Rupert Christiansen’s City of Light opens on the evening of 5 January 1875, with the inauguration of Paris’s new opera house, designed by Charles Garnier ‘in a style of unabashed grandeur’, with its gilded and mirrored salons, shimmering candelabra and marbled colonnades, mosaics, statues, frescoes and ‘flaming gas torches enhancing a central stairwell that turned the ascending and descending audience into an impressive spiralling spectacle’.
The building had been under construction for almost 15 years at vast cost and symbolised the extravagance of the Second Empire, a period in French history which lasted for 18 years, from Napoleon III’s coup in 1852 to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. A week before the ceremonial opening of what is now the Palais Garnier, the 36-year-old architect, chosen by Baron Haussmann to build the magnificent opera house, had ‘formally handed the 1,942 keys to the management’. It is attention to such detail that makes this witty, erudite historical essay on Paris’s Haussmann years such an evocative read.
Following the adage of his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte, that ‘a new government must dazzle and astonish’, Napoleon III decided that ‘the Second Empire would not oppress its citizens so much as awe them’, writes Christiansen. Since the revolution, Paris had been the key to power and grandeur. A moderniser at heart, Napoleon III intended to rid the capital of the filth, stench and crime that filled its narrow, winding back streets. Outbreaks of cholera had claimed tens of thousands of lives in 1832 and 1849. A drastic remedy was needed, and Georges-Eugène Haussmann proved the man to implement it — prefect of Bordeaux, a superbly efficient civil servant and a Protestant.
Christiansen paints an intriguing portrait of the architect who changed Paris forever. ‘His sole interest was organisation and efficiency.