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Erin McCarthy

Spending Time Among the Bones of Paris's Catacombs

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Erin McCarthy

In Paris, what’s beneath the sidewalks is as exciting as the monuments that tower above them. The underground is a labyrinth of canals, crypts, vaults, reservoirs, and hundreds of miles of tunnels ripe for exploration. Some people who roam beneath the city are doing it illegally to repair neglected treasures, throw parties, or paint murals, but there are legal ways to explore the canals and crypts, too.

For a fee, access is granted to an approved section of les égouts—or the sewers—which Victor Hugo called "the conscience of the city" in Les Miserables. (To accurately write about Jean Valjean's trip through the sewers, Hugo called on help from his friend, sewer inspector Emmanuel Bruneseau.) Visitors with more macabre interests, however, can descend 65 feet underground, below the metro and the sewers, to walk amongst the bones of the dead in the famous les Carrieres de Paris—also known as the Catacombs.

Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort

Forty-five million years ago, a tropical sea covered the area that would become Paris. Over time, the sediment on the seabed became formations of limestone, which the Romans would mine when Paris was known as Roman Lutetia. Open quarry pits gave way to nearly 187 miles of underground tunnels, which provided the stone that built the Louvre and Notre Dame.

Eventually, the quarries were abandoned. But in the 18th century, they became the best solution to Paris’s growing public health problem.  

In the late 1700s, the mass graves at cemeteries like Saints-Innocents in Paris’s Les Halles district were overcrowded with bodies. Improper disposal of corpses led to unsanitary conditions that contributed to the spread of disease.

To save the living, authorities shut down Saint-Innocents and, in April 1786, began relocating the remains buried in the cemetery to the Tombe-Issoire quarries, which had been blessed and consecrated for the purpose. Transferring the bones from the Saints-Innocents Cemetery—the largest in Paris—took two years. Between 1787 and 1814, bones were transferred from other Parisian cemeteries; the final transfer of bones took place in 1859.

A number of notable people buried in those cemeteries likely had their bones transferred to the Catacombs. The list includes writers Jean de La Fontaine (Fables) and Charles Perrault (known for fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots), painter Simon Vouet, and architect Salomon de Brosse (who designed the city's Luxembourg Palace). During the Revolution, people were buried directly in the Catacombs. Guillotine victims ended up there, too, including the likes of Maximilien Robespierre, Antoine Lavoisier, and Georges Danton, all beheaded in 1794.

The Catacombs hold the artfully arranged remains of 6 to 7 million Parisians. Above the entrance to the ossuary, carved into a stone, are the words “Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort.” Stop, this is the empire of the dead.

Taking a Tour

The Catacombs opened to the public in the early 19th century. Visitors enter on Avenue Rene Coty and descend 130 steps to the former mines, where a truly spooky, interesting journey awaits.

The walls of the narrow corridors that lead to the ossuary are marked with the names of the streets and historical information. Visitors will pass through "The Workshop," an area of the former quarry featuring stone pillars that support its ceilings.  

Next is the Port-Mahon corridor, which features sculptures created by a quarryman named Decure. The corridor is named for the sculpture of the Port-Mahon, above; Decure, who had fought in the armies of Louis XV, may have been held captive at the fortress by the English. Visitors will also pass the Quarryman's footbath (below), which was uncovered by workers and used for mixing cement.

And then comes the ossuary. The sheer amount of bones in the former quarries is staggering. Though the bones inside are artfully arranged now, it wasn't always that way; at first, they were simply thrown inside. But around 1810, Hericart de Thury, the inspector of the quarries, had the bones organized. (Behind those facades, the rest of the bodies were piled in heaps stretching back to the cavern's walls.)

In addition to these artfully arranged bones, visitors can see a number of interesting things, including commemorative plaques, a sepulchral lamp used by quarrymen to make air circulate through the corridors, a cross and an altar, a spring called Fontain de la Samaritaine, and a single tombstone (it belongs to Françoise Gellain). Two features of the ossuary disguise structural reinforcements: Gilbert's Tomb, which features a verse from the poet (who is buried elsewhere), and a barrel-shaped display of skulls and shinbones in the Crypt of the Passions. (On April 2, 1897, two workers let in scientists, scholars, and artists for a middle-of-the-night, very secret concert held in the crypt. When their identities were discovered, the workers were fired.)

Workers are scattered throughout the Catacombs to answer questions, but mostly, visitors walk alone or with companions through the dimly lit, damp, nearly-silent space. The rules when wandering the catacombs are simple: Respect the final resting place of these Parisians. Look, but don't touch. Don't leave your mark at all, especially with graffiti. It might be tempting to snag yourself a souvenir from this most unique of attractions, but bags are searched for bones at the exit. If you're still looking for something to commemorate your visit, there's a gift shop just across the street.

All photos by the author.

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Ramones Karaoke, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
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Fake It Until You Make It: 10 Artificial Ruins
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Ramones Karaoke, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The love of ruins, sometimes called ruinophilia, has for centuries inspired the creation of clever fakes—a host of sham facades and hollowed-out castle shells found on grand English, European, and even American estates. The popularity of constructing artificial ruins was at its peak during the 18th and 19th centuries, but architects occasionally still incorporate them today.

Why build a structure that is already crumbling? Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the popularity of counterfeit ruins was influenced by two factors—a classical education that enforced the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome, and the extended tour of Europe (known as The Grand Tour) that well-to-do young men and women took after completing their education. Travelers might start in London or France and roam as far as the Middle East, but the trip almost always included Italy and a chance to admire Roman ruins. More than a few wealthy travelers returned home longing to duplicate those ruins, either to complement a romantic landscape, to demonstrate wealth, or to provide a pretense of family history for the newly rich.

Here are a few romantic ruins constructed between the 18th and 21st centuries.

1. SHAM CASTLE // BATHAMPTON, ENGLAND

Sham Castle (shown above) is aptly named—it’s only a façade. The "castle," overlooking the English city of Bath, was created in 1762 to improve the view for Ralph Allen, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist as well as to provide jobs for local stonemasons. From a distance it looks like a castle ruin, but it's merely a wall that has two three-story circular turrets and a two-story square tower at either end. The castle is not the only folly (as such purely decorative architecture is often called) that Allen built. He also constructed a sham bridge on Serpentine Lake in what is now Prior Park Landscape Garden—the bridge can't be crossed, but provides a nice focal point for the lake. Today, Sham Castle is part of a private golf course.

2. WIMPOLE FOLLY // CAMBRIDGESHIRE, ENGLAND

Building a structure that looks as if it's crumbling does not preclude having to perform regular maintenance. The four-story Gothic tower known as Wimpole Folly in Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, England, was built 1768-72 for Philip Yorke, first Earl of Hardwicke and owner of the Wimpole Estate. Owned by Britain’s National Trust, the ruin threatened to truly crumble a few years ago, so restoration efforts were needed. The last restoration was so well done it won the 2016 European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage. The Wimpole Estate is now open to the public for walks and hikes.

3. CAPEL MANOR FOLLY // ENFIELD, ENGLAND

Capel Manor at Bulls Cross, Enfield, England has been the site of several grand homes since the estate’s first recorded mention in the 13th century, so visitors might be tempted to believe that the manor house's ruins date back at least a few centuries. But that sense of history is an illusion: The faux 15th-century house was built in 2010 to add visual appeal to the manor gardens, which have been open to the public since the 1920s.

4. ROMAN RUIN // SCHONBRUNN PALACE, VIENNA, AUSTRIA

The Roman Ruin was built as a garden ornament for the 1441-room Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, one of the most important monuments in Austria. The ruin was once called The Ruins of Carthage, after the ancient North African city defeated by Roman military force. But despite the illusion of antiquity, the ruins were created almost 2000 years after Carthage fell in 146 B.C.E. The ruin’s rectangular pool, framed by an intricate semi-circle arch, was designed in 1778 by the architect Johann Ferdinand Hetzendorf von Hohenberg, who modeled it on the Ancient Roman temple of Vespasian and Titus, which he had seen an engraving of.

5. THE RUINEBERG // POTSDAM, GERMANY

One of the earliest examples of artificial ruins in Germany was the complex of structures known as The Ruinenberg. Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, had a summer palace in Potsdam, near Berlin, that was said to rival Versailles. In 1748 Frederick commissioned a large fountain for the palace complete with artificial ruins. The waterworks part of his plan proved too difficult and was soon abandoned, but not before designer Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff constructed the ruins. The complex includes Roman pillars, a round temple, and the wall of a Roman theatre. Since 1927 the site has belonged to the Prussian Gardens and Palaces Foundation, Berlin-Brandenburg.

6. PARC MONCEAU // PARIS, FRANCE

Elegant Parc Monceau is located in the fashionable 8th arrondissement of Paris near the Champs-Elysees and Palais de l’Elysée. In 1778, the Duke of Chartres decided to build a mansion on land previously used for hunting. He loved English architecture and gardens, including the notion of nostalgic ruins, so he hired the architect Louis Carrogis Carmontelle to create an extravagant park complete with a Roman temple, antique statues, a Chinese bridge, a farmhouse, a Dutch windmill, a minaret, a small Egyptian pyramid, and some fake gravestones. The most notable feature of the park is a pond surrounded by Corinthian columns, now known as Colonnade de Carmontelle.

7. HAGLEY PARK CASTLE // WORCESTERSHIRE, ENGLAND

The ruins of the medieval castle at Hagley Park in Worcestershire are definitely fake, but they were built with debris from the real ruin of a neighboring abbey. The folly was commissioned by Sir George Lyttelton in 1747 and designed by Sanderson Miller, an English pioneer of Gothic revival architecture. The castle has a round tower at each corner, but by design only one is complete and decorated inside with a coat of arms. The grounds, which also feature a temple portico inspired by an ancient Greek temple, some urns, and obelisks, are now privately owned and not open to the public.

8. TATA CASTLE RUINS // TATA, HUNGARY

French architect Charles de Moreau (1758-1841) was a scholar of classical Roman architecture known for his ability to counterfeit impressive ruins. Nicholas I, Prince Esterhazy of Hungary, hired him to work on Tata Castle and to create the ruins of a Romanesque church for the palace’s English Garden. Even though the ruin Moreau created was fake, he built it with the stones of a real ruin, the remnants of the early-12th-century Benedictine and later Dominican abbey of Vértesszőlős. A third-century ancient Roman tombstone and relief were placed nearby.

9. BELVEDERE CASTLE // MANHATTAN, NEW YORK

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park in the mid-1800s, and their plan for creating romantic vistas included the construction of a folly known as Belvedere Castle. The Gothic-Romanesque style hybrid, overlooking Central Park’s Great Lawn, was completed in 1869. Although the folly was designed as a hollow shell and meant to be a ruin, it eventually served a practical purpose, housing a weather bureau and exhibit space. The castle also provides a beautiful backdrop for Shakespeare in the Park productions, evoking the royal homes that play prominent roles in the Bard’s works.

10. FOLLY WALL IN BARKING TOWN SQUARE // LONDON

In a borough known for its real historic buildings, the ancient wall found in London’s Barking Town Square might look centuries old. It’s not, and ironically, the wall is part of the square’s renovation efforts. The wall was built by bricklaying students at Barking College using old bricks and crumbling stone items found at salvage yards. Known as the "Secret Garden," named after the children’s book about a walled garden, the wall was designed to screen a nearby supermarket and was unveiled in 2007.

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IA Collaborative
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Lovely Vintage Manuals Show How to Design for the Human Body
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IA Collaborative

If you're designing something for people to hold and use, you probably want to make sure that it will fit a normal human. You don't want to make a cell phone that people can't hold in their hands (mostly) or a vacuum that will have you throwing out your back every time you clean the house. Ergonomics isn't just for your office desk setup; it's for every product you physically touch.

In the mid-1970s, the office of legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss created a series of manuals for designers working on products that involved the human body. And now, the rare Humanscale manuals from Henry Dreyfuss Associates are about to come back into print with the help of a Kickstarter campaign from a contemporary design firm. Using the work of original Henry Dreyfuss Associates designers Niels Diffrient and Alvin R. Tilley, the guides are getting another life with the help of the Chicago-based design consultancy IA Collaborative.

A Humanscale page illustrates human strength statistics.

The three Humanscale Manuals, published between 1974 and 1981 but long out-of-print, covered 18 different types of human-centric design categories, like typical body measurements, how people stand in public spaces, how hand and foot controls should work, and how to design for wheelchair users within legal requirements. In the mid-20th century, the ergonomics expertise of Dreyfuss and his partners was used in the development of landmark products like the modern telephones made by Bell Labs, the Polaroid camera, Honeywell's round thermostat, and the Hoover vacuum.

IA Collaborative is looking to reissue all three Humanscale manuals which you can currently only find in their printed form as historic documents in places like the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York. IA Collaborative's Luke Westra and Nathan Ritter worked with some of the original designers to make the guides widely available again. Their goal was to reprint them at a reasonable price for designers. They're not exactly cheap, but the guides are more than just pretty decor for the office. The 60,000-data-point guides, IA Collaborative points out, "include metrics for every facet of human existence."

The manuals come in the form of booklets with wheels inside the page that you spin to reveal standards for different categories of people (strong, tall, short, able-bodied, men, women, children, etc.). There are three booklets, each with three double-sided pages, one for each category. For instance, Humanscale 1/2/3 covers body measurements, link measurements, seating guide, seat/table guide, wheelchair users, and the handicapped and elderly.

A product image of the pages from Humanscale Manual 1/2/3 stacked in a row.

"All products––from office chairs to medical devices—require designs that 'fit' the end user," according to Luke Westra, IA Collective's engineering director. "Finding the human factors data one needs to achieve these ‘fits' can be extremely challenging as it is often scattered across countless sources," he explains in a press release, "unless you've been lucky enough to get your hands on the Humanscale manuals."

Even setting aside the importance of the information they convey, the manuals are beautiful. Before infographics were all over the web, Henry Dreyfuss Associates were creating a huge compendium of visual data by hand. Whether you ever plan to design a desk chair or not, the manuals are worthy collectors' items.

The Kickstarter campaign runs from July 25 to August 24. The three booklets can be purchased individually ($79) or as a full set ($199).

All images courtesy IA Collaborative

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