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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Pont Neuf in Paris

What is the Pont Neuf?

The Pont Neuf is the oldest bridge in Paris. It has been standing across the river Seine since the 17th century and was the first bridge to be erected in stone and to have a purpose-built pavement.

What is the Pont Neuf

Pont Neuf History

The Pont Neuf (or ‘New Bridge’) is in fact two bridges, which link the Left and Right banks of the Seine with the Île de la Cité. This little island was inhabited before any other part of Paris, and still keeps some of its most important monuments, including Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie. Pont Neuf was completed in 1607 and is the capital’s oldest surviving bridge, which makes its name a touch ironic but credits its construction.

The main medieval crossing was called Grand Pont before it gained its present name: Pont au Change (found just east of here), named for the money exchangers who set up shop on the bridge – the king had actually prohibited them from moving elsewhere. Made of wood yet supporting tens of multistorey shops, houses, and armouries, these medieval links eventually succumbed to the weight or collapsed in fire. To our eyes, the Pont au Change would seem marvellous and otherworldly, not so much a bridge as a support for a jumbled array of constructions somehow balancing across the Seine, as if on a tightrope. For King Henry IV, houses on bridges seemed backward and unsightly; what’s more, if they were constructed on Pont Neuf, they would ruin his view of the Louvre Palace. So, the new bridge, whose building had already begun in 1578 under Henry III, was the first to be erected in stone and have a purpose-built pavement with open views of the river.

In order to finance the project, the government used a previously untested method. They decided to levy a tax on every barrel of wine trundled into Paris; and so, as the historian Henri Sauval wrote in the 1660s, it was ‘the rich and drunkards’ who paid for the Pont Neuf. Although the bridge was highly innovative, its castle-like turrets appeared archaic in comparison to the Italian structures of the same period. However, the expressive stone masks of ancient mythological figures along each side (all of which are different) did reflect the Mannerist style of the time. These particular masks are 19th-century copies of the 16th-century originals attributed to sculptor Germain Pilon, which had to be recreated when the bridge was rebuilt.

Pont Neuf provided not just a new crossing to ease congestion, but also a new social space. The bridge became a meeting spot for the rich and poor alike, an open-air theatre for performers, and a rumour mill for news and politics. Booksellers, newspaper-hawkers and placard-wielders gathered here, and the phrase, ‘c’est connu comme le Pont Neuf’ signified that something was already common knowledge ‘that’s as well known as the Pont Neuf’.

In the 17th and 18th centuries many came to stroll across the bridge to show off their new clothes and conspicuous luxuries; others came in the hot summer sun to lose their clothes and bathe. Today, you can still witness groups sunbathing and picnicking during the day and live performers entertaining revellers at night.

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