A simple planting of young lime trees surrounds Place Joachim-du-Bellay, more commonly known as Place des Innocents. In contrast to the close planted and tightly pruned trees of many Paris squares, these trees are quite widely space and left to develop their natural form. They will have to be pruned back in due course but for now they offer an informal contrast to the hard landscaping of the square and the massive fountain that dominates it.
The Fontaine des Innocents has undergone many modifications since it was created to mark the ceremonial entry of Henri II into the city. Installed in 1548 in the centre of Cimitière des Saints Innocents, overlooking the junction of rue St Denis and rue aux Fers, the structure originally had only three facades as it abutted the wall of the church of les Saints Innocents. The open gallery on the upper level provided a stand for local notables to greet the king’s procession. This engraving by Huyot shows the structure ion 1670.
From the middle ages to the 18th century, the churchyard of les Saints Innocents received the dead of 22 Parisian parishes, the poor majority in vast common graves. In 1780 the collapse of the cellar wall of an inn adjoining the cemetery, with gruesome results, led to the closure of the cemetery. Five years later the cemetery was emptied (part of a huge operation decreed by Louis XVI to remove the hazard to public health of mass burials in the city centre) and the remains were transferred to the disused underground stone quarries that became known as the Catacombs.
When the church was demolished the fountain was preserved and in 1788 it was moved some forty meters from its original position to the centre of a new market place. This involved considerable remodeling, and a new facade was carved to make the fountain into a symmetrical, four sided structure. This painting by John James Chalon, in the Musée Carnavalet, show the busy market place in 1822.
The transformation of Paris under Napoleon III saw open market squares replaced by modern, iron framed market halls and the Marché des Innocents became redundant. Part of the old market square was retained to make a new public open space and in 1860 the fountain was moved and remodeled again to form its centrepiece. That’s where it stands today, right at the heart of Paris.