Napoleon and urbanism in the 19th century

City planning

Main changes between the 18th and 19th century

A foreign and educated philosopher, who would arrive blindfolded [in Paris], could exclaim: Yes, I have arrived. This is the hand of a monarch, who said: let this land be cut in a checkerboard pattern without sinuosity.

Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris, Paris, Mercure de France, 1994, tome 1, Chap CDLIII, p. 1244 [2]

In the second half of the 18th century in France, there was a growing interest in the enhancement of cities. Not only architectural specialists, but also writers and even the general public called for work to improve living conditions in cities, especially in Paris.

After the upheavals of the French revolution of 1789, the First Empire sought to make the art of building a political and ideological instrument of primary importance. In this context, Napoleon's reign brought about a period of profound transformation in Europe in the way architecture and urban planning were thought of and developed.

Inspired by the antiquity

The administrative and institutional changes linked to stylistic transformations and political discourses tended to make architecture a key element in the process of 'new Romanisation', advocated by the supranational system of the Napoleonic Empire.

Cross-section of the bathrooms in the Forum-Bonaparte in Milan made on the marked line

Cities started to be modified in the spirit of Empire greatness. Squares such as Piazza Napoleone (today Piazza Grande) in Lucca or Piazza Duomo in Milan, are a recreation of the Roman forums, examples that demonstrate the novelty of wide-open spaces compared to the narrowness of the cities enclosed within their walls.

This desire to design a city in which ancient and modern are confronted in a unitary whole shows how the notion of urban design took on a complete and complex meaning with a whole new systematic spirit. The attitude toward the ancient also changed at that time. It was no longer considered only vestiges of the past, but a scene for modern life, the symbolical setting for the new Empire. Monuments were excavated, restored, freed from the buildings against them and placed within tree-lined paths garden as archaeological walks.

Symmetry and green spaces

Large tree-lined avenues were catalysts of the urban structure, places of passage and social life. In 1800, Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon's sister, arranged the walkway around the walls and ramparts of Lucca, thus creating a tree-lined promenade that highlights the geometric shape of the city.

artwork of the view of the Chamber of Deputies, taken from the Quai de la Grenouillère alongside the river and tress.

Especially since the classical period, intervention in the city has often taken geometric forms: the boulevards, the large avenues that start in Paris are, like the new cities such as Versailles, resolutely geometric. This geometry was used as a way of manifesting human will.

The new city had a chessboard layout, with large perpendicular avenues, as in the cities of the Roman Empire. This urbanism and neoclassical architecture, with their concern for symmetry and geometry, reflected an ideal of order and rigour in contrast to the winding narrow streets of the medieval city. One perfect example is Rivoli Street in Paris. Expropriations and demolitions began in 1802. The buildings of this parallel street to the Louvre were conceived with covered arcades, 'free to the public in all weathers, will offer those who frequent the garden a safe and convenient refuge in those unforeseen storms, so frequent in the fine season'(Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine quoted in M. Darin, Rivoli: entre Rue et Jardin, cit., p. 156). In the case of the newly built city Pontivy, the Rue Impériale (Today Rue Nationale) links the old medieval settlement and its 15th-century château with the Napoleonic quarter.

View of the building (Palais du Tribunat) surronding from three sides (back, left and right) multiple lines of trees

Functional and healthy

The construction of the new order and centralisation passed through a 'deconstruction' of the territory of the Old Regime. In the 18th century, the idea of a global design of the city environment became established, dictated by the desire to reconcile every urban intervention with the precise requirements of a scenic order. Fountains, staircases and gardens were all elements inserted in a balanced link between the architectural buildings and the surrounding environment.

Drawing of a monumental fountain placed in the middle of a city square. The water is cascading on two sides. People are walking around or sitting on a low stairs leading closer to the fountain.

During the Napoleonic era, the urban environment was conceived as functional to the life of the citizen. Buildings were arranged hierarchically according to their function in the newly built towns (Napoleonville, Napoleon-Vendée), and spaces were conceived in a symmetrical and rational way. The aim was to achieve a formal balance typical of classical art, recovering historical models that would enhance the empire's greatness. The cities should therefore be functional, safe, hygienic and green.

Napoleonian Cadastre: a tool for equality before the law

Map of Napoléonville from an unnamed book. The paper is the color of light-parchment. Some areas are light pink, dark gray, light yellow, and light blue.

The change of the notion of property in the 18th century, as stated in the Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen), has been one of the major shifts that has strongly influenced the development of cities.

Established in 1791 in France, the cadastre was improved and enhanced under Napoleon with the so-called 'Napoleonian cadastre' (1807). It allowed a fairer taxation, taking into account the rental value of each parcel and the income of each owner. His system was implemented, often complementing existing ones, in several countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, in which we still find the traces in nowadays cadastre.

Far from being only a tax instrument, the cadastre aims to bring equality of all before the law. Therefore property tax can no longer be linked to social conditions: it is now an individual matter, and property is recognised as a sacred and inviolable right.