Boulevard des Italiens (Paris)

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The Boulevard des Italiens is one of the four grand avenues in Paris (the others are Boulevard de la Madeleine, Boulevard des Capucines and Boulevard Montmartre). Originally the term boulevard referred to a bulwark or rampart of a fortified town; hence, a street occupying the site of demolished fortifications. The word was derived from the Middle Dutch bolwerk (bulwark or bastion). The name points the Théâtre des Italiens which was built there in 1783, shortly before the French Revolution (now replaced by the Opéra-Comique). Under the second Bourbon Restoration it was known as the Boulevard de Gand in memory of Louis XVIII’s exile in Ghent during the Hundred Days War. Throughout the nineteenth century and up to World War I the boulevard was a meeting place for the elegant elite of Paris.

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The streets of Paris underwent remarkable changes in the 1820s. The existing cobblestones were covered with bitumen pavements to make them more pleasant to walk and easier to maintain, and to prevent rebels from using the cobblestones to make blockades. In addition, gas lights were installed which created a new and exciting atmosphere, that of ‘la ville lumière’ in the making. They lined the streets, illuminating them throughout the night. Cafés and restaurants were brightly lit. Their large plate-glass windows seem to open up the inner city. The terraces were full of relaxed clients watching the world go by. The light of the gas lamps enabled them to socialize late at night. In 1842, such an image was captured by Eugène Lami in his painting ‘Le Boulevard des Italiens, la nuit, à l’angle de la Rue Lafitte’. Showing the intersection of the Boulevard des Italiens and the Rue Lafitte, it depicts affluent Parisians out on the streets during the evening. Not long afterwards Lami’s popular view was made into a colour litho by E. Radclyffe. Many artists were inspired by the lively atmosphere of the Boulevard. In 1880, Gustave Caillebotte created an ‘aerial’ view of ‘Le Boulevard des Italiens’.

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Édouard Léon Cortès, a French post-impressionist artist of French and Spanish ancestry, was known as ‘Le Poète Parisien de la Peinture’ because of his beautiful cityscapes in a variety of weather and night settings. His first exhibition in 1901 brought him immediate recognition. He depicted the Boulevard des Italiens in a number of atmospheric paintings. In 1897, Camille Pissarro painted the Boulevard in the morning sunlight and called the work ‘Boulevard des Italiens, matin, soleil’. The painting was acquired by Chester Dale who, upon his death in 1962, bequeathed the core of his impressive French art collection to the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

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After the July Revolution of 1850 the cityscape of Paris began to express its bourgeois prosperity in which the young played a leading role. The archetypal denizen of the modern boulevard was a flâneur, a man (always, a man) of sophistication and elegance who scanned the activity around him with detachment. Baudelaire cast the artist in the role of flâneur, a detective who could decipher the codes of a new urban experience. The boulevards were filled with aristocrats, diplomats, artists, and dandies, who gathered in fashionable establishments such as the Café de Paris, the Café Anglais, Maison Dorée, and above all at Tortoni’s. Founded in 1798 by a Neapolitan immigrant named Velloni as a café-pâtisserie and extended by Giuseppe Tortoni, the Café Tortoni became the establishment where the elite of Parisian society would meet in the nineteenth century. In the morning, stockbrokers breakfasted there; late in the afternoon, artists sipped absinthe; and at night tout le monde went to Tortoni’s for his famous ice creams. Some of its artistically refined clients soon came to be referred to as ‘dandies’ or more locally as ‘tortonistes’. Composer Offenbach, poet Alfred de Musset, novelists Alexandre Dumas and Eugène Sue, the Goncourt Brothers, Lord Henry Seymour, and Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, author of Du dandysme et de George Brummell, were all regular visitors to the café. Balzac often mentions Tortoni in his novels; the café is described by Alfred de Musset; the famous billiard room on the second floor appears in Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir; and Proust points on several occasions to Tortoni’s in À la recherché du temps terdu. Sénécal, in Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale (1869), kills Dussardier on the steps of Café Tortoni.

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There are several depictions of the café, all confirming its reputation as a fashionable establishment. In his from his 1856 series of lithographs entitled Physionomies de Paris Eugène Charles François Guérard, an artist of whom few biographical details are known, shows an image of ‘Le Boulevard des Italiens, devant Tortoni à quatre heures du soir’. The scene is outside the café, where patrons crowd the sidewalk. Men, all in top hats and frock coats dominate the mass of people. An image of the café itself was provided in an oil painting by Jean Béraud, another artist who specialized in the depiction of daily Parisian life, which he titled ‘Le Boulevard devant le Café Tortoni’. Édouard Manet felt particularly at home in this café where he frequently lunched. He was more a dandy than a bohemian. His top hat and waistcoat blended in splendidly with the patrons of Tortoni’s. In 1878/80 he created a painting of a jaunty gentleman in a top hat in the act of writing (a letter or a novel?) which he gave the title of ‘Chez Tortoni’.
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The origin of the word dandy is uncertain. Eccentricity, defined as taking characteristics such as dress and appearance to extremes, began to be applied in the 1770s. Similarly, the word dandy first appears in the late eighteenth century. A dandy is a man who places particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and cultivated wit. In most cases of middle-class background, he strove to imitate an aristocratic lifestyle. The model dandy in British society was George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell in his early days, an undergraduate student at Oriel College, Oxford, and later, an associate of the Prince Regent. In 1799, upon coming of age, Brummell – although not from an aristocratic background – inherited from his father a fortune of thirty thousand pounds, which he squandered on costume, gambling, and high living. His snobbery was one of style and fashion. The new development in fashion he started off was in his perfect plainness. His understated elegance and refinement set the standard in masculine dress. To a world in which dress was dictated by wealth and display, he brought a new ethic of restraint. His mode of masculine dress reflected the neo-classical ideals in art and architecture of the day. It was based upon his interpretation of Greek masculine beauty. The best known image of Brummell is a watercolour produced by the prolific London portrait artist Richard Dighton.

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Although Lord Byron considered Brummel the most influential character of the nineteenth century after Napoleon, Romanticism created a different image of the dandy. The romantic pose was always to appear at ease, but it was a casualness that was as painstakingly cultivated as the outward perfection of the dandy. The romantics wore their collars unbuttoned to show their pale chests. Broad brimmed hats kept their white complexions away from the sun. Byron, in order to conceal his club-foot, wore loose trousers, an innovation that would become a ‘must’ among his followers soon after. In France, from the 1750s onwards, the English were much admired in certain (aristocratic) circles. The number of French visitors to England increased substantially and many travellers published an account of their journey. English novels were popular in translation. Voltaire had paid tribute to the English political system; the French admired the horse racing culture in England; their aristocracy drank ‘ponche’, and dined on ‘rosbif’ and ‘pouding’. After the defeat of Napoleon, both English dandyism and Romanticism struck Paris like lightning. The French adopted the figure of the dandy and made him their own. French dandyism however took on a different direction. The Bourgeois Revolution of 1830 had an effect of idealizing practicality, economy and efficiency. In rebellion, Parisian artists and poets adopted dandiacal dress and haughty manners. They created a bohemian ‘aristocracy’ rejecting and mocking bourgeois society. Barbey d’Aurevilly intellectualized the dandy and identified dandyism with the battle against vulgarity. Writers such as Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire and J.K. Huysmans enhanced the status of the dandy by giving him a spiritual mission. Dandyism was defined as the outward manifestation of inner perfection.

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Tortoni’s at the Boulevard des Italiens closed in 1893. The famous name however was not lost. In 1858 a French immigrant in Buenos Aires named Touan opened a coffeehouse at no. 825 Avenida de Mayo. He called the establishment Café Tortoni. Nostalgia no doubt. The café recreated the atmosphere of the Parisian fin de siècle coffeehouse.

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