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Gothic Pilgrimage, visiting the great French cathedrals.

                                Grandeur of composition, nobility of silhouette, perfection of proportion, wealth of detail, infinitely...

October 20, 2011

That Towering Feeling.

Who doesn’t like the Eiffel Tower ... doesn't feel affection for that gigantic, iron-filigreed symbol of a beloved Paris? For, as the French architect Le Corbusier wrote emotionally, "The tower is an indefatigable pilgrim who has criss-crossed the world. In the cities ... in the desert ... on the estuaries ... everywhere and among the humble as among the others, the tower is in everyone's heart."

Yet Alexandre Gustave Eiffel's tower wasn't always so beloved. When he began building it for the Paris Exposition of 1889, some 300 outraged artists, writers, and intellectuals signed a petition denouncing the project. They included Charles Gounod, composer of Faust; Ernest Meissonier, the painter; Alexandre Dumas and Guy de Maupassant, the writers. The criticism of the planned tower was boundless: "useless and monstrous. "a horror ... dizzily ridiculous like a black and gigantic factory chimney ... barbarous ... odious column of bolted metal." De Maupassant was particularly incensed; he later reportedly lunched often at the tower's second-floor restaurant because that was the only place in Paris where he couldn't see the hideous iron monster. 

But verbal protests didn't dissuade the exposition committee. So Eiffel proceeded to build a structure higher than any other made by man up to that time, including the Great Pyramid of Giza. And he completed it in only 2 years, 2 months, with a small labor force. 

As photographs show, he did it masterfully. The Eiffel Tower has been associated with various feelings: despair (more than 300 people have leaped to their death from it) ... derring-do (people have bicycled up its steps and climbed its sides) ... fear (thousands of people with fear of heights have run away from it in terror) ... pride (the tower was used to pick up enemy radio signals during two world wars). 

For a while during the early thirties, the Eiffel Tower even served as an electric billboard, advertising Citroen cars. And it has been sold to naive foreigners countless times. The tower has hosted a Mass ... a beauty contest for tall girls (Miss Eiffel Tower), judged by the duke and duchess of Windsor in 1939 ... political rallies ... and all sorts of zany promotional stunts. Rumors persist that the tower will soon collapse, that the tower will be dismantled and sent to a foreign country, and that it's sinking into the River Seine's marshy riverbank.

Behind all the feelings about the tower lie some fascinating details about its construction.
  • Wrought iron was used because steel was too light, flexible, and costly.
  • Construction required 30 draftsmen, who worked 18 months, generating 5,320 mechanical drawings that took 14,352 square feet of paper.
  • The tower was designed to hold up to 10,416 people.
  • Its strength comes from its voids; Eiffel realized that victory over wind could not be achieved by accumulation of strong resisting surfaces, but by reducing the supporting elements of an openwork structure until the wind had virtually nothing to seize.
  • Structural work was completed in only 2 years, 2 months, compared to 36 years required for the Washington Monument.
  • Only one life was lost during building, compared with 20 lives lost during building of the Brooklyn Bridge and 84 lives during building of the Quebec Bridge.
  • The tower housed the world's first elevator in any skyscraper-type building.
A miracle at the time, the Eiffel Tower was to remain the world's tallest building for 41 years, when the Chrysler Building in New York City outreached it. Even today, the tower evokes awe and nostalgia in most people. Guarding the Seine and rising above sprawling Paris, it looks old-fashioned and somewhat awkward. But it makes us feel reassured and proud to think that humans over a century ago could have created such an impressive, durable, intriguing monument to human ingenuity.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel startled the world with his tower, but he had created other miraculous structures during his 30 years' experience before: 

a 525 foot bridge at Oporto, Portugal, 

and a 540-foot-span Garabit viaduct over the Truyere in southern France, for many years the world's highest bridge. 

Contemporaries said he looked serene, completely self-assured; dull company, perhaps, but an engineering genius. 

October 6, 2011

One Foot in the Middle Ages.

One of the greatest things about living in the center of a city as ancient as Paris is that you can go into a historical trance whenever you want to. 

I discovered this the other morning, having hurried to the Rue Saint-Jacques-only to find that my appointment there had been put back half an hour. I could have killed the time in a cafe, watching the Latin Quarter go by, but I did something better.  I went into a trance. 

The Latin Quarter is so called because throughout the Middle Ages the students who came from all over Europe to Paris' great university used Latin to communicate with each other.  Summoning up what I remembered of medieval times and disregarding the occasional fast-food shop, I began to wander 'round the old streets leading off the Rue Saint-Jacques.  Soon, in my mind's eye, I had the narrow lanes streaming with unkempt or pious students-and, among them, the great poets Dante and Petrarch, the great doctors Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, deep in disquisition or intrigued by the fantasies of the manuscript illuminators whose studios opened out onto the street.  

Slipping through the crowd came the shadow of François Villon François Villon François VillonFrançois Villon, poet and twice accused of murder, whose name alone evokes all the harshness of the period. In his wake the dark alleyways grew darker with cloaked figures whose taste for learning was paralleled by such unruliness that even their practical jokes ended in injury or imprisonment, if not death.

But the crudeness and violence were tempered by comparable extremes of spirituality. Religion and learning were indissoluble; and if much of the area was given over to the schools, even more belonged to the church. Built in Roman times, the Rue Saint-Jacques, as the Via Supera, was the main route to the south, and each year it was trodden by hundreds of pilgrims on their way to Saint James of Compostela, in Galicia, Spain. Many of them would have paused, or even spent the night, at the nearby church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre.

Saint-Julien is a dream in itself. No fewer than six centuries before work began on Notre Dame, a stone's throw to the north, an important chapel stood on this venerable site. Norman invaders destroyed it in 885, and it was not rebuilt until the twelfth century.
Since then, Saint-Julien-called "le Pauvre" after a bishop, Julian the Confessor, who gave away all he had-has experienced both fame and neglect. It was saved from the latter when the Greek Catholics known as Melchites took it over in 1889.

 Nowadays, the east end of the church is cut across by an iconostasis, the Eastern Orthodox screen that sets off the sanctuary. Other icons adorn the walls. The air is heavy with incense. Soon, black-bearded Greek priests will take up their sonorous chant, wafting one's thoughts eastward to Byzantium. Before this happens the half hour strikes; the trance is over, and the present reclaims its own.