THE IMMORTAL CITYSCAPE: REPRESENTATIONS OF ROUEN IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
[by Fanny Leluan]
To my grandparents, who lived with the sights and sounds of Rouen for forty-five years.
Observing the architectural evolution of a city is an attempt to build an anthropology of past, present and future. Like the human organism, cities evolve, and decline; they are destroyed and rebuilt. Rouen, the capital of the Normandy region, is no exception. Often overlooked and overshadowed by other French cities, it was nonetheless a major mercantile centre throughout the Middle Ages, renowned for its textile and book production as well as its unmistakable cityscape. Foreign visitors and poets alike, particularly in the nineteenth century, admired its parishes, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, the street of the Gros-Horloge, and of course its half-timbered houses.
After studying nineteenth-century photographs in order to complete a comparative assessment of Rouen’s architectural history, I stumbled across photographs of Francis Frith’s ‘Universal Series’ at the V&A, an archive of albumen prints representing historical and topographical sites from around the world. I could not help but notice a sense of a staged and immobilised city in the pictures, as if the medium was fighting the ever-moving reality of the urban experience.
Baudelaire in his poem entitled ‘The Swan’ in Les Fleurs du Mal underlined the ever-changing reality of the city: ‘a town, alas, changes more quickly than man’s heart may change’. According to the poet, even the mortal heart and its variations cannot beat the city to speedy changes with the disappearance and appearance of new streets, squares, buildings; and the restoration and alteration of monuments. And yet, the photographs continually try to pinpoint, to encapsulate the essence of the city, an “immortal city” that cannot change. How fascinating is the idea of an “immortalised city”, an architectural and immobile theatre. Frith’s photographs evoke moments and monuments, their grandeur and stillness throughout time, ignoring the effects of human interactions and histories. It is particularly interesting to note that the city was nicknamed the ville-musée, the “museum city”, as if stopped in time and identified through its immobile architectural glory.
The postcard Souvenir de Rouen in the Municipal Library of Rouen exemplifies the importance of the cityscape in the building of both a material and immaterial urban identity. From the heraldry celebrating the origins of the city to the display of mini-photographs of parishes, bridges, and streets, all anchor the city in a universal discourse. There are no images of population here, instead references to religion, historical sights – from Joan of Arc’s Tower to Napoleon’s equestrian statue – and mercantile and economical activities. All are used as metaphors and allegories for the various attributes of the city, acting as stimuli. Bernard Lepetit aptly suggests that ‘the historical narratives of cities start by the telling of its origins, sources for the building of a mythologized identity whose aim is to give inhabitants a glorious past that justifies the ambitions of present time’. Souvenir de Rouen acts as a reminder and memento of past and present glories, of power and grandeur all anchored in a solid ontology, enacted by the presence of the city’s coat of arms (a paschal lamb, emblem of the city’s drapers guild). Interestingly, the thirteen views are presented with sweet William flowers, revealing the encomiastic purpose of the postcard and calling for contemplation and melancholia.
The nineteenth-century cityscape understood as ‘the picture of a city’ or ‘the visual appearance of a city or urban area’ calls for an appreciation dictated by respect and emotions for past architectural testimonies. The monuments are assimilated to parts of the city and operate as shape shifters of the past. This is conveyed by the photographical census of the city’s monuments. It certainly explains the sense of a staged and perfected city, protected from the hideousness of everyday life interactions. The photographs translate the essence of the sight and arouse admiration and interest for a distant grandiose past. This fascination for the past is at the heart of the Romantic and medieval revival movements that regarded the Middle Ages as the pinnacle period for arts, a taste and admiration later echoed by the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
The photographs encapsulate the zeitgeist of nineteenth-century modern taste for the past. They are here eliminating the urban synaesthesia; they represent and capture a specific vision of the city, immaculate and almost imagined. In many ways, to the modern viewer, the photographs not only capture the architectural prouesse but also act as canvases for the mind to wander and wonder. Gaston Bachelard in La poétique de l’espace discusses the ‘poetic image’, a minded picture and projection, an in-between of souvenir, psyche and imagination. The photographs can be seen as poetic images in the sense that they picture an existing yet transformed space. Bachelard writes that the poetic image ‘is not the echo of a past. It is in fact the contrary, by the radiance of a picture, the distant past resonates with echoes of which we cannot see the depths nor how they will reverberate and fade away’.
The mise en scène of Rouen emphasises the double identity of the urban space, its blatant visibility and mysterious invisibility. This denuded city retains the visible and accentuates the absence of the passing of time, this invisible enemy to posterity. It highlights the disappearance of other monuments, simply retaining the survivors of the past.
Presenting centuries of architectural human efforts in the name of spirituality, the photographs are here transcending the monuments’ chronology. The ephemerality of the city is conjured through photographs that capture the cityscape for posterity. Rouen in the photographs is no longer of the nineteenth century, rather it is presented as a chronology of historical momenta that parade under our eyes.
Marcel Roncayolo, quoted by Jean-Luc Pinol, explains that ‘under the name of city is an accumulated sum of historical experiences rather than a rigorous concept’. And indeed, this is what the postcard exemplifies, giving an aperçu of the city, evoking historical moments and aesthetic qualities of the cityscape. It highlights what Leonardo Benevolo calls ‘the physiognomy of the city’. In the case of Rouen, this physiognomy is manipulated, creating a timeless experience. Is it possible to have a historical experience of the city that is faithful to what was once? Does it include or exclude the physicality, understood as materiality, of the buildings, left to look at but not to experience? In a way, the photographs refute the metamorphosis operated by time on the urban space and place. In doing so, they create a limbo space, between real and imagined. The urban space becomes a perfected space.
But how long can this visually manipulated urban experience last and appeal? What sort of truth or reality comes out of the photographs and can be used for historical analysis? Bernard Lepetit suggests that the city ‘is never synchronous with itself: the urban networks, inhabitant’s behaviour, planning policies develop with different chronological agendas. But at the same time, the whole city exists in present time. Rather, the city is synchronized with present times by the social actors carrying the temporal load’. Thus, it seems that it is left to us, visitors, viewers, inhabitants, to “make” and “produce” a city that is rendered once again alive by the interaction of past and present. Lepetit’s suggestion emphasises the role of human interaction into the production of a present and existent space, that which is missing from the photographs.
Rouen is thus interpreted through a medium redefining and mediating our vision of its cityscape. To try and establish an architectural chronology of the city becomes difficult when we realize that the city has been perceived as a timeless space where the landscape has been conveniently arranged. The photographs and postcards encapsulate, preserve and dictate the appearance of the city, threatening the construction of the city’s identity. Interestingly enough, the past year has seen two exhibitions in Rouen that call for a reconsideration of the cityscape. The first one, called Dreaming Rouen, was concerned with the future urban planning of the city and its architectural possibilities through models, videos and sculptures, inventing an inspiring vision and questioning the urban experience of the city.
The second exhibition presented a series of contemporary photographs of three Norman cities – Rouen, Le Havre and Caen – taken in 2008 by the Italian artist Vincenzo Castella. Entitled Cityscapes, it offers an alternative vision to Frith’s photographs of Rouen. Taken from the heights of the city, it demonstrates a fascination and recognition of Rouen’s multiple urban histories, from medieval to modern to contemporary and thus appeals for a re-imagination and reconsideration of the past and future cityscape.
 James Huneker, ed., The Poems and Prose Poems of Charles Baudelaire, (New York: Brentano’s, 1919), p.28
 Patrick Boucheron and Denis Menjot, La ville médiévale, Histoire de L’Europe urbaine, (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2003, 2011), p.10. Author’s translation: ‘L’histoire des villes commence par le récit des origines, source de la construction d’une identité mythifiée dont l’objectif est de donner aux habitants un passé glorieux qui justifie les ambitions du present.’
 Gaston Bachelard, La poétique de l’espace, (Paris: Quadrige, Presses Universitaires de France, 1957), p.1. Author’s translation: ‘Elle n’est pas l’écho d’un passé. C’est plutôt l’inverse: par l’éclat d’une image, le passé lointain résonne d’échos et l’on ne voit guère à quelle profondeur ces échos vont se répercuter et s’éteindre.’
 Patrick Boucheron and Denis Menjot, La ville médiévale, Histoire de L’Europe urbaine, (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2003), p.7. Author’s translation: ‘Sous le nom de ville, s’accumule une somme d’expériences historiques plus que ne se profile la rigueur d’un concept.’
 Ibid, p. 7
 Bernard Lepetit, ‘Une herméneutique urbaine est-elle possible’, in Temporalités urbaines, ed. by Bernard Lepetit and Denise Pumain, (Paris: Anthropos, 1993), pp. 287-299 (p.293). Author’s translation: ‘La ville […] n’est jamais synchrone avec elle-même: le tissueurbain, le comportement des citadins, les politiques d’aménagement, […] se déploient selon des chronologies différentes. Mais en même temps la ville est tout entière au present. Ou plutôt, elle est tout entière mise au present par les acteurs sociaux sur qui repose toute la charge temporelle.’
 Rêver Rouen, Saint-Ouen Church, Rouen, 20 October – 16 December 2012. Eight artists and architects were invited to re-invent Rouen in a dialectical relationship with the works and drawings of Rouen by Jules Adeline (1845-1909).
 Cityscapes, Pôle Image Haute Normandie, Rouen, 1 October – 22 December 2012
Enlart, Camille, Rouen, (Paris: Renouart, 1910)
Murphy, K. D., ‘The Historic Building in the Modernized City: The Cathedrals of Paris and Rouen in the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of Urban History, 37:2 (2011), pp. 278-296
Fanny Leluan - Fanny is currently working on the materiality and building techniques of Rouen in the 14th and 15th centuries. Driven by an interest in the phenomenology and phenomenality of objects and materials, her work aims to cross academic disciplines – anthropology, philosophy and theory – in order to shape new ways of thinking a medieval history of design, continually confronting and discussing French and English scholarships.
© Fanny Leluan, 2013. All Rights Reserved.