Arago Medallions, Ancient Graffiti: Hidden Treasures of Paris in Plain Sight

Arago Medallions, Ancient Graffiti: Hidden Treasures of Paris in Plain Sight

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The mysterious Arago medallion in Paris. Photo: Claudine Hemingway

You plan your trip to Paris and have all the big things on your list to see. The Eiffel Tower, Musée d’Orsay, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre and– if you are brave– maybe even the Catacombs. While Paris is filled with beautiful architecture, monuments and museums there are also a few treasures that are hidden in plain sight just waiting for you to discover. Let’s take a little stroll through Paris and discover their secrets.

Marking the sidewalks of Paris are a set of brass medallions imprinted with the name Arago. The markers that run over 9km through Paris mark the ancient Paris meridian.

Arago, François (French astronomer, physicist, politician). Credit: Flickr, Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig

In 1994 the Arago Association commissioned artist Jan Dibbets to create a memorial to François Arago, a 19th century French astronomer and mathematician who mapped out the meridian: I hate to tell you, but he had nothing to do with the Da Vinci Code. You will come across these markers in the Palais Royal, Jardin du Luxembourg and along the Seine. However, did you know you could find them INSIDE the Musée du Louvre? There are a few outside in the Cour Napoleon but it is the ones inside the Louvre that sent my heart racing as soon as I spotted one. You will find them in the Richelieu and the Denon wings and even people that work there do not know they are walking among them every day.

Cour Napoléon, Louvre. Credit: Flickr, Jean-François Gornet

In the Richelieu wing between the Cour Marly and Cour Puget as you come down the stairs and through the passage between them, look down. Head back into the Cour Puget and walk up the stairs to your right. When you see the Thomas Regnaudin statue of Saturne enlevant Cybèle, look just behind it, et voila. A third in the wing lies just between the escalators. Over in the Denon wing, in the Etruscan and Roman Antiquities rooms, three more can be discovered by the avid hunter; some are hidden due to renovation but if the rooms are open keep your eyes to the ground.

The lower level of the Musée du Louvre holds the remnants  of the original medieval fortress. Dating back to the 12th century and the Louvre of Philippe Auguste, the original moat of the Louvre can be found with all its secrets it unleashed in 1984. During the construction of the “Grand Louvre”, an archaeological dig unearthed the moat and over 100,000 objects including pottery, jewelry, and medieval armor. They also found the base of the staircase to the tower that held Charles the V’s library.

Moat inside the Louvre. Credit: Flickr, Shoshanah

As you walk among the ruins you will notice marks on many of the stones– hearts, circles and slashes– but fear not these are not wayward annoying love lockers looking for a new place to vandalize the city of love. The stone carvers that painstakingly cut each stone in the 12th century made these marks. The way they would receive their wages was by counting the amount of stones they cut. From the looks of it, the guy that had the heart symbol was a pretty hard worker. Many visitors walk right past not noticing, nor knowing what these symbols mean, but it is one of the amazing stories of the Louvre that date back hundreds of years.

Sticking with the Musée du Louvre, this time let’s head outside to the very end known as the Colonnade de Perrault. It’s named for the architect Claude Perrault whom Louis XIV selected to design the eastern end of the Palais du Louvre.

La colonnade du Louvre à Paris. Credit: Flickr, Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

The Sun King wanted to add his own mark onto the Louvre like the kings before him but decided to move his court to Versailles and left the entire wing unfinished without a roof. It would take almost a hundred years for the Colonnade to get its roof and it was Napoleon Bonaparte that would finally made it happen. The Emperor wanted to leave a lasting impression and François-Frédéric Lemont did just that for him. On the outward side, facing Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois at the top of the pavilion, there’s the bust of a man with a long curly wig. Look closely at the face; it is the face of Napoleon with a much different hairstyle. During the Restoration in 1815 Louis XVIII and the Bourbons were back in power and he tried to scrub all traces of Napoleon from the city. He ordered a wig to be carved and placed on the bust and just like that, it is now Louis XIV.

Place des Vosges in April. Photo: Paris-Sharing/ Flickr

Hidden on a pillar amongst the many Parisian sunbathers at the Place des Vosges hides the oldest graffiti in Paris. Just outside No 11 Place de Vosges, halfway up the pillar, the faintest of markings can still be found. For it was here on this stone pillar that in 1764 a man from Burgundy, Nicolas Restif de la Bretonne, left a little something behind.

Frontispiece from La Découverte Australe par un Homme Volant, by Nicolas Restif de la Bretonne, 1781. Public Domain

Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806) was a print maker and typographer that moved to Paris and later became a controversial author who would stroll the city streets for inspiration leaving behind hundreds of markings on the city walls. He was given the very fitting nickname “the griffon” (the scribbler) by the residents of Paris.

Today only one marking remains and it is here in the beautiful Place des Vosges. 1764 NICOLA is etched just as clear as day and can still be seen 255 years later in the very same place. Today many corners of Paris are covered with graffiti from the amazing street artists like Invader, Banksy, JR, Blek le Rat and so many more. They all owe a little something to old Nicola and his midnight Paris strolls.

The old saying goes that the devil is in the details, and maybe this Paris legend is where that expression was born. In the 13th century, a young locksmith named Biscornet said he had a faster and less expensive way of forging iron. With his lofty promises, he was given the task to create the hinges, decoration and locks for the great doors of the front of the Notre-Dame de Paris. Overwhelmed by his promise and toiling away for months he finally asked for help. When his helper arrived a few days later, they found Biscornet asleep in his workshop in front of the doors. The three sets of doors were finished and, as you can still see today, beautiful. The legend has it that he sold his soul to the devil to complete the monumental task and died shortly thereafter. With the doors in place at the inauguration of the church, nobody could open them, not until a priest sprinkled the lock with holy water and it released and opened.

Let’s now head on over to the left bank and Saint-Germain-des-Prés. A few blocks from the Seine at 27 Rue Mazarine is an underground car park that looks like any other. You may just strut right past it, but take a minute and head on down the ramp. As you get to the bottom look to your left and right and you will notice a wall. This is not just any wall; it is the remains of the medieval wall and tower of Philippe-Auguste. In 1200 King Philippe-Auguste began building this wall on the left bank; it would enclose a stretch of over a mile and a half. The three-foot thick limestone walls would fall over the centuries, replaced with new walls inching their way across Paris. Today only a few remains can still be seen on both the left and right bank. As you stand and look at these tangible pieces of history, just imagine you are standing in what was the “outside” of Paris at the time, and not the heart of one of the busiest urban areas.

Les Deux Magots, wintertime
Les Deux Magots, wintertime. Photo: Marilyn Brouwer.

One of my favorite not so hidden treasures in Paris sits just in the shadows of the oldest church of Paris and steps away from Les Deux Magots. In the Square Laurent-Prache is a piece of art by Picasso that you can actually touch. Following the end of WWII it was decided that a monument to Guillaume Apollinaire was needed and the City of Paris asked his friend Pablo Picasso to create it. Picasso agreed to create a monument but wanted to be given full artistic license to do whatever he wanted. That did not go over so well until many years later the City of Paris finally gave into him. Picasso being Picasso decided that instead of creating something new, he just gave them a sculpture he already had finished. It was the head of his muse and lover Dora Maar, which he titled Poetry and placed in the square in 1959. If you look on the lower left of the base you see his name, but other than that, you would never know it was a Picasso. In addition, go ahead and touch it, it is about the only time you can get your hands all over a Picasso without being yelled at.

Bust of Dora Maar by Pablo Picasso dedicated to Guillaume Apollinaire. Photo: Guilhem Vellut / Wiki Commons

The Jardin du Luxembourg is a beautiful oasis in the middle of a bustling city. Never ending paths shaded by trees, basins where children sail their tiny boats, and the iconic green Luxembourg chairs are just a few of the wonderful things about this garden. Off to the side of the entrance on Rue de Medici is the Italian fountain created by Queen Marie de Medici. After the death of her husband Henri IV she wanted to build a palace that reminded her of the Florence palace where she grew up in. It was to include a grotto-like fountain, with nymphs in each niche. The fountain you see today has been added onto over time, but the main structure is exactly what she wanted. Now, walk behind the fountain; there is another fountain on the back mostly hidden from view. The bas-relief was not always here. It once was on a wall on the Rue du Regard and as Haussmann chopped his way through Paris the street was destroyed and the bas-relief fountain was in his path. The Medici fountain almost had the same fate but French architect Alphonse de Gisors had the fountain shifted slightly closer towards the palace and also created the reflecting pool. Gisors had the bas-relief removed before it could be destroyed and had it installed on the backside of the fountain. It depicts the story of Leda and the Swan from Greek mythology where Zeus takes the form of a Swan and seduces Leda.

There are endless treasures to explore and discover in Paris. Take each step a little slower and look all around; you may never know what you might stumble across. For a daily discovery and Paris history lesson be sure to follow me on Instagram at @claudinebleublonderouge

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  1. I was once very excited to find an official meter measurement just across the street from the Luxembourg Gardens. Such a surprise, I have taken several people to see it.