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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!

dezeen_Tour-Vegetale-de-Nantes-by-Edouard-Francois-1nantes


The Song Dynasty (960 AD to 1279 AD) is revered as an aesthetic high-water mark in Chinese civilization.   During this period (and later during the Yuan Dynasty) the city of Quanzhou in Fujian was one of the largest seaports in the world–if not the largest.  Although Quanzhou was the starting point of the maritime silk route, diverse ships from around Asia came to the port to trade for tea, herbs, lychees, rice, paper, porcelain, and art as well as for precious silk. At some point during this Song era of prosperity, unknown craftsmen carved a magnificent 20 foot tall statue of an old man on the nearby Qingyuan Mountain (which means Pure Water-source Mountain).

Originally known as the “Rock of Immortals”, the statue is believed to represent Laozi, the founder of Taoism.  The carved stone sage still looks surprisingly good despite its approximate thousand year age. The great statue of Qingyuan Mountain was originally at the heart of a complex of temples and related buildings. Although these architectural structures were destroyed a few hundred years later, the statue was carved from the durable bedrock of the mountain itself and so it survived. The statue still stands looking down on Quanzhou which is again growing prosperous from the same trade goods and from some new ones including footwear, fashion apparel, packaging, machinery, and petrochemicals.

Covered in lichen, Laozi is surrounded by freely growing flowers and trees.  The great green bulk of Qingyuan mountain rises up behind the serene old sage. Laozi wears a peaceful but solemn expression.  His fine flowing robes cascade down over his solid form like waterfalls 9which proliferate from local springs) and his hand rests on a table as he looks off into the clouds. Although the kind face and grandfatherly beard of the sage speak of benevolence, the antiquity of the statue and its penetrating gaze hint at otherworldly secrets.  Laozi was famed for his knowledge of the secrets of magic and his mastery of the elixir of immortality.  The statue at Qingyuan is surely one of the loveliest in the world.  Surrounded by nature but overlooking an ever changing city, the work is a perfect homage to the founder of Taoism.

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