A close-up photo of one of the medallions.
Paris Meridian Medallions
Would you believe that there is art in Paris that most people never see and often walk on unknowingly? Few people are aware of these 135 bronze medallions embedded in Paris’ pavement, which start north in Montmartre and go clear across Paris, where they end at the CitÃ© Universitaire on the edge of the city limits and Parc Montsouris.
I had noticed one of them while visiting the Palais Royal; it was a little bronze circle embedded in the pavement with the name Arago and north and south represented by the letter n and s. Since I had no idea who Arago was I thought nothing else about it until a friend told me that the medallions represented a meridian line that used to be used in Paris.
Why did Paris have its own meridian? Actually, the French were very advanced in the science of time and the measurement of the earth. French scientist AbbÃ© Jean Picard first measured the length of a degree of longitude and computed from it the size of the earth in 1655. In fact, the metric system was started at this time, the meter being 1 ten-millionth of a meridian quadrant from the North Pole to the equator. France, along with Ireland, adhered to the Paris Meridian for time keeping until 1911 and for navigation until 1914, when it finally converted to the Greenwich Meridian with the rest of the world.
Who was Arago? He was a scientist and a statesman who became director of the Paris Observatory where he lived until his death in 1853. There is a monument to him across Arago Boulevard in Place Ile de Sein in the 14th arrondissement but the statue of him was melted down during World War II and never replaced. In 1995 Paris commissioned Dutch conceptual artist Jan Dibbits to create a new memorial. And now you can follow the path of this art through gardens, streets, buildings, courtyards and quais, through the 2nd, 6th, 9th, 10th and 12th arrondissements. As you do so you will notice that practically nothing built in Paris is on any straight north, south, east or west axis, neither streets or buildings. You can find a medallion on one side of a building and have to go blocks out of your way to get to the other side to find yet another medallion. The whole thing can become rather addictive.
I found a list that gave approximate locations of the Arago medallions and set out thinking that they would be easy to find. This was not true. I soon learned, however, that noting the direction of north and south would help me find the next medallion if I followed the imaginary line from one to another. During my search, I discovered that many have been dug up leaving an empty round hole in its place. People stopped to ask what I had lost as I walked around scanning the ground, searching for these mysterious spheres. It was easy to confuse the medal discs from a distance with the many gas or plumbing coverings, which are everywhere but unnoticed until now.
I had hoped to do the search all in one day, and this could be done, but after 3 exhausting hours the first day, I spread it out. My husband joined me on day one at the observatory, or at least at the locked gates of the garden where the observatory is. The observatory itself is built on the line of the Parisian Meridian with the four facades oriented towards the four points of the compass. We found the monument to Arago with several medallions from there and ended up in beautiful Parc Montsouris where the marker for the southern edge stands. Going straight north from this we found 4 more medallions and discovered they are always embedded in cement or asphalt, never dirt or grass. One day I walked through the Saint Germain des Pres area, through the Luxembourg gardens (there are 6 there) and even went into Saint Sulpice church where there is an obelisk on the north/south axis in a corner. The early church officials used to use this to watch the movement of the sun to determine the date of Easter. It is an ancient calender, actually, and has nothing to do with the Paris Meridian Line.
I walked through Palais Royal, across the street to the Louvre where not only does a line of medallions run through the courtyard behind the glass pyramid, but there is also one inside the Louvre. I went on the other side of the Louvre, found one on the quai, crossed Pont des Arts and found one in front of the Institut de France and then one behind it.
The northern marker is in Montmartre but can’t be seen as it is in a private courtyard. I walked downhill from here through Montmartre finding medallions all the way to Pigalle where most had been removed at some point leaving either round holes or nothing. The line continued all the way down to Boulevard Haussmann.
It turned out to be a very interesting way to see Paris. I didn’t go to just one metro stop to see a monument such as the OpÃ©ra, but walked across neighborhoods with a new eye, realizing how small Paris can be, how connected all of the neighborhoods are. It turned out to be an adventurous way to explore Paris.