Last Updated on 10th July 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
Impressive and grand, the most ornate of the public fountains in the 1st arrondissement is easily that of the Fontaine des Innocents. Quite literally translated into English as the ‘Fountain of the Innocents,’ this Parisian water feature was created during the 16th-century and is the oldest public fountain in Paris.
Rather shockingly, the Renaissance fountain is not the only hidden history lurking within this popular French square close to Forum Les Halles. Instead, though Place Joachim-du-Bellay may be filled with eateries and people relaxing today, the square was once the site of a centuries-old cemetery…
History of the Fontaine des Innocents
Though the monument of Fontaine des Innocents is now dwarfed by the impossibly large nearby ‘Les Halles’ shopping complex, at its construction between 1547 and 1550 the French Renaissance feature would have dominated the surrounding area; a curious landscape of market halls, public spaces, and of course, the Cimetière des Innocents.
Originally called the ‘Fountain of Nymphs,’ the structure is covered in foliate patterns and mythical sea creature designs, as well as Nymphs. Its architecture was the brainchild of Pierre Lescot (who worked on the Louvre), who is said to have been inspired by the Nymphaeum in Rome, while the sculptor Jean Goujon (who also worked on the Louvre) truly brought the Renaissance piece to life.
Back in the 16th-century, the Fontaine des Innocents would have been a mere piece in a selection of carefully crafted attractions and monuments that were installed in the city to commemorate the procession of Henry II into Paris. However, whereas other monuments were lost in time, the fountain was preserved thanks to the promise of the young artists behind its design.
Of course, over time, the monument has been modified several times and transferred into several different places. Visit today and you’ll soon discover that access to the fountain is available at all hours due to its public location. For the best lighting, you’ll want to visit at golden hour, though there are certainly fewer crowds around during sunrise than at sunset. Though there are no benches in the Square, people often sit on the low walls of the fountain instead!
Fontaine des Innocents and Place Joachim-du-Bellay in Paris, 1850. Engraving by Hoffbauer. via Wikimedia
A brief history of Place Joachim-du-Bellay, formerly the Cimetière des Innocents
The more recent name of the fountain ‘Fontaine des Innocents’ has a much murkier and sombre history than its name would suggest. Though the 1st arrondissement square of Place Joachim-du-Bellay is now home to the likes of many a fast food restaurant (including McDonald’s or ‘McDo’ as it is so-called in French, Pizza Hut, and KFC), once upon a time it was a cemetery named for the nearby Innocents Church.
Walk up and down the nearby semi-pedestrianised streets now, and you’ll soon spy a plethora of independent fast food joints, as well as several outdoor crêperies. However, in keeping with standard Middle Ages practices, the plot of land where the fountain can now be found would have been outside the city walls, making it the ideal place for a graveyard.
Engraving depicting the Cimetière des Innocents cemetery in Paris, around the year 1550. Engraving by Hoffbauer. via Wikimedia
The Cimetière des Saint-Innocents was probably in use since the Roman period, when Paris was known as Lutetia. By Medieval times the graveyard was regularly pillaged, with body theft and vandalism rampant. Such was the problem, that during the 12th-century, a three-metre high stone wall was erected around the cemetery.
Unfortunately, the measures put in place under the reign of Phillip II did little to curb crime or improve conditions in the cemetery. Mass burials regularly took place inside the graveyard’s walls, and just one month during the Plague saw thousands of burials in the Parisian cimetière. Some rumours even go so far as to suggest that burial pits weren’t closed until they held 1500 human remains.
19th-century engraving of the Fountaine des Innocents, Bibliotheque des arts decoratifs, Paris. via Wikimedia
Remains washed up from the Seine, the poor who could not afford a singular burial plot, and casualties of the nearby Hôtel Dieu would have also been regularly interred within the cemetery’s walls. It’s thought that part of the upkeep of the cemetery during the Middle Ages was financed by famous French philanthropist, Nicolas Flamel.
At this time, the sheer volume of bodies in the cemetery meant that the area was reputedly constantly filled with a foul stench, while a lack of space meant that Charniers (arched outdoor ossuaries) were constructed alongside the cemetery walls to house bones. The 15th-century saw the installation of a Danse Macabre Mural painted onto one of the Charnel Houses, perhaps the oldest of its kind in the world.
A depiction of the Charnel house at the Saints Innocents Cemetery in Paris, with the mural of a Danse Macabre on the wall. via Wikimedia
By 1780, the Cimetière des Saint-Innocents was officially closed due to its increasing health risk to the public. After all, as previously mentioned, Les Halles was soon becoming one of the most popular market places in the city. It’s said that due to the sheer number of remains and intense rainfall, the wall between the cemetery and a nearby pub cellar gave way, spilling the remains of a mass grave into the basement.
Much like Square René Viviani, the decision was taken to turn the area into a public square. All human remains were exhumed and moved to the Paris Catacombs in what is now the 14th-arrondissement of the city. It was also at this time that the 16th-century water feature, the Fontaine des Innocents, was moved into the centre of the Place, and thus saving it from demolition.
Proclamation of the French constitution in Paris in 1791 via Wikimedia
Nearby attractions to the Fontaine des Innocents
Église Saint-Eustache: Easily one of the most overlooked churches in Paris, the impressively large Church of the 1st arrondissement dates back to the 16th-century. Free to visit, inside you’ll soon discover a wide array of stunning stained glass window designs, as well as some pretty sumptuous stone carvings.
Hôtel de Royaumont: The Hotel de Royaumont is a particularly beautiful example of a Hotel Particulier and its history dates back to the 14th-century when the Royaumont Abbey acquired a house in the 1st arrondissement of Paris (hence the current name of the building).
Pompidou Centre: Of all the large museums in Paris, the Centre Georges Pompidou is certainly one of the most striking. Located on the fringes of Le Marais district of the city, this expansive building is characterised by its brightly coloured piping exterior and boasts an impressive collection of modern artworks.
Among the pieces found here are works by Braque, Picasso, and more. The top floor of the museum offers an impressive viewing platform with views over to the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and many more famous Parisian attractions.