Rosemary Flannery is the author of Angels of Paris: An Architectural Tour through the History of Paris. Over the years, Rosemary and I have talked about our writing and research, and I am thrilled to learn that her book is coming out on November 6th! Rosemary studied French at Columbia and studied Méthodologie de l’Architecture with Professor Claude Mignot, an authority on Parisian building façades, at the Sorbonne. While at Columbia she co-produced and hosted French Encounters, a public-access television program on French culture produced in conjunction with the French Embassy. In 2005 she created and produced The Art Beat, a weekly cultural magazine for Paris Live Radio, an internet radio station; several of her programs were picked up by BBC World. She works as a writer, artist, and also gives tours of Paris museums and neighborhoods.
What brought you to Paris?
I first came to Paris in 1977, while working as a model. I had always had the feeling that France was my destiny, before ever coming here. I loved everything I read and knew about it: the food, the culture, the literature, the art movements which took place here, the fashion, the history . . . for me it seemed that all roads led to Paris! I returned to the States after a year, finished up my degree in French language and literature, and began working for French companies, so I came often on business. I moved here in 1989.
What keeps you here?
I feel that I belong here, that this is home.
Can you tell readers about your book?
My book is about angels in architecture, found all over Paris. I was amazed by all the depictions of angels in architecture, all throughout Paris. The first one I noticed was a giant angel atop a column at the entrance to the Parc Montsouris; then I began to discover them everywhere. I began to photograph them, thinking I would perhaps make cards with photos of angels (I had a card business with scenes of Paris I had designed at that time). But I became intrigued by the different types of angels, and the various artistic periods they reflected. I had the somewhat mystical idea that Paris is protected by angels. They also seemed to be part of the intrinsic beauty of Paris. Little by little angels seemed to fly more and more into my path – sometimes friends pointed out ones they had seen, but mostly I found them myself by looking up, down and all around. Once I went down a ‘wrong’ street and found an angel designed on a door grill. After that I found two others of that type. And I was astonished to find a duo of baby angels holding the seal of Paris, across from the Hotel de Ville!
How long did it take you to gather the photos and to do the research?
I began taking the photos little by little from the 1990′s onwards, and then began seriously photographing them and organizing them sometime around 2008. I thought that perhaps I could organize a photo exhibition in the various mayors’ offices of Paris, and sell photos to raise money while working on the book; I also wanted to make a donation to a childrens’ organization in Paris. But the administration told me that I would have to form an association, which didn’t interest me, and also said that if I wanted to give money away, I should give it to them, to use for their patrimony renovation projects, but it was not what I had in mind at the time! Still, there were wonderful signs along the way nonetheless – one of the persons I met with was named Engel – angel in German!
The photos were challenging to do, as I cover 70 different angels in the book, and they are located in each of the twenty arrondissements. Some needed to be shot in the early morning, others in mid-afternoon, others just before sunset. Many – like the cherubs holding a lightening rod atop the Theatre du Chatelet, or the angels on the Sainte Chapelle spire or on the back of Sacre Coeur – are very high up, so I took to bringing a ladder with me around Paris along with a 300 mm lens, to be sure of getting close-ups in order to show all the wonderful details of the sculptures. I could hear people below saying I was mad, but then also, ‘quelle bonne idée!’ This is how I had ’eureka’ moments, like when I found dolphins’ heads around the angels of Val de Grace – a reference to the ‘dauphin’, Louis XIV.
How long did it take you to do the research?
I had the idea to do the book sometime around 2007. I wrote two sample chapters to include in a book proposal, and tested one of them, so to speak, by having the chapter posted in a popular blog about Paris in December 2009. I loved my project but wasn’t certain others would share my enthusiasm for the angels of Paris. In the end, the story was picked up by several other blogs, including Lonely Planet, which gave a sense of validation. I took some time to write a thorough book proposal and signed with a literary agent in May of 2010. Work began much more in earnest from then on, for the photography and the research. The research was very extensive, but so much fun to do, absolutely fascinating, with a lot of fantastic discoveries, such as finding an original engraving showing the angels of St. Nicolas du Chardonnet holding a cross and crosier in their little arms, instead of revolutionary pikes! The angels had been ‘armed’ by the revolutionaries.
Once I signed with my publisher – who was a dream to work with, and whose first name is Angela! – in February 2011, it was a very intense year and a half of research, photography and writing until completion of the manuscript and photos in July 2012.
How did you decide to organize the book?
I originally wanted to organize the book chronologically, with angels from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, as I am particularly fascinated by art history and the history of France, and the way that the angels reflect the ‘esprit du temps’. However Random House (the distributor) wanted it be organized by arrondissement, and there is a logic to that as well. The solution turned out to be organizing by period within each arrondissement.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write a book about Paris?
My experience is with non-fiction, so in that case I would recommend writing a couple of chapters and testing the idea, if possible, by posting a version of a chapter in a blog or submitting it to a travel or Paris-based magazine. Taking the time to write a good book proposal is important also, as it helps to structure one’s thoughts and inspires other ideas.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
Take one day off a week, or at least a half-day off a week, no matter how much you love what you’re doing. It is so easy to be carried away by the passion of work! but exercise, eating well, sleeping and seeing friends are also vital.
What books are on your nightstand?
Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 by Anthony Blunt. A seminal
work, which covers everything during this key period in France: painting, sculpture, architecture, history and the personalities of the creators; it is a great read. I dipped into it while doing my research but now want to read it more completely.
Nobody is a Nobody: The story of a Harlem ministry hard at work to change America by Rev. Eugene S. Callender. A friend lent me this book, recently published. It is the inspiring story of a man born in Harlem of parents from Barbados who went on to become a key figure in the civil rights movement and served on special projects under five presidents. It is very moving to learn of the immense struggle and effort it took to fight racism.
For the immediate future, I will be promoting Angels of Paris and traveling to the US in December for book signings at Rizzoli, NYC and Barnes & Noble in Paramus, NJ; I also have a lecture and book signing scheduled at the Philadelphia Center for Architecture. In Paris, I will give a talk at the American Library on November 28th.
As for my next project, I would like to write a screenplay about life in Paris in 1860, the height of the renovation of the capital under Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann. I ‘met’ many different characters during my research – architects, sculptors, photographers, Haussmann, Napoleon III and others – and I could feel the energy of this incredible period, and what it must have been like to have lived during that time.