Behold Félix Nadar’s Pioneering Photographs of the Paris Catacombs (1861)

As a tourist in Eng­land, one may be per­suad­ed to pick a piece of mer­chan­dise with the now-ubiq­ui­tous slo­gan “Keep Calm and Car­ry On,” from a lit­tle-dis­played World War II moti­va­tion­al poster redis­cov­ered in 2000 and turned into the 21st-cen­tu­ry’s most cheeky emblem of stiff-upper-lip-ness. Trav­el across the Chan­nel, how­ev­er, and you’ll find anoth­er ver­sion of the sen­ti­ment, drawn not from war mem­o­ra­bil­ia but the ancient warn­ing of memen­to mori.

“Keep Calm and Remem­ber You Will Die” say mag­nets, key chains, and oth­er sou­venirs embla­zoned with the logo of the Paris Cat­a­combs, a major tourist attrac­tion that sells timed tick­ets “to man­age the large queue that forms dai­ly out­side the non­de­script entrance on the Place Den­fert-Rochere­au (for­mer­ly called the Place d’Enfer, or Hell Square),” writes Alli­son Meier at Pub­lic Domain Review. Still pro­found­ly creepy, the Cat­a­combs were once as for­bid­ding to descend into as their walls of skulls and bones are to gaze upon, requir­ing vis­i­tors to car­ry flam­ing torch­es into their depths.

When pio­neer­ing pho­tog­ra­ph­er Félix Nadar “descend­ed into this ‘empire of death’ in the 1860s arti­fi­cial light­ing was still in its infan­cy.” Using Bun­sen bat­ter­ies “and a good deal of patience,” Nadar cap­tured the Cat­a­combs as they had nev­er been seen. He also doc­u­ment­ed the com­ple­tion of “artis­tic facades” of skulls and long bones, built “to hide piles of oth­er bones,” notes Strange Remains, from an esti­mat­ed six mil­lion corpses exhumed from over­crowd­ed Parisian ceme­ter­ies in the 18th and 19th cen­turies.

Nadar (the pseu­do­nym of Gas­pard-Félix Tour­na­chon, born 1820), helped turn the Cat­a­combs into the glob­al­ly famous des­ti­na­tion they became. His “sub­ter­ranean pho­tographs,” writes Matthew Gandy in The Fab­ric of Space: Water, Moder­ni­ty, and the Urban Imag­i­na­tion, “played a key role in fos­ter­ing the grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of sew­ers and cat­a­combs among mid­dle-class Parisians, and from the 1867 Expo­si­tion onward the city author­i­ties began offer­ing pub­lic tours of under­ground Paris.” The Cat­a­combs became, in Nadar’s own words, “one of those places that every­one wants to see and no one wants to see again.”

Vis­i­tors came seek­ing the grim fas­ci­na­tions they had seen in Nadar’s pho­tos, tak­en dur­ing a “sin­gle three-month cam­paign,” Meier notes, some­time in 1861, after the pho­tog­ra­ph­er “pio­neered new approach­es to arti­fi­cial light.” The project was an irre­sistible pho­to­graph­ic essay on the lev­el­ing force of mor­tal­i­ty. In an essay titled “Paris Above and Below,” pub­lished in the 1867 Expo­si­tion guide, Nadar described the “egal­i­tar­i­an con­fu­sion of death,” in which “a Merovin­gian king remains in eter­nal silence next to those mas­sa­cred in Sep­tem­ber ’92.”

The ancient and the mod­ern dead, peas­ants, aris­to­crats, vic­tims of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary ter­ror all piled togeth­er, “every trace implaca­bly lost in the unac­count­able clut­ter of the most hum­ble, the anony­mous.” The huge necrop­o­lis ini­tial­ly had no shape or order. Its 19th cen­tu­ry redesign reflect­ed that of the Parisian streets above. In 1810, Napoleon autho­rized quar­ries inspec­tor Héri­cart de Thury to under­take a ren­o­va­tion that account­ed for what Thury called “the inti­mate rap­port that will sure­ly exist between the Cat­a­combs and the events of the French Rev­o­lu­tion.”

This “rap­port” not only includ­ed the “mass bur­ial of the vic­tims of the 1792 Sep­tem­ber Mas­sacres” Nadar ref­er­ences in his essay, but also, Meier points out, the arrange­ment of bones in “pat­terns, rows, and cross­es; altars and columns were installed below the earth. Plaques with evoca­tive quo­ta­tions were added to encour­age vis­i­tors to reflect on mor­tal­i­ty.” Because of the long expo­sure times the pho­tographs required, Nadar used man­nequins to stand in for the liv­ing work­ers who com­plet­ed this work. The only liv­ing body he cap­tured was his own, in the self-por­trait above.

Learn more about the his­to­ry of the Cat­a­combs and Nadar’s now-leg­endary pho­to­graph­ic project at Pub­lic Domain Review and see many more memen­to mori images here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Notre Dame Cap­tured in an Ear­ly Pho­to­graph, 1838

Take a Visu­al Jour­ney Through 181 Years of Street Pho­tog­ra­phy (1838–2019)

19th-Cen­tu­ry Skele­ton Alarm Clock Remind­ed Peo­ple Dai­ly of the Short­ness of Life: An Intro­duc­tion to the Memen­to Mori

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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