I was in Paris in May this year, when the City of Light was the City of Flowers. We visited several lovely parks, about which more another time, but spent most of our days in the magnificent museums: the Louvre, the Museum of Man, the Musée de la Préfecture de police, which also deserves its own post. But I did get my traditional early Sunday morning to romp around the Left Bank taking pictures. Little remains of Kit’s Paris beyond the twisty streets and the Cathedral of Notre Dame, but what there was, I saw & snapped.
Of course we need a map! Wikipedia, whence cometh this fine map, says that Paris was the largest city in Europe in 1550, having about 350,000 inhabitants. It’s only 2.2 million now, lagging well behind London’s 8.7 million. Everyone said, “Paris is a very compact city,” resting neatly inside its circling highway, the periferique. It’s very easy to get around by means of the excellent metro system — unless the trains are on strike that day!
The island in the middle is the Île-de-la-Cité. That largish box near the top right corner is the Cathedral of Notre Dame, built between 1163 and 1345. Marlowe would certainly have toured that very famous landmark. He grew up in Canterbury, remember, where the equally famous cathedral was rebuilt in the Gothic style in the twelfth century.
Notre-Dame de Paris
Today you join a queue of tourists from all over the world to stroll through the vast building, craning your neck to marvel at the wealth of imagery inside. In Marlowe’s day, there would have been tourists from all over Europe, if none from China or Japan, similarly craning their necks — while keeping a hand on their purses! All of today’s tourists are literate; we can only guess at the literacy rates of Kit’s contemporaries. It doesn’t matter. Everything is bent toward teaching you the story of Jesus and the saints. Paintings, stained glass, sculptures, and a series of painted wood carvings all depict important stories from the Bible for those who don’t read and don’t understand the Latin of the songs and sermons. Marlowe had both skills, but only a brute could fail to appreciate the beauty of Notre Dame’s abundant works of art.
I love gargoyles, but my little camera isn’t up to zooming that far with any kind of focus. (Could be time for a better camera!) So here are two suffering souls from the front facade, doomed to bear a row of church worthies forevermore.
Walking tours of Paris
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of London Walks, the wonderful guided tours of London and environs. I don’t think Paris has anything quite like that, and I wouldn’t have had time for it anyway, since I was with other people, which means lots of screwing around at the beginnings and ends of days. Super Tourist (c’est moi) gets up and gets going!
But before we left I found this cool site with downloadable self-guided tours: History Walks Paris. I printed out the one for the sixteenth century, which didn’t have Marlowe in mind, but it might as well have. But first, a couple of pix of things that he definitely did not see. Cool things!
Saint-Ephrem le Syriac was built in 1733. It’s now used for performances of classical music, which I didn’t get to hear, and is filled with fine paintings, which I did not see. Next time, eh?
This magnificent beast is part of the Fontaine St-Michel on the Boulevard Saint Michel near the Seine. It was built in 1858-1860, during the French Second Empire when so much of the grandest parts of grand Paris were built. This really is the City of Grandeur! My Moriartys can see all these fabulous monuments, but this fountain was just a small square in Marlowe’s day; nothing to write home about.
OK. Here’s a street in the Latin Quarter. It would have been more thatch with plaster walls, MUCH more crowded with people in woolen garb and muddy shoes, muddy street with a kennel of crap running down the middle. Kit would have felt very much at home visually, while his sharp eyes tuned in to the Parisian French all around him. I imagine him absolutely loving it. His plays are filled with fabulous place names, suggesting a young man eager to explore the world. At least he got to see Paris!
I walked across the Pont de Neuf, built between 1578 and 1607. So unless they had spanned the river before finishing all the details, Marlowe couldn’t have crossed here! He would have had to use the bridges connecting the Île-de-la-Cité.
The Louvre palace
The walking tour starts at the Louvre. It started out as fortress against English soldiers in Normandy, built by Philip II. Charles V converted it to a residence, then Francis I remodeled it into the palace we see today. Francis Bacon would have spent time here, watching the court with his bright eyes and listening with his sharp ears. This is where he polished his French language skills to a fare-thee-well, as well as his ability to spend his days idling at court.
Marlowe would have entered at least this courtyard, where I took pictures. He served as a messenger, I think, delivering letters from some important English person or persons, probably someone on the Privy Council. I’ve blogged about that. He would have been expected to keep his sharp ears open too, maybe ask a discreet question here and there. He was handsome, articulate, charming, and quick-witted. I think he spent time in this courtyard playing dice with the other messengers, learning whatever he could that might interest his masters, as much for the sport of it as for the extra shillings.
This yard would have been crowded with men old and young, a few women, perhaps, selling food and drink or sexual favors. Maybe a gentlewoman waiting for someone. Horses clattering through. Barrels, maybe, crates, straw littering the ground. Shouts and vendors’ cries echoing off the walls.
According to History Walks, this was “the parish church of the kings of France.” The kings are gone, but they still hold services here, with or without tourists strolling quietly about snapping pictures. (I’m far from the only one doing this.) I give you this view because (a) the square-cut trees of Paris fascinate me and (b) the lofty tops of churches would have stood out above the lesser buildings and thatched-roof houses, helping people orient themselves in the city, as well as in heaven, one supposes.
The Lombard church
I was excited to discover the church of Saint-Merri, the parish church of the wealthy Italian Lombards in Paris. Alone among Marlowe aficionados, perhaps, I think he might have delivered messages for one of my favorite Elizabethans, Sir Horatio Palavicino. He was actually born in Genoa, but they didn’t have a Genovese church in Paris. He was the scion of aristocratic bankers who became a Protestant and moved to England, where he lent Queen Elizabeth several boatloads of money. He bought a house near Cambridge the year after Marlowe graduated, but I like to think they met during a house-hunting trip. Marlowe would have appreciated a wealthy, cosmopolitan master and Sir Horatio would have recognized Marlowe’s exceptional qualifications as a confidential messenger.
So I spent a little time in this church, soaking up the atmosphere. Churches were excellent places for quiet little meetings, in olden days as well as our own. It’s hard to get a picture of this place, because it’s tucked into a district of narrow streets. And my pictures of the narrow streets don’t look like anything much either. You just have to imagine Christopher Marlowe meeting a wealthy Lombard in that aisle, handing him a folded letter and leaning in to murmur the unwritten portion of the message in their common language, Latin. He would have been paid with a silver franc, perhaps, and paid again when he got back to England with the reply.
Hôtel de Ville
This fine building has been the headquarters of the municipality of Paris since 1357. Sacre bleu, that’s a long time! History Paris tells us that it was one of the most popular gathering places in medieval and Renaissance Paris,where goods were unloaded, celebrations and executions occurred, and strikes were held. Marlowe would have strolled through the crowds, soaking it all up whilst munching on a sack of roasted chestnuts or a sweet cheese pie. Or perhaps a French breakfast taco, which is what I call a crepe filled with egg, cheese, and bacon.
These sculptures weren’t there. I don’t know who the naked lady is (all sculptures of women must be naked), but Moliere lived from 1622-1673.
Marlowe wouldn’t have wasted his precious francs on books – not while he lived at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge University, which had one of the finest libraries in England in his day. But he would have enjoyed browsing and practicing his French on the bookseller. “I’m Christopher Marlowe,” he might say, after Tamburlaine rocked European theater back on its heels. “Oh, yeah, and I’m the Queen of Sheba,” the bookseller would have scoffed.
Be yourself, unless you can be Christopher Marlowe in Paris, in which case, be Christopher Marlowe.