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“Architecture and eloquence are mixed arts whose end is sometimes beauty and sometimes use.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
All of Paris’s beauty, contrasts and contradictions are strung together like pearls on a necklace by its 37 bridges, which cross its raison d’être, the Seine River. Some of these bridges merit special attention as either historically unique or architecturally beautiful.
Paris began as a Celtic settlement on the largest island in the Seine River, the Île de la Cité, inhabited by the Parisii. After the Romans conquered Gaul, defeating the Parasii, they destroyed their metropolis, and built their own. As their city rapidly expanded, they built wooden bridges connecting the island to the left and right banks: the Petit Pont (small bridge) connected the island to the left bank and the Grand Pont (large bridge) connected to the right bank. Both bridges had houses and shops on them. The Petit Pont became the district of merchants and philosophers, and the Grand Pont, later renamed the Pont au Change, became the district of money-changers and goldsmiths. Both bridges were often damaged by fires, floods, and Viking raids.
After the siege of Paris by the Vikings in 845, the burned remains of the Grand Pont were replaced by a plank bridge, the Pont de Planches-Mibray, which held firm until the floods of 1406. King Charles VI inaugurated a new and solid wooden bridge, the Pont Notre-Dame, in 1413. Beautiful houses and shops were rebuilt upon it, as well as grain mills. Ice wrecked the bridge 1499, and it was subsequently rebuilt by public subscription.
The Pont Notre-Dame bridge was restored and embellished again in 1659 to celebrate the arrival of Marie-Thérèse of Austria, the Infanta of Spain and Portugal and the future Queen of France as wife of Louis XIV. At that time, the bridge supported, almost exclusively, 60 six-storey dwellings and art dealers. After the royal marriage it became one of the most fashionable places in Paris.
After the French Revolution in 1789, King Louis XVI ordered the destruction of what was then ironically called the Pont de la Raison, and consequent rebuilding of the bridge. By the end of the 19th century, Pont Notre-Dame was nicknamed Pont du Diable (Devils’ Bridge) because of the many river accidents that took place under its five arches. To remedy these navigational accidents, the bridge was partly destroyed and rebuilt in 1853 during the Haussmannian transformations of Paris. In 1919, it was reconstructed with a single metal arch, 60 meters long, to facilitate a less hazardous passage of boats. The small part of the bridge on the Île de la Cité side is the only remnant of the 1853 bridge. For more than a century, the Pont Notre-Dame has not undergone any transformations.
The Pont Saint-Michel was originally built in 1378 by prison labor and it took nine years to complete, according to Robert Cole, the teacher, historian, and writer. Its stone structure housed dwellings, and everything else from iron workers to booksellers until the Seine River flooded in 1407 and everything washed away. In 1408 a new bridge was constructed in wood, then in turn destroyed when the Seine River flooded in 1547. It, too, was rebuilt and later destroyed in the flood of 1616. The bridge was finally replaced by a stone bridge in 1857, the first to be constructed from Portland cement. The Pont Saint-Michel was named after the Saint-Michel du Palais chapel which existed in the Royal Palace at No. 8 of the current Palais de Justice, southeast of Sainte-Chapelle.
The Pont Neuf (New Bridge), built between 1578 and 1607, is paradoxically the oldest surviving bridge in Paris. It was constructed under the auspices of King Henri IV. It was the first bridge not to have houses built on it, and the first to have sidewalks for pedestrians; typically, before then, pedestrians had to share the mud-covered bridges with cattle and horse traffic. A stone construction with 12 arches, it links the tip of the Île de la Cité with both banks of the Seine River. The Pont Neuf became a popular place for entertainers, musicians, and shop keepers nestled in its bays until the bays were replaced by stone benches in the late 1800s. Between 1975 and 1985, the artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the bridge in sand-colored silk fabric and created an astonishingly beautiful work of environmental art.
Pont des Arts
Built during the reign of Napoléon I, the Pont des Arts was the first all-pedestrian footbridge in Paris. It was also the first iron bridge over the Seine River. Supported by cast iron arches over stone piers, its beautiful and delicate span connects the Louvre and the Institut de France. It was named a historic monument in 1975, having survived damage from two World Wars and numerous boating accidents. Over the years it became known for the “love locks” couples left to commemorate their unions, though all of the locks have now been removed due to their excessive weight on the structure. From here, the views of the Île de la Cité and the Pont Neuf are gorgeous, especially at night.
Pont Alexandre III
This ornate bridge was dedicated to the alliance between the President of France, Émile François Loubet, and Tsar Alexander III of Russia. The Franco-Russian Alliance was a military alliance between the French Third Republic and the Russian Empire that ran from 1892 to 1917. The Pont Alexandre III is the most stylish and exquisite bridge in Paris.
The Pont Alexandre III spans the Seine River in one dramatic arch, connecting the Champs-Éylsées with the domed church of Les Invalides. Built between 1897 and 1900 out of molded steel, it is the most photographed bridge in Paris, decorated with four stone pillars 17 meters high surmounted by prancing, winged horses in gilded bronze, and golden goddesses. At their base, stone statues of seated women symbolize France at different periods of its history: on the right bank is France during Charlemagne’s time and the modern age, and on the left bank is France during the Renaissance and the era of King Louis XIV. It is also almost excessively adorned with garlands, candelabra, and dancing cupids in the style of the Belle Époque. The two, side-by-side emblems of state are symbols of the Franco-Russian Alliance. The first stone was laid by Tsar Nicholas II, son of Alexander III, and inaugurated by President Loubet at the 1900 Paris World Exhibition.
Pont de Bir-Hakeim
At least half of the foreign films shot in Paris include images of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, including Inception and the racy Last Tango in Paris.
The Pont de Bir-Hakeim was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1878. The first version of the bridge was a metallic pedestrian footbridge named the Passerelle de Passy. In 1902, the footbridge was rebuilt after an architectural competition was organized. The winning idea was to allow pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and the metro to pass over the new bridge. Today, the Pont de Bir-Hakeim is a two-storey structure. Cast iron statues adorn the stone piers while four allegories (Science, Labor, Electricity and Commerce) adorn the central masonry arch. The curved columns supporting the metro tracks were inspired by the then popular Art Nouveau style. In June 1942, the bridge was renamed Pont de Bir-Hakeim in memory of the victory of the Free French Forces in Libya in 1942. The Pont de Bir-Hakeim offers a breathtaking view of the Eiffel Tower.
Perhaps nothing is more functional than a bridge, and just because they are functional does not mean they have to be ordinary in design. In fact, it’s in their inherent function that they allow us to reach the other side of a divide, substantially in form, as well as metaphorically in thought. Whether small or grand, bridges connect people.
Lead photo credit : Pont Notre-Dame in Paris. © Sue Aran