How Louis XIV Switched on the City of Light

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How Louis XIV Switched on the City of Light

Street lights in French are called réverbères, for reflectors. I always wondered why, as the beautiful lamp posts that adorn the Paris city center look very stylish but not reflective at all. I decided to find an answer.

Unsurprisingly, it involves once again Louis XIV, to whom we seem to be owing so many of the innovations quintessential to Paris as we know it.

The Sun King distrusted Paris and its inhabitants, hunted as he was all his life by memories of the Fronde, a failed coup set up by Parisian nobles and magistrates when he was still a child and his mother was Regent. Despite his feelings, he realized fairly quickly after his accession to the throne that a thriving capital was not only financially judicious for his coffers, but also a solid way to underpin his political clout, both domestically and internationally.

Photo: Pexels, Margerretta

That is why, from the confines of the Palace of Versailles, he embarked on an extensive program of public works to improve the city: Streets, until then made of dirt and turning into rivers of mud as soon it rained, were paved in cobblestones; shop signs, previously unregulated and chaotic, became standardized and unobtrusive; and, most important of all, streets got lit up after sundown.

Suddenly, Paris was a cleaner, safer city, day and night, the envy of all Europe: Nightlife was born.

The technology for public lighting evolved over time. As a start, itinerant torchbearers roamed the streets at the heart of the capital. It soon became apparent that portable illumination was not very efficient. Lanterns with candles were subsequently fixed to the sides of buildings at each crossing. They would be lowered and lit at sundown, raised back up for the night and then lowered and snuffed out in the morning, thanks to a complicated system of pulleys. While the practice made the city literally sparkle, it was extremely costly, as outsized candles were needed at each location to cover the night hours, and relied too much on the goodwill of the inhabitants, tasked with keeping the glass of the lanterns clean and the candles burning.

Photo: Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

It would take several years, and the reign of Louis XV, before proper réverbères were installed. They consisted of oil lamps with reflective metal plates on the sides, and remained virtually unchanged until the 19th century, with gas lighting introduced in 1818 and electricity in 1878. Besides the technological innovation, an aesthetic one took place under Baron Haussmann, when Napoleon III’s city planner decided that a cohesive look for street furniture would accompany his urban upheaval.

The Haussmannian look for street lamps is still the one most commonly found today, but thankfully not all the lights in the city are the same. From the romantic, four-armed one adorning the middle of Place Furstenberg, to the fishes gracing the bases of those on Pont Neuf, by way of the golden ships on the Place de la Concorde and the more recent, organic lines of Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau metro lights, there seems to be an endless variety of ways to light up Parisian nights.

If I had to choose one favorite style, I would probably go for one of the musically inspired components of the ‘light belt’, the ensemble of lamp posts surrounding Palais Garnier, recently restored via a crowd funding scheme.

And you, what is your favorite Parisian streetlight?

Haussmannian street lamp. Photo: Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

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Sarah Bartesaghi Truong has lived, studied and worked in Milan, Paris and London. Her lifelong passion for art in all its forms and her entrepreneurial dreams were the catalyst for a career change: she left the world of investment banking to go back to school, at the Sotheby’s Institute of London. Ten years ago, she moved back to Paris, the ideal location for an art-lover. As an Italian in Paris, she decided she would keep playing the tourist in her adoptive home town, always on the lookout for the many wonders the French capital has to offer to the curious explorer. VeniVidiParis, the company she founded, plans curated itineraries in the French capital and its vicinity for travellers wishing to discover the city’s vibrant art scene, but not only. Take a look at her recent discoveries on her Instagram feed, @venividiparis, or contact her at [email protected] for help planning your next Parisian vacation.


  • Michael James
    2020-05-10 06:45:21
    Michael James
    "That is why, from the confines of the Palace of Versailles, he embarked on an extensive program of public works to improve the city ..." Well, kind of. You are correct in describing Louis XIV's aversion to Paris due to his childhood experience of the Frond, during which his mother-queen took them from the Tulieries-Louvre to live in the palace at St Germain-en-Laye. It is why he never lived in Paris and chose instead to live in the periphery, first at Fontainebleau then of course to build Versailles. Though he would have had to authorise any works and expenditure on Paris, he was much more focused on his profligate spending on Versailles. In fact much of the works attributed to the Sun King were really either conceived or adopted by Colbert, his tireless finance minister, and sometimes connived behind Louis' other preoccupations. Colbert never lived at Versailles even though Louis tried to coax/bully him to, and Colbert believed the government or throne should properly operate out of Paris not in the distant hinterlands, and as he got older he lost patience with the follies of the nobility and their obsessions. Colbert also wanted Paris to be magnificent and worked heroic feats of fund-raising to cope with the excesses of Versailles and Louis' wars and all the other amazing public works done at that time, in Paris and France. It is to Colbert that we owe the phrase "“so [pluck] the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.” While Colbert was a royalist, nevertheless his creation of a formal governance structure that today we would call a civil service, regularisation of taxes (of the nobles & church not just the poor), creating a productive economy and support for the sciences actually laid the ground for the replacement of the monarchy. Here is a relevant extract from Inès Murat's Colbert (1980): “While Versailles shone with a mad brilliance, work on the Louvre was suspended in 1676. The facades were completed, but Colbert never saw the roofs put in place. The magnificent colonnade, planned as the entrance to the king’s most beautiful palace, was used to store straw for horses. We may imagine the minister’s disappointment; yet he continued to beautify the capital and to pave and widen its streets. Colbert even planned a tree-lined boulevard that would have ringed the city with greenery. The work was begun, but the war ended the project, as it had so many others. The king’s absence from Paris precipitated a development that contained hints of another age. The exercise of power required ever greater competence; the middle class had become indispensable in all of Europe’s leading countries. Yet bourgeois subjects were rarely received at Versailles. Shut out of the universe of the court, the Parisians developed the fashion of holding salons, where the middle-class business and administrative elite mingled with the nobility and the elite of the literary and artistic world. Such meetings were unthinkable at Versailles. They laid the ground worked for eighteenth-century thought. Parisians of intelligence and talent began to get into the habit of thinking without the king. In other words, they began to have a presentiment of a universe free of monarchical guardianship. Louis XIV was making an immense mistake. Already, ideas of political freedom, and even of free thought, were being experimented with.“ In other words, Colbert played his role, even if unwitting, in preparation for The Enlightenment which is often dated from the death of Louis XIV (or some from Newton's Principia Mathematica in 1687). Of course it is this, and not the coincidental street lighting in Paris, that created the Ville Lumiere! But there is no real conflict here. As you implied, practical street lighting actually grew out of scientific enquiry that flourished due to the Enlightenment, when "experiment was replacing dogma". So that's also what I choose to see when I look at those beautiful lamp postes in Paris!