Sunday, November 25, 2012

Merian Map, the People of Paris

Cambridge, November 25, 2012

It seems that maps are very good at depicting land masses, rivers, streets, squares, parks, gardens, buildings, bridges, defensive walls and other physical aspects of the city.  But what about people?  Well, if you look at building patterns and manage to identify the residential fabric, it's possible to get a sense of the way people live in a city.  It's quite evident that at the time of the Merian map (again, 1615) Parisians lived in a compact--urban we could say--manner.  Although the population of Paris had reached a quarter of a million by the 1550's, the civil and religious wars that ensued, quickly brought the number down to little more than 200,000.  Remember the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre?  Just during those weeks in the summer of 1572, Paris lost thousands of people, maybe tens of thousands!  In any case, the walls depicted in the Merian map encircled about 450 hectares (less than 2 square miles) so the population density would have been something like 120,000 inhabitants per square mile!  Today, the population density of Paris is less than half.  And if you want to be really impressed, only a couple of decades later, at the height of Richelieu's power, the population of Paris doubled... and the area remained virtually the same.  That's a lot of people in a rather small place, don't you think?

But our engraver has a more direct way of showing the population of Paris on the map: he simply bookends the large view of the city with two rows of small vignettes, literally depicting the people, very "properly," men on one side, women on the other and, even more "properly," distinguishing social classes, from top to bottom, the king and queen, the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the commoners.

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