It is quite ironic and a little puzzling that the oldest standing bridge in Paris should be called the Pont Neuf (New Bridge). A span of five arches crosses the Seine from the Left Bank to the western end of the Ile de la Cité, and another span of seven arches joins the island to the Right Bank. When completed in the early 17th century, the bridge was unusual in that it was the first in the city not to have houses built upon it. It was also fitted with pavements so pedestrians could be protected from the filth of the roadway and the hazards of passing horse-drawn carriages.
A venerable bridge
As well as being the oldest surviving bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf is also, at 238 metres, the third longest. When constructed in the early 17th century it was, of course, a new bridge, hence the name, but its precursors have long since been demolished.
In 1577 King Henri III decreed that a new bridge should be built over the Seine and appointed a committee to ensure the project’s steady progress. The following year, the first stone was laid by the king himself, in the presence of the queen mother, Catherine de Medicis and the queen consort, Louise de Lorraine. The work continued until 1588, when construction was brought to a halt by a decade of political and religious unrest. The project resumed in 1599 during the reign of Henri IV, who presided over the inauguration of the bridge in 1607, some thirty years after it was begun.
Around the Pont Neuf
It was the usual practice at this time to erect houses along the bridges of Paris, but Henri IV declared that the Pont Neuf would be free of buildings, allowing an unimpeded view of the Seine. Instead, the king had a beautiful square of impressive houses with identical facades built where the new bridge crossed the Ile de la Cité. This square was named the Place Dauphine in honour of the king’s son, the heir apparent of France, and swiftly gained a reputation as one of the most luxurious and romantic locations in Paris.
In 1610, King Henri IV was assassinated by the religious fanatic Francois Ravaillac, and his widow Marie de Médicis ordered an equestrian bronze of her late husband to be erected on the western tip of the Ile de la Cité, close to the Pont Neuf and the Place Dauphine. In 1792, during the French Revolution, this suffered the undignified fate of being melted down to make cannons. Fragments of the statue are today preserved in the Louvre. After the 1814 fall of the First Empire, during the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Louis XVIII decreed that a new statue be made using a surviving cast of the original. This was unveiled in 1818 and remains perfectly preserved today.
Close to the Pont Neuf, you can enjoy a dinner cruise on the Seine with Paris en Scène.