Interview: Rémi Rivière – medieval tower
Rémi Rivière, Director medieval tower ‘Tour Jean sans Peur’
Medieval is as mediaeval does. There’s a guy in Paris whose office is an ancient tower, protecting the city, who daily ascends through hundreds of years of history, and who wouldn’t want it any other way.
The Tour Jean-Sans-Peur is one of the hidden wonders of Paris; a medieval tower in the middle of a buzzing boulevard, tucked away slightly, off the beaten track, unassuming and yet oh-so important.
It is one of the last remnants of olde worlde Paris. It was nearly torn down a dozen times. It languished in dislove for decades. Rémi revived it, and now the ‘Fearless John Tower’ is funding its own way in the world, thanks to his efforts and those who visit it. I recommend you do the same.
I chatted with Rémi in the tower he calls a kind of home, and the results of this encounter are below. He’s a good guy, Rémi; say “Hi!” when you go and say Sab sent ya!
Does Paris please you?
Paris pleases me with its architectural diversity and the impression it gives of being just a big village. When one has the chance to stroll around a bit, the banks of the Seine are marvellous.
Why did you decide to try and open the ‘Tour Jean-Sans-Peur’ to the public?
The original idea was to try and open up historical monuments which are somewhat ‘in need of a good owner’, already restored but not doing much, to the public. The Tour Jean sans Peur was the first building I found which matched these criteria.
In your opinion, what can a medieval tower offer to the town of Paris and its inhabitants today?
Nothing more or less than another historic monument… in other words something which teaches us about the past. An amnesiac spends his life trying to recover and rediscover his life and his history. Ancient buildings may help us, amongst other things, to discover what goes to make up ourselves in the context of the modern city.
What were the greatest challenges in transforming the Tour Jean sans Peur into a viable commercial enterprise?
Meeting the recent (and strange) idea of providing access to cultural entities free of charge head on.
The Duke’s private apartments at the top of the tower were protected by the oldest civil door in Paris, reinforced by internal iron bars. Was ‘Fearless John’ really as carefree as his name suggests?
He may well have been ‘fearless’, but he wasn’t an idiot. The Duke had what it took to invest in an armoured door, so why should he not have done so?
The tower isn’t like a classic Parisian museum; there aren’t really any objects to display, but it does possess some fascinating characteristics like the mysterious mural inscriptions, the fabulous sculptured ceiling at the top of the spiral staircase, and of course the first ‘real’ toilets in town! How have you tried to make this old and rather dusty and run down building ‘come alive’ for visitors?
The Tour Jean sans Peur is what we call a ‘centre of interpretation’, in which we explain the building itself through texts and images. The museum objects is the tower, like the Vasa is the museum object of the Vasa museum in Stockholm; we walk around it, we go inside, we describe what goes to make it up: the place’s history, our sponsors and partners, the context of its creation (architecture, decoration), what went on within its walls, lofty history and amusing anecdotes…
Apart from all that, the temporary exhibitions which we hold constitute little by little a complete history of daily life in the middle ages. These exhibitions awake the interest of our visitors.
You’ve gone to great efforts to make the visit entertaining for kids in particular. How have you done that, and what do they like most?
Kids get bored quickly. So on request we offer a kind of ‘treasure hunt’, focusing on the most interesting and intriguing aspects of the tower. The temporary exhibitions are organised in a similar way. But we need to remember that the expression ‘the Middle Ages’ is already very evocative for children; knights and horses, castles, dungeons, the gallows… all these are part of their vivid imaginations. It’s rare to find children who have come to the tower reluctantly.
And what is your favourite aspect of the tower?
Its historic dimension. The destiny of France was played out in the Tour Jean sans Peur at the beginning of the 15th century. It’s one of the rare buildings where France was formed.
How does the Tour Jean sans Peur fit in to the Paris museum landscape, with other places certainly better known, like the Musée Carnavalet. Is there a lot of contact between you? Do you help each other out or work together in some way?
We certainly know each other and exchange leaflets and information, but we are considered a private enterprise. For this reason we are unable to receive public funding, and the town of Paris cannot publicise the tower…
Have you reopened any other historic buildings in Paris?
I was able to open, under similar conditions to the tower, the Pavillon de l’Ermitage, in in 2005. This is a charming little 18th century folly in Rue de Bagnolet, near the Porte de Bagnolet. Its mural paintings are unique in Paris, and the building, which belongs to the Centre d’Action Sociale de la Ville de Paris, had been disused since 1975 – yet another example of our dormant heritage…
There’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit, for the last 20 years – the superb Tour Saint Jacques! Do you dream like me of being able to go up it one day?
Indeed, I’ve been working on it for four years, but the Paris town hall is very reticent.
What’s your favourite corner of Paris?
The Place de Petits Pères, behind the Place des Victoires, for its triangular form, its Venitian allure and the onion and potato pie of its boulangerie.
You seem very much at home in the tower, with your office in one of the ancient towers of the old Philippe Auguste wall which the Tour Jean sans Peur was attached to, and all! But what do you like doing when you’re not surrounded, literally, by all these old stones?
Being surrounded by the old murals of l’Ermitage! But more seriously, if I may say, strolling aimlessly around Paris with plenty of time to kill.
And finally Rémi, what is your philosophy on life, if you have one?
Without speaking of philosophy, of which I’m perfectly incapable, I would say that the idea of opening the Tour Jean sans Peur and the Ermitage to the public, and then managing them myself, is a kind of lifestyle. I don’t go to work: I do what I love doing. And if I won the lottery, I’d carry right on doing just what I’m doing now.
Tour Jean sans Peur, 20 Rue Etienne Marcel, 75002 Paris, France. Subway: Étienne Marcel
Sab would like to thank Rémi for taking him around ‘his’ tower (he doesn’t refer to it this way, but I like to), and for taking the time to do so. Much appreciated. You can see the original version of this article (including Sab’s French translation and more photographs) here.© 2011 Sab Will / Paris Set Me Free