Soundscape Archaeology: a visit to Paris in the mid 18th/early 19th century

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The Bretez project, led by the historian Mylene Pardoen (CNRS, MSH Lyon Saint-Etienne), aims to reconstruct the sounds of Paris in the 18th century, with as much historical accuracy as possible. In order to achieve a realistic ‘soundscape’, the sounds of tools made from materials that would have been used at the time (woods, metals, and alloys) are actually recorded, rather than digitally recreated. The project is named after the architect Louis Bretez (d. 1736) who was asked by the Merchant Provost, Michel-Etienne Turgot (1690-1751), to draw an accurate and detailed plan of Paris and its suburbs, covering the first eleven of today’s arrondissements.

The video is just over six minutes long, and models in 5D Turgot’s plan of Paris : that is a 3D video model (length, width and height), in which the viewer can move around with a first person perspective (the fourth dimension), with an added fifth sensory dimension: sound. It allows us to journey back to the end of the 18th century, take a walk around the Grand Châtelet district between the Pont au Change and the Pont Notre-Dame, and listen to the noises produced by the artisanal and commercial activities of the time. The sounds have been reproduced taking into account the acoustics provided by different surroundings, for example a narrow street, an open passage, the open market, and the proximity of the Seine.

Under the Consulate and the First Empire, a major development and construction project began modestly to reshape the capital. It was during this time that Grand Châtelet prison was demolished (the demolition began in 1802 and continued until 1810).

This reconstruction gives an accurate representation of Parisian daily life in the early years of the 19th century.

The video is in 5D, and this version was produced in 2017.

Further information

Turgot’s plan of Paris at Princeton University Library Online with a link to a virtual representation of the document

The Bretez Project website  (in French)

An article about the Bretez Project (2015)

More about the ‘Soundscape Archaeology’ (in French)

An article by Mylene Pardoen, ‘Archi’sons: archive development through sound’ (in French) (2014)

Irène Delage, published 26 March 2020

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