Bridges of Paris,  Considering History,  Paris

Pont Neuf: New and Old

Pont Neuf. Symbol of royalty, revolution, and other contradictions.

Pont Neuf or “The New Bridge” is actually the oldest bridge in Paris. This disparity makes it the perfect specimin to examine the Historical Site Conundrum (trademark pending).

The Story of the New Bridge

Paris fans are usually aware of at least the high level history of Pont Neuf:

  • The bridge was built by King Henri IV in the early 17th century.

  • It was a game changer. Pont Neuf was the first bridge in Paris without homes or buildings built on it and the first with sidewalks. Finally you could actually see the river as you safely crossed it!

  • Pont Neuf became a meeting place, a place to see and be seen, a center for fomenting unrest, and, not surprisingly, petty crime.

These facts are important but only represent the first stage of life for the bridge. Like all historic places, the Pont Neuf has gone through many stages.

Rise and Fall

The story begins before Henri IV. The previous king laid the earliest foundations in 1578. There was a delay during another round of religious warfare, followed by the crowning of Henri IV. Henri and his team decided that the bridge should be building-free and finished the bridge between 1599-1607. His wife, Marie de’ Medici, added a statue of Henri to the bridge.

It was a popular and well-used bridge for about 150 years. Slowly, it fell victim to the march of time. Despite the addition of permanent shops in 1775, her popularity could not be reclaimed. There were new, cooler places in Paris like the grands boulevards of Louis XIV and more bridges to get across the river. Pont Neuf became a bridge to be crossed, not enjoyed. Even Henri’s statue was pulled down during the Revolution.

One of the “boutiques” or permanent shops added to the Pont Neuf


Then, like many other locations in Paris, she was rescued in the 19th century in that great period of restoration and alteration.

The changes were extensive:

  • The recreation of the Henri IV statue (see below)

  • Major structural changes to the long (north) arm. The most significant was the rebuilding of the arches from round to elliptical “basket handle” shapes, in part to lower the road across the bridge. The south side was not lowered, though two of the southern arches had to be rebuilt later in the century due to collapse (aging is never easy!).

  • Removal of the permanent shop structures and restoration to the original “turrets” that we see now, along with a lowering of the sidewalks.

  • Replacement or repair of the decorative features.

That’s a lot! And then in between 1994-2007, Pont Neuf underwent major restoration, that entailed again dismantling the bridge to a large degree and replacing parts as needed. All of this work was necessary to keep the bridge standing and functional. But it can distort our perceived interaction with its history. Most guidebooks give us the Henri IV story, maybe a quick mention of renovations, and call it good. This leaves us with the sense that we are essentially experiencing a 17th-century piece of Paris, communing directly with the Vert-Galant himself on his groundbreaking bridge.

The Conundrum

We now know that this impression is not entirely true. What we’re looking at, including the Henri IV statue, are recreations or “in the style of” changes to the original bridge. However, these recreations are now or will be themselves made historic by the passage of time. When on the bridge, we are definitely experiencing history. Just not exactly the history we thought we were.

But does it matter? Does realizing you aren’t experiencing the “original” matter in the end? This is the crux of the Historical Site Conundrum. How important is the tangible history of a site? Is the spirit of a place just as important? Perhaps more important? We often forget that even our most cherished places have been rebuilt and repaired, from local Victorian mansions to the venerable Notre Dame, currently in a major new stage of her life.

A bridge has stood on the spot for over 400 years and even with all of the changes would be recognizable to Henri IV as the bridge he built. Standing on the bridge with the island behind you and the Louvre to your right is the same perspective (if not quite the same view) that met the excited citizens of 1607.

The Modern Pont Neuf in all her glory

Connecting With History

How we connect with history is sometimes physical and sometimes meta-physical. History is not just the tangible. It is the symbolic. It is the emotional. For example, you can stand on Pont Neuf and look down at the eternal Seine. Imagine not big tourist boats but small wooden boats taking goods to the Louvre or further to the port city of Le Havre. Maybe that fancy ship is taking the king upriver to Fontainbleu? The history is there if we open ourselves to it, even if the stones we are touching are closer to our age than Henri’s.

Can you see it?

History at first glance can seem never-changing: dry and set in stone. But like Pont Neuf, it is ever-evolving. Learning history and especially personally enountering history are emotional experiences. They ask us to expand our ideas, our beliefs, and our imaginations.

Realizing a historic site isn’t exactly as expected can be disappointing. Yet it can also be an opportunity to see history as a continuum. It is the story of a place and of ourselves, of how we are standing at that spot at that moment.

The Statue With Two Lives

Sometimes the new history can be as interesting as the original! The bronze statue of Henri IV, aka the “Vert-Galant” is a 19th century recreation of the original lost in the Revolution. While externally it is the same (cast against a surviving mold), both the bronze and what is inside the horse have quite the story.

Statue #1

To be fair, the original statue had its own journey as well. Marie de’ Medici initiated the construction with her Italian contacts while Henri was still alive. It was forged in Italy and delayed by payment issues and other distractions. Then the bronze horse’s boat sank and it was rescued after a month. Finally, after much delay–and after the king had been assassinated–it was installed in Paris in 1614. During the Revolution, it was destroyed as a symbol of Ancien Régime, melted down and presumably re-used thriftily as cannon balls.

The Original, including the mer-horse. The small “slave” statues at the bottom and other parts of the base are now at the Louvre.

Statue #2

But its replacement during the Bourbon restoration of Louis XVIII also has an interesting and at times ironic story. The restoration of the Bourbon Kings of France after the Revolution and Napoleon was a tenuous thing. They needed to restore not just their authority but their legitimacy. Bringing back Henri IV’s statue was a very visible way to do this. But where to get the bronze? By melting down a statue of Louis Charles Antoine Desaix, a Revolutionary and Napoleonic general that was erected by Bonaparte in the place de Victoires. Sic transit gloria mundi applies to everyone, even generals and emperors!

Pigeons have no respect for the Great Henri IV

A few bonuses

The statue’s exterior is a faithful recreation but the sculptor and his team also included some extras inside of the king, wrapped in wood-lined lead boxes:

  • Documents relating the creation of the statue, including a list of the names of the subscribers who helped pay for the new statue.

  • The book Les Economies royales de Sully by the Duke of Sully, the published (and edited) memoirs of Henry IV’s right hand man.

  • A copy of La Henriade by Voltaire, an epic poem about Henri IV.

  • A reprint of Histoire du roi Henri le Grand, a 17th-century history of Henri IV by Hardouin de Péréfixe.  With the book were 26 medals cast by Louis XVIII.  

  • A wooden cigar case in one of the elbows. Was this an accident by one of the crew or did Henri enjoy a good stogie?

Check out this video of the restoration crew removing these objects from inside Henri:

For more information and pictures on the objects as they were being analyzed, check out this website (in French). The items are currently held at the Archives Nationales.

So, even though you aren’t standing on the exact stones looking at the original decorations of the Pont Neuf, you are standing in a place of living history. On the spot where for 400 years, people have stood and pondered the ever-moving Seine. And possibly why “green gallant” means a man who actively pursues women past his prime. Henri was a complicated and interesting dude…

For the Traveler

Pont Neuf is easy to access once you are in Paris. It can be incorporated into a trip to the Île de la Cité. Or like four centuries of people before you, you can use it get between the right and left banks.

Be sure to pull over into one of the “turrets” to stop and enjoy the view. Stop again to say Bonjour! to Henri. From his statue, you can follow the stairs down to the Square du Vert Galant and enjoy a quiet moment on the point of the island. You can also walk east toward the Place Dauphine and enjoy a nice meal in a peaceful corner of a busy island.

All of these sites are free for everyone to enjoy, barring any food you buy in a cafe or for a picnic. 🙂

Do you enjoy Pont Neuf or the Vert-Galant? What are your experiences with the Historic Site Conundrum? Let me know below!


Image Credits
Seine/Pont Painting: Le Pont-Neuf la Monnaie le quai de Conti. By Giuseppe Canella, 1832. From Wikimedia Commons, public domain. Part of the Musee Carnavelet Collection.
Permanent Store: Boutique sur le Pont-Neuf en 1848, after an engraving by A.P. Martial, from Vues de l’ancien Paris, Bibliothèque de l’école nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. From Wikimedia Commons. Posted by Indefini. Public Domain. US Copyright Expired, published before 1925.
Modern Pont Neuf: Paris Ier et VI pont Neuf. From Wikimedia Commons. By Mbtz. Shared under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Map Extract: Extract from “Le plan de Mérian est un plan de Paris “vu d’oiseau“. by Matthäus Merian, 1615. From Wikimedia Commons. Posted by Jean-Christophe Benoist. Public Domain. US Copyright Expired, published before 1925.
The Original Statue: An extract from “Statue équestre d’Henri IV : [estampe]” by Pierre Brissart, 1614. Public Domain. From the Collection Michel Hennin. Estampes relatives à l’Histoire de France. Tome 19, Pièces 1677-1736, période : 1612-1614, at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica.
Modern Statue: by author, Michelle Keel. October 9, 2018.

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