HONORÉ DE BALZAC
A promenade through the monumental
heart of Paris in the time of Balzac, as described
through some of his works, and as documented in maps
and engravings of
The Vernon Duke Collection
Special Collections Department
University of California Library
A Guided Tour
Honoré de Balzac is the first novelist to place Paris,
the great capital city of his time, at the heart of his work.
Balzac’s life (1799-1850) spanned a period of intense
urban development, begun by Napoléon I and carried
forward by King Louis-Philippe. And yet the majority of transformations
that created the Paris tourists know today took place after
Balzac, during the time of the Second Empire and Baron Haussmann,
and the Third Republic.
We have chosen Balzac’s Paris because
it sits on a historical cusp. Balzac felt, and reveled in,
the dynamics of change. But he did not live long enough to
witness the creation of the urban landscape most of us associate
with Paris today. Almost all today’s familiar sites—the
railroad stations, the grands boulevards, the Eiffel Tower
and Sacre Coeur—were absent. What is more, those monuments
that were present existed in settings unimaginable today.
The Arc de Triomphe was in a wooded area at the gates of the
city. The Champs Elysées was a bucolic place of promenade.
The Place de la Concorde had none of today’s familiar
statues and fountains. The Palais des Tuileries blocked today’s
perspective on the Arc du Carrousel and Louvre.
Indeed, between the Tuileries and Louvre there existed a maze
of streets, unthinkable to those who have witnessed the great
perspective today from Pyramid to Arch of the Defense, themselves
unthinkable monuments to an inhabitant of Balzac’s world.
Moreover, the Louvre complex, as it was in Balzac’s
time, would be unrecognizable to us today, lacking the wings
completed under Napoléon III. Finally, the heart of
Paris—the Ile de la Cité and attendant left bank—lacked
the neat boulevards of Baron Haussmann’s later renovation
and remained a clutter of buildings and narrow winding streets.
If Balzac glories in the new constructions taking place on
the right bank, the left bank he knew was still the medieval
Had we a time machine to transport us physically to Balzac’s
Paris, we would discover a dynamic yet totally alien
place. Where Balzac mentions monuments and places that seem
familiar, we need to look again. The documents displayed from
the Vernon Duke Collection—either taken from contemporary
histories and guidebooks or reproduced from such books—allow
us to see, wander in and explore the maps of Balzac’s
Paris. We invite the viewer to retake the central
circuit of today’s tourist: Arc de Triomphe—Louvre—Ile
de la Cité—Quartier Latin. This time this trip
becomes an exercise in defamiliarization.
A complete Table
of Contents is provided detailing the list of components
within this exhibit. We invite the viewer to compare descriptions
of Paris in Balzac’s novels with contemporary documents—maps,
engravings and other visual materials—located in the
Vernon Duke Collection, some
800 books, maps and documents on the history of Paris, located
in the Special
Collections Department of the UC
Riverside Library. We hope to convey the same sense of
unfamiliarity in the familiar to viewers of this exhibition.