecture. He thought, up to his time, that the ancients Greeks and Romans had reached the pinnacle of architectural and the artistic achievement up to that point, just as they had done in politics by with their democratic and republican forms of government (though he believed that ancient Germanic tribes were actually the first to govern in the spirit of respect for human rights) and in philosophy with their focus on reason and the development of virtue. He loved the Greek and Roman-revival art and architecture the most, all the rage in Paris at the time of his visit, and believed it inspired virtuous sentiments in all who beheld its beauty and symmetry. Jefferson spent his five years here drinking it all in, seeking inspiration for great new public buildings for his own country and well as for his own home.
Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were both regular guests, along with Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin, of the famous salon of Sophie de Grouchie and her husband, the great Marquis de Condorcet, at the Hôtel des Monnaies. It’s the French Royal Mint, and Condorcet held the position of Inspecteur general des monnaies (chief currency inspector), so he and his family were given a suite of rooms there, on therue Guénégaud. The Monnaie is a grand building facing the Seine, on quai Conti between rue Guenegaud and the impasse de Conti in the 6th Arrondissement, not far to the east of the Institut de France. I peeked inside the gate to see one of the grand entryways, but I can’t back up quite enough get a good picture of the front of the building without falling off the wall onto the Seine walkway, so you’ll have to visit the Monnaie website if you’d like to see the entire facade. There’s also a statue of Condorcet just a block away, also on the quai Conti facing the Seine, near the corner of the quai and the impasse de Conti.
De Grouchie was an embodiment of the successful Parisian society woman of the 18th century, very fashionable and an accomplished intellectual. She translated Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments into French, and her salon was well attended by the best minds in Paris.
The Marquis de Condorcet was a mathematician, philosopher, and author, and he lived at the Hôtel des Monnaies. He was an ardent supporter of the American Revolution and hoped its influence would lead to similar forms of government to spread throughout Europe as well. He shared the Enlightenment belief, along with Paine, Wollstonecraft, and Jefferson, in the perfectibility of humankind through education and through civic participation in a democratic state founded on human rights, and also believed the inevitable triumph of the human race against government oppression and usurpation of the right of self-rule.
Like Paine and unlike Jefferson, Condorcet was unequivocal on the subject of full and equal rights for people of all races, and with, Paine, declared the concept of human rights meaningless if it did not apply to all, so he called for the immediate and full emancipation of all slaves. Like Wollstonecraft, he was what came to be called feminist, though he was more ardent and unequivocal in his belief that women were full intellectual equals with men and should have the exact same political rights. Of course, all of these were among the topics of discussion at the salons, along with the meaning of French Revolution itself and the direction it was going.
Condorcet held onto his faith in the ultimate benefit of the Revolution to his country despite the extremist faction that had taken over and plunged it into violence. Since he believed that, once awakened, the people would ultimately triumph in their fight for human rights, he saw the Terror as a temporary setback, a bump in the road to liberty. Condorcet would become one of its most tragic martyrs. He hid out at a friend’s house for eight months, then fled to the woods, after the Robespierre’s Jacobins ordered his arrest in 1793. He was captured when he left the woods three days later, famished, attempting to purchase a meal. He was found in his prison cell two days later, the victim of an apparent suicide.
On my way to my next destination, I walk a short way west and turn left down rue Bonaparte, keeping an eye out for a site which two of my sources describe as near this end of this street, but neither give an exact address.
Thomas Jefferson stayed here for a short time in August 1784, when he moved to the more comfortable Hôtel d’Orléans from a smaller one he first stayed at upon arrival in Paris. This street, called rue des Petits-Augustins in Jefferson’s time, is also in the 6th Arrondissement. Despite looking carefully, I don’t see a marker identifying the site of the Hôtel. I do see a grand entryway with a historic plaque describing 5 Rue des Petits-Augustins, near the north end of the street, as a former residence of many famous people, especially artists. This is a bustling arts district, crowded with wonderful and elegant little galleries. Anne-Sophie Duval, Galerie de Vos, and Lawrence Esnol Gallery share the ground floor of that Hotel. I consider it a possible candidate for the location I seek, since it’s a grander hotel than the others I see within these two blocks, but since I can’t confirm it, I move on.
My next confirmed destination (at least, a specified address, without reference to whether the street numbers ever changed) is a house that Mary Wollstonecraft often visited and later lived at for awhile. In September 1793, she returned from her sojourn in Neilly-sur-Seine to Paris. She had become pregnant with Imlay’s child and moved in with him to Faubourg Saint-Germain, to a house of her close friend Ruth Barlow, wife of Joel Barlow, Paine’s and Jefferson’s friend, statesman, and poet (more on Mr. Barlow shortly). At the time they moved in together here, it was still a happy stage in Wollstonecraft and Imlay’s relationship. Wollstonecraft was described by friends and acquaintances as glowing and never so lovely as at this time, and Imlay was temporarily dazzled enough by his intellectual, unconventionally lovely, and emotionally intense lover to put his womanizing on hold. The small house the Barlows owned here was rue Jacob, number 22. If this address address matches its modern location, it’s near the Musée National Eugene Delacroix in the 6 Arrondissement. Now there’s a jazz club / cabaret and Galerie Eberwein on the ground floor of this place.
I continue my trek farther south and a little to the east in this oh-so-charming neighborhood, among my favorites, especially as I’ve gotten a little deeper in and away from the crush of tourists and tacky souvenir shops. I head down rue de l’Odeon, below Boulevard Sainte-Germain.
Thomas Paine moved in with printer and writer Nicholas de Bonneville in the spring of 1797, after the Monroes had left Paris, and lived in his place for five years, until 1802. While here, Paine wrote a series of articles for Bonneville’s paper promoting the invasion of Britain by France for the purposes of overthrowing the corrupt monarchical system there. Napoleon Bonaparte visited Paine there, interested in the strategies for doing so that Paine had outlined. At first, they were friends, but Paine became disillusioned with Bonaparte and didn’t end up trusting that his intentions were anything other than self-serving. He moved out of this house and back to the United States in September of 1802, at the invitation and with the help of newly elected President Thomas Jefferson, to the latter’s credit. Paine’s reputation had been seriously undermined in the United State after the publication of The Rights of Man and with his involvement in the French Revolution.
I find that the street number to this house has definitely changed with the name. The plaque that identifies the house as the former residence of Paine and Bonneville is at number 10, while the biographies I referenced for this site list 4 rue du Theatre Francais, the former name of rue de l’Odéon. It’s above the Librairie (bookstore) Guelegaud. I discover a fun fact: it’s next to the building where Sylvia Beach published James Joyces’ Ulysses in 1922.
As I’ve mentioned in this series already, Thomas Jefferson was quite the theater-goer, and from 1784 and onwards, he often attended performances at Theatre Francais, later the Theatre Odeon. He saw the 16th performance of Baumarchais’ Mariage de Figaro there on Aug 4th, 1786. The Odeon is at 2 rue Corneille near the convergence of place, rue, and currefour de l’Odeon. The front door of the theater opens to a lovely foyer, but almost immediately after I go inside, the guard at the front door pounces on me, informing me that taking photos inside is forbidden. I explain the object of my trip and he becomes a little friendlier, but still says no, since the video cameras would reveal he let me take photos without official permission, which I could seek by writing to the building’s administrators when they return on September 1st. Oh well. There’s always the website!
I go around to the side to see if I could find a historical marker or plaque, passing through an elegant vaulted promenade lined with hanging lamps, then walk all around the building. No luck. It’s a very lovely theater, someday I hope to go inside.
I head down to the Luxembourg gardens and palace. After I do a little photography of the informational signs and before I do my historical explorations, I sit down to eat my lunch and do a little writing at La Fontaine Medicis, a beautiful little rectangular pool below an ornate fountain. It’s a lovely day, balmy with a cool breeze blowing and partly cloudy, a relief after the first week of oppressive heat, though the warm evenings were a definite upside. Today’s the day that many Parisians open up shop again, having been away for vacation for the last month, and I’m sure they’re very glad at being welcomed back home by the beautiful weather. The Jardin de Luxembourg is a very happy place, a mix of formal geometric gardens and meandering paths among beautiful trees and flowers, more like botanical gardens. People are picnicking and sunning themselves by the dozens, and children are sailing their little boats in the big reflecting pool.
It’s a far cry from the dark days of the Terror when the Luxembourg became a prison, albeit one of the better ones, reserved for prisoners who even the architects of the Terror felt deserved some respect. Paine, after all, was still one of the revered fathers and authors of the Revolution of France as well of the United States. Robespierre turned against him because he was growing increasingly paranoid and suspicious, as his overweening pride of power turned to bloodlust for the Revolution’s enemies, real or imagined. This came to include all foreigners, so despite his status as an honorary citizen of France, off to prison went Paine. He spent over ten months there, watching in horror as old friends, and new ones he made while in prison, were carted off to the guillotine. Mary Wollstonecraft visited her good friend Paine her, along with other friends and like-minded people imprisoned here at this time.
Paine was popular with his prison mates and made a lot of friends. This was a good thing, too, since Paine eventually fell seriously ill with typhoid for the second time, and again nearly died from it, probably only saved because of the good care taken of him by his new friends, one of which was a prison guard. There’s a story, probably though not certainly true, that Paine was finally assigned his turn for the guillotine. The doorway was marked with chalk accordingly, but because Paine was boiling with fever, the guard allowed the door to remain open to cool the room. When the man came to collect those condemned to die, the door had since been closed, concealing the chalk mark, so Paine was passed over. Why the mistake was never remedied is never explained, which casts some doubt on the story. Perhaps the author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man was still just too valued and his would-be executioners lost their nerve, who knows? It’s a great story nonetheless.
I head for my last historical excursion for the day: the Pantheon. I had seen the building’s exterior when in Paris seven years ago, and had promised myself to go inside next time. Today is the day!
Formerly the basilica of Saint Genevieve, it was decommissioned as a reliquary for the bones of this beloved and ancient patron saint of Paris and made a temple dedicated to the intellectuals and great people of France during the French Revolution. Thomas Jefferson greatly admired this incredible monument, modeled on the classical ‘temple of all the gods, and visited with his new friend and platonic lover, the beautiful and consummate conversationalist Maria Cosway.
As beautiful and perfectly designed as it is on the outside, the inside is stunning. The dome soars high overhead, but right now it’s covered on the inside by a screen showing the faces of people from around the world. It’s currently being renovated, as you can see from the scaffolding and supports around the dome from the outside. It’s massive, and the enormous frescoes add color and light to the place, which is otherwise maybe just a little too dark and somber. It had originally been designed to let in a lot of light, but many of its windows and open spaces were walled up since 1793, four years after Jefferson’s time in Paris, because the architect charged with transforming into a mausoleum thought it should have a more solemn look and feel. The Pantheon was never restored to its original open design, and perhaps the walls remain because the frescoes they contain are just too beautiful to tear out.
Condorcet’s tomb is here, though his actual remain are lost. Voltaire and Rousseau are actually interred here: their tombs are placed opposite of one another, on either side of the central main aisle of the crypt. They were in many ways opposites in thought: in general, Voltaire emphasized the Head, Rousseau the Heart; Voltaire was a satirist, Rousseau a romantic; Voltaire critiqued all religions, Rousseau though being religious was important but also though all were equally valid: Voltaire loved science and culture, Rousseau thought that all that removed human beings from their raw ‘natural’ selves was corruption, and so on. I love how well thought out their final resting places are arranged: the statue of Voltaire has a genial expression, as if looking around the room, ready to enter into witty repartee with one who has the time to stop and chat. Rousseau has no statue, but the tomb of this incurable romantic is carved with a facsimile of his hand reaching out to offer the world a bouquet of flowers.
All three of my subjects, Paine, Wollstonecraft, and Jefferson, read Voltaire and Rousseau and were very much influenced by them. Wollstonecraft, in particular, was very critical of Rousseau’s views on women, especially regarding education and their ‘natural’ roles in society. Like the others, however, she admired his defense of the natural origins of human rights.
Well, this has been a particularly long, fascinating, and beauty-filled day, yet there is still much more to come of my journeys in Paris. To be continued in Part 4….
Sources and inspiration:
Adams, William Howard. The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1997.
Bell, David. ‘5 Myths About the French Revolution‘, New York Post, Jul 9th, 2015.
‘French Revolution.’ Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia
Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.
Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.
Jenkinson, Clay. ‘The Magna Carta‘. The Thomas Jefferson Hour podcast, episode 1141.
Monnaie de Paris, website.