I also recently picked up a copy of the elegant and absorbing book Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb which, as one reviewer put it, is a "darker, stranger, more fragmented history, sprinkled with mystery and magic." One of the pieces early in the book is about Charles-Axel Guillaumot, an architect known as "the man who saved Paris" -- a man who has not been mentioned in any history of Paris in nearly two hundred years. Indeed it is difficult to find any English-language reference to him, save in searches referencing Robb's book, although there is a tiny piece in French on wikipedia listing the essential details of a remarkable life's work.
The piece in Parisians begins with the appearance of a giant sinkhole, one-quarter mile long, that swallowed many houses on the Rue d'Enfer in 1774. "Enfer" is of course the French word for "hell," and the hole in the earth became known as "the Mouth of Hell." In 1777 Guillaumot was a newly-minted "Inspecteur Général des Carrières" (Inspector of Quarries) when a second sinkhole appeared. Bravely lowering himself down to a depth of 84 feet into the 1774 collapse, and then inspecting the newest disaster, Guillaumot instantly grasped that these sites were ancient quarries dug by those "who had known nothing of the art of excavation." More ominously, he understood the problem was of such gravity that it might well endanger entire areas of the city.
His ten year mission to reinforce and map these vast spaces below Paris filled him with both mania and a sense of his own genius. He commanded vast resources, and his seemingly endless demands were never questioned by his superiors. Both those above and below him in status were in awe of his energy and vision. He divided his men into excavation, masonry, and mapping teams -- in the process devising a more precise and technical map of the tunnels below Paris than existed of the streets on the surface. As Graham Robb writes:
"Eighty feet below the Latin Quarter, he knew the silent joy of a man who devotes himself, body and soul, to a single passion... Far from the light of day, Guillaumot attained a sense of professional fulfilment in which the very notion of happiness had become irrelevant. His comprehension of the city's past now exceeded anything that could be found in books."
[The Catacombs. Photo courtesy of Justin Bengry.]
The vast cavernous spaces extended some 200 miles, which is the distance from Paris to the mountains of the Massif Central. When the problems of overflowing cemeteries and rotting corpses was brought to light, Guillaumot immediately suggested the establishment of a giant ossuary in the underground caverns. The first bones were moved there in 1786, followed by millions more, into the tunnels of the Left Bank called "the Catacombs." The dead "completed Guillaumot's masterpiece," just as the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror descended. The "man who saved Paris," fortunately for him, was saved from the Terror despite his associations with the ancien régime, and continued his work as Inspector of Quarries until his death in 1807. His gravestone disappeared sometime in the 1880s and, quite fittingly, his bones were gathered up to be laid alongside the sleeping millions who populate his eerie underground kingdom.
Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils