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Paris to Melbourne with an Atlas

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An extraordinary gift of books, made by the Government of France to the City of Melbourne, has recently been rediscovered at the State Library of Victoria. The gift was an act of cultural generosity to mark the beginning of the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880-81, probably the largest annual event of the global calendar—and what a gift it was!

 

There were in excess of 150 books, some of them very large, and in them the people of Melbourne saw Paris spread out in all its glory. Alongside maps, images and tales of old Paris were descriptions of a very new city—a very modern city. By 1880, Paris had reinvented itself as the very picture of modernity, having become the most advanced metropolis in the world. In fact these books were something of a template for the creation of a state-of-the-art city. For example, there were detailed plans of the world’s first fully-enclosed sewerage system and water supply, connected to every property in Paris.

 

But against this futuristic flourish sat another book, and this massive volume was possibly the most important in the collection. It was called l’Atlas des anciens plans de Paris, and it was a spectacular set of reproductions of old maps of Paris. These maps were the most vivid account of where Paris had come from. They told the story of its journey, from a small Roman settlement on the Seine, to becoming the grand European centre of palaces, gardens and high-culture.

 

The hidden story behind these maps is that they are testament to a city recovering from the debris and destruction of both the Franco-Prussian War and the fiery domestic battles of the Communes. Barely ten years before the creation of these books and the subsequent gift to Melbourne, Paris had suffered terrible damage. As a result, l’Atlas des anciens plans de Paris is a precious document that represents both the survival of one of Europe’s greatest cities, and a fierce determination to hang onto the memory of how the French capital came into being.

 

See also: Adventures with an Atlas

 

© 2010 Michael Shirrefs