The quarries below the city of Paris have been a mirror and memorial o events for nearly 300 years, with a long tradition of writing and painting on the walls. Parisian Art Underground explores the diversity of the visual statements that successive generations have left behind in these fantastic and often phantasmoagoric images and words.

In the 1780s bones from the Cemetery of the Innocents were stored in the quarries as the result of cemetery overcrowding. As the city population soared, skeletons from other cemeteries followed the move underground, and with them came formal inscriptions and wild graffiti.

Images on the walls remind that during World War II, both the French Resistance and the occupying German forces made use of the quarries.

Since the 1970s, there has been a marked increase in illicit exploration of this fascinating but off-limits underground world. Many explorers have left elaborate artworks behind them.

All theses generations of images and letterforms are brought together for the the first time in Parisian Art Underground.

Below the streets of Paris lie 285 kilometres of dark, subterranean galleries that wind their way through the limestone and gypsum quarries on top of which the city is built. These galleries have been in existence since 1777 and for over 250 years an extraordinary, incalculable and ever growing collection of visual material has been amassing on their walls: incised inscriptions, handwriting, graffiti, paintings, sculptures, mosaics, cartoons, sketches, directional signage, art installations and ephemeral paper tracts. This material is the creation of a wide range of individuals: engineers and workers from the quarries, Prussian and German soldiers, Free French, civilians, secret societies, students, tourists and mushroom growers.

The subterranean galleries are full of characters: majuscules and minuscules with or without serifs; roman letters and cursives, some made with a chisel others using a stencil; large and small characters produced with smoke, paint, pencil or incised letters that have been blackened or left with the natural stone still visible. Visitors to the underground cannot fail to be impressed by the volume, variety and ranging competence of the letterforms that have been left on the walls. Many of the inscriptions are official engineering marks that were incised by men employed by the quarries: topographic signs and consolidation marks created with the aim of dating, referencing, directing, orientating and locating the work of the quarrymen. There is also an abundance of street nameplates and commemorative plaques.

The engineering inscriptions were made as marks of instruction that assisted communication between teams of quarrymen, or supervisors and workers. The street signs were made to indicate the location and orientation of the galleries; and the plaques commemorated significant moments in the development of the underground. For those concerned with the history of the quarries, these official marks tell the story of the underground and the topographical development of the surface, some also bear witness to times of conflict: the inscriptions are an integral part of the quarry’s heritage. To those interested in letterforms the underground has given rise to a curious gallery of vernacular interpretations on the art of inscription.

These forms fit well with revolutionary typography, similar to those seen on revolutionary posters, generally based on Fournier style typeforms.

Well executed “Fleur de Lys,” French Royal symbol, with according figures in same quality. Very few of these Fleur de Lys still exist because of the revolution.

Generally, the engraved signs would appear after the previous sign was drawn by the hands of the workers. Just compare both the engraved “15,” left top, and the handwritten version on the right. You might also notice the style of the engraved figures, already resembling somewhat those of the Didots, but still done before the revolution. Also notice, while the previous picture retained the Fleur de Lys, this one was destroyed and replaced here by a star.

An earlier sign (before the Revolution) which features interesting angular serifs, such as those found in Vendôme and other “Latin” typefaces.

Classical Didot style. Note the very common HT ligature. The Serif at the bottom of the 7 is not so common in printed Didots, and the 8 is already geometric.

Again, on same place, the writing and engraved version of the same official sign. What is interesting here is the hand-written cursive sign 6 still has an ascender part where the inscription lost all of the ascenders.

Earlier typical style of inscription for an outside street name, which generally follow the streets, made on the catacombes tunnels. Note again the two versions of the 12, written and engraved.

Again, an earlier sign, with a nice R in the pure tradition of the Fournier R.

A later style, close to Didot with a contemporary correction?!

Late Didot, with a strange way to ad the accent on the capital A. I say strange because this way is generally adopted on printed work, when the cap is designed on a completed body without enough space for the accent, so the accent is composed separately before or after. Here, instead of cutting it on the top of the letter as on lowercase, they followed printed style!

Nice G, which reminds me strangely of the Charlemagne (Adobe) typeface done by Carol Twombly in late 80’s.

Example of writing directly on the wall, perhaps done by the workers, before the official engraved inscriptions.

Another writing trace, which reads: “Started in July 1821.”

Example of writing directly on the wall, perhaps done by the workers, before the official engraved inscriptions.

To give you a better idea of the size of the tunnels, this one is quite huge in height. I’m the first in the image, followed by Caroline Archer and Mark Batty.


by Caroline Archer (with typographic captions by Jean François Porchez)

Copyright 2003 Caroline Archer, Mark Batty Publisher and Jean François Porchez. Many thanks to the Inspection Générale des Carrières, Mairie de Paris and Gilles Thomas to let us visit the Catacombs in March 2003.

Parisian Art Underground

Caroline Archer and Alexandre Parre, Published by Mark Batty Publisher, New York, August 2003