Grab a flashlight and a sweater, because today on Museum Bites, we’re venturing five stories beneath the streets of Paris into the dark and dank world of the catacombs. A tour through this literal boneyard is a chilling adventure. The musty air, shadowy tunnels, constant drip drip of water, and stacks upon stacks of neatly arranged human bones are enough to give the most daring a serious case of the willies. This ceiling-high maze of more than 6 million bones rambles on for an interminable ½ mile. Why you may ask, did the Parisians decide to bury their dead beneath the city? The answer is a tale of two catastrophes.
A Nightmare on Hell Street: The Ancient Romans were the first to mine the limestone-rich earth beneath Lutetia (present day Paris). Over the centuries conquerors came and went. Parisian miners continued to chip and chisel below ground while above, the City of Light and its population flourished. Lutetian limestone was used to build Notre Dame, the Louvre, and countless other buildings. By the late 1700s, over 600,000 Parisians lived within the city walls. The streets teemed with people, buildings soared to new heights, and the underground tunnels trembled beneath the added weight. Catastrophe struck in 1774 when a massive sinkhole swallowed several buildings on the aptly named Rue d’Enfer, otherwise known as the Street of Hell. King Louis XVI (1754-1793) commissioned architect, Charles Guillaumot with the risky task of inspecting the damage. He returned with grim news. The vast network of tunnels was in a precarious state. Work crews were assembled and Guillaumot and his team set about reinforcing and mapping the labyrinth. Crisis averted, Parisians breathed a collective sigh of relief, unfortunately, it was short-lived.
Awash in Innocents: Despite his success with the tunnel project, Louis XVI was a weak and ineffective ruler. He was better known for his extravagant lifestyle and marriage to Marie-Antoinette, than his ability to deal with population growth and infrastructure. In 1780, heavy spring rains caused a wall at Les Innocents cemetery in Paris to collapse. Decomposing bodies washed out into the streets and neighboring properties. Previous attempts by Louis XVI and his grandfather Louis XV to have the ever increasing number of dead buried outside the city were blocked by the Church. The Les Innocents corpse flood finally forced city officials to deal with Paris’s overcrowded cemeteries. It just took them six years to come up with a solution. In 1786, workers began the horrific task of exhuming graves and carting the bones down into the Guillaumot’s newly mapped and reinforced tunnels. After 12 years the project was complete. Voilá, it was a win-win. Paris had ready-to-be-filled cemeteries above ground and a creepy new tourist attraction below.
Crazy Catacombs Facts: The catacombs beneath Paris make up only a small fraction of the more than 180-mile network of tunnels. This massive labyrinth was once home to an ancient brewery, a Nazi bunker, the headquarters of the French Resistance, a secret art community and perhaps much more. Urban spelunkers called cataphiles, regularly make the illegal and risky trek into the underground tunnels. Click on this video clip created by National Public Radio and National Geographic, for an up close look at this fascinating underworld.
Revolutionary Facts: Louis XVI continued to bumble his way through ruling France. A series of missteps including raising taxes on the poor while allowing the nobility and the Church to remain tax free sparked the French Revolution. He and his wife, Marie-Antoinette were subsequently executed a la guillotine. Their joint tomb lies inside the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis, in Paris.
Next week we’re hitting the road with a look at the history of automobiles. Have a great week!