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Beneath the Streets of Paris, in Search of the Cataphiles

13 February 2019

From The Literary Hub:

The first person to photograph the underground of Paris was a gallant and theatrical man with a blaze of red hair, known as Nadar. Once described by Charles Baudelaire as “the most amazing example of vitality,” Nadar was among the most visible and electric personalities in mid 19th-century Paris. He was a showman, a dandy, a ringleader of the bohemian art world, but he was known especially as the city’s preeminent photographer.

Working out of a palatial studio in the center of the city, Nadar was a pioneer of the medium, as well as a great innovator. In 1861, Nadar invented a battery-operated light, one of the first artificial lights in the history of photography. To show off the power of his “magic lantern,” as he called it, he set out to take photographs in the darkest and most obscure spaces he could find: the sewers and catacombs beneath the city.

Over the course of several months, he took hundreds of photographs in subterranean darkness, each requiring an exposure of 18 minutes. The images were a revelation. Parisians had long known about the cat’s cradle of tunnels, crypts, and aqueducts beneath their streets, but they had always been abstract spaces, whispered about, but seldom seen. For the first time, Nadar brought the underworld into full view, opening Paris’s relationship to its subterranean landscape: a connection that, over time, grew stranger, more obsessive, and more intimate than that of perhaps any city in the world.

. . . .

The expedition, in theory, was tidy. We would descend into the catacombs just outside the southern frontier of the city, near Porte d’Orléans; if all went according to plan, we’d emerge from the sewers near Place de Clichy, beyond the northern border. As the crow flies, the route was about six miles, a stroll you could make between breakfast and lunch. But the subterranean route—as the worm inches, let’s say— would be winding and messy and roundabout, with lots of zigzagging and backtracking. We had prepared for a two- or three-day trek, with nights camping underground.

On a mild June evening, six of us sat on the southern boundary of the city, in a derelict train tunnel that was part of the petite ceinture, or the “little belt,” a long-abandoned train track that encircles Paris. We’d spent the day collecting last-minute supplies: now it was past nine, and the dots of light at either end of the tunnel were darkening. Everyone was quiet, our headlamp beams dancing anxiously over the floor. We took turns peering down into a dark, graffiti ringed hole jack-hammered out of the concrete wall, which would be our entrance into the catacombs. 

“Best to keep passports in a zipper pocket,” said Steve, thumbing the braces on his waders. “Just in case.” Every step of the trip, of course, would be illegal: if we got caught, having our IDs at the ready might be just enough to keep us out of Paris’s central lockup.

. . . .

Parisians say their city, with its galaxy of perforations, is like a great hunk of Swiss cheese, and nowhere is so holey as the catacombs. They are a vast, stony labyrinth, 200 miles of tunnels, mainly on the Left Bank of the Seine. Some of the tunnels are flooded, half-collapsed, riddled with sinkholes; others are adorned with neatly mortared brick, elegant archways, and ornate spiral staircases. The “catas,” as they are known to the familiar, are technically not catacombs, a word usually traced back to an amalgam of the Greek katá-(down) and Latin tumbae (tombs); they are quarries. All of the stately buildings along the Seine—Notre-Dame, the Louvre, the Palais Royal—were erected of limestone blocks chopped from beneath the city. The oldest tunnels had been carved to construct the Roman city of Lutetia, traces of which could still be found in the city’s Latin Quarter. Over the centuries, as the city grew, stonecutters brought more limestone to the surface, and the underground warren expanded, fanning out beneath the city like the roots of a great tree.

. . . .

“Welcome,” he said, with a flourish, “to La Plage.”

We’d emerged in one of the main cataphile haunts, a cavernous chamber with sand-packed floors and high ceilings supported by thick limestone columns. Every surface—every inch of the wall, of the pillars, and much of the rocky ceiling—was covered in paintings. In the darkness, the paintings were subdued and shadowy, but under the beam of a flashlight, they blazed. The centerpiece was a replica of Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, with the curling wave of frothy blues and whites. Spread throughout the room were stone-cut tables, rough-hewn benches and chairs. At the center of the chamber was a giant sculpture of a man with arms raised to the ceiling, like a subterranean Atlas, holding up the city.

“This is like—” Benoit paused, apparently searching for a recognizable analogy “—the Times Square of the catacombs.” 

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Following are three Nadar photos of the catacombs plus one modern photo referenced in the OP. Following those photos are three Nadar photos of mid-19th century celebrities.

Sarah Bernhardt, c:1864


Alexander Dumas, 1855


Georges Sand, 1864

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3 Comments to “Beneath the Streets of Paris, in Search of the Cataphiles”

  1. Very cool! I love the catacombs! I wish I could see those in Paris, but the ones I saw in Italy were fascinating.

  2. The Georges Sand photo is magnificent.

  3. I’ve long admired Nadar’s Sarah Bernhardt photo, and am amazed at how contemporary it looks, only 25 years after the invention of photography.

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