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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-12-02
- Reviewer: Staff
Although 19th-century Baron Haussmann often receives credit for Paris’s iconic features, this witty and engaging work shows that it was the 17th-century Bourbon monarchs who first transformed Paris into the prototype of the modern city that would inspire the world. Penn professor DeJean (The Essence of Style) notes that Henri IV (1553–1610) was the first to consider the practical value of public works and how they could improve people’s lives. Besides centralizing France’s administrative functions, Henri IV built the first bridge to cross the Seine in a single span (the Pont Neuf) and the first urban public square (the Place Royale, now the Place des Vosges). Louis XIV took his grandfather’s plans even further by tearing down the city’s fortifications, replacing them with tree-lined boulevards around the city’s perimeter, and instituting a “grand design” that would influence Haussmann 250 years later. A charismatic and knowledgeable narrator, DeJean shows how an open city where men and women from all stations could congregate fueled the rise of the self-made man, the financier, the real estate developer, the artisan, the merchant, the Parisienne, and the coquette. With panache and examples from primary sources, guidebooks, maps, and paintings, she illustrates how Paris changed people’s conception of a city’s potential. B&w illus., 8-page color insert. Agent: Alice Martell, the Martell Agency. (Mar.)
The making of a great city
Dreaming of April in Paris? In How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City, astute cultural observer Joan DeJean argues that Paris has been a modern, alluring city far longer than we usually imagine. Although we tend to think of 19th-century Paris as the bustling epitome of “la vie moderne,” the roots of all we know and love about Paris today actually came into being in the 17th century.
While DeJean’s depth and scope of research are impressive, this fascinating portrait is anything but a dry history. Like its subject, DeJean’s biography of Paris emanates charm and wit. She builds her argument for the 17th-century origins of modern Paris piece by piece, unraveling the stories of how the city’s architectural elements helped to shape its urban landscape to make it “the capital of the universe.”
She begins with the oldest bridge in Paris—the Pont Neuf—which served as the 17th century’s equivalent to the Eiffel Tower (which wasn’t erected until 1889). Created by Henry IV as a center for his new capital, the Pont Neuf ushered in the concept of modern street life, including a sidewalk for promenading and street vendors.
DeJean unveils fascinating details about other aspects of the emerging city, covering the Place des Vosges, the enchanted oasis of Ile Saint-Louis and the city’s great boulevards and parks. What makes DeJean’s analysis so intriguing is her capacity to weave strands of history together. She shows, for example, how the freedom women achieved by walking along the Pont Neuf and the city’s boulevards translated into other areas of social discourse. With such rich context, How Paris Became Paris is more than a history: It’s the best kind of travel guidebook.