Pont Neuf – the revolutionary bridge that changed Paris

Pont Neuf. Photographer: Yoel Themanlis

Today, when you think of Paris, the first thing that pops into mind is the image of the Eiffel tower. However, between the 17th century to 1889, when this impressive tower was built, Paris had an entirely different symbol. It wasn’t a splendid cathedral, a royal palace or an impressive statue. It was merely a bridge. But this was not just any bridge – it was a revolutionary urban product, which completely changed the way the Parisians perceived their city. The bridge is called Pont Neuf, which, in English, translated to “the new bridge” (despite its being the oldest bridge in Paris in our times). Today we’ll tell its story.

The history of Pont Neuf

The order for building this bridge was given by King Henri III in 1577, and he even laid its cornerstone in 1578. The purpose in building this bridge was to connect between the right bank and the left bank of the Seine, and thus to ease the load on Notre Dame bridge, and shorten the transition time between the two banks. However, the project was stopped due to the civil war that had taken place in those years, combined with lack of funds. In 1598 Henri IV signed the Nantes accords, which finally ended the civil war in France, and immediately turned to rebuild Paris, which stood desolate after dozens of years of riots, famine, and wars.

The first project he chose to undertake was Pont Neuf. After nearly 20 years of being left alone, half-built, the work started anew, and was finished in 1606. Since Henri IV had no money to fund the bridge, he decided to tax the wine barrels that had entered the city from the area of Neuilly; and so, using the words of Henri Sauval, one of the city’s historians, “the bridge was funded by the rich and by the drunk”. From the moment of its inauguration, the bridge had turned into an immediate success and to the Parisians’ favourite location. So when was so revolutionary in “merely a bridge” on the river?

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The first bridge without buildings

The first reason was that this was the first bridge without any residential structures and homes built on it. Henri IV, who was a fan of perspective and views, wanted the Parisians to be able to stand on the bridge and see the Louvre Palace, which he had started to expand, as well as Place Dauphine, which he had started to build. As a result, for the first time in history, the Parisians could stand on the bridge and simply gaze at the water or at the Parisian view.

What we take for granted today was an exciting innovation in the 17th century. Instead of houses, the king established a row of small shops, which remained in their place until the 19th century, where people could buy almost anything they wished for. However, beyond the shops, the bridge had become sort of an urban stage, where actors and singers could perform before the passers-by. For example, on the bridge was created the first stand-up comedy show in the history of mankind, by Henri Le Grand, whose stage name was Turlupin. Several comedians and singers who used to perform on the bridge became so famous, that books containing their creations were sold all over Paris.

Here the sidewalks were invented

The second reason that turned the Pont Neuf into a success story was the fact that here was the first place in Paris with sidewalks. Until the, the Parisian pedestrians had to compete with horses and the carts over the same area, which caused quite a few trampling cases, as well as destruction of clothes that were stained with mud or dust. In order to solve this problem, it was decided to build sidewalks in the Pont Neuf, which looked somewhat like elevated platforms, and one had to use the stairs to reach them (during the 18th century those platforms have been lowered, and the sidewalks started resembling the ones we know today).

The effect pf the sidewalks was no less than revolutionary, since, for the first time, people could walk and stroll by foot without getting run over or have their clothes ruined (which, again, we find perfectly obvious today). As a result, many noblemen, who up until then rode their horses or were carried by their servants in a canopy chair, started strolling by foot and “mix” with the commoners. And so, without no one noticing, the Pont Neuf became the first fashion runway in Paris, where everyone who came to the city could marvel at the latest French fashion. Along with the fashion shows came the clothes thieves, which were called Filou, who used to pull the nobles’ coats and escape before anyone could have stopped them.

Pont Neuf. Photographer: Yoel Themanlis
Pont Neuf. Photographer: Yoel Themanlis

Peeping Tom beach and stand-up comedy in 18th-century Paris

The third innovation related to the bridge was the fact it had become an improvised beach for the Parisians. It was the first time that bathing in the Seine had become popular (despite it being an incredibly polluted river), and in the summertime one could have witnessed many Parisians taking their clothes off the jumping into the Seine from the lower part of the bridge. Later on, the bathing in the river became a more organised experience, as bathing boats – separate for men and women – had appeared near the bridge, and in them, the bathers could take off their clothes, and leave them on the boat before going for a swim. This, ladies and gentlemen, is also where the original “Peeping Tom beach” first appeared, when in 1716 the Parisian police was forced to interfere after men were found peeping into the ladies’ dressing rooms, and some even went in there naked. So, which Peeping Tom would you prefer?

Finally, the last innovation related to the bridge was its turning into a sort of early-age newscast. In times when there was no television, and the written press had only started taking its first steps (the newspaper was created in 1611, about five years after the construction of the bridge was finished), the Pont Neuf had become the place where you could hear the latest news (imagine a note-filled board in a shop, only that those notes were hanging by the shops or by the statue of Henri IV, close to the left bank of the Seine). Since back then, many Parisians couldn’t read, there were people who stood on the bridge and read the news out loud to the public, and thus helped spreading them quickly.

As a result, the bridge had become sort of a political barrel of gunpowder, which tended to explode with great noise from time to time. The best example for that was the Fronde rebellion, which started here in 1648, after it became known that the popular parliament member Pierre Broussel, who lived near the bridge, had been arrested. Within about 15 minutes from the moment the arrest was made, the news had spread all over Paris, thanks to the Pont Neuf pamphlets, and a raging mass went out to the streets and banished the king’s soldiers. When Broussel was released from his imprisonment, the Pont Neuf became the celebration centre for the rebels, who called themselves the Pont Neuf Fronders (Fronde is the sling used by the rebels to throw stones at the king’s soldiers). It does not come as a surprise, then, that ever since then, the authorities have done everything within their power to prevent organisations of groups on the bridge, but because of the main part of the bridge in the story, no one has ever followed these orders.

For of all these reasons, the Pont Neuf has become one of the favourite places in Paris, and with it came its own idioms. For example, “to sing on the Pont Neuf” (chanter sur le pont neuf), which means to tell the entire city of what you did. Another example is the saying “the Pont Neuf will remain the new bridge even in a thousand years”, which means that something is completely certain. More than 400 years have already passed, and the saying is still true…

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