Covered passages are a type of architecture emblematic of Paris of the first half of the 19th century. Precursors of modern shopping malls, they are also fundamental in the development of the concept of the flâneur, best demonstrated in Walter Benjamin’s enormous Arcades Project (1927-1940).
Many passages couverts of Paris survive today, most of them located in or around the 2nd arrondissement and open for strolling. My portfolio contains a number of outstanding examples, but many other passages could be found. Galerie Colbert is a notable omission.
I took all the photos on June 18, 2015.
The two quotes below are from Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, and published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press in 1999).
You will find the locations of the listed passages on the map below:
1. Passage du Caire
33 rue d’Alexandrie / 2 place du Caire / 237-239 rue Saint-Denis / 14, 34 & 44 rue du Caire, 2e arrondissement
The Passage du Caire, opened during Napoleon’s campaign in Ottoman Egypt, is one of the oldest covered passages in Paris. It was ordered by a pension fund and constructed on the site of a convent of the Filles-Dieu not far from a Cour des miracles. A legend goes that the tombstones of the deceased nuns of the convent were used for covering the ground of the passage.
The passage consists of three galleries and is altogether 370 metres long, making it the longest in Paris. It is also among the narrowest in the city, with the average width of 2.7 metres only. The most interesting features of the passage are the heads of Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of joy, love and motherhood, above the entrance on the Place du Caire, and the overlapping canopies forming a spiderweb-like structure at the crossing of the three galleries.
The passage was a centre of lithography industry in the 19th century.
Entrance of the passage on Rue Saint-Denis
2. Passage des Panoramas
1800; renovation – Jean-Louis Victor Grisart, 1830s
10 rue Saint-Marc / 11 boulevard Montmartre / 38 rue Vivienne / 151 rue Montmartre, 2e arrondissement
The Passage des Panoramas was built on the site of the town residence of Maréchal de Montmorency, Duke of Luxembourg, which had been constructed at the beginning of the 18th century. It got its name from the panoramic paintings, or panoramas, of various cities, shown at the two large rotundas which it connected.
The Passage des Panoramas is the most famous of the arcades of Paris and the most important of them. It is not the first arcade to have constructed. Before it came the indoor gallery of the Palais-Royal (1786), the Galerie Feydeau (1790-1791), and the Passage du Caire (1798-1799). It was, however, the first one to use a glass roof and, later on, in 1817, gas light for illumination.
‘Arcades – they radiated through the Paris of the Empire like fairy grottoes. For someone entering the Passage des Panoramas in 1817, the sirens of gaslight would be singing to him on one side, while oil-lamp odalisques offered enticements from the other.’ (Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project)
In the 1830s, Jean-Louis Victor Grisart renovated the passage and created additional galleries inside the block of houses. The rotundas were destroyed in 1831. The Théâtre des Variétés has been operating in the passage since 1807. It was very popular in the Offenbach era, and it also plays a prominent role in Émile Zola’s Nana.
The Passage des Panoramas had a profound influence on many of the later covered passages in Paris and other cities (such as the Brudern House, or the Paris Court, in Budapest).
3. Passage du Grand Cerf
145 rue Saint-Denis / 10 rue Dussoubs, 2e arrondissement
This second-generation arcade got its name from the Hôtel du Grand Cerf that existed in its place. The hotel was bought in 1825 by the Devaux-Moisson et Cie Bank, who transformed it into an arcade and sold it the following year. With its 11.8 metres it is the tallest covered passage of Paris. The unusual height necessitated the installation of transversal bridges on the level of the third floor. The structure is light, the decoration is simple, some details suggest the influence of Neoclassicism.
A scene from Zazie dans le métro (1960) by Louis Malle was shot here.
4. Galerie Vivienne
François-Jacques Delannoy, 1823-1826
4 rue des Petits-Champs / 6 rue Vivienne / 5 rue de la Banque, 2e arrondissement
This is thought to be the most beautiful covered passage of Paris, with which only Galerie Colbert could compete. It was constructed by Maître Marchoux, President of the Chamber of Notaries, on the site of the Hôtel Vanel de Serrant and the Passage des Petits Pères. The architect was Francois-Jacques Delannoy, who decided to preserve some elements of the previous buildings.
The passage has an elegant glass roof and a rotunda with a hemispherical glass dome adorned by goddesses and nymphs. The dome could be removed to enable ventilation. The beautiful ground mosaics are signed by Giandomenico Facchina and Mazzioli.
The passage was very popular until the Second Empire, not least because of its location between the Palais-Royal, the Bourse, and the Grands Boulevards.
5. Galerie Véro-Dodat
19 rue Jean-Jacques-Rousseau / 2 rue du Bouloi, 1e arrondissement
This arcade, a symbol of the Restauration-era Paris, was constructed by charcutier Benoît Véro and his associate Dodat to link the Palais-Royal with Les Halles. It is a luxury arcade, constructed with quality materials, and Neoclassical in style. With the diagonal grid of the tiles, the alignment of shops on a strict horizontal plane, and the low height of the ceiling, it creates an impressive illusion of depth. The decoration utilises motifs referring to the theme of commerce, such as the statues of Hermes and Hercules in the niches on the entrance on Rue du Bouloi. As usual in the covered passages, there were apartments above the shops.
It was one of the last arcades to fall into decline. Gérard de Nerval used to spend time here at the Café de l’Époque. He also took his last drink at that café before committing suicide in 1855.
6. Passage du Ponceau
1826; modified after 1854
119 boulevard de Sébastopol / 212 rue Saint-Denis, 2e arrondissement
This passage, which forms a prolongation of the Passage du Caire, got its name from the Rue du Ponceau, which is located nearby. It was originally longer and architecturally more elaborate, but it was shortened during the transformation of Paris by Baron Haussmann in 1854, when the Boulevard de Sébastopol was opened up.
Entrance of the passage on Boulevard de Sébastopol
7. Passage Choiseul
François Mazois & Antoine Tavernier, 1825-1827
40 rue des Petits-Champs / 23 rue Saint-Augustin / 40 rue Dalayrac / Passage Sainte-Anne, 2e arrondissement
This arcade got its name from the Rue de Choiseul, which it continues. It was designed by François Mazois, but the work was completed by Antoine Tavernier, who also designed the Passage Sainte-Anne, to which it opens. It was constructed for the Mallet & Cie Bank. With its 190 meters it is one of the longest covered passages in the city, and it is also one of the busiest. Its interior is simple, consisting of a row of arcs that are supported by marble pilasters. An entrance of the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens opens to it.
Louis-Ferdinand Céline lived here as a child.
8. Passage du Saumon / Passage Ben-Aïad
Hubert Rohault de Fleury, 1826-1828
9-11 rue Léopold-Bellan / 8 rue Bachaumont, 2e arrondissement
The Passage du Saumon stood here since 1763, but it had no roof. The second passage with the same name, which was covered with glass, was constructed by Hubert Rohault de Fleury between 1826 and 1828. It consisted of four parts. The main gallery was 175 meters long and connected the Rue Montorgueil and the Rue Montmartre. It was crossed by three galleries: the Galérie Mandar, the Galérie des Bains (containing a bathing establishment), and the Galérie du Salon (containing a theatre). It was very popular until the end of the Second Empire.
Walter Benjamin, in his Arcades Project, refers to a description of the Passage du Saumon from 1836:
‘It was a narrow corridor decorated with pilasters supporting a ridged glass roof, which was littered with garbage thrown from neighboring houses. At the entrance, the signboard – a tin salmon indicating the main characteristic of the place: the air was filled with the smell of fish … and also the smell of garlic. It was here, above all, that those arriving in Paris from the south of France would arrange to meet. … Through the doors of the shops, one spied dusky alcoves where sometimes a piece of mahogany furniture, the classic furniture of the period, would manage to catch a ray of light. Further on, a small bar hazy with the smoke of tobacco pipes; a shop selling products from the colonies and emitting a curious fragrance of exotic plants, spices, and fruits; a ballroom open for dancing on Sundays and workday evenings; finally the reading room of Sieur Ceccherini, who offered to patrons his newspapers and his books.’ (J. Lucas-Dubreton, L’Affaire Alibaud, ou Louis-Philippe traqué, 1836 (rpt. Paris, 1927), pp. 114-115)
In 1853, the arcade was bought by a Tunisian general named Mahmoud Ben Aïad. Most of it was demolished at the end of the 19th century. Only the 90-metre-long Galerie Mandar, now known as Passage Ben-Aïad, is left.
9. Passage du Bourg-l’Abbé
Auguste Lusson, 1828; Henri Blondel, 1863
120 rue Saint-Denis / 3 rue de Palestro, 2e arrondissement
This arcade was designed by Auguste Lusson, but the entrance on the Rue de Palestro, made after the opening up of the Boulevard de Sébastopol in 1854, which left the passage several metres shorter, is the work of Henri Blondel, the architect of the Bourse de Commerce. The two caryatides framing the entrance were sculpted by Aimé Millet. These are the allegories of commerce and industry. The keystone of the arch is decorated with a beehive, a symbol of economic activity.
Entrance of the passage on Rue de Palestro
10. Passage Jouffroy
François-Hippolyte Destailleur & Romain de Bourges, 1845-1846
10-12 boulevard Montmartre / 9 rue de la Grange-Batelière, 9e arrondissement
This third-generation arcade forms a continuation of the Passage des Panoramas across the Boulevard Montmartre and is extended by the Passage Verdeau across the Rue de la Grange-Batelière. About 80 metres from the side of the Boulevard Montmartre it makes a right angle, runs west for a few metres, and then continues, as a narrower gallery, to the north.
The passage got its name from Count Félix de Jouffroy-Gonsans, one of the heads of the company that was established to manage it. It was the first one built entirely of metal and glass. Only the decorative elements were made of wood. It was also the first arcade to be heated by the ground.
Many café-concerts took place here in the 19th century. The exit of the Musée Grévin opens to the passage.
11. Passage Verdeau
Jacques-Prosper-Marie Deschamps, 1847
6 rue de la Grange-Batelière / 31 bis rue du Faubourg-Montmartre, 9e arrondissement
This arcade forms the continuation of the Passage des Panoramas and the Passage Jouffroy. It was constructed at the same time as the Passage Jouffroy, and it got its name from one of the stakeholders of the company that managed the both passages. It is a well-lit arcade with a pure Neoclassical design. Inside, at number 25, was located the Librairie Gabrie, which edited the poems of Comte de Lautréamont.