An approach to digital humanities

“Mapping Paris” is a historical and literary research project that investigates, through data analysis, the relationships of meaning between cultural events and geographical space in nineteenth-century Paris. This project facilitates the sharing of open data for the historical, sociological and literary investigation of Paris and opens up to the collaboration of those who want to contribute to research.


Projects work 1

Mapping the “vie littéraire” of Goncourt brothers in Paris during the Second Empire

Projects work 2

The revenues of Parisian playhouses in the theatrical life of the Second Empire (1858-1867)

Projects work 3

Paris in the French Bildungsroman: Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert

Projects work 4

Paris from Stendhal to Maupassant

The graphic rendering of the data

Mapping the “vie littéraire” of Goncourt brothers
in Paris during the Second Empire



14° Arrondissement

The data repository is available on GitHub

Tool: Palladio Stanford


Paris Second Empire
General outline

There is a profound link of meaning between the places and cultural events of the Paris of the Second Empire. The map of the places frequented by the Goncourts clearly shows how the need for debate and conversation among men of culture and intellectuals prompted them to spend time in the same places with high frequency. In particular, the ninth arrondissement usurps the centrality of the heart of political and cultural power that is traditionally associated with the first arrondissement. This is clearly and visibly confirmed by reading the Journal. The grand boulevards introduced by Haussmann, prefect of Seine, encircle the ninth arrondissement. In particular, the Boulevard des Italiens, the Boulevard Montmartre and the Boulevard Haussmann create areas of strong attraction around theatres such as the Opéra (Salle Le Peletier) and the Théâtre des Variétés. This area also included the Passage Jouffroy and the Passage de l’Opéra, two of the most frequented walkways in Paris, as well as numerous cafés, the usual meeting places of artists, writers and journalists, such as Café Riche, Café de Paris, Café Anglais, Café du Helder, Café des Variétés and Café du Gymnase. In short, the dynamism of the Grands Boulevards area between the second and ninth arrondissements represents the essence of Paris at the time of the Second Empire: the ever more imposing presence of the bourgeoisie, their customs and habits requiring new spaces as conceived by the urban vision of Haussmann. The development of the railway network also allowed a new public to easily pour in from the suburbs to the main attractions of the French capital³. It is no coincidence that theatres in this area mainly celebrate bourgeois themes such as the value of marriage, the education of children, the maintenance of tradition and moral rectitude: Augier and Dumas are the indisputable cultural reference points of bourgeois theatre. The construction of the new Opéra theatre initiated in 1861 by architect Charles Garnier best represents the centrality of the ninth arrondissement: here, the new bourgeois class would contemplate itself with absolute complacency.

The Grands Boulevards area was also home to numerous editorial offices of important newspapers, including daily papers such as Le Figaro, Le Temps and Le Siècle and those specialising in theatre reviews such as L’Entracte and the Gazette des Théâtres. The spatial representation confirms the unstoppable rise in power of the press. It is no coincidence that the bourgeoisie and the press went hand in hand: newspapers were bought by the masses, who in turn were shaped in their tastes and influenced in their choices by the newspapers themselves. Albert Cassagne defined this process as the penetration of industrialism in the literature itself after having completely transformed the newspapers that now printed thousands of copies for as many readers. The pages of the theatrical journals, where one could read the account of a play or the details of an evening, were extremely popular. Journalists who specialised in theatrical criticism were able to strongly influence the public, and they were therefore feared by the directors of the theatres and by the authors, as their disapproval could put an end to the performance of a work. The Second Empire was essentially the time when brilliant polemists were born and proliferated in the press. By extracting data from the Paris newspapers we can see not only the distribution of the editorial offices (mostly concentrated between the second and ninth arrondissements) but also the great dichotomy between newspapers that immediately supported the dictatorship of Napoleon III and his businesses and newspapers, which brought the anti-imperialist front to the fore. On the one hand were Le Moniteur, La Patrie, Le Pays, Le Réveil, and Le Gaulois, and on the other Le Journal des dèbats, L’Évènement, Le Charivari and above all the Revue des Deux Mondes, a highly successful literary periodical. Displaying a more cautious attitude were the great generalist newspapers, which now had a huge number of readers, such as La Presse, Le Figaro, Le Temps and Le Siècle. The general contempt of the Goncourts to the newspapers is underlined in several passages of the Journal as well as in the novel Charles Demailly. The exceptions to this were newspapers of culture and art such as L’Artiste or the Revue des Beaux-Arts, in which the Goncourts gladly published articles on eighteenth-century art.

³ The railway network in France went from 3,248 km in 1851 to 16,465 km in 1869. This was the situation of the main stations in Paris: the Gare de Strasbourg (now Gare de l’est) was completed in 1850; the Saint-Lazare Race was enlarged between 1851 and 1853; The Gare d'Austerlitz was enlarged in 1852; the Gare Montparnasse was rebuilt between 1848 and 1852; the construction of the Gare du Nord was finished in 1865.

⁴ Walter Benjamin, I «passages» di Parigi, Einaudi, Torino 2007, p. 88.

⁵ Cfr. Pierre Bourdieu, Les Règles de l’Art, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1992, p 83: «C’est à travers les journaux, et les feuilletons, dont ils sont immanquablement dotés et que tout le monde lit, du peuple à la bourgeoisie, des bureaux de ministère à la cour, que, comme le dit Cassagne, «l’industrialisme a pénétré la littérature elle-même après avoir transformé la presse».

⁶ The power of journalists had already been effectively portrayed by Balzac in Illusion perdues, part II, Un grand homme de province à Paris. Cfr. H. de Balzac, Illusion perdues, in La Comédie humaine, vol. 4 (éd. Marcel Bouteron), Paris 1952.

The map of the literary life of the Goncourt brothers allows us to better define the boundaries of bourgeois society with the places of the artists, the Bohemian group and the writers dedicated to the l’art pour l’art movement. Three cultural groups can easily be distinguished: bourgeois writers; Bohemian and l’art pour l’art writers; the Goncourts and the Dîner Magny and later Chez Brébant group. However, a ‘spatial’ distinction on the literary map of Paris would be clearer from the middle of the Second Empire and precisely from 1862 onwards, the year of the Dîner Magny. It is in fact known that the Goncourts in the early years of their literary life frequented the places and gatherings of the ‘petite presse’, they were themselves between 1851 and 1853 theatre critics for the Éclair and the Paris. The hostility of the two brothers towards journalists and writers inclined to support bourgeois tastes, as well as for the artists of the Bohemian group, which only emerged after 1853. After being initially close, the cultural life of Paris moved away from the Goncourts’ preference for eighteenth-century life, hence their condemnation of the nineteenth-century social order. With a conservative and reactionary spirit, they tried to restore dignity and decorum to the noble literary art, a passion for the search for ‘truth’ and accuracy in the study of detail. The first significant passage of the Journal concerning the stance against the Bohemians is dated 18 October 1857: due to some disturbances at the Café Riche – the introduction of vaudevillistes, a crowd of strangers who converse to some excess due to inebriation – it is decided to move the ‘Contre-Révolution’ against the Bohemians to the Café du Helder, an operation shared with Uchard, Aubryet, Murger, Saint-Victor and others with the order not to reveal the agreed place to others. As Daniel Oster wrote, the Goncourts were also ‘prophets of the literary aristocracy’, independent in their artistic creation, nevertheless their frequentation of the places of the ‘petite presse’ and of the restaurants and brasseries of the Bohemian artists became from time to time a pretext to ensure their distinction.

So were these artists who believed in the pure artistic creation of Art as an end in itself and who lived on the margins of the Parisian cultural system? The best definition was given by Balzac: artists who followed the ‘Doctrine du Boulevard des Italiens’, men in their twenties, brilliant even if little known, their hope is their religion, their faith in themselves their code of behaviour, the charity of others the only sustenance to defend extreme poverty. Everyone lives below their destiny. These men initially met at Café Momus and then in the ‘coteries’ scattered among the various Cafés of the Grands Boulevards were notably Murger, Champfleury, Nadar and Baudelaire. With these figures the Goncourts had mixed relationships, ranging from esteem to antipathy¹. The other great distinction concerns the bourgeois writers, wealthy to excess, fully integrated into the system of the political and cultural power of Paris. Famous and acclaimed, their works reflected the expectations of the bourgeois public, constituted useful entertainment and lively topics of discussion. Pierre Bourdieu describes them as men strictly and directly linked to the ‘dominant’, both in terms of lifestyle and scale of values. Among these we certainly find writers and theatrical authors such as Émile Augier, Octave Feuillet, Dumas fils or painters such as Horace Vernet and Paul Delaroche¹¹. The Goncourts’ dislike for these writers was widely asserted in the Journal: pages scathing with irony and sarcasm targeted what has become known as the ‘school of common sense’, especially in the theatre. Augier in particular dominated theatres with ease, garnering great success with the bourgeois public, from the Gymnase (Le Gendre de M. Poirier) to the Vaudeville (Les lionnes pauvres), without neglecting the temple of tradition, the Théâtre-Français (Le Fils de Giboyer). Successful writers such as Augier and Dumas fils were pro-government and did not openly contest Napoleon III, while writers such as Goncourt and Flaubert were fiercely against those who supported Napoleon and the bourgeoisie. It was Gavarni’s great initiative to bring together all the enlightened minds of Paris for dinner twice a month at Magny in Rue André Mazet, in the sixth arrondissement on the Left Bank: away from the Bohemian coteries and far from the beating heart of the bourgeoisie between the second and the ninth arrondissement.

⁷ Edmond et Jules de Goncourt, Journal, Robert Laffont, Paris 1989, vol. 1, p. 302. The two brothers had expressed their opinion on the "conversion" of the author of Scènes de la vie bohéme, Murger: «Le café Riche semble enc e moment vouloir devenir le camp des littérateurs qui portent des gants. Chose bizarre, les lieux font les publics. Sous ce blanc et or, sur ce velours rouge, les hommes de la Brasserie n’osent pas s’aventurer. Du reste, leur grand homme, Murger, es ten train de renier la Bohème, et de passer, armes et bagages, aux lettrés, gens du monde», Journal, octobre 1857, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 300.

⁸ Cfr. Daniel Oster, Préface à Albert Cassagne, La Théorie de l’art pour l’art, Champ Vallon, Seyssel, 1997, p. 17: «Il est d’ailleurs objet de risée et de mépris pour les adeptes de l’art autonome, de cette “aristocratie des lettres” dont les De Goncourts sont les prophètes, car, survivant de sa plume et mourant d’elle, le bohème est, lui, rien moins qu’autonome. Alors même qu’ils fréquentaient assidûment la bohème des brasseries et de la petite presse, les De Goncourts s’en démarquent avec un rigorisme qui porte toutes les marques de leur éthique: comme s’ils ne la fréquentaient que pour assurer contre elle leur distinction».

⁹ Balzac, Un prince de la bohème, Gallimard, Paris 1984, pp. 232-233.

¹⁰ 10 Cfr. Sandrine Berthelot, Introduction, in Les Goncourt et la bohéme, Cahiers Edmond et Jules de Goncourt, n. 14, 2007, p. 6 : « Souvenons-nous enfin que, si les deux frères connaissent si bien cette nouvelle “classe” artistique, c’est qu’ils fréquentent les mêmes lieux qu’elle: café, brasseries, estaminets, théâtres, journaux… C’est avec les Aurélien Scholl, Aubryet, Claudin, Monselet, Murger que les Goncourt aiment à s’encanailler. L’hostilité n’échappe donc pas à la fascination ». Cfr. Anthony Glinoer, Le Journal des Goncourt en 1857 : le règne paradoxal de la Bohème, in Études françaises, vol. 43, n. 2, 2007.

¹¹ Pierre Bourdieu, Les Règles de l’Art, Éditions du Seuil, Paris 1992, pp. 107-108.

What significance did Parisian places have in the works of the Goncourts? The map reveals a unique and important interpretation: the full width and breadth of Paris is of interest to the Goncourts because it is about exploring the ‘human cases’, the life of the real world. The Cemetery of Montmartre, L’Ermitage ballroom and Paris’s outer boulevards are the surroundings of the impoverished Germinie Lacerteux, protagonist of the novel of the same name that has been hailed as a paradigm of the ‘realist’ school. A woman who leads a double life, Germinie is dragged into the misery of her sweetheart Jupillon. The outer boulevards, suburban taverns, ballrooms and shadowy places are the backdrop to the life of this poor woman. The places of the ‘petite presse’ and the theatres of the Grands Boulevards are the setting of the novel (initially a play) Les Hommes de Lettres, subsequently Charles Demailly. This was the Goncourts’ denunciation of the system of ‘industrial literature’, of the press and authors subservient to bourgeois tastes, of money as the main driver of artistic endeavour. The Jardin des Plantes and the exhibition of the Salon, are the settings of the novel Manette Salomon, which focuses on the art world. The original and gifted painter in the novel annihilates his artistic vein like a succubus of his wife, being only interested in the art trade. The novel ends with the triumph of mediocrity of the painter Garnotelle who follows the classic career of the academic painter and with the miserable and petty end of the painter Anatole, bohemian spirit of the novel, unable to support himself with his art, who will end his days as a worker-keeper always at the Jardin des Plantes. The Opéra ballroom will be central to the setting of the first act of the theatrical play Henriette Maréchal, which did not have much luck on the stage of the Théâtre Français. The mid-Lent masked dance was a tradition in Paris, where in a frivolous and licentious manner masked men gallantly courted women. The Goncourts conceived of a love affair between a married woman, Madame Maréchal, and a young man recently introduced into society, Paul de Bréville. Unfortunately, no happy ending was foreseeable for the two brothers who detested the school of common sense: adultery is about to be discovered but Madame Maréchal’s daughter, Henriette, sacrifices herself in place of her mother and is killed by mistake by her father. The play was considered scandalous and immoral, the Censorship committee intervened to report certain aspects and it required the intervention of Princess Mathilde to allow it to be staged at the theatre. Despite its failure, however, the play showed an original language and a willingness to break tested and over-abused schemes. In the intent of the Goncourts, the capital becomes the object of social study in relation to the human cases that inhabit it. All of Paris, from the details of the hospitals or cemeteries, from ballrooms to the most disparate locales, forms the topographical mythology of the Goncourts: no yielding to a romantic vision of the capital, nor a glimpse of moral denunciation of society. For the Goncourts, ‘truth’ is beauty, without any purpose of condemnation or social subversion despite the fact that the humblest classes fully earn the roles of protagonists in the French novel of the mid-nineteenth century. As Alfred Delvau wrote, in the eyes of the mid-century man of letters, the crudest realities are not spectacles but opportunities for study¹². The path to the school of Naturalism that would take hold during the Third Republic had now been firmly established.

¹² Alfred Delvau, Les dessous de Paris, Poulet-Malassis et De Broise, Paris 1860, p. 121.


Michele Sollecito, Mapping the “vie littéraire” of Goncourt brothers in Paris during the Second Empire. An approach to digital humanities, Palermo, 40due edizioni, 2019.

Michele Sollecito, Roberta De Felici
(ed.), Edmond et Jules de Goncourt,
Théâtre, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2021


Michele Sollecito

Michele Sollecito is a researcher in French literature at the University of Bari “Aldo Moro”.

He studied dramatic criticism in nineteenth-century France, with a particular focus on the theatrical works of the Goncourt brothers (Paris, Classiques Garnier 2021). He holds a master’s in Digital Humanities from the University of Venice “Ca’ Foscari”.

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