The Place Joachim du Bellay, a stone’s throw from Les Halles, is a popular crossroads for people to just hang out. But unbeknownst to many of its current users, this little square has an extraordinarily deep and textured history. It is a premiere example of how Paris today is the sum of many layers of remarkable and at times unexpected history.
As was customary in the Middle Ages, the cemetery which became known as the field of the Innocents was initially created outside the city walls. But by the thirteenth century is had already been incorporated into the growing city and, as the cemetery for the parishes without cemeteries as well for vagabonds and those who died at the Hôtel Dieu, Les Innocents had become Paris’s largest burial ground. It played its role well, with its “vivacious earth” that “swallowed up in two weeks the corpses given over to it.” [P. Cherrier, La cité à travers les ages, Librairie Charles Delagrave, Paris, 1894, p. 53.]
The fact that Les Innocents was permanently enveloped in rot and the smell of death did not prevent this location, a large open space at the crossing of major roads, only steps away from the market, from becoming a central place in the life of Parisians. It was surrounded by arcades, which were populated by all forms of low-life, and where an active commerce of many forms took place. The association with death was not hidden or ignored, instead it was celebrated: a fresco of a “danse macabre,” a dance of death, famously occupied one of its walls.
In 1549 construction began on a fountain, the Fontaine des Nymphes. The architect was the thirty-four-year-old Pierre Lescot, who had already built the choir screen at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois Church and had been appointed as the architect of the Louvre Palace. For the sculptures of the fountain, Lescot selected Jean Goujon, a sculptor who also worked on Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, the Louvre, and the Hôtel Carnavalet. Two of the kingdom’s most promising artists were therefore being asked to bring a piece of public art of the highest calibre to one of Paris’s seediest spots. Their creation became one of Paris’s best-loved pieces of public art.
In 1610, it is just a few yards from one of the entrances to the Cimetière des Innocents that King Henri IV was assassinated. Traveling in the Rue de la Ferronerie, the king was held up by a snag in traffic. François Ravaillac took advantage of the opportunity to twice plant a dagger in him, putting an end to the reign of this remarkable leader. One can visit the spot where it happened at 8-10 Rue de la Ferronerie.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the Cimetière des Innocents has a significant literary history. Among those plying their trade under its arcades were writers, who could be employed to compose a letter or an official paper, and booksellers. Perhaps this is what Denis Diderot was doing in the area, for we know that he frequented Les Innocents at a certain point in his life. Perhaps also he was involved in the recovery of body parts for resale to medical students or for other uses. The Café des Encyclopédistes, where Diderot, d’Alembert and their friends would meet, was located very nearby, at the corner of rue des Lavandières Sainte-Opportune and rue du Plat d’Étain.
Despite these prestigious associations, the atmosphere of Les Innocents could not be said to be pleasant. It was not just the corpses, often left for days in open collective pits, that caused the stench. The residents of the surrounding streets also used the place to empty their latrines.
The filth, together with Les Innocents’ ability to attract scoundrels who lived in drunkenness and criminality, led to petitions for its closure throughout the eighteenth century. In 1785, the cemetery was finally closed and the human remains were moved to the municipal ossuary, in other words the Catacombs. The Église des Saints Innocents was pulled down and, in place of the cemetery, the Place du Marché des Innocents was created. The fountain was moved to the center of the square, which required its fourth side to be built up. Sculptures by Augustin Pajou were aded in 1788.
Like much of Paris, the Place du Marché des Innocents was reworked during the Second Empire. In 1859 Georges-Eugène Haussmann asked Gabriel Davioud, the city architect who was also designing the nearby Place du Châtelet, to redesign the square. Davioud moved the Fontaine des Nymphes and created the lay-out of the square largely as we know it.
Auguste Renoir remembered a special moment from around this time. The young man from Limoges was on his lunch break from his work as a decorative painter with the intention to meet friends in a restaurant for lunch. Upon passing the square, however, he forget all about these plans, pulled out his sketch book, and devoted his break to drawing Goujon’s sculptures.
Émile Zola also had a great tenderness for the fountain. He wrote to his friend Paul Cézanne, in a letter dated 1860: “They are charming goddesses, gracious, smiling. […] The same grace, the same fineness of lines, the same charme on the whole. Finally the water falling in sheets from basin to basin. I speak to you of this fountain because I forgot myself for a good hour in its contemplation; and I often leave my path to go have a look of love upon it.” [Émile Lavielle, Le ventre de Paris, p. 101]
Today, one inevitably passes this square on the way to the Centre Georges Pompidou or when exploring the neighborhood of Les Halles. Kids from the suburbs whose point of attachment to central Paris is the Les Halles RER stop hang around there. It is a teeming center of life, with the same richness, no doubt, that it had when it was a cemetery surrounded by arcades. The place is rendered only more fascinating by the knowledge of the history under the feet of those who use it today.