History

Published on September 24th, 2016 | by Pascal Ordonneau

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Streets in Paris: Avenue and Square Denfert-Rochereau

The square is 220 m long and 145 m large. The avenue is 500 m long and at least 31 m wide. Both are situated in the 14th district of Paris.

Strange city this city of Paris! For what mysterious reasons did it concentrate in some precise places its parties, theatres and operas while close in the same 14th district it gathered quantity of charities, hospitals, health centres, maternities and other institutions intended for the abandoned and unfortunate childhood and for women in dangers and sick?

By which mysterious alchemy is it capable of transforming by means of an improbable play on words the name of a place the sense of which was exactly contrary to any generosity and charity to give it that of a man who defended forbade himself admirably against the enemy.

Let us reveal these mysteries! The square and the avenue Denfert-Rochereau were not so called up to the second half of the 19th Century! Both sites bore the soft name ” of Hell “: a place where from kindness, charity, generosity and self-sacrifice are perfectly excluded! Nevertheless, the institutions for charity and benevolence multiplied in the area of the street of Hell and the square! It is necessary to go further to History to try to understand. First of all, it is necessary to try to explain this sombre affair of a name so little glorious. We saw in other chronicles that there was in Paris a street of the Paradise and a street God, and even a street of the Virtues. Did they create a street and a square of Hell just to set up a kind of doubtful balance? Let us say things directly: nobody knows where from these square and avenue of Hell were able to pull their name. Several hypotheses were suggested among all of them one would hold the existence of a Roman way passing around which would have been named “Via inferior”. The deformation “inferior” would have produced the word “enfer” ( “hell”) ! But we have no proof of it. It is said that a Wood named “Hell” would have covered these lands ?

Perhaps this name was due to the particularly dangerous basement of this sector! Indeed, the grounds which line both the avenue and the square are not safe. They overhang quarries the existence of which was forgotten during a whole time. These subterranean “spaces” played dirty tricks to the inhabitants of districts surroundings: in 1774, the ground collapsed on a 300 meter length and plunged lower into an abyss of 25 meters depth, spreading the panic that you can imagine!

Paris, we showed it in certain descriptions we made of some streets was a real Swiss cheese: its chance was that throughout its existence it was possible to exploit on the spot very beautiful quarries of gypsum and limestones of excellent quality and to raise magnificent buildings, the inconvenience is that a good part of the Parisian districts are “suspended” over old sometimes quarries that are filled or simply supported. The City of Paris manages these “underground spaces” with big care: a dedicated administration is in charge of it, the Inspection of Quarries, offices of which are installed: square of Hell, today Denfert-Rochereau.

It is necessary to pinpoint a curious point of history about the street names in Paris: other ways bore this soft name of Hell, for the some of them it lasted a while, for others it was centuries. It is the case of the current Blue Street which is in the continuation of the street of the Paradise and which was named during centuries ” the street of Hell “!

This is the way the square and the street of Hell, eventually an avenue, lived their “infernal” life for a very long time, the square having been created in 1760, the street as for it, had been known from the XVIth century. It lasted until 1879.

It is now necessary to attempt to explain why and how these two ways took the name of Denfert-Rochereau. It is common for the most part of the historians of Paris to claim that it is a question of ” a curious administrative play on words “. In other words, “Denfert-Rochereau” would have come substitute itself in ” Of Hell” a little bit by chance. A strange confusion of any city employee which would have affixed the word ” Denfert Rochereau ” in place of the official name of both the avenue and the square, inadvertently! If it was the real reason, it would not be flattering for the French administration and its city employees! It is necessary, although officially nobody really recognizes it, to go a little farther and to begin with the beginning: where from comes the word ” Denfert-Rochereau ” (you begin to have the impression that it is all about a plain police novel).

Denfert-Rochereau is a hero. Simply. Colonel of the Engineering, he managed the defence of the city of Belfort, in the borders of Alsace-Lorraine, during the French-Prussian war of 1870. He made it with so much strength and determination as the city, which was included in territories annexed by Germany, remained free, its resistance having caused the admiration of its opponents. Died in 1878, the colonel could not remain forgotten. However, to attribute his name officially to a very big square and to an avenue, might have been viewed a diplomatic insult towards the new German Empire … It is said that an employee of the city of Paris, would have taken a heroic initiative, without anybody noticing it, and changed the word “Hell” in “Denfert”. Then, a little later, he would have added the word “Rochereau”. So, without fuss or tromp and without the Prussians finding a fault with it, he would have returned the honors to the brave colonel!

We have not finished in it yet with the French-Prussian war: the place “Denfert-Rochereau” is not only dedicated to it by its new name but also by the magnificent lion which is placed in its center. To commemorate their resistance to the enemy, the inhabitants of Belfort had decided to set up a grand sculpture: they had chosen a lion, enormous, massive, slept, the open mouth was turned towards Berlin. This idea had not been the taste of the Prussians who had required that the sculpture has the politeness to turn its threatening mouth towards an another direction than that of the German Empire! Careful, the Inhabitants of Belfort asked to the sculptor Bartholdi, his creator, to turn the lion westward. It is said that Bartholdi “made him then being turned around to the opponent, in a disdainful attitude, however, between its legs, (the sculptor) placed an arrow turned toward the German border”. The Lion was installed in 1880. At the same time, the city of Paris bought a replica on the scale of one third of the gigantic sculpture (the biggest and the most massive of France). The Lion de Belfort in bronze was installed in the centre of the square ” Denfert-Rochereau “. It is said that the head of this Lion is directed to the statue of Liberty.

Beautiful symbol! But also, let us not forget that Bartholdi is the author of the statue of Liberty which dominates the entry of the New York Bay. A “small-scale model” decorate one of the bridges of Paris: the Grenelle bridge.

Anchored on the place Denfert-Rochereau, are two interesting monuments that were called “the Barriers of Hell” before the famous change of name abovementionned. Forget the reference to Hell: the famous barriers were just impressive buildings with “Tax” purposes (Another demonstration of hell?). Paris had been surrounded, until the French Revolution, with a wall called “ le Mur des fermiers généraux” (during the French “ancien regime” the “fermiers généraux” were sort of high civil servants in charge of tax collection throughout the country).

Its objective was not defensive: it enclosed Paris for a fair collection of the said taxes perceived on the goods entering the city. It was drilled by buildings called “barriers” of entrance the drawing of which was very audacious for the time. The architect of this series of buildings, Claude Nicolas-Ledoux defended the “neo-classic” style (which the White House is an example) of Greco-Roman inspiration. Both barriers of the Square) Denfert-Rochereau constitute a very beautiful illustration of these monuments of which some are subsisting nowadays. In one of Claude Nicolas-Ledoux’s buildings, is the entrance of Catacombs of Paris. Are we coming back in “Hell” ? Very sombre place that these catacombs: we find more than six millions of Parisian stored in ancient quarries there. It is their bones, of course! Paris grew up from centuries to centuries and especially in the 19th century. Streets, places were shaved or redrawn, Churches were destroyed or defused. For reasons of hygiene, it was necessary to move the cemeteries which surrounded them according to the former habits. This is the way from 1780, millions of skeletons were “moved” to find a resting place wisely piled up in the catacombs of Paris. The movement accelerated when, in the course of the 19th century, the Haussmann High civil servant in charge of Paris city, launched a colossal renovation of the capital. You can visit the Catacombs of Paris. It is necessary to think on it very much in advance because there very long queues for people who want to go and pay tribute to the bones of the past Parisian.

A last word: on the square Denfert-Rochereau is a station of subway and regional railroad. It is the most ancient train station that remains in activity in Paris. It was inaugurated in 1846. The train platform was named ” Paris of Hell!”

Are we at the end of this chronicle? Not at all! It is now necessary to tell to you that a passage exists not far from the square and the avenue. Guess how it is called? The ” Passage of Hell “! Formerly, a walkway which followed the ” Wall of Fermiers Généraux “, it is a private street lined with small buildings mainly built in the end of the 19th century today of which it is said that they were intended for the employees of one of the department stores in the center of Paris.

This article was proofread in English by John Wilmot.


About the Author

40 ans de banque chez plusieurs établissements français et anglo-saxons ; il est l’auteur de plusieurs livres sur l’économie et la banque, d’un livre de voyage, d’un roman et d’un livre sur l’Allemagne. Il écrit pour les journaux et la radio, dont les Echos, le Figaro, Huffington Post, Radio France International.



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