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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Square René Viviani in Paris

What is the Square René Viviani?

The Square René Viviani is a peaceful square with views of Notre Dame Cathedral and the oldest tree in Paris.

Square René Viviani & Notre Dame

Square René Viviani History

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the 5th arrondissement, Square René Viviani is a public green space which lies on the Left Bank of the Seine and is named in honour of the Prime Minister of France in office at the start of the First World War.

Although just a short stroll from the Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the city’s tourist hotspots, this quaint little square is largely overlooked by visitors. It offers both a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of the capital, and an excellent view from which to admire the cathedral.

The square is bordered by the Gothic Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, one of the oldest in Paris and built around the same time as Notre Dame. A 19th-century renovation of the church unearthed several Merovingian tombs, the dynasty of kings that ruled the greater part of Western Europe from the 5th century until 751, and it’s believed that the square itself is actually built over an ancient Merovingian cemetery.

Inside the polygon-shaped square you’ll find neatly tended flowerbeds, lawns, walkways and shady trees, as well as a distinctively styled fountain made by the French sculptor Georges Jeanclos in 1995. The fountain is situated in a sunken circular garden and tells the story of Saint Julien the Hospitaller, which became a popular legend in the Middle Ages. The story goes that Julien the Pauper mistakenly murdered his parents as they lay in bed, thinking it was his wife in bed with another man, and then in order to try and atone for this atrocity he built a hospice for sick and impoverished travellers. He and his wife would ferry the travellers across the Seine then look after them at the hospice, and one of the city’s vagrants that came under his care was in fact Jesus in disguise. Julien was forgiven for his sins and subsequently became known as Saint Julien the Hospitaller, now recognised as the patron saint of travellers and ferrymen. The complicated legend of Saint Julien also featured a talking stag, which forms part of the bronze fountain.

Another noteworthy aspect of the square is that it’s home to what’s believed to be the oldest tree in Paris. Now supported by stone ‘crutches’, the tree was planted in the early 17th century by the Paris botanist Jean Robin, the royal herbalist and director of the royal apothecary garden. The tree is a Robinia, commonly known as a Black Locust Tree, named in honour of the famous botanist.

Running between the fountain and the church you’ll find a double row of shady trees and several benches, as well as some odd pieces of carved stone, which are in fact architectural rubble uncovered during renovations of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

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