"By the grace of God"

1st arrondissement - Eglise Saint-Roch, 296 rue Saint Honoré

What a coincidence that my favourite church should be in my favourite arrondissement! Begun in 1653 and finished in 1722, it contains the remains of the playwright Pierre Corneille and of master gardener André Le Nôtre ("il n'a point eu de concurrent qui lui fut comparable" says the black marble slab). A series of narrow, one or two-storey shops dating back to the 17th or 18th century are encrusted in one of the church's outer walls. They include a restaurant, a printers' shop, a florist and a boutique selling antique silver and glassware called Rarissime, "maison fondée en 1638".

Legend has it that artillery under Napoleon's orders massacred hundreds of royalist counter-revolutionaries on the steps of Saint Roch in Oct. 1795. But Jean Tulard, one of Boney's most reputable biographers, says it would have been impossible to manœuvre, let alone fire, cannons in the narrow lanes around the church.

But, for me, the most interesting artefact of all in Saint Roch is the plaque indicating that Alessandro Manzoni - considered the main protagonist in the revival of Italian literature in the early 19th century and for this reason compulsory reading in all Italian schools - "refound his faith" in this church at the age of 25. What had happened to the avid reader of Voltaire, to the enthusiastic adherent to the principles of the French Revolution? This remains a mystery, his only answer to this question being a variation on "È stata la grazia di Dio, mio caro, è stata la grazia di Dio." But he was certainly (re)introduced to the Church by his wife, Henriette-Louise Blondel, the daughter of a Calvinist Geneva banker. Manzoni's renewal of his faith coincided with Henriette-Louis's conversion to Catholicism in the same year, 1810. One story has it that he got separated from his wife amidst the huge crowds that gathered in the streets of Paris on the day of Napoleon's wedding to the Austrian princess Marie-Louise in April 1810. Manzoni found himself alone in Saint-Roch and there experienced a revelation that convinced him to convert.

Manzoni was of aristocratic stock, and hence never knew the pecuniary difficulties of the aforementioned Corneille. Toward the end of his life, the author of Le Cid was out of fashion and penniless. A friend of his wrote the following account of an evening spent together in 1679, when Corneille was 73: "After dinner…he went into a shop to have his shoe repaired; it had become unstitched. He sat down on a bench with me beside him and paid out the three coins that were left in his pocket. When we got home, I offered him my purse, but he would not accept it, nor any part of it."

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