The neighborhood of Châtelet-Les Halles in the first arrondissment of Paris is often the place locals choose to avoid at all costs, and for good reason. The cacaphonous rumble of street vendors, shopping centers and crabby commuters against the backdrop of urban planning gone very wrong can be a major downer. It may come as surprise than that an exceptional piece of French Renaissance history can be found in the center of all this modern hustle and bustle.
The Royal Entry into Paris
The Fontaine des Innocents, situated in the center of the Place Joachim-du-Bellay has evolved over the centuries, changing both form and location. The original structure dates back to 1548 when it was commissioned for the royal entry of Henry II into the city. The royal entry would have been a pretty incredible spectacle. Records of the event detail elaborate temporary monuments to the king, a staged naval battle on the Seine, tournaments, and the public execution of heretics, burned at the stake (yikes). The Fountain of the Nymphes, as it was originally named, was conceived as a loggia with a balcony from which speeches could be given and nobles could greet the king. All was organised in advance, the fountain for example took a couple of years to create.
Lescot and Goujon
Two of the most influential artists of the time, Pierre Lescot and Jean Goujon, were reponsable for the architecture and decoration of the fountain. They took the structure’s fonction as inspiration, decorating with scenes of nymphes gracefully draped in undulating waves.
You may recognize the name Pierre Lescot from his other architectural achievements, namely the Cour Carrée of the Louvre Palace. Goujon’s work is also visible at the Louvre. The famous Caryatides supporting the musician’s loges in the Salle des Caryatides are exemplary of the French Renaissance style initiated by Lescot and Goujon and heavily influenced by antiquity.
From Cemetery to Market
After the king’s procession, the original loggia became a water fountain for public use.
In 1787 the fountain still stood, attached on one side to the Church of the Saints-Innocents. The displacement of the city’s cemeteries toward the exterior for sanitary reason and the destruction of the church threateened the future of the fountain. The efforts of writer Quatremère de Quincy were the monuments saving grace, defending the structure as, “a masterpiece of French sculpture .” The fountain was preserved but was moved to the center of the water basin in what became known as the Market of the Innocents. There was only one problem : the original structure was conceived as a three sided loggia, and in order to be free-standing a fourth wall would need to be created. The commission went to acclaimed sculptor Augustin Pajou who replicated the style of his predeccessor Goujon to maintain the harmony of the original fountain.
Not Enough Water or Too Much Water ?
A fountain needs water to remain useful and until the city’s water supply was improved under Napoléon Bonaparte, the Fontaine des Innocents was spouting but a trickle. An aquaduc was contructed from the River Ourcq, but it was really too much for the centuries-old fountain to handle and in order to properly care for Goujon’s smaller bas-reliefs they were removed and installed in the Louvre.
Under Louis Napoléon the fountain was moved again to it’s actual location atop a stacked pedestal in the center square. The water flowing from the fountain is still supplied by the Canal d’Ourcq.
The fountain is easy to pass-by in the busy streets of Châtelet but its fascinating urban evolution is outweighed only perhaps by it’s artistic and historical importance. In an area of Paris considered lacking in these qualities, Goujon’s delicately sculpted nymphes leave a lasting impression of freshness and finesse.