simple history and historical information of montmartre paris france


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Go to France: Montmartre, Paris,  history and background

Quick History of Montmartre in Paris

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| Ancient Roman and Christian Montmartre | 19th Century and Napoleon III | Vineyards, Windmills and Rue Lepic | Art and Artists |Closing Comment |

Ancient Roman and Christian Montmartre

From what I can gather, Montmartre was a village just to the north of Paris. The latter was city dominated by the Romans some  time around the year 55 AD who built a temple at the top of the hill dedicated to the god of war Mars.

The name of the village is a curious one as it seems to come from the roman words for hill and martyrs "mons martirium". The reason for this being that, apparently, a burial ground full of Christian martyrs' bones was found up there. It is here that that St. Ignatius Loyola founded the famous Jesuit movement. 

Apparently around the year 250AD St. Denis brought Christianity to Paris and was thanked by being tortured "by the grill" followed by decapitation on the hill overlooking the city . Apparently the saint picked up his head and walked to the place now known as St. Denis. 

Testimony of the early Christian influence may be found in what remains of the church of St Pierre de Montmartre (st. Peter's), near Sacré Coeur basilica which dates back to the 12th century - less than 100 years after the Norman conquest of England! It is one of the oldest if not the oldest churches in Paris: older than the church of St. Germain des Pres in the 6th arrondissement, near the cafe Les deux Magots. You can still see the Gothic style elements although bits built a couple of centuries ago diminish the effect somewhat. 

I personally found it slightly surprising to discover that the huge Sacré-Coeur only dates back to the 19th century and that the architect wanted to knock St Peters down...he was overruled. The whiteness of Sacré-Coeur is thanks to the type of rock used which whiteness and hardens with age. I wonder if it has anything to do with Place Blanche....?

Sacré Coeur is often noted for its fabulous panorama and views over Paris. The interior is pretty impressive too and you can have a peep via our links page. It was built as some sort of penance for the peasants uprising and taking over Paris in 1871, just after the Prussians had given it a shot (literally). By some, the Paris  Commune has been regarded to be the first socialist government of world history.

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Napoleon III took power and subsequently became Emperor in 1851

The montmartre of today is very much what was built up in the 19th century during the reign of Napoleon III (grandson of Napoleon). It was he who declared war on the Prussians and so quickly lost (1870). However, much of what is to be seen in the way of city urbanisation and reforms is thanks to him.

Napoleon III got Baron Haussmann to destroy the small alleys and poorer areas which caused so much discontent and move the inhabitants further out. I believe the 9th and 18th arrondissement are an example of this rebuilding or more specifically the large boulevards and the Opera.  Les Halles market (not in Montmartre) is also an example. He was keen to avoid the insurrections and revolutions which had beset Paris, through reform. This area, particularly the 9th arrondissement, later attracted the headquarters of many banking and financial institutions of the last century.

However, it is even said that one of the points of the wide and straight boulevards was to prevent a repeat of the peasant barricades as well as afford the military a good cannon shot should the need arise again. Napoleon III was taken by the Prussians but his vast urban reforms remained.

Planners to this day expect architectural work in the 9th and 18th arrondissements to remain to the original Napoleon III style.

The beginning of the Paris Commune (1871) is apparently marked by an event by which the peasants of Montmartre took over 150 cannons taken from the Prussians to the top of the hill. The government declared its ownership over them and sent the military to get them at which point the peasants revolted, killed the commanding officers and began their revolt.

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Vineyards and Windmills at Montmartre

The "village" led a more rural life from that of the city and to this day it is famous for having the only remaining vineyard in Paris. In fact, there is a yearly wine tasting festival. I think the vineyard belonged to a nunnery for an extremely long time until taxes and debts helped them sell it off.

Until the 19th century, montmartre hill was pretty rural and had a number of windmills on it. I believe between 15 and 30 according to different accounts. Some were there for agricultural use (grain mills)  whilst others for crushing flint.

Perhaps the most outstanding reference and memory of those times is to be found in the bizarre construction of the the "Moulin Rouge". I understand that the original back buildings of a couple of other mills are now used as premises for other commercial enterprises. There are also a few artistic interpretations of these mills to be found around in the art shops. "Moulin La Galette", originally called Blutefin, was later a dance hall which is said to have inspired Renoir amongst others. It is famous because its owner defended it against the Prussians but was later caught and hung on the sails. Another mill is on the corner with Rue Lepic, the old quarry road.

It is said that montmartre is in fact empty down below thanks to the intensive mining for chalk (?) More recently I was told that the mines were for Gypsum and were abandoned when the tunnels threatened to collapse.

Rue Lepic is also the sight of a rally (hill climb) for classic cars in the Autumn. I read somewhere what I think must be the reason for this: M. Louis Renault, now well known for that make of car, invented the first gear box. He applied it to a motorised tricicle vehicle which he converted to full blown four wheeler and bet a number of friends that his new car could make it up the 13% gradient of Rue Lepic hill. He won the bet and his first car orders as a consequence. It was the 24th December of 1898.

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Art and Artists at Montmartre

Perhaps what we all know and remember Montmartre for is owed to artists and artistic movements at the turn of the 20th century. As well as depicting the area, the geniuses of the artistic revolution depicted mood and life in the area. A new view of the world with a different social attitude - Impressionism. It would be impossible for me to write about such matters in just a couple of paragraphs but I would pay particular attention to the following elements if you are interested:


Many artists lived and worked around the Montmartre area, in different studios according the level of income they afforded. The "Bateau Lavoire" so named because of its shape like a boat was burned down not so long ago but I believe was rebuilt. Picasso is said to have painted the fist cubist work there - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.


Another studio worthy of note is on rue Cortot 12. Where there is now a museum and association dedicated to the old montmartre.

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Closing comment

My account is by no means complete or evenly distributed in content. But it's a start and was more or less written off the top of my head. Please write to me as I would love to have any comments and corrections to be added in. With time I will try to update and amend.


Thank you and aurevoir!

Other pages about Montmartre and Paris

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photos near and around montmartre

history - montmartre, 9th and 18th arrondissements

a quick walk along rue des martyrs

paris and montmartre links

hotels, accommodation and self catering apartments in paris and montmartre

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history and historical information  about montmartre, paris, france, selected, written and published by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia