Saturday, March 6, 2010

Walk 11: Lutetia Pulchra Est: Museé National du Moyen Âge, Sorbonne, Pantheon, Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, Arènes de Lutèce

The title says it all. This has been one of my favorite walks so far--it's chock full o' history! We started at the Middle Ages, or Cluny Museum. My favorite parts were the rooms full of stained glass--there's something that's both so beautiful and so solemn about it.

But la pièce de résistance was La dame à la lincorne, a series of tapestries from around the 16th century. They were in their own, semi-circular temperature-controlled room with a little video screen playing some dramatic PBS-type presentation about them. I just think it's funny how every museum has its one or two "big" pieces (the Louvre and the Mona Lisa, the Orangerie and the Water Lilies, etc.) and they usually end up just not living up to the hype. Some of my favorite pieces, especially in the Louvre, are works I'd never heard of, by artists whose names I'd never seen. And that's been one of my favorite things to do here--explore all that a museum or famous architectural site has to offer.

The Pantheon. The first thing I thought was "cold." It was so chilly inside that it hurt to try to bend my fingers by the time we left. The architecture and murals were beautiful, but it was the crypt that made the Pantheon really memorable. The French place a really fascinating emphasis on their dead; their great writers, politicians, and royalty are interred with great care, often in beautiful tombs or in symbolic locations. This fixation on remains works both ways, however. Historically, revolutionaries have had no qualms about digging up and burning, scattering, and otherwise desecrating the remains of those people who espoused whatever it is they were rebelling against.

Case in point: Saint Geneviéve. The patron saint of Paris, she is said to have diverted an attack by Attila's Huns around the year 450, saving Paris through her prayers. Upon her death, her remains were housed at various churches until Louis XV ordered a new church (what is now the Pantheon) be built for the express purpose of their residence. They were, however, burnt by revolutionaries in 1793, and all that remains in her honor is a little bit of her sarcophagus, on display at Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, a little church directly next to the Pantheon.

The more I read about French history, and the more I'm surrounded by it, the more contradictory it all seems. On one hand, the French care a great deal about preserving their history, their buildings, relics, prestigious citizens, etc., and always have. But the second anything changes (be it a change in the monarchy or the Revolution), it's out with the old, in with the new. Everything is so extreme, like there couldn't just be a happy medium. One minute everyone is glorifying the dauphin, and the next they're burning him in effigy. I kind of like it, though. It makes everything seem bigger, grander, more important and consuming, and makes the French seem altogether more passionate, for better or for worse.

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