David Pinkney – Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris

David Pinkney’s Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris examines the transformation of Paris from a medieval to a modern city from 1850 – 1870.  While the author presents no overarching argument and saves his analysis for the conclusion, the main theme of the study suggests that the rebuilding of Paris was beneficial and that this transformation was only possible under an authoritarian regime like Napoleon III.  Yet Napoleon III is not the hero of this book as that honor belongs to Georges-Eugène Haussmann, or Baron Haussmann, the perfect of the Seine who utilized his position and authority to implement and ultimately surpass Napoleon III’s vision.  To support his narrative, Pinkney examined documents located in the Paris National Archives, newspapers and magazines of the period, and memoirs by city and government officials.  Using these documents, the author focuses the study on Haussmann, his engineers, and at times and Napoleon III.

Pinkney’s study is organized thematically but with both an introductory and concluding chapter on Paris before and after the rebuilding.  The chapters explore the development of the plans and the men involved in Paris’ transformation, the destruction and reconstruction of roads, the construction of new buildings and parks, the improvement and increase to the city’s water system, the creation of a new sewer system, and finally the methods used to finance these projects.  Within these chapters, Pinkey describes the unsanitary, crowded, and medieval city of 1850 Paris and shows how Napoleon III’s exile in London influenced his ideas for redesigning Paris.  After rising to power in 1848, Napoleon III attempted to initiate his plans; however, the financially conservative perfect of Seine moved slowly leading to his dismissal and the elevation of Haussmann.  In his new position, Haussmann implemented Napoleon III’s ideas but also elaborated and made original contribution by adding new streets, public parks, and public buildings.  His two original contributions were the supplying of Paris with spring water and the construction of system of sewers that ended the contamination of the Seine within Paris.  Haussmann’s grandiose plans pleased Napoleon but they also created many enemies as he bypassed regular channels to advance and finance the massive and expensive projects envisioned by himself and Napoleon.  To finance these projects and work around the city government, Haussmann forced banks to issue bonds and tapped into a municipal Public Works Fund created to temporarily relieve the city’s financial obligations connected with public works.  As this fund could issue its own bonds and fell outside of government scrutiny, Haussmann used this fund’s features to finance his projects without municipal oversight and issued over half a billion in bonds by 1869.  Ultimately, Haussmann’s transformation made Paris open, airy, and more sanitary as his designs removed slums, constructed massive streets, implemented new systems for disposing waste, and located new sources of fresh drinking water; yet, he also made many enemies and was forced to resign in 1870 when his dubious and irregular financial schemes were unearthed.

In his conclusion, the author engages in several arguments against Napoleon III and Haussmann.  First, he contends that while Napoleon III’s reputation is smeared, he deserves significant credit for the breadth of his plans, his backing of Haussmann, and his perseverance in transforming Paris.  However, beyond the city he makes no attempt to rehabilitate the emperor’s image.  Pinkney also aims to rehabilitate Haussmann’s reputation and argues that he was a first rate administrator who “saved Paris from pestilence arising from antiquated sewers and contaminated water and from growing paralysis.” (212) Furthermore, the author renounces charges that Haussmann used his position and financial deviousness to enrich himself pointing out that “nothing indicates that he had acquired a fortune in office.” (213) Finally, Pinkney argues that critics of Napoleon III’s and Haussmann’s vision, methods, and architecture fail to place them within the context of their time and that chastising them for destroying medieval architecture and for not foreseeing automobile traffic is unfounded.

While the author presents a clear and well documented study, his narrative does deserve some criticism.  First, in his chapter titled the “The Plan and the Men” the author focuses on Napoleon III, Haussmann, and three of Haussmann’s engineers but fails to describe the thousands of workers that entered Paris to participate the enormous public works projects.  While the author recognizes that the construction projects drew thousands, he never addresses how these men adjusted, lived, and worked in Paris.  By focusing only on the most important men involved in the transformation of Paris, Pinkney overlooks those who actually did the transformation.  Moreover, Pinkney often mentions that the rebuilding of Paris negatively affected the already poorer quarters of Paris but fails to discuss the reactions or strategies developed by these Parisians to prevent or legally fight against the city’s transformation.  If the transformation of Paris eliminated slums and create broad airy streets, how did displaced citizens react? Where did they go? Did they receive compensation? Addressing these issues would further enhance Pinkney’s study.

Another important area the author needs to address is that of Baron Haussmann.  First, the author focuses almost entirely upon the Perfect of Seine so the book is mistitled as Napoleon III is only credited with having a “vision” of Paris as Haussmann and his army of workers completed the actual projects.  Second, the author mentions that Haussmann studied law in Paris and lengthily quotes Haussmann’s diary to demonstrate the convoluted nature of the medieval Paris streets but, after this one excerpt, Pinkney does not again address Haussmann’s early year in Paris.  This appears to be an important source and author should utilize this to show how, or if, Haussmann’s student days in Paris influenced his vision for the city.

Aside from these criticisms, Pinkney presents an enlightening and readable narrative that is accessible to the specialist and lay reader interested in how Paris developed into a modern city.  The author also includes excellent maps and illustrations that display the changes made to the city by Haussmann and allows the reader to reference the locations in the city where these projects were undertaken.  The illustrations depict the narrow old crooked streets of medieval Paris, the new broad boulevards constructed by Haussmann, and several newspaper cartoons that exhibit discontent with the chaos created by the massive construction zones within the city.


2 thoughts on “David Pinkney – Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris

  1. Doug,
    I was wondering where you found a copy of the Pinkney book. It was a highly recommended reading in a Great Courses video I was watching on the history of Impressionism.

    1. David, I was assigned the book for a graduate course and borrowed it from my university library. I just looked online realized how expensive it is. I would recommend trying a local library. If that is not an option, I would recommend picking up David Jordan’s book Transforming Paris which I actually think is a better book. Cheers.

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