Thursday 31 March 2011

Sacré-Coeur – the architecture of reprisal

Julian Barnes wrote about Paris in the Guardian last Saturday. Barnes has written extensively on France but sparingly on Paris (preface to Richard Cobb’s Paris and Elsewhere) so this was something for Paris-obsessives to look forward to, despite a lingering impression that Barnes is not a great fan of the city. He correctly advises avoidance of the great pomp and circumstance Parisian monuments and directs the visitor to seek lesser known but more rewarding alternatives. The tiny Montmartre vineyard in rue des Saules is recommended as an alternative to the overbearing religiosity of Sacré-Coeur – a little disappointing – I had hoped that he might divert to somewhere like Barbès-Rochechouart if only for the pleasure of reading this restless and raucous neighbourhood described in Barnes’s supple and felicitous prose.

I share Barnes’s aversion to Paris monumentale (with the single exception of the Tour Eiffel that still works for me as a demented memorial to the Early Machine Age) and the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur is the most obnoxious of them all. In order to escape the magnetic field of this vindictive Romano-Byzantine confection, like Barnes, I would sneak round the back, but my destination would be the water tower in rue du Mont-Cenis. It’s an unpretentious structure, honest and restrained in terms of ornamentation and quietly performing a rather more essential function than its vulgar neighbour.

The tide of visitors that arises from the Métro at Anvers into boulevard de Rochechouart swarms up the steps or funicular primarily to enjoy the panoramic views across the city and get a close-up sight of one of the most prominent features of the Parisian skyline. High visibility, especially in the north-eastern arrondissements (18 – 20) where the roots of the Communard insurrection of 1871 were to be found, was a prime purpose. It was planned to serve as a permanent reminder to the city’s working-class inhabitants of the debt of penitence they owed to the Catholic Church and the property owning class for the events of the Commune. Another theme, one that would be repeated in 1940, was the allocation of blame for defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870 to the moral permissiveness of the Second Empire. This climate of excess came to be personified in the eyes of moralists in the flamboyant and gilded Charles Garnier Opéra. The Opéra was still under construction when the Commune was crushed in 1871 and one proposal was to demolish the part built structure and replace it with a new cathedral as an act of contrition for the sins of the past. The troubled origins of Sacré-Coeur are of no importance to the crowds who come to stare and this monument to ecclesiastical vengeance has steadily ingratiated itself into Parisian iconography over the decades following its completion in 1914.

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