Paris has 37 bridges, of which the Pont Neuf is the oldest actually standing. Ironically, Pont Neuf means the New Bridge, and it was the first stone bridge to be built in Paris. It connects both banks of the Seine river, as well as the tip of the Cité Island, which is the larger of the two islands in the city centre. Its construction was started in 1578 under Henri III and ended in 1604 under Henri IV, with delays due to the wars of religion, money issues and social turmoil. It was inaugurated in 1606.
The bridge hosts the first royal equestrian statue that depicts Henri IV, one of the most beloved French kings, who reconciled Catholics and Protestants by converting himself to Catholicism, thus ending the savage wars of religion of the 16th century. The statue, made of bronze, was melted down at the time of the French Revolution, but it was later replaced by a copy in 1818. The Dauphine Plaza, at the junction of the bridge and the Cité Island, in front of the statue, but on the opposite side of the bridge, is also one of the three oldest plazas of the city. It commemorates the birth of Henri IV’s son, the future king Louis XIII.
Statue of Henri IV on the Pont Neuf
The Pont Neuf is the third longest bridge in town, and one of the most elegant, with elaborate decorations. Unlike most bridges at that time, it did not harbour houses, but instead had a wide sidewalk where merchants and market activities abounded, mixed with the pedestrian traffic of the bridge. This sidewalk feature only became common more than 150 years later, with the sidewalks of the rue de l’Odeon in 1781. It was a remarkable construction at the time, with sculpted stone masks on the sides and elegant balconies. The absence of houses made it a privileged place to view and contemplate the city. The pillars were originally designed hollow, so that they could be used for storing merchandise. And merchants established themselves in the semi circular areas above the pillars on the bridge. Ultimately, the pillars were filled in, when the shops were torn down in the 19th century
Merchant shop on the Pont Neuf, .
This bridge which was originally conceived to create an access between the Louvre Palace and the flourishing Left Bank. It was the place where you could find the first water pump of the city, the Samaritaine pump. Today, this pump (created to bring water directly to the Louvre) has disappeared, and it is only commemorated by the name of the department store, La Samaritaine, the second oldest department store in town, created in 1870 (after the Bon Marché: see article on department stores in Paris). It stands a few yards away from the ancient water pump’s location.
Jean Baptiste Raguenet, “The Pont Neuf, the Samaritaine water pump and the tip of the Cité Island”, 1755
A final interesting element of the oldest bridge in town: the tip of the Cité Island, called the Vert Galant (“Galant Green” was the nickname of Henri IV due to his love of women). It shows the original height of the medieval city of Paris, only a few feet above the level of the river, but far below the actual average height of the city (about 12 feet).