La Serenissima

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas wishes & my gift to you – La Bella Italia!


In 2011, I wrote a book about Italy – La Bella Italia. I published it through, which provides free and easy to use software; they make their money (well deserved I think) through the sale of the many books they publish. The quality of their finished product is very good, and there are many choices of book format and style, including eBooks.

Here is the link if you are interested to browse or buy the book online with Blurb:

La Bella Italia

During the  next couple of months the book will be featured on the blog. So, let's get into it:

What IS it about Italy and Italians that entrances the world so?

Italy is at once a place that delights the senses, combining elegance, ingenuity and joy, and intense frustration, trickery and horrible poverty. Yet the two sit enduringly side by side, perhaps as if to balance each other or to parody one another. Some Italian writers, perhaps like all of us when subjecting our own country to scrutiny, tend to mention, if not focus on, the defects and irritations rather than the positive attributes.

In 1964, Italian journalist, politician, author and publisher Luigi Barzini wrote an insightful, disturbing, depressing and at times humorous book, “The Italians”, in which he analyses and endeavours to explain the forces which have shaped the two Italies – the ingeniously talented, innovative and artistic Italy and the divided, unfocused, invaded, bureaucratic and disaster-prone Italy. Although these are not his words, he tries to answer the question, ‘what IS it about Italy and Italians that entrances the world so?’ It was a hugely challenging piece of work, especially given that its focus is on his own country and culture. He says:

“This book was difficult to compile. It is notoriously easier to write about things and people one does not know very well. One has fewer doubts … I knew too much. I saw too many trees … One of the sources of confusion was the absurd discrepancy between the quantity and dazzling array of the inhabitants’ achievements through many centuries and the mediocre quality of their national history.”

To illustrate, he notes that “the list of famous Italians is awe-inspiring” but he puts all this information in a footnote, and says having noted it, he takes as read that people (now) know these facts and that he will concentrate on the converse.

The saints: Saint Francis, Santa Catarina di Sienna, San Bernadino da Sienna, San Luigi Gonzaga, Saint Thomas of Aquino.
The sinners: the Borgia family (Spanish, but acclimatized), Cellini, Caravaggio, Cagliostro, Casanova.

The political thinkers: Dante Alighieri, King Frederick of Hohenstaufen of the Two Sicilies (born in Italy, the inventor of the modern state, ‘the state as a work of art’), Lorenzo de Medici (inventor of “the balance of power”), Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Mazzini, Cavour.
The military leaders: Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, Raimondo Montecuccoli, (who led Austrian armies), Napoleon, Garibaldi.
The admirals: Andrea Doria, Mocenigo, Morosini, Bragadin, Caracciolo.
The scientists: Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da Vinci, Volta, Marconi, Fermi.
The navigators: Columbus, Vespucci, the Cabots.
The thinkers: Saint Thomas of Aquino, Campanella, Croce, Vico.
The poets: Dante Alighieri, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Leopardi, Manzoni.
The sculptors: Verrocchio, Donatello, Ghiberti, della Robbia, Cellini, Michelangelo, Bernini.

The painters: Giotto, Botticelli, Bellini, Fra Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci, Piero della Francesca, Perugino, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Modigliani.

The musicians: Palestrina, Pergolesi, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Rossini, Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, Puccini, Toscanini.

These are, of course, the names of first magnitude. The second and third category could easily fill a small city’s telephone book.”

Once I read this list I realised that I could think of several other eminent Italians without trying too hard. Barzini would probably describe some of them as second order, but I think in any other place they would warrant a mention up front.

Statesmen, philosophers:
Cicero (philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist), Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius (politician and general), Marcus Aurelius (emperor and philosopher)

Artists: Alberti, Arnoldo Cambio, Cimabue, Fra Lippo Lippi and son Fillipino Lippi, Masaccio, Signorelli, Pinturicchio

Explorer: Marco Polo
Architects: Borromini, rival of Bernini and architect of St Agnese in Agone. Vasari (respected architect and painter who wrote the first book of art history called “Le Vite” – full title “The lives of the most excellent Italian architects, painters and sculptors, from Cimabue up to our own times”, first published in 1550 with a second edition in 1568). Because he travelled widely to interview artists and view their works, in a sense he was also first travel writer. Diane Hales covers this and many more things in her wonderful book “La Bella Lingua” which will be referred to again in later chapters here.

Printing, book designing and production: Pietro Bembo, who has a type face named after him, and in the 16th century produced a little book of Petrarch’s work described in Dianne Hales’ book as “a petrarchino – prayer book(s) of a lay culture”.
Two famous women in writing and publishing at the time: Vittoria Colona first published woman poet greatly admired by Michelangelo, and Isabella d'Este.

Curious about 20th century Italian architects, I googled it (!) and found several references, including a comprehensive Wikipedia entry covering all areas of endeavour, extensively referenced to sources such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, so I read on with much interest:

Architects: Aldo Rossi (1931–1997), architect and theoretician. His book “The Architecture of the City” (1966) is a classic of modern architectural theory. He was awarded the 1990 Pulitzer Prize; Pier Luigi Nervi, 1891 – 1979, leading figure in modern architecture, along with Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.

That these lists of names can be generated or recognised so easily is astonishing and instructive about the influence of Italians on the world in such a range of domains. Many of the names are from the 13th to the 17th centuries, with the majority from the Renaissance period, arguably perhaps Italy’s finest hour. In contrast to these glittering names and their vast achievements, Italy has had over 60 national governments since WW2, with only one lasting it’s full five year term. Such political turmoil and instability probably speaks for itself as evidence of what Barzini calls “mediocre quality” of national life.

I read a wonderful summary of this dichotomy recently. Phil Doran in his “A reluctant Tuscan” includes a line from one of his characters Rudolfo “We’re Italian. We live with a million laws and no rules.”

Different expatriot views

Expatriots from all over the world, who come to stay or live in Italy for long periods seem to fall into two groups – those enchanted with the place, who see everything as magically wonderful, and those who experience more of the knife-edge between the beautiful and the frustrating, seeing both sides of the coin.

Chris Harrison writes in Head over Heel, that “tourists adore Italy  because they breeze through in summer and glimpse a transitory personality, the sparkling disguise of a bleak reality. They follow their guide books to the historic highlights of a modern mess, queue to see frescoes rather than to pay phone bills, and believe life in Italy to be wonderful because the Italians tell them it is so … Hollywood cinematographers have played a role in this deception … travel writers are also to blame … But most tourists leave swearing allegiance to illusion, convinced the mirage is real … Only those who stick around discover the ‘the sweet life’ can turn sour. I was happiest in Italy when I too was a tourist and enjoyed watching the news until I understood what was being said …  in Italy the word ‘government’ is synonymous with ‘corruption’ (so) … cynicism seems justified, a form of self protection if nothing else. This is where paradox creeps in. Only by ignoring Italy’s imperfections have the Italians perfected their lives. By snubbing their nation’s shame they have found it’s main strength – escapism. Escapism so colourful that it slaps misery in the face.”

On the other hand, Carla Coulson says “Italy has always held a place in my heart, since my days as a backpacking twenty year old. I will never forget the feeling of awe as I exited the train station at Venice and clapped eyes on the Grand Canal and the faded palazzi with the musical Italian language surrounding me. Or the image of thousands of flickering candles held towards the sky at the encore of the opera Aida in the ancient Roman theatre in Verona. To me, over the years it was only natural to return and pass holidays in Florence, Rome, and Venice, listening to the language I always dreamed of learning.”

And Marlena de Blasi says of being in Rome “I want … to be awakened by the powdery sunlight sifting in through the chinks in the shutters. I like the way my heart beats in Rome, how I can walk faster and see better. I like that I feel at home wandering through her ancient ecstasy of secrets and lies. I like that she’s taught me I am only a scintilla, a barely perceptible and transient gleam.”

Another Italian’s perspective …

Alberto Moravia was a major figure in 20th century Italian literature, a journalist, short-story writer, and novelist. Moravia hints at the enduring, ordinary human dimension of Italian life and the once powerfully influential sixteenth century Italy attempting to capture its greatness in guises which back fire on and satirize its former world leadership. He says to Gina Lollobrigida in a letter at the front of her wonderful book of photos “Italia Mia”:

“Your photos speak about an Italy of real people, of humble artisans, of habitual devotion, of simple pleasures, of family feelings, tourist landscapes, of monuments so famous that now they have become almost invisible … The Italians had their last creative and unifying moment in the Renaissance and from then on they have repeated it always less successfully, in a world that does not know what to do with humanism taken to the point of a D’Annunzian parody, to fascist tragi-comedy and rowdy indifference. Anyhow the Italians have remained faithful to their original genius, one might say, too much so. And it is this faithfulness underlying the photographs of your unpretentious, provincial and humble Italy which you show us in filigree.”

So then, the question remains – ‘what IS it about Italy and Italians that attracts people so?’

So many of us are drawn to Italy, like the moth to the flame. The richness of its art and architecture alone, preserved, or at least not demolished, lives happily alongside 21st century life and is there for all to see. This integration of a past spanning some 5 thousand years (I’m starting from the Etruscans) with the present scene, peppered with Vespas, Fiat Cinquecentos, Apes (the tiny single seated trucks that farmers use), fashionistas, business people, and street markets, I think, is one of the compelling things about Italy for stranieri (foreigners). The humility of ordinary people getting on with their lives, some with theatrical flourishes, others with determined forbearance is also striking.

To try to shed some light on this question, I have chosen 8 major themes which open windows into aspects of Italy that I find endearing, compelling, funny, nourishing for the soul and just straight out beautiful. I include my own experiences and those of several authors who are from, or have lived for extended periods in, Italy. Although very different, each author writes with a passion, which brings to life, for me at least, the irony and beauty of Italy. The stories are illustrated by photos taken in Italy across a decade from 2001 to 2011.

The themes are

  •  La lingua
  •  Street life - la piazza e la passeggia

  •  Icons of belief belief - la mama, la famiglia, la Madonna e la chiesa
  •  Al mercato
  •  Mangia, mangia!
  •  Il bar – Caffé Bonazzi
  •  Style
  •  Luce e colore

La lingua

I’ve always loved the sound of the Italian language – well, who doesn’t really? I didn’t have the opportunity to learn it at school (only French, German and Latin on offer there) so I came to it as an adult, listening to Julian and his family speaking Italian, mixed with English when they couldn’t think quickly of a suitable Italian word and vice versa. Learning Italian was always one of those things I was “gunna” do when I got the time. Spoken Italian transforms a sentence into an occasion.

When I was seven in primary school, we had two recently immigrated Italian boys join our class. I was fascinated listening to them talk together, although they were very sensitive about this and tended to speak in lowered tones. One day, I asked one of the boys, Frank, what his real name was and how did he say it. Well, I had to swear to secrecy that I would NEVER repeat what I was about to hear … yes, yes Frank, I solemnly promise … cross my heart, hope to die” etc. “Franco” he said simply. “But, Franco’s a really great name; it sounds much better than Frank … “ I ventured bravely. “Don’t say it, ok?” It sounded more like a threat than a question. Well, I never did say it – until now – but this little story serves to illustrate the musicality and appeal of Italian, even to a monolingual 7 year old.

Dianne Hales notes that there are growing numbers of foreigners going to Italy to learn Italian. This resonates strongly with me – I went to Perugia to do just this in 2006. After some research I decided to go the Universita per Stranieri in Perugia to do a one month Italian course. My class had fourteen people in all, ranging in age from 60 to 18, with a predominantly young group of twenty somethings. We hailed from all round the globe – the UK, USA, Poland, Germany, Austria, Iceland, Turkey and Australia.

The teaching format consisted of written texts, with grammar a focus each day for several hours, conversation practice classes twice a week (which I really liked) and the language lab (ditto) once a week. It’s just a personal thing, but I don’t learn languages well through the traditional “text” approach. Listening and repeating work much better for me, as practiced in the language lab and it is how we actually learn to speak our first language. When was the last time you saw a 6 month old sitting in their pram reading “Introduction to Grammar”??

Differences in preferred learning techniques aside, we all learnt quite a lot and enjoyed the classes, despite the hot weather, which often saw us sprawled limply across our desks, begging for a “pausa” (break). Learning a language in that country bestows many gifts – emersion in the local way of life and the stimulation that brings. It also brings the chance for new friendships; I gained a wonderful friend, fellow student Margaret, from the USA.

“Energised and harmonised by vowels and double consonants, Italian words massage the mouth of the speaker and tickle the ear of the listener. Saying the word stuzzicadenti (toothpick), for example, will do more for your mouth than actually using one … Italian sentences are like symphonies, composed with the onomatopoeia in words like zanzara (mosquito). There is harmony in humdrum words like pipistrello (bat) schizzinoso (fussy) and malvventurato (unlucky), or inoperosamente (idly).” Chris Harrison, Head over Heel.

Louise Fili and Lisa Apatoff include a great illustration of how precise Italian can be and at the same time delight the senses by differentiating shades of grey in meaning. For example, “bello (beautiful) is elevated to bellissimo (very beautiful), bellino (beautiful, little and cute), bellona (a lovely, showy, unrefined woman) and belloccia (a large, florid, provocative yet refined woman).”

Dianne Hales has written a fascinating and erudite book about the influence of Italy on the world, “La Bella Lingua”. With chapters such as “How Italian civilised the West” you can easily see where she’s coming from. In her first chapter, ‘The confessions of an innamorata’.

She says “The first miracle of Italian is its survival. No governments mandated its use. No mighty empire promoted it as an official language. No conquering armies or armadas trumpeted it to distant lands … (in fact) the Mediterranean peninsula remained a patchwork of dialects, often as different from one another as French from Spanish or English from Italian. Italian as we know it was created, not born. With the same thunderbolt genius that would transform art in the Renaissance, writers of 14th century Florence – Dante first and foremost – crafted the effervescent Tuscan vernacular into a language rich and powerful enough to sweep down from heaven and up from hell. This priceless living legacy, no less than Petrarch’s poetry, Michelangelo’s sculptures, Verdi’s operas, Fellini’s movies or Valentino’s dresses, is an artistic masterwork.”

Hales cites playwright Giovanni Battista Gelli, who in 1551 said “ many diverse people of intelligence and refinement, outside Italy no less than within Italy, devote much effort and study to learning and speaking our language for no reason but love”. She goes on to say “Those acolytes included Elizabeth 1 of England, Francis 1 of France, and Emperor Charles V, who once declared “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

 Yet as a spoken tongue, Italian is nuovissimo (very new) says noted linguist Guiseppe Patota. “Rallying for one nation united by one language, Italian’s won their country’s independence in 1861 … at the time four in five citizens were illiterate. Fewer than 10% spoke Italian exclusively or with greater ease than local dialect. Not Until 1996 – 135 years after unification – did more than half of Italians report using Italiano standard.”

But you have to be prepared to take the plunge when learning a new language as an adult. Chris Harrison says of his experience when practicality apart from anything else dictated that he should learn Italian. He was after all living in Italy with his girlfriend who was to become his wife.

“The biggest obstacle to learning a foreign language is pride … if you can’t laugh at yourself and are not prepared to hire ‘paedophiles’ rather than ‘pedal-boats’ (referring to a hilarious day at the beach mentioned earlier in his book), “you might never be humiliated but you’ll never excel. Inaccuracy is a moss covered stepping stone towards accuracy, and I slipped on it often. I even asked a butcher for a ‘kilometre’ of sausages rather than a ‘kilogram’. ‘You must be hungry’, he replied, friend first, smart arse second … the more I erred, the more I learnt. The more I learnt, the more I realised that the beauty of the language masked a litany of complexities, knots I needed to untie if I was going to read and write Italian.”

List of Images, taken from my photo library

Giovanni Bellini "Pala di San Giobbe GallerieAccademia Venice

Bernini's elephant and obelisk Piazza S Maria Sop Minerva

Bernini Fountain of Four Rivers Piazza Navona Roma

Caravaggio "Madonna of Loreto" Chiesa San Agostino Roma

Filipino Lippi S M Sop Minerva

Raffaelo S Agostino Prophet Isiah

Campidoglio M Palazzo Nuovo marble bust Cicero 1 AD

Rome Campidoglio M PalazzoNuovo M Aurelius bronze detail

Rome Campidoglio Palazzo Nuovo Hadrian

Piazza in Montalcino

Piazza in Lucca

Rome – view from Palazzo Colonna roof garden, Roma

Ceiling detail Santa Maria Sopra Minerva Roma


Barzini,Luigi. The Italians, first published 1964; Touchstone, Simon and Schuster edition 1996

Coulson ,Carla. Italian Joy, Lantern, Penguin Group, 2005

de Blasi, Marlena. A thoudans days in Venice, Allen and Unwin, 2003

D’Epiro, Peter & Mary Desmond Pinkowish. Sprezzatura: 50 ways Italian Genius Shaped the World, Anchor Books, 2001

Doran, Phil. The reluctant Tuscan, Gotham Books, 2005

Eye Witness Travel Guide – Italy, Dorling Kindersley Ltd, Penguin, 2004

Fili, Louise & Lise Apatoff. Italianissimo, The Little Bookroom, New York 2008

Green, Penelope. When in Rome, Hatchette Australia, 2005

Green, Penelope. See Naples and Die, Hatchette Australia, 2008

Hales, Dianne. La Bella Lingua, first published 2009, Harper Collins, 2010

Harrison, Chris. Head over Heel, Murdoch Books, 2008

Hawes, Annie. Extra Virgin, Penguin, 2001

Hawes, Annie.Ripe for the Picking, Penguin, 2003

Hawes, Annie. Journey to the South, Penguin, 2005

Hintzen–Bohlen, Brigitte & Jurgen Sorges. Art and Architecture: Rome and the Vatican City, h.f.ullman, 2005

Italian church architecture source:

Lollobrigida, Gina. Italia Mia, Sedifo, 1973

Mayes, Francis. Bringing Tusacay Home, Doubleday, 2004

Napoleoni, Loretta. Economist, author, journalist and political analyst; interviewed on ABC National Radio, Saturday Extra 28/5/11; commented on “Dualismo storico”

Severgnini, Beppe. La Bella Figura, Broadway Books, 2006

Steinbeck, Alice. Without Reservations: the travels of an ndependent woman, Bantam Books, 2000

Monday, June 10, 2013

The architecture that saved Paris

Have you ever wondered why the Parisian built environment – itʼs architecture
and buildings – has such a consistent, integrated appearance? How come itʼs
elegant buildings fit together to create a harmonious and pleasing whole? Where
did the idea of arrondissments come from?

It wasnʼt always so. In fact, prior to the 1850ʼs the city had largely been
untouched since the Middle Ages. With industrial revolution in full swing, and
people moving into Paris from rural areas, drawn to the new opportunities for
work and life, Medieval Paris was overcrowded and disease was rampant.

Enter Napoleon III, with his keen interest in architecture and his desire to
modernise Paris and transform it into an organised urban centre. In fact it was
one of the largest urban renewal projects since the rebuilding of London after the
Great Fire in the 17th century. He chose Baron Georges–Eugene Haussmann to
head up the project and by the time it was completed his hand had touched every
part of Paris. Apparently Napoleon III was more interested in the new
technologies associated with architecture, engineering and building materials
whilst Haussmann focused more on the aesthetics. Put their ideas, artisans from
various fields and plenty of demolition and construction workers – and viola! – the
elegant landscape we all swoon over today.

I have a great interest in how the different architectures of many cities give
places their personality and appeal. My instinct is usually to take pictures of the
architecture before I start looking at what the people are doing. So, in thinking
about the Parisian landscape looks, I consulted various references. 

One stood out to me as particularly good, so I am including large chunks of it here. The text
was written by Emily Kirkman, “Haussmannʼs Paris – Architecture in the Era
of Napoleon III”
, 2007. The link to the article is:

I hope you enjoy reading and learning from it. The photos are by Julian Lippi and

Napoleon III and Haussmann

“During a time of industrial change and cultural advancement, Paris became the
new home for many, overcrowding the ancient districts and spreading disease.
The city, which had been untouched since the Middle Ages, was in dire need of
reflecting the new modern ways and putting an end to the spreading medical
epidemics. The tight confines of Medieval Paris were hindering the city’s potential
for growth and desire to transform into a well-organized urban center. Napoleon
III set about bringing order and structure to the chaotic, cramped city and putting
an end to its' identity crisis. Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, chosen by
Napoleon III to lead the project, created new roads, public parks, public
monuments, as well as installing new sewers and changing the architectural
façade of the city. With the aid of the public, Modernist Napoleon III set out to
undertake one of the largest urban transformations since the burning of London
in 1666.”

“Louis Napoleon III, who became emperor in 1852, had a great deal of interest in
developing Paris into a new modern city after the Industrial Revolution. Napoleon
had a keen interest in architecture and could often be found modifying the
blueprints of Paris to include the roads that he wanted to construct. This interest
in modifying the layout of the city would manifest itself into a project that would
encompass all aspects of urban planning, from streets to sewers, and completely
change the shape of Paris, as everyone knew it. As stated by Anthony Sutcilffe in
his book Paris: An Architectural History, the project “coincided with the first surge
of French industrialization, beginning in the 1840s and lasting until the Great
Depression of the 1870s.” 1”

“The Second French Empire, ruled by Napoleon III, had complete control over
the country, and he set out to begin construction on his plan that would bring
Paris into the modern era and establish its’ dominance as a western city. With
the induction of Baron Georges Haussmann as prefect of the Seine, Napoleon
had an ally in the government to carry out the modernization. While neither one
were trained in the arts, both men had ideas for how they wanted the city to look.
Napoleon had a greater interest in the techniques and new materials that were to
be used, while Haussmann paid more interest to the aesthetic quality of the
modernization project. Yet both men adhered to the classical style, creating a
metropolis of neoclassical wonder.2”

Road design for the new, modern Paris

“In 1853, Haussman had outlined and began construction on a series of basic
projects that had been planned since the decision had been made to modernize
the city. 

The projects included creating a north-south axis in the city, developing
the quarters around the Opéra, as well as “the annexation of the suburbs to
make them outer arrondissements, the sewer system, and the water supply.”3 In
the early 1860s it is to be known that upon the completion of the original projects,
new projects were put in to development, including annexing newer
arrondissements, and putting the city into debt.”

“Haussmann molded the city into a geometric grid, with new streets running east
and west, north and south, dividing Medieval Paris into new sections. His plan
brought symmetry to the city, something it was lacking beforehand. No Parisian
neighborhood was left untouched by Haussman’s hand. “The new streets were
also wider than most of their predecessors, for reasons of public health and
traffic engineering.”4 During a time when the city was filled to the brim with
people, disease was a large risk. The widening of the streets would relieve the
cramped city and allow for the people to get around more easily. It also allowed
for an increase in height of the buildings, providing more room for the people of
Paris to live and thrive in.

“Running alongside the new roads, which had been widened to accommodate
the rising number of people living within the city limits, were rows of chestnut
trees, which allowed Haussmann to maintain the geometric and symmetrical
aesthetic that he had created with the new roads. And where he struggled to
maintain his visual order, new public spaces and monuments were erected.5

“In David P. Jordan’s article “Haussmann and Haussmannisation: The Legacy for
Paris,” it is noted that Haussmann’s strict plan had its flaws. “Turn off any number
of his new streets and you will find the old Paris: the Avenue de l’Opéra or the
Boulevard Saint-Germain are good examples.”6 Despite his desire to create a
well organized and symmetrical city, his lack of skills as an urban planner got the
best of him and he was forced to work around existing streets in order to adhere
to his desire for symmetry in the city. The existing architecture in Paris proved to
be his greatest enemy when laying out the new roads. The respect for the
ancient monuments outweighed the need to unify the city completely and the
river Seine served as a natural barrier separating the two sides of Paris and the
roads that once had the ambition to link the riverbanks.7

“ His new roads have been admired since their unveiling. They not only served
as new roadways for general use, but also as streets leading to the center of
Paris from the train stations scattered throughout the city, as well as roads that
led to the monuments that were found throughout the city. He was also
responsible for isolating Notre-Dame from the city, emphasizing its’ importance to
the city.8”

The birth of Arrondissments

“The next step in Haussmann’s plan for the new Paris was to divide the city into
arrondissements, or districts. The decision to divide Paris into these new districts
came about in 1853, at the same time as the decision to modernize the city
completely. The plan “implied the destruction of the old, heterogeneous quarters
in the city center and the creation of large new quarters implicitly dividing the
population by economic status.”9 The original plan called for twelve districts, but
in 1860, Paris annexed surrounding communities and was divided into twenty
districts. The districts started inward, on the banks of the Seine, and spiraled

The new sewers and WCs

With the division of the city into arrondissements came the need for a new water
and sewer system. When construction on the new Paris began, “the city was still
served by a medieval network of sewers clustered around the city centre.”10
Aided by his chief engineer Eugene Belgrand, Haussmann developed and began
construction in 1857 on a larger sewer system that could handle the large
amounts of wastewaters coming from the growing city that would be funneled
into the Seine downstream from Paris.11”

Note – you can visit the Paris sewers today. Just google to find out about tours.
Suzanne D

“With the growing popularity of water closets, particularly in the richer Parisian
districts, came a need to funnel human waste into the sewer system as well. The
proposal to channel human feces into the sewers that would mix with the storm
water and flow into the Seine was an idea Haussmann objected to. To maintain
the order of the water and the urban space, Haussmann viewed it as necessary
to keep the clean water separate from the dirty water. “His objections to human
excrement entering the sewer system were not only related to the contamination
of the underground city; he feared that the dilution of human waste in water
would reduce its value as a fertilizer, and thereby disrupt the organic economy of
the city.”12

“By keeping the wastewater and contaminated water separate, the human waste
could be used as fertilizer for crops to help support the economy and allow for
agricultural employment opportunities for those moving to the big city. Also by
utilizing the new sewer system for human waste, the city would become cleaner
and more sterile, eliminating the smell of rotting waste and lowering the threat of
disease from living in cramped, contaminated quarters. Cleaning up the city also
led way to the cleaning of the people. Now that the people were living in cleaner
areas, they themselves also had to be clean, ushering in an idea of modern
narcissism. It would be uncivilized to live in such a clean environment when you
yourself are dirty and uncouth. The revamping of the sewer system was an
integral part of bringing the city of light out of the Dark Ages and into the Modern

The architecture

“Quite possibly one of the largest stages of the project, second only to the new
roads, was the architecture. To accompany the new streets and provide visual
unity to the entire city, Haussmann and his team of architects constructed a
unifying architectural façade that changed the shape of Paris. As well as coating
the city with a unifying style, they also constructed new public buildings, such as
L’Opéra, as well as many other buildings. During the 18th century and the time of
the Enlightenment, “architects were no longer content to see their buildings
glorify the state, the monarchy, or one specific stratum of society: they aspired to
create monuments that would celebrate human greatness, inculcate worthy
remembrance, teach moral values.”13 The buildings became expressive and
mimicked nature, ignoring the classical norms they once followed.”

“The Baroque and Rococo styles of architectural design were short lived, with
people once again wanting a return to the historical classical style that was so
prominent throughout Europe. By the end of the 18th siecle, neoclassicism was
becoming the dominant style in both painting and architecture.With the widening
of the Parisian streets, Haussmann and his crew were able to add an extra story
of height to the buildings that lined the roads. The additional height increased the
amount of living space within the city limits, easing up on the overcrowding, but
not changing the affordability of the housing.”

Apartment buildings

“The change in height can be seen best in the apartment buildings found
rampant throughout the city. They are noted by their simple decoration and
adherence to the classical style. An emphasis on the horizontal can be seen in
the façade, following the horizontal of the streets they sat next to, adding to the
symmetry and geometric unity that Haussmann wanted the new Paris to have.
By using a much more austere and “modern” style for the façade, the cost for the
buildings could be kept low and the buildings would appear timeless in a
changing city.15”

“The apartment buildings were typically five stories with the ground floor and the
in between floors having thick walls. The second story usually had a balcony with
elaborate stonework, while the third and fourth floors resembled the second floor
without the balcony. The fifth floor or top floor generally had an undecorated
balcony that traveled the length of the building. The facades were also
constructed out of large stone blocks, adding to the simplicity of the structure and
the lack of decoration made the building seem larger than it actually was.

Inspired by the Industrial Revolution, the new apartment buildings mimicked the
products produced by the factories. Each item was the same and could be built
quickly by those with only a small amount of knowledge of architecture or design.
Revolution, the new apartment buildings mimicked the products produced by the
factories. Each item was the same and could be built quickly by those with only a
small amount of knowledge of architecture or design.”

Useful references:

Here is a great site covering historical architecture, specific categories eg, monuments,
palaces etc,

“The most beautiful walk in the world”, John Baxter, Harper Perennial 2011

“Paris Tales”, stories translated by Helen Constantine, Oxford University Press,

“Quiet corners of Paris”, Jean-Christophe Napia, photography Christophe
Lefebure, The Little Bookroom, 2006

I took this photo on the end of Ile de la Cite, looking towards Musee d'Orsay; Suzanne D