The cobblestones that pave the streets of Montmartre flagrantly defy the advance of progress, much like the horse-drawn carriage sedately making its way through chaotic traffic along the Champs-Élysées. Bone shaking for cyclists, hazardous for women in stilettos, and disturbing to infants as they are wheeled in prams by their nannies, cigarette in hand, to get some air.
The clatter of horses' hooves on the cobblestones easily twist the imagination, and suddenly . . . it’s the 1890’s: La Belle Époque. Europe in general, and France in particular, is no longer at war. The humiliation and damaged national pride suffered by the French after the loss at the hands of Otto van Bismarck and the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 still lingers in the French psyche; the military genius of the more famous Bonaparte—Emperor Napoleon I—apparently not inherited by his nephew, Louis Napoleon, Emperor Napoleon III.
Paris itself is proudly regaled in its new attire; a new Paris that was envisioned by the disgraced, and recently deceased, Napoleon. This vision—that was brought to reality between 1855 and 1870 by the extraordinary Baron Haussmann—has given Paris its glamorous new facelift: magnificent wide boulevards; large tracts of recreational land in the form of parks and forests such as the Bois de Boulogne, Bois des Vincennes, and Parc Des Buttes-Chaumont; the iconic and visually captivating Tour Eiffel that was inaugurated in1887; and a new water supply and sewerage system that were desperately needed for the massive city expansion to be sustainable in the long-term. Baron Haussmann’s legacy described by one historian as, “Paris embellished. Paris enlarged. Paris cleansed.”
The charm of Montmartre now, as during La Belle Époque, is undeniable. Cobblestones aside, flâneur-ing through the winding streets and laneways of Montmartre is magical. Fleeting glimpses of greater Paris sprawled out at the feat of Montmartre are caught between rows of apartment buildings. Creative street art and graffiti highlight the depth of history that the creative arts have had in this concentrated droplet of Paris for well over a century. Rustic cafes, bawdy bars, and chic restaurants add to the organic beauty of this popular quartier of Paris.
If I squint my ears a little I can hear the laughter of a young woman, drunk on Champagne, echoing off the walls of adjacent apartment buildings as she stands unsteadily in the rear of the horse-drawn carriage, clip-clopping along the cobblestones on her way to the apartment of her lover for Absinthe and a poetry reading.
Overseeing it all is the elegant majesty of Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, sitting atop the geographical high point of Paris: butte Montmartre. A monument constructed not just as a celebration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and a demonstration of the love and pride for that most conservative of moral orders, the Catholic Church. Primarily, Sacré-Cœur was envisioned and erected as a monument of political and social penance after the loss of the Franco-Prussian war, and to purge the national shame associated with the brief but bloody events of the secular uprising known as the Paris Commune that also occurred in 1871.
Montmartre was central to the Paris Commune as the site of its early gatherings and initial protests—headed by the popular doctor and mayor of the 18th arrondissement, George Clemenceau—but more dramatically as one of the sites of the bloody last stand of the rebels against the Loyalist French Army that began on the 21st May, 1871, and which lasted for a week—now known as la semaine sanglante: the bloody week.
Left wing revolutionist groups representing the poor and working classes had banded together after the fall of Napoleon III in September 1870. Supported by National Guard units from the working-class neighbourhoods of Paris, they had marched on the Hôtel de Ville demanding a new government—a Commune—be formed. The Commune officially ruled France from March 18th until May 28th, 1871.
In the months leading up to this period, Paris was still under siege by the Prussian and German armies who were camped just a few kilometres outside the city; the Armistice formally signed in January, 1871. Access to food had been restricted for many months, and Paris was facing a severe famine. Externally Paris was under siege; internally it was divided and in turmoil. The wealthy aristocracy and right wing royalists—supported by the Central Committee of the National Guard and the Catholic Church—based in Versailles, versus the rebellious left wing petit bourgeois and the working classes, supported by the Commune and their few National Guard units.
After the rebels killed two army generals and executed the Archbishop of Paris, the right wing faction was mobilized into action to suppress the rebels. The last battles of the uprising occurred at Parc de Belleville, Cimetière Père-Lachaise, and at Montmartre.
The new Archbishop of Paris had a vision whilst climbing to the top of butte Montmartre. This was to be the site of the dedication to the martyrs of the rebellion. What Parisians needed was a unified show of faith in their city and their nation, and a stable moral foundation on which to rebuild their national pride. Thus, Sacré-Cœur found its way into the hearts and souls of the Parisian people, and to this day remains one of the most striking pieces of architecture in a city endowed with a surfeit of noteworthy monuments . . .
November 4th, 2014.