This historic part of the city of Paris is made beautiful by the stunning architectural ensemble of buildings that surround what was the first prestigious square designed for combining residential, commercial and public purposes at Paris.
Aesthetically they are highly appealing with their steeply pitched roofs and red brick and stone format with arcaded galleries underneath. The stunning gardens attached contain rows of pleached trees setting off the architectural style.
The area is an important aspect of the city today and the vision and legacy of one man, King Henry IV [1553-1610], the Great. He restored France to peace, strong monarchy and stable government and set about reviving an interest in learning, the arts, as well as rending great public works when he ascended the throne.
He reigned from 1589-1610 and is today remembered as its greatest ruler. putting in place the Edict of Nantes.
This document granted religious freedom and rights to the Protestants (Huguenots) proving to the world that religious toleration could be a basis of sound state policy.
Henry’s was not an easy road to hoe.
During the last forty years of the 16th century in France all that had been accomplished by the last medieval King and first Renaissance prince King Francois 1 and his son Henry II was nearly destroyed by Henry and Catherine de Medici’s three sons, Francis 11, Charles IX and Henry 111.
They reduced France to all but an impoverished state near anarchy, with the help of their mother. Their reigns ended in the tragedy of the horrific St. Bartholomew’s Day on the 24th August 1572 when up to 8,000 protestants were massacred.
Spared on the condition he professed himself a Catholic, for three years Henry of Navarre was a prisoner at the French court.
Escaping to Alencon in 1576 he revoked the forced confession and by the 1580’s had established himself as leader of the French Protestants (Huguenots).
When King Henry III”s younger brother died before him it made Henry heir presumptive. However he had to survive a leadership struggle with Henri Duke of Guise, leader of the Catholic League who Henry III had murdered.
Henry III was himself assassinated in 1589 leaving Henry of Navarre to claim the throne.
As a Protestant he triumphed over his enemies marching into Paris which was in the hands of the Catholic League.
He took everyone by surprise by formally renouncing the Protestant faith and converting to Catholicism. He was crowned at Chartres in the following year.
Henry IV, first of the Bourbon Kings is said to have possessed an acute judgment of men and affairs, a sense of importance, a sound knowledge of finance, relying on tolerance, compromise and reason to win the trust of his people.
The recognition Paris is a beautiful city arose during Henry IV’s reign. When he entered PARIS in 1594 it was a pitiful medieval settlement, streets jammed with beggars and discharged soldiers, and he was determined to improve it through great building works.
He devoted his attention to the problem of internal reconstruction, reviving agriculture, trade and industry.
He was responsible for some additions to the royal palaces. However is particularly remembered for his visionary improvements to the city of Paris.
He implemented a system of town planning that was to influence, not only Paris’ development, but also other cities for centuries, including London.
He wanted to provide the people of Paris with a square in which to assemble on occasions of public rejoicing. The Place Royale, or Place de Voges in the Marais district, became the inspiration for other great squares in Europe.
Covent Garden (1630) in London is a direct imitation of the Place Royale. It can be regarded as the ancestor of the style of square development that then took place all over London and in particular Bath, as well as other areas of Europe including Holland, Germany and later, going full circle back to Italy.
Henry’s public works were very advanced for their time, and the first to combine the idea of regularity of design from Italy with the Flemish idea of grouping small houses together.
The houses around the square characterised bourgeouis pride and practical sense, each one disposed on a geometrical plan carried out in simple materials, without any ostentation, although comfortable.
The splendid Pavilion de la Reine (1610) is on the north side of the Place Royale is a focus.
Henri sought to promote commerce with this project, by placing silk shops beneath the arcades and accommodation for the silk weavers above with their workshops built nearby.
However the nobles were not keen to see artisans living in such fine houses, and it was eventually the wealthy bourgeouise in Paris who occupied the houses in the square making it the centre of Parisian society, at least until the end of the 17th century.
French windows were seen as a novelty at first, opening right down to the floor and onto wrought iron balconies. The facade in brick with stucco chaines and very simple dormers within the high pitched roofs.
In his ten short years on the throne of France Henry IV achieved a great deal in the way of public works and town planning. Such was Henry’s personality that many of the architects of his projects are unknown, as he directed them all personally.
At St. Germain en laye drawn in 1614, he extended the gardens to the right of and below the lake and re-laid the Grand Jardin above it.
This garden had begun under Henri II with architect Philibert del’Orme in charge.
Henry IV employed a Frenchman familiar with Italian gardens, Etienne du Perac and the brothers Francini from Florence.
They had been responsible for the wonderful waterworks displays at Pratolino in Italy for the Medici.
The water parterre on the lower level was never completed and today only part of the terracing remains.
The site at Germain-en-Laye was unusual in France in that it was on an escarpment with a view just like many of the villas around Florence and Rome.
The gardens could therefore be terraced, and work there was the equivalent of the Villa d’Este in Italy with grottoes and galleries furnished with water powered by automata
Automata became very popular in France and particularly at St. Germain where a succession of scenes showed the sun, followed by a storm after which the royal family processed in front of a representation of the palace, while the dauphin descended from the heavens in a chariot.
French Kings have a long history of keeping mistresses, and Henry IV was no exception.
Considering his reported careless personal hygiene (he was described as having a rank goatlike smell about him) the fact that he reputedly had some 56 mistresses seems the more remarkable.
He arranged that all of his children, legitimate or illegitimate were brought up together and allowed full access to court, the last of them not dying until 1682.
Despite all of his good qualities however, a crazed religious fanatic assassinated him the day following his wife Marie de Medici’s coronation on the 14th May 1610, by stabbing him in the throat.
Today Henry IV’s legacy is enjoyed by locals and travellers from all around the world.
It is good to consider that the Place des Vosges remains as testimony to his intelligence, competence and vision as a practical man and planner of usable urban spaces linking court and commerce.
If he had lived, as he was robust and healthy, France’s fate may have well been very different indeed.
Perhaps more than any other French King Henry IV lived up to 18th century playwright Moliere’s observation ‘Noble birth is nothing without virtue’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015