City Center of Nantes

City Center of Nantes

You are probably familiar with Nantes because of the 1598 Edict of Nantes, a royal proclamation whereby the French king Henry IV granted substantial rights to his Protestant subjects. The Edict of Nantes–and its revocation in 1685 by Louis XIV–were critical drivers for the historical events in continental Europe during the Age of Absolutism (which in turn gave shape to the modern world). However Nantes is also a real place—an industrialized port city near where the Loire river empties into the Atlantic on the west coast of France.

The château of the Dukes of Brittany

The château of the Dukes of Brittany

Although Paris monopolizes most of the international attention which France receives, Nantes is notable as an extremely innovative city which eagerly tries out various new paradigms and technologies. Although not all of these concepts are winners, some of them have paid off remarkably well, and Nantes is often mentioned as one of the safest and most pleasant cities to live in. Indeed back in 2004, a magazine (which was a sort of periodically-issued softback book) named the city as Europe’s most livable.

The port of Nantes ( attributed to Nicolas Ozanne, ca. 1800, inkwash drawing)

The port of Nantes ( attributed to Nicolas Ozanne, ca. 1800, inkwash drawing)

Nantes has a long history as an innovator and early adapter. Through the troubling lens of history we can see how this has been both bad and good. For example, Nantes was the first French city to leap into the slave trade back in the era of colonial expansion and it remained the center of the French triangle trade until that evil commerce was abolished in 1818. Nantes also enthusiastically embraced the French revolution and it was an early industrialized city which featured what was arguably the world’s first mass-transit system.

The Nantes Tramway opened in 1985--as other cities got rid of their trams.

The Nantes Tramway opened in 1985–as other cities got rid of their trams.

In the contemporary world, Nantes has all sorts of futuristic architecture and art projects. These combine very evocatively with its dramatic Ancien Régime heritage to make it look like an alternate reality. Ultra-modern trams run along greenways beneath castle walls. Giant robot cranes loom above bike trails and sculpture gardens. Indeed the sculptures of Nantes are what drew my attention to it in the first place (I, uh, only knew about Nantes because of the famous edict and I sort of thought the place stopped existing after the counter-reformation). I’ll feature an interesting public sculpture from Nantes tomorrow!

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