And so the flaneur in me started to walk.
It is something I don’t usually do (or more so, I cannot do) in Manila. But then, my friend Oscar, who accompanied me in Paris, informed me that I should be taking care of my belongings. He even remarked: “You’re in Paris!”
Me musing: “huh?”
Then, I realized how I convinced myself that Manila is an unsafe city. Which city is not insecure anyway? Not so long ago, Paris was attacked by a terrorist group, which killed hundreds of innocent people. Other big and cosmopolitan cities so to speak were also attacked by armed men.
But I digress.
Going back to my flaneur encounter in Paris – the sight of the Notre Dame slowly demolished the Victor Hugo picture of the monumental Parisian religious icon. But I could not help imagine how many Quasimodos and Esmeraldas took shelter inside the church for protection. Paris was once upon a time a place where a clear stratification of social statuses was venerated. Paris was once upon a time a place where othering and the creation of the stranger was really strong: Parisians versus the gypsies (the we versus the others who cannot be trusted). But if Hugo was writing the story of Paris, then the supposed sanctuary was also a lie – to keep and to silence the outcast.
As I came closer to the cathedral, I was reminded of the colonial past of my country. I was reminded of the dark history of my Church. I was reminded of the number of locals who were forced to do manual labor in order to construct the colossal churches of the Church. In relation to this, I wondered if, the colonial superpowers then would find humility to apologize to the Filipino people for the atrocities they committed as they continued to assert some illegal powers into the islands.
Inside the cathedral, it was not a sanctuary. I think, this is the down side of declaring something a heritage site – the influx of tourists to a point of forgetting the purpose of the space. It was a rowdy atmosphere: tourists pushing each other to take a souvenir photograph in front of the altar. Tourists from the Far East pushing their children to pose before the well known icons. Good thing, sacred songs continuously play but only to be polluted by the noises of the tourists – I had to admit include myself. I was so happy to be there and I did not hesitate to pose for a souvenir photo.
Then we continued our walk to this beautifully designed urban center – crossed gigantic pedestrian bridges – something lacking in my archipelagic nation. There was something in the air that seemed to be so magical – the cacophony of chirping birds, vehicle passing by, horns of the boats, the gusty wind as it touched the Seine. Incidentally, the atmosphere along the banks of the Seine was cozy compared to the rowdiness inside the Notre Dame. There were tourists but they were somehow “behaved.” I guess that was the effect of the surrounding to everyone. It was overwhelmingly magnanimous. It was beautiful but overly heavy to consume in an instant.
Then our walk led us to the Louvre.
In the arts world, to not enter the Louvre is a mortal sin. Originally a fortress by Philip II in the 12th century to protect Paris from English soldiers who at that time occupied Normandy, Louvre is now the biggest art museum in world that holds collections and artworks by Leonardo da Vince, Antonio Canova, Michelangelo, Raphael, Andre Charles-Boulle, Poussin, and other masters from the ancient civilizations to the contemporary.
But we decided not to enter the Louvre – that means, we committed mortal sin! My goal in Paris was to experience the city and not the curated artworks inside a museum. My goal was to experience the city of Paris itself, as curated by Haussmann.
The most interesting part of the museum is the integration of the contemporary with the Renaissance architecture. I am specifically referring to the incorporation of the glass pyramid to the overall design of the museum.
Commissioned by then President Francois Mitterand in 1984, the glass pyramid was designed by the Architect I.M. Pei. This contemporary piece of sculpture (my reading of the structure is it being a piece of sculpture) was constructed entirely with glass and metal poles. According to curator-friends in the arts world, the pyramid and the underground lobby beneath it were created to welcome the enormous number of visitors on an everyday basis. Today, museum visitors entering through the pyramid descend into the spacious lobby then ascend into the main Louvre buildings. Nonetheless, the pyramids are added attractions to photographers and . . . . social media savvies.
The construction of the pyramids pushed through as planned but with heavy criticisms from the arts and political communities. I remember four general streams in the criticisms. First, I.M. Pei’s modernist style was said to be inconsistent with the classic French Renaissance style and even to the over-all history of the Louvre. Second, the placement of a pyramid was believed to be unsuitable in the Louvre, which for the arts community is a symbol of a humanist-lived encounter because the pyramid symbolizes death (as in the pyramids from ancient Egypt). Third, President Mitterand was accused of immodesty, pretentious-ness, and megalomaniac. Fourth and finally, many French citizens thought of I.M. Pei for being insufficiently French to be entrusted with the responsibility of updating the Parisian historical landmark.
Personally, I find these criticisms counter-productive. I am not an architect nor an expert in design but I felt the pyramid supplemented very well with the Renaissance style of the old complex. The overall look was not a blank parody but a beautiful contrast of one structure from another. About the symbol of death, I thought otherwise. The pyramids were constructed in Ancient Egypt to celebrate life – another life in the after life – not of death. While it is true that these huge edifices were constructed to burry the dead, let us not forget they were intended for the “life after this world” of the pharaoh. About the political accusation thrown to the President, I do not think I have the guts to answer that. Finally, about the authenticity of the chosen architect, a question in mind is this: is there really a definitive French-ness to begin with?
Anyhow, onwards to our walk. We were led to Jardin des Tuilleries, a Renaissance garden – a quick break where we met new friends by initiating conversations with fellow tourists. We were tired but our spirits were high. After a few minutes rest, we continued our stroll to the Grand Palais – only a quick stop there.
Continued our walking towards the Palais de Chaillot where a great view of the Eiffel Tower might be experienced. Somewhere behind the tower is Ecole Militaire but decided to take a break instead of continuing walking there.
The Eiffel Tower!
I find it fascinating that tourists and visitors were performing some strategies to pose before the infamous tower.
Built for the 1889 world exposition, the tower was born as a pronouncement of power. Besides, that’s how expositions worked during this period of world history. In 1904, for example, St. Louis Exposition in the USA, brought indigenous peoples from the Philippines to be displayed similarly to how wild animals were displayed in zoos. My people were asked to perform their rites even if the performances were performed out of contexts.
But then again, I will not deny how excited I was when I saw the tower the first time. (I was expecting a gigantic tower but it was not as high as I thought it was). (Still,) I was amazed – it was the Eiffel Tower for crying out loud!
Anyhow, the emplacement of the tower was not romantic at all (so to speak) but for some weird reason, tourists themselves are continuously create the sense of romance by posing and doing the smooches while they are being photographed by other people.
Then we visited two other buildings: the major expo and the small expo buildings.
But I would like to end my flaneur-ing by talking about the final piece of monument Oscar and I visited, which is also part of the entire World Heritage Site property: the Church of Magdalene (L’église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine; less formally, just La Madeleine).
Surprisingly, it was also the first time for Oscar to visit the site. I was a bit surprised. But realized that his non-visit was perhaps due to its location: somewhat isolated compared to the other monumental buildings along the Seine.
Anyhow, I have never seen a magnanimous piece of architecture that somehow mimics the temples of Ancient Rome.
The Madeleine is an example of a neo-classical architecture. According to sources in the World Wide Web, the edifice was inspired by the much smaller Maison Carree in Nimes, one of the best-preserved Roman Temples in the entire European continent. The church is one of the earliest large (by large, I mean really huge) neo-classical buildings to imitate the whole external form of a Roman temple, rather than just the portico front. It consists of 52 corinthian columns and are carried around the entire building. The edifice is even beautified by the bas sculpture of Philippe Joseph Henri Lemaire’s The Last Judgment and the door’s relief depicting the Ten Commandments also by the same artist.
Inside, the Madeleine has a single nave with three domes over wide arched bays, lavishly gilded in a decor inspired by what I assumed to be Roman baths by Renaissance artists. At the rear of the church is Charles Marocheti’s sculpture of St. Mary Magdalene and a group of angels lifting her above which in the tradition of Renaissance art, a representation of ecstasy as she entered in her daily prayer in seclusion (think of the sculpture The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Bernini). Completing the art in an art complex is the frescoed altar by Jules-Claude Ziegler titled The History of Christianity, showing the key figures in Christianity with a twist: Napoleon occupying centre stage.
The next day, the obsession with heritage site was over and we decided to see the other side of Paris but still beautifully decorated by Haussmann. In the end, both the inscribed site and the non-WHS site of the city are reasons to celebrate the human spirit – the human genius and creativity.
In a sense, it was a moment of celebration of an overflowing love emanating from a tasteful planning of urbanity. But then again, like any other art, in the end, one has to remind himself or herself that representation is often leading to ideology, a fantasy-production, an ideal realism far from the real reality.