Saint-Innocents had become Paris’s principal cemetery, although there were countless burial grounds in the city. Saint-Innocents was adjacent to the city’s principal marketplace Les Halles, where fresh farm products were sold daily. Burying the dead in town was a radical departure from the norm, contrary to logic, sound urban planning and public health.
By the end of the 19th century, the burial ground in Saints-Innocents has become a two and one half meter-high mound filled with over ten centuries of dead bodies largely from Paris’s 22 parishes – perhaps two million. The corpses had accumulated from natural causes, disease (particularly cholera and plague), famine, wars, and the collected remains from hospitals such as the Hôtel-Dieu and the morgue. Other Parisian parishes had their own burial grounds, but the conditions in Saints-Innocents were by far the worst.
In an attempt to relieve the overcrowding, Saints-Innocents was enlarged and surrounded by a high wall. What had begun as a cemetery of individual sepulchers – burial chambers such as crypts and tombs – had become a site for mass graves with large numbers of bodies buried in a single pit. When a mass grave was filled, a new one was initiated. And so on.
The long dead were exhumed and their bones were tightly packed into the walls and roofs of the charnier galleries. Bones were stacked in an almost artfully decorative pattern, while outside, rotting corpses on the grounds poisoned the air with a nauseating stench. Those living in proximity to the cemetery and certainly those downwind were the first to suffer. Broth and milk were said to sour within hours. The tapestries of merchants in nearby Les Halles discolored quickly. Wine turned to vinegar and resting one’s hand on damp, moldy walls was a risky endeavor. In nearby churches, the generous use of incense was insufficient to mask the foul stink. The French writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814) wrote:
…the reek of putrefaction continued to poison the faithful.
A close up of the charnel house shows the skulls stacked in the upper tiers, while rotting corpses literally littered the burying grounds. Now lost but recorded in manuscripts, a mural of Danse Macabre or the Dance of Death was painted on the south wall within an alcove of the charnel house. Represented in many languages and countries, the theme dates from 1424-24. No matter one’s station in life, the universality of death depicted in the “dance” is an artistic genre of late-medieval allegory. It was meant to remind people of life’s fragility and the vainness of the glories of their earthly lives. One might think that a view of the burial grounds was likely all that was needed!
Further insight into the unhealthy conditions at Saint-Innocents can be gleaned from Mercier’s description of the insalubrious state of affairs at the hospital Hôtel-Dieu on nearby Île de la Cité:
“Hôtel-Dieu has all it takes to be pestilential (contagious), because of its damp and unventilated atmosphere; wounds turn gangrenous more easily, and both scurvy and scabies wreak havoc when patients sojourn there. What in theory are the most innocuous diseases rapidly acquire serious complications by way of the contaminated air;
for that precise reason, simple head and leg wounds become lethal in that hospital.
Nothing proves my point so well as the tally of patients who perish miserably each year
in the Paris Hôtel-Dieu…a fifth of the patients succumb; a frightful tally
treated only with the greatest indifference.”
In 1780, a mass grave containing over 2,000 partially-decomposed bodies collapsed under the sheer weight spilling into an adjacent basement on Rue de la Lingerie. The event further heightened concerns for public health and hastened the decision to eliminate Saint-Innocents once and for all. That same year the edict was issued that forbade burying corpses at Saint-Innocents and all other cemeteries within the city limits of Paris.
At a time when Saints-Innocents housed over two million corpses, one major problem had been solved, but a greater one was created. What to do with the overflowing contents of Saint-Innocents?
The location for the collective burial ground was a spot designated in popular culture as the Tombe-Issoire within the limestone quarries of the Montrouge Plain outside Paris – more precisely, the suburb of Petit-Montrouge. The region is on the hillsides on the left bank of the Bièvre River mentioned earlier and riddled with limestone quarries at depth. At the time, the commune was outside the city walls of the Wall of the Farmers-General, used primarily for tax collection rather than defensive purposes. It was variously known for its monasteries, religious orders, royal hunting grounds, windmills and, of course, its quarries. Today, there are no famous monuments in the suburb of Montrouge. The major tourist attraction is beneath the quarter!
“the removal of the Saints-Innocents Cemetery, its demolition and its evacuation,
entailing the turning of the soil to a depth of five feet and the sieving of earth,
with any remaining corpses or bones to be transported and buried
in the new underground cemetery of the Montrouge Plain.”
Cited in Les Catacombes, etude historique, 1861
The Tomb was called the Catacombs of Paris, in French, Les Catacombes de Paris, after the Roman Catacombs. Although Paris’s early limestone quarries date back to the Roman period, the Catacombs do not. And, unlike the Roman Catacombs, they were never excavated for the purposes of burial, only repurposed for burial after the space had been established. The official name for the catacombs is L’Ossuaire Municipal or The Municipal Ossuary.
THE EXHUMATION AND TRANSFER OF BONES
The first transfers of bones from Saints-Innocents to the Catacombs lasted 15 months and continued with the populations of Saint-Étienne-des-Grès, Saint-Eustache, Saint-Landry, Sainte-Croix-de-la-Bretonneries, Saint-Julien-des-Ménétriers and so forth. Continuing to 1814, every cemetery, church ground, crypt and tomb of Paris was nocturnally emptied of its human remains. In total, over six million Parisians were withdrawn and transported to their new “haven of peace” beneath the Plains of Montrouge. The exact number is impossible to determine. The estimate is based on the number of burials up to the year 1860 when the contents of the last graves were transferred to the ossuary.
The enormous transportation of bones was scrupulously ritualized and conducted at nightfall. Torchbearers followed by priests wearing surplices and stoles accompanied funerary carts draped in black sheets while chanting the Mass of the Dead. The poet Gabriel Marie Jean Baptiste Legouvé (1804) described the procession as a “shapeless debris-monument to the departed.”
LES CATACOMBES DE PARIS – THE CATACOMBS OF PARIS
The Catacombs of Paris lie some 20 meters beneath the south Paris suburb of Montrouge. The town bears little resemblance to the former bucolic royal hunting ground on the Plain of Montrouge. In fact, one must look hard to identify buildings of “old” pre-Haussmann Paris, but they’re there. In fact, you arrive beneath one if you take the Paris Métro at Denfert-Rochereau station, and you must enter one in order to descend into the Catacombs!
A good landmark on the street is the bronze statue called the Lion of Belfort within the square, now auto-roundabout. Theatergoers may recognize it as the backdrop at the beginning of the third act of La Bohème by Puccini. General Pierre Philippe Denfert-Rochereau (nicknamed the Lion) achieved fame by courageously fighting against the invading Prussians in 1870 at the city of Belfort in northeast France. Anxious to put a positive spin on his defeat and looking for heroes of the conflict to glorify, French authorities erected the majestic statue in the center of Place Denfert-Rochereau. By the way, the statue was created by Auguste Bartholdi, the father of the Statue of Liberty.
Place Denfert-Rochereau was previously known as Place d’Enfer or the “Place of Hell”, the street of the infamous collapse of 1774. Rue Denfert-Rochereau was formerly called Rue d’Enfer or the “Street of Hell.” “Denfert” and “d’Enfer” are pronounced exactly the same, a coincidence too perfect for the Paris city hall to ignore when they changed the name – an apparent municipal pun. Interesting sense of humor those French.
Here the square and the lion on a 1932 map of Paris. Notice the green space immediately to the west of the Place Denfert-Rochereau. It’s the Montparnasse Cemetery. After all cemeteries had been banned in Paris for health concerns, several new cemeteries outside the precincts of the capital replaced all the internal Parisian ones in the early 19th century: Montmartre Cemetery in the north, Père Lachaise Cemetery in the east and Montparnasse Cemetery in the south.
|View of Barriere d’Enfer along the Wall of the Farmers-General. Note the nearby location of the Lion of Belfort and to the west, the Cemetery of Montparnesse.
Modified from OldMapsofParis.com.
LA BARRIÈRE D’ENFER – THE GATE OF HELL
Immediately south of the square is the Barrière d’Enfer – the gate built along the Wall of the Farmers-General around the city. Fermiers-Généraux or tax farmers collected octroi at the tollhouses, an unpopular (and highly abused) tax on goods both entering and leaving the city. The two tollhouses on the long-gone wall still remain – four of 62 surviving ones that punctuated the wall built between 1784 and 1791. Actually several walls surrounded Paris between the early Middle Ages to the mid-19th century, the others being for defense rather than tax collection.
Here’s an epigram on the octroi that rhymes when recited in French:
“To increase its cash
And to shorten our horizon
The Farm judges it necessary
To put Paris in prison”
For those interested, you can actually see the outline of the ancient wall on a Metro map of Paris by tracing metro lines 2 and 6, while wide boulevards replace the former fortifications. Also, the Rotunda at Parc Monceau on the north side of Paris on the Right Bank – originally called Barrière de Chartres – is an elegant tollhouse of the few that remain on the barrier wall.
Back at Denfert-Rochereau, two neo-classical tollhouses on the long-gone wall still remain. The easternmost building (right in the photo) is reserved for the Inspector General of the Quarries and is the site of entry into the catacombs – our entry into hell. The westernmost building (on the left) houses offices of the Directorate of Roads and Transport. Notice the Lion of Belfort on a pedestal in the center of the public square.
In spite of the nightly rituals of interment, the Catacombs were unknown to the public at large until 1810 when the second General Quarry Inspector, Louis-Étienne François Héricart-Ferrand, issued the first brochure that advertised their presence and began drawing curious Parisians into their depths. Prestigious figures that followed included Francis I of Austria in 1814 and Napoleon III and son in 1860. Today, the Catacombs have become a major tourist attraction and is managed by the City of Paris Cultural Affairs Division in association with the Carnavalet History of Paris Museum.
During the 1830’s to 1840’s, excursions were not limited to just the Ossuary and led by mine overseers “who guided them as struck their fancy; inevitable abuses occurred, the quarry galleries as well as the ossuary were damaged by unscrupulous people and visitor lost their way.” (Emile Gerards in Paris Souterrain, 1991).
OUR DESCENT INTO THE CATACOMBS
We arrived at the east pavilion of the Catacombs well before the opening time of 10 AM and found a line already forming at the entrance. Both Parisians and tourists alike want to be amongst the first 200 visitors allowed in, and we were no exception.
To enrich our experience, since tours are delivered in French, we arranged for an English-speaking guide and most affable fellow from Ireland (although audio-guides are available French, English and Spanish). He was extremely knowledgeable about both French and world history, and spoke four or five languages, so he was able to translate the 18th century signage in the Catacombs.
After purchasing our tickets, we descended a tight, spiral staircase of 130 steps into a dimly lit gallery 20 meters below street level – equivalent to a five-story building.
The entire tour covers a distance of about two kilometers and winds through a dimly lit labyrinth of galleries and interconnecting tunnels beneath the streets of Montrouge. The official brochure states that the average duration is 45 minutes, but we easily took twice that. There is a constant temperature of 14º C (57º F).
Be forewarned, as there are no toilet or cloakroom facilities within the Catacombs. Lastly, as stated by the official Catacombs Visitor’s Guide, the tour is unsuitable for people with heart or respiratory problems, those individuals of a “nervous disposition” or claustrophobic, and young children. There is no disabled access to the Catacombs. The experience is quite macabre to those unaccustomed but incredibly fascinating in regards to Parisian history, geology and paleontology.
|La Visite aux Catacombes, Aquarelle, 1804-1814, Musee Carnavalet
|Visite aux Catacombes
Reproduction d’une gravure anglaise, 1822, Carte postale, vers 1900, Collection Roger-Viollet
LA MER À PARIS – THE SEA IN PARIS
Between street level and the Catacombs, visitors travel back to the Lutetian age. At the bottom of the spiral staircase and before entering the Catacombs proper, visitors are guided to an exhibition entitled “The Sea in Paris – 45 Million Years Ago,” which ends December 31, 2014. The new installation “highlights a little known aspect of the Catacombs – their geological heritage, a real treasure-house in the subsoil of the capital.” (Of course you can read it all in my post Part I here
A series of murals in both French and English takes you on the “journey through space and time” with paleographic maps, chronological profiles, photographs, drawings and engravings that beautifully demonstrate the evolution of the Paris Basin and the Lutetian Sea. In addition, there’s a detailed description of the Left Bank’s limestone quarries and the circumstances that led to their repurposing as an ossuary.
|One of many geologic maps and cross-sections on display that depict the tectonic and geologic evolution of the Paris Basin and the region of Paris. My red arrows identify the underground limestone quarries (calcaire carriers souterraines de calcaire) of the Left Bank, south of the River Seine and the open air Roman quarries carrieres a ciel ouvert), also on the Left Bank, along the River Bievre.
After departing from the exhibition, the tour continues through a long interconnecting corridor. It seemed like a long distance to the Ossuary within the narrow walls and low ceilings.
|Corridor leading to the Ossuary portion of the Catacombs
LES SCULPTURES DE PORT-MAHON – THE SCULPTURES OF PORT MAHON
The Catacombs is filled with many curiosities, not all of which are on display. Perhaps the most unique and popular is the sculpture created in 1782 by Beauséjour Décure, a discharged soldier who had been enrolled in the army of Richelieu during the re-conquest of Minorque. Although only a few details of his life are known, once discharged he worked in the quarries. During breaks, for five years Décure chiseled a replica of Port-Mahon, the principal port of Minorque, out of limestone. Wanting to make his creation more accessible, he was killed by a cave-in while opening an access stairway to his model. Currently, the sculpture is not included in the protective measures of the Ossuary and is threatened by a real estate project overhead. “C’est la vie.”
LE BAIN DE PIEDS DES CARRIERS – THE QUARRYMEN’S FOOTBATH
The first geological drilling undertaken in Paris (actually under Paris) was carried out by Héricart de Thury in 1814. Dubbed “The Quarrymen’s Footbath”, the well contains crystal clear groundwater that has percolated into the drilled-depression. The only way to detect its presence is to step into it. One can only guess the mischievous pranks guides carrying candles and torches must have had with their tours. The water was subsequently used by quarry workers to mix cement required for the Catacombs.
Limestone is more or less finely porous and permeable to water. At depth – from a few centimeters to several hundred meters – and depending on the series of geological strata and the relief, the rocks are saturated with water. This forms a series of superimposed phreatic zones or aquifers, separated by impermeable argillaceous (clayey) rocks. The water table represents the first phreatic zone to be reached when a well is dug such as the Quarryman’s Footbath. Its surface fluctuates with the whim of the rain or even the nearest river. By the way, the principle of artesian wells was demonstrated in 1828 by Héricart de Thury and later applied in the drilling of the Grenelle well in the 15th arrondissement of Paris.
|Bains de Pieds des Carrieres, Catacombs Brochure, DAC/Ch. Fouin
THE EMPIRE OF DEATH
You’ve officially entered the Municipal Ossuary having passed beneath the engraved, limestone lintel that declares “Stop! This is the empire of death”. Of course, tens of thousands of visitors every year are hardly dissuaded by the ominous warning. In actuality, this is the “new” entrance, the original being at the end of the ossuary. Visits to the ossuary begin with the most recent bone transfers.
The limestone quarries have been closed to the public since 1955, but the Catacombs have remained open. At the time that Guillaumot was strengthening the tunnels beneath Paris, King Louis was closing the overcrowded cemeteries. The exhumations went on for years – long after the King lost his head in the French Revelation in 1793 – until all the bodies had been reinterred in a new realm – this, the Empire of the Dead.
The black tar line on the ceiling was traced as a path to follow by candlelight to prevent 19th century visitors from losing their way in the maze of galleries. An example of how easy it is to get lost is told by the tale of the porter Philibert Aspairta, who entered the quarry alone in 1793 and lost his way. He was found by a survey crew 11 years later and given a proper burial where he had been discovered.
In the words of L.F. Hivert in 1860:
“We etched a broad black line commencing at the base of the staircase and meandering all the way through this vast labyrinth. A stray visitor, provided he has light, need only follow this Ariadne’s thread to find the door. From place to place, the line bears an arrow pointing towards the exit door, as the flow of a river is marked on a map.”
Immediately within the entrance to the ossuary is a stele (funerary monument) dated 1810 that commemorates the establishment of the Catacombs. It was moved from the original entrance when the ossuary was expanded.
“Catacombes established by order of Monsieur Thiroux de Crosne, Lt. General of Police, and by Monsieur Guillaumot, Inspector General of Quarries, 1786. Restored and improved by order of Monsieur Frochot, Secretary of State, Chief of the Department of the Seine, by Monsieur Hericart de Thury, Chief Mining Engineer, Inspector General of Quarries, 1810.”
In the first years, the Catacombs was a haphazard repository, but renovations in 1810 transformed the underground ossuary into the visible mausoleum (and tourist attraction) that it is today. Skulls and femurs were stacked in repeating patterns in total anonymity, while funerary decorations such as monumental tablets, archways bearing inscriptions, warnings and even poetic verse were installed to complement the walls of bones.
WALL AFTER WALL LINED WITH BONES
Although some sections of the Ossuary contain a haphazard array of bones, the tour only reveals those neatly arranged in cranium-studded friezes of skulls (maxillae only, no mandibles or teeth!), femurs and tibias. Both macabre and somehow strangely romantic, I could only imagine what fantastic tales of life in Paris the speechless skulls would tell – having lived during reigns of King Louis XV and XVI, the French Revolution, and the Reign of Terror and its infamous guillotine.
The City of Light’s 12 million residents live in the world above, while below the streets in the Empire of Death 6 million remain at rest. There are many signs within the Ossuary. Some record the street on the surface above, often with names that since have been changed. Some document the date of consolidation, while others merely record the depth below the surface in both feet and meters. The cemetery of origin from which the bones originated and the date of transfer were carefully recorded. Most of the cemetery-names are long-gone and long-forgotten – with the exception of the most famous and infamous – Saint-Innocents.
“Bones of the Cemetery of the Innocents Deposited on July 2, 1809”
“Bones of the Church and the Cloister of the White Coats June 22, 1804”
Many of the ceilings (note also above photo) display tiny stalactites as water percolates through the limestone overburden. The incessant dripping over time deposits calcium carbonate in the same manner as seen in karstic limestone caverns.
|Tiny stalactites forming on the ceiling of the Catacombs
The ever-present tar-line on the ceiling guides our way. The spiral markings are algal laminations on the floor of the Lutetian Sea, seen from the underside.
Some of the 18th century signage records overlying collapse structures. This one documents the location of a fontis-sinkhole and the initial “J” of quarries inspector Chrétien-Auguste Juncker in 1842.
MEMORIAE MAJORUM – IN MEMORY OF THE ANCESTORS
At the end of the ossuary portion of the Catacombs, that once served as an entrance door, is a low portal with an engraved lintel in Latin – MEMORIAE MAJORUM – “in memory of the ancestors.” The reverse side of the lintel states “Wherever you go, shadowlike death will follow.”
The Catacombs of Paris reminded me of a 17th century Capuchin crypt in Rome beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini that I had visited years ago. It contains the remains of a mere 3,700 skeletons by Parisian standards that were also transferred and artistically arranged in a similar manner (although many skeletons were clothed and others made into decorative chandeliers). A placard there warns the onlooker in five languages:
“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”
LA CLOCHE DE FONTIS – THE SUBSIDENCE BELL
The next corridor leads to a gallery consisting of a number of subsidence sinkholes (fontis) consolidated between 1874 and 1875, three of which are over ten meters deep. The rubble that had collapsed from the ceiling has been excavated and allows the viewer to observe its bell-shaped structure.
Rather than cover the walls with hand-stacked masonry-retainers, some subsidence structures were simply consolidated with sprayed cement. The fontis seen below was reinforced with an arch, whereas others were reinforced with an internal shell of masonry. The stratigraphic layers can be viewed in cross section as if seen from within a bell. The colored lines were added to help delineate the strata – an embellishment that I could do without.
In all, it’s a quite remarkable catastrophic collapse-structure that can be viewed from within and an incredible display of quarry history. One must remember that these very subsidence bells threaten the lives of Parisians on the surface, although most everyone goes about their daily lives with total nonchalance.
|Cloche de fontis aux Catacombes
Many, if not most, of the “bell-holes” are located beneath critical structures on the surface such as buildings, busy street and Metro stations. The apex of this fontis contains the date “1875” written in mirror-image.
TECTONICS, GEOLOGY AND PALEONTOLOGY ON DISPLAY
At three various locations within the Catacombs, the story of the tectonic and geological evolution of the Paris Basin and the Lutetian Sea is beautifully displayed on murals in understandable terms. During the Lutetian epoch of the Eocene, centered about 45 million years ago, the waters of the nascent Atlantic Ocean repeatedly flooded the continental shelf of Europe and its many basins. The Anglo-Paris Basin received sediments of sand, clay and limestone.
One such layer, a limey sludge, hardened with the passage of time until it became the fine, even limestone known as Banc de Saint-Leu, which is highly sought after for cutting into building stone. And within the epicontinental basin, a shallow, sub-tropical sea much like the present-day southern Mediterranean was teeming with marine life – worms, gastropods, bivalves, corals, urchins, fish, nautiloids, crabs, sharks, etc.
|Plaster cast of Campanile giganteum, an exceptionally large marine gastropod from the Eocene epoch of the Paris Basin, was on display within the Catacombs
|Nummulites laevigatus, a foraminifera that left a fossilized shell that looked like a “liard” (a small Medieval coin) formed a meter-thick layer called pierre a liards or liard stones.
FAMOUS NATURALISTS OF THE LUTETIAN
By the end of the lower Lutetian, the sea had reached the site of present-day Paris. With its final recession, the lagoonal and mangrove landscape gave way to an arboreal savanna rich with a terrestrial flora and fauna. The skeletons of extinct early mammals – such as the pre-ice age mammal Palaeotherium – were excavated from the gypsum mines of Montmartre on the Right Bank and studied by the French naturalist Baron Georges Cuvier, founder of the science of comparative anatomy and vertebrate paleontology. Cuvier was not ready to suggest that animals had evolved through time, but he did arrive at the inescapable conclusion that the fossils were the remains of animals long-extinct, implying that God had allowed some of his creations to vanish.
|This commemorative plaque is on the wall of Louise-Michel square at the northern end of the rue Ronsard, which was the entrance to the quarries of Montmartre that are beneath the Basilica of Sacré Coeur. It was here that Cuvier discovered mammalian fossils in 1798.
Cuvier also noticed that the Lutetian fossils of the Paris Basin differed with each strata. Working with the mollusk expert Alexandre Brongniart, Cuvier was able to identify the basin’s different layers based on their distinctive fossils.
|Cuvier’s and Brongniart’s joint venture in delineating the stratigraphy of Paris in 1832
Cuvier avoided conflict with the powerful theologians of his time in his interpretation that the extinct animals were victims of Noah’s biblical flood, and in so doing, became an early proponent of catastrophism in geology (past dramatic events can explain changes in geological features and the extinction of species). The two established the first geologic maps and cross-sections in France and Continental Europe including the Paris Basin.
|This 1810 copperplate, colored geologic map of the environs of Paris (arrow) by Cuvier and Brongniart was established in part by identifying fossils in various sedimentary strata. Limestone is pink; gypsum is blue; marine marls are yellow; green areas are freshwater terrain. William Smith’s many geologic maps of England were also being generated by this time.
EXITING THE CATACOMBS
One must depart from the Catacombs in the same manner as the arrival by ascending a narrow, spiral staircase – this time with only 83 steps – from a depth of 54 feet from the street. Unlike the entrance staircase, the exit dates back to the origins of the Catacombs. The exit is at 36 Rue Rémy-Dumoncel, still within the working-class suburb of Petit-Montrouge.
We have completed a subterranean journey of 1,500 meters, of which 600 meters proceeded between the walls of bones of the Ossuary. In spite of the distance, which seemed longer due to the narrow tunnels and absence of a visual horizon, we only experienced a very small section of the Catacombs and a tiny section of the underground limestone quarries that lie beneath the Left Bank!
|Our catacombic, underground journey began at the Barriere Denfert-Rochereau (upper arrow)
and followed a winding path to 36 Rue Rémy-Dumoncel (bottom arrow).
As if 6 million skeletons wasn’t enough, a subtle reminder of the tenuous grip on life that we all possess rests strategically on the wall immediately at the top of the arduous stair-climb to the street.
Our unceremonious, eye-squinting exit from the Catacombs was from an unmarked, nondescript stone-structure on a quiet side street of Petit-Montrouge. Across the street (to the left outside the image) is a fantastic bookstore with numerous titles on the quarries and the Catacombs, however, most were written only in French.
A REMARKABLE TRANSITION FROM CEMETERY TO PUBLIC SQUARE
It’s been over 225 years since the King’s edict to close the Cemetery of Saint-Innocents was issued. Since then, much of Paris’s landscape has changed, most notably during the radical urbanization program of Napoléon III and his Prefect of the Seine Georges Eugene Haussmann in the 19th century. The limestone quarries and the overcrowded, center-city cemeteries have closed, and their bones have been moved to the Municipal Ossuaries called the Catacombs.
There’s little on the modern landscape of Paris to remind us of the intolerable conditions that existed at Saint-Innocents during the 18th century, that is, unless you know where to look. Following the closure of the Cemetery of Saint Innocents in 1786, the Church of Saint Innocents was destroyed as the bodies were being transferred in the night to their haven of peace within the Catacombs. The Fountain of the Nymphs, which had been erected against the wall of the church in 1549 and was also scheduled for destruction, was dismantled and rebuilt in the center of the new square and marketplace, Place Joachim de Bellay. A painting by Hoffbauer in 1850 depicted the transformation of the cemetery into a bustling marketplace with stalls and umbrellas.
|The square and market of Place Joachim de Bellay with the Fountain of Innocents in 1850
Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer (1839-1922), Public Domain.
Today, after several embellishments that included a larger pedestal and central fountain with a series of cascading basins , the newly-titled Fountain of the Innocents is within the square but located in a small corner of the original cemetery. The proximity of the Saint-Innocents Cemetery to the original marketplace of Les Halles is preserved in the square’s proximity to the Forum des Halles, a modern underground market and shopping area reconstructed in 1971 from the original market.
|Modified from Wikipedia
A portion of the original, bone-containing charnel house still stands along the border of the square and houses a popular pizza joint. The square is a quiet and peaceful place with Parisians reading and kids playing ball. What indescribable sights the monument has seen!
THE QUARRRIES AND CATACOMBS OF PARIS TODAY
Today, quarry inspections are still conducted by the Inspection des Carrieres, established in 1777. This 20th century manhole cover on the Left Bank testifies that the IDC is still on the job. The techniques of quarry reinforcement have changed. They are no longer consolidated with masonry work but by drilling and injecting backfill materials.
Ironically, the savior of the city – Charles Axel Guillaumot – never had a street, monument or plaza named after him. What’s more, his remains anonymously joined the millions of bones and skulls in the Catacombs, the ossuary repository that he had created to clean up the cemetery of the Saint Innocents. Another point of interest, Guillaumot was imprisoned in 1791 during the French Revolution and removed from his position because of his appointment by the King. Recognizing his importance to the city, he escaped the guillotine and was returned to his position in 1795.
As for the River Bièvre, the tributary along which Romans exploited its banks for limestone, it flows freely in the outskirts of Paris and still empties into the Seine but is now almost totally submerged and diverted within vaults and tunnels under the buildings and streets of the Left Bank. The Bièvre was heavily polluted by chemicals from the tanneries that lined it in the 19th century. Local residents have called for the rehabilitation and unearthing of the Bièvre or at least a portion of it on the grounds of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle.
|A “freely-flowing” Bievre River in the 5th arrondissement c. 1862 taken by the government commissioned photographer Charles Marville
Wikipedia and the Museum of Art, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund
These days, in addition to becoming a city-promoted tourist attraction, the Catacombs have also become a parallel, sub-universe populated by “cataphiles” – illegal subterranean explorers and young, bohemian Parisians who use the underground galleries and tunnels as party venues and places to hang out and paint decorative murals. Secret entrances exist throughout the Left Bank of Paris via sewers, the Metro and manhole covers.
|From National Geographic
In spite of sophisticated mapping, detailed inspections and modern quarry consolidations, catastrophic collapses still occur on the Left Bank as seen below recently. Notice the Lutetian stratigraphy within the fontis! On average, seven collapses occur a year in Paris, in spite of intensive efforts to stabilize the underground quarries. A collapse in 1966, triggered by heavy rains, opened a chasm in the street that swallowed six streets and part of a soccer stadium. Twenty-one people were killed, 273 were left roofless and 23 buildings were completely destroyed. In 2003, an entire school building collapsed into Metro tunnels compromised by underground excavations. Anxious eyes continue to watch the streets and people of Paris.
Early warning of collapse is possible with remote Interferometric Synthetic Aperature Radar (InSAR) emitted from satellites and aircraft. The process can spatially monitor small, slow-rate vertical ground deformations seen with subsidence, uplift, landslides, volcanoes and earthquakes and generate maps of surface deformation. InSAR has been used successfully in major cities such as Paris, and has become a valuable tool for land-use planning and natural as well as anthropogenic risk assessment.
|Mean Amplitude Image of Paris with Satellite Radar Interferometry Analysis
Arrow “a” indicates a mean subsidence event of -3mm/yr in the Grand Palais area during the period 1992-2000. Arrow “b” corresponds to the Saint-Lazare area studied in 2000 and 2002. Arrow “c” corresponds to a subsidence of -2mm/yr around the Montmartre area.
Modified from earth.esa.int/psic4/background.html
Color-coded maps of surface deformation can be generated over time.
|Set of Phase Screens of Paris
The various colors represent levels of deformation.
My recent visit to Paris served to further reinforce the theme stated in the masthead of my blog that “Geology is all around us, scarcely thought of as we go about our lives. Yet, it affects everything we do as a civilization, as a society and as individuals.”
The Lutetian deposits of gypsum on Paris’s Right Bank beneath the hills of Montmartre and Belleville provided plaster of Paris for the city and the world. The Left Bank deposits of limestone built the city, and the quarries that honeycombed its depths provided a necropolis for the countless millions of Parisians buried there.
Upon our ascent from the Catacombs, my wife and I found ourselves within a stylishly quaint neighborhood of Petit-Montrouge. What a contrast from where we had been amongst the Empire of the Dead and into the Realm of the Living. In a matter of minutes we had traveled from pre-17th century quarries through an 18th century ossuary, into a 19th century fontis excavation, up a set of 19th century steps, and out of a 20th century building to the 21st century. I took out my Smartphone, launched the App for Zagats and found a perfect bistro for lunch for the two of us just down the boulevard. La joie de vivre!
VERY INFORMED PRINTED SOURCES OF INFORMATION AVAILABLE FROM THE CATACOMBS BOOKSTORE AND ON-LINE
Atlas du Paris Souterrain under the direction of Alain Clement and Gilles Thomas, 2001. A fantastic, thorough and entertaining presentation in French with wonderful photographs.
Paris Souterrain by Emmanuel Gaffard, 2007.
The Catacombs of Paris by Gilles Thomas, 2011. Another thorough presentation.
WEBSITES OF INTEREST – ALL IN FRENCH
“Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio
by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time,
roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the planet Earth.”
Arthur C. Clarke