The March of History on a Single City Block

750 Years in Paris, by Vincent Mahé, (Nobrow Ltd.), 120 pages, release date 3 November, 2015

The only words in 750 Years in Paris are on the book’s final page, which offers a selected historical timeline. You may see an “Ostel de la Brasse” sign on 16th Century building or a “Je Suis Charlie” placard carried by a protester in 2015, but there’s no text beyond a few words appearing here and there in the illustrations. The book’s illustrations provide the narrative quite well on their own.

750 Years in Paris is the illustrated history of a single Parisian building from 1265 through 2015. As you work through the book, the left page always tells you the year; the right page is filled top-to-bottom with an illustration of the building as it existed at that point in time.

Though I can imagine sharing this book with someone younger, this is really a grown-ups’ picture book tracing the waves of prosperity and violence that have alternated though much of history. There’s military conflict a-plenty: the Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and the German Occupation of World War II. There’s also internal conflict: the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants, the Fronde (a 1648 insurrection against the royal government), the storming of the Bastille and the consequent Reign of Terror, the July 1830 revolution that overthrew Charles X, the Paris Commune Socialist Uprising, strikes and student riots of 1968. Natural disaster in the form of the Black Death, fire, and flooding also makes an appearance.

This history isn’t as bleak as that group of lists might suggest. There are moments of celebration: processions, the 1853 rebuilding of Paris, the opening of the Métro—even France’s 1998 World Cup victory. If one looks closely, the illustrations are filled with moments of celebration and hope, even during the dark times. Cats scamper across rooftops; storks nest on top of chimneys. Children climb trees, fly kites, and find other amusements.

750 Years in Paris is a picture book; it’s also an invitation to reflect on what it means to be human. And it will be a real treat for francophiles. Given the profusion and detail of illustrations, 750 Years in Paris is well worth its price of $29.

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