In September 1848, Louis-Napoleon returned from his long exile in London armed with a startling blueprint for what he was later to call his 'plan for the embellishment of Paris'. It consisted of a colour-coded roll of parchment representing the soon-to-be Emperor's provisional thoughts on the renovation of the capital's thoroughfares. This was the Urtext of the drastic transformations to the material and social fabric of Paris that were to take place during most of the Second Empire (the term 'transformation' was used for the first time in connection with city-planning during this period). The canonical image of Louis-Napoleon remains Marx's withering portrait in The Eighteenth Brumaire, that of the supreme con-man in the age of con-men and hucksters ('the serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy but his comedy for world history'). But where the remaking of Paris is concerned, opinion about his legacy was and continues to be sharply divided, with a growingly influential school of revisionism which has Louis-Napoleon as a key player in a necessary process of 'modernisation' (roughly where Michel Carmona stands) or as a star figure in the creation of 'the city as a work of art' (the title of Donald Olsen's book on the subject, published in 1988).
LRB 3 October 2002 | PDF Download