The incredible history of the Square du Vert-Galant

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March 18 (or perhaps 11 according to some sources), 1314. A dense acrid smoke rises from an island of Paris, l’île aux Juifs (island of the Jews). A crowd gathered: curious, morbid, fathers eager to educate their children according to the custom of the time, religious fanatics, peasants looking for entertainment. Among these, the king Philip IV the Fair and Guillaume de Nogaret, his keeper of the seals, stand out. But most of all, protagonists of the day are two men, despite themselves due to the dense halo of ash and death that hovers around the banks of the islet in the Seine. Jacques de Molay and Geoffrey de Charnay, respectively the last Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templar and Preceptor of Normandy for the same Order.

That day, the last of their lives, condemned to burn alive at the stake, is lost between historical events and legend. Certainly it was the persistence of the king and their accuser, Nogaret, towards them, to take possession of the huge wealth of the Order. More questionable was the ambiguous attitude of Pope Clement V in formulating a precise assessment of accusation or innocence. Probably the result of rumors was the curse launched by the Grand Master at the moment of his passing, aimed at the king, the Pope and the keeper of the seals, the main culprits for his premature death and the destruction of the Order. False history, myth or whatever, the fact is that these characters died within the year, fueling the belief that de Molay’s anathema had been successful. Not only did he curse the king, but he condemned his lineage to suffer, up to the thirteenth generation.

Maurice Druon, in his Les Rois maudits exploits this story to tell, starting from the condemnation of Jacques de Molay, the history of Kings of France, wrapped in bloody events, intrigues, and culminating with the guillotine for the last symbol of monarchical absolutism during the French Revolution, thus respecting the terrible pace of the curse. Druon describes the place where the two unfortunates met their death in the flames as follows: “The garden of the Palace was separated from the île aux Juifs only by a narrow arm of the river. The stake had been erected so as to face the royal lodge of the tour de l’Eau. The onlookers continued to flock to the two muddy banks of the Seine, and the islet itself vanished under the throng of the crowd. The ferrymen, that evening, were making their fortune” (M. Druon, Le Roi de Fer, Le Livre de poche, 1955).

The islet where this bloody story took place, l’île aux Juifs (or île des Juifs), probably takes its name from executions in the name of faith that occurred prior to the aforementioned events relating to the Order of the Templars. Historically, therefore, a bloody place, a place of death in the waters of the Seine located west of the île de la Cité, facing the tour de Nesle on the opposite bank. Of the three river islands that extended the extreme western tip of the île de la Cité, this was the largest.

Transformations of the western end of the île de la Cité and the Palais de la Cité between 1380 and 1620

During the period between 1578 and 1607, coinciding with the construction of the pont Neuf under the reign of Henry III and then of Henry IV, the île aux Juifs and the two neighbors islands (the île à la Gourdaine and the îlot du Passeur-aux-Vaches) were united and allowed the creation of what is now known as the place Dauphine. But on the opposite side of this square, crossing the bridge transversely, we meet the current western tip of the île de la Cité, which bears the name of Square du Vert-Galant, a pleasant place built on the remains of those small islands with a so great history behind.

This small garden, named in honor of Henry IV, called the Vert-Galant (the expression, in use since the seventeenth century, indicates a man who, despite his advanced age, shows amorous resourcefulness, as in the case of sovereign of France named here, a great lover even in old age. The origin of the term could derive from “virens“, referring to the vigor of the young vegetation, combined with “galant“, term with which brigands were once indicated, then in the sense of a gentleman of great audacity, especially with women), it remains a hidden pearl to most who pass on pont Neuf to reach the île de la Cité.

Going down the steps that allow to reach its level, seven meters lower than the rest of the island, you immediately realize how this corner of green in the heart of historic Paris is affected by the influence of its relative extraneousness to the mainland and to the transformations that history has imposed on it. A triangle bordered by the river, an arrowhead containing trees (including weeping willows, flowering apple trees, ginkgo, judas, maples and yews) and other vegetation as much as possible for this strip of land that was an island.

Seven meters are enough to project the curious visitor into a place different from the rest of the city, little frequented, where calm and tranquility make their way through the lively chaos of the streets in the île de la Cité. Before being formally purchased by the city for the symbolic sum of one franc in 1844 (the year in which the planting that we can observe today was created), this garden was a destination for both lovers of coolness, who spent the hottest hours of the day here. between refreshing baths in the river, and by lovers of another kind of “entertainment”, which aroused popular indignation and led to the closure of numerous buildings in the surrounding area.

Following the historical path outlined by Alain Baraton in his Mes Jardins de Paris (Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, 2020), the square became very popular for strolls and in 1865 a kiosk was installed where sip fresh drinks. But the river, inclement in its course, in 1879 swept away these installations, as indeed would have been foreseeable, finding the garden practically at the original level of the ancient river islands. On November 14, 1910, the trees also suffered the same fate, being completely flooded.

A tormented place, despite the calm that distinguishes it. Ironically, Baraton again suggests that “it was not the stone brought to the square du Vert-Galant in 1967 that changed the situation”. In fact, this tribute, wanted by a representation of Canada on the occasion of the Universal Expo in Montréal as a testimony of the Franco-Canadian friendship, consisting of a fragment of boulder from the Sainte-Hélène island (here the Bonapartist references and the controversies due to the link with the last residence of the Emperor of France are wasted, being an homonymous island), was not enough to calm the vigor of the Seine, which periodically continued to flood the already troubled garden.

Its simplicity, with the central lawn that taking up its elongated shape becomes like a drop, and the tree-lined borders that surround it, contrast with the particularity of the position and the disconcerting richness of its history. A small piece of land that stretches out towards water, element from which it originated, where find serenity, and perhaps, in harmony with the typical Parisian atmosphere, where a poet can contemplate the slow flow of the river, letting thoughts wander and transforming the brief moment of rest into infinite stillness.