In what is often called the “Early Modern” period, or the “Long Eighteenth Century,” Europe witnessed an explosion of satire, not only as a political and literary weapon, but as a means of reacting to a whole new way of life that arose in the cities—principally London and Paris—as a displaced rural population and expanding bourgeoisie radically altered the character of urban life. In England, poets like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift savaged their rivals in print, while also commenting on the increasing pace and declining tastes of the city.
In France, Voltaire punched up, using his pen to needle Parisian authorities, serving 11 months in the Bastille for a satirical verse accusing the Regent of incest. Despite the hugely successful premiere of his play Oedipus seven months after his release, Voltaire would ultimately be exiled from his beloved city for 28 years, returning in 1778 at the age of 83.
Now, of course, Parisians celebrate Voltaire in every possible way, but what would it have been like to have experienced the city during his lifetime, when it became the buzzing center of European intellectual life? In the video recreation above, we can partially answer that question by experiencing what 18th century Paris may have looked and sounded like, according to musicologist Mylène Pardoen, who designed this “historical audio reconstitution,” writes CNRS News, with a “team of historians, sociologists and specialists in 3D representations.”
The team chose to animate “the Grand Châtelet district, between the Pont au Change and Pont Notre Dame bridges” because, Pardoen explains, the neighborhood “concentrates 80% of the background and sound environments of Paris in that era, whether through familiar trades—shopkeepers, craftsmen, boatmen, washerwomen on the banks of the Seine… or the diversity of acoustic possibilities, like the echo heard under a bridge or in a covered passageway.” The result is “the first 3D reconstruction based solely on a sonic background.”
“We are the whipped cream of Europe,” Voltaire once said of his Paris, a luxurious, aristocratic world. But 18th century Paris was also a grimy city full of ordinary laborers and merchants, of “cesspools and kennels”—as a commentary on Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities notes—and of wine-stained streets without proper drainage. And it was a city on the verge of a revolution from below, inspired by iconoclasts from above like Voltaire. In the 3D video and audio recreation above, we get a small, video-game-like taste of a bustling city caught between immense luxury and crushing poverty, between medieval theology and humanist philosophy, and between the rule of divine kings and a bloody secular revolution to come.
We started the video above at the 2:06 mark when the animations kick in. Feel free to start the video from the very beginning.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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