Despite being hell-bent upon reshaping Paris to reflect a new French Empire, Baron Haussmann was also responsible for creating a new institution to honor the city’s past. For my brother Tom’s first full day in France, Natasha and I decided that a visit to Musée Carnavalet was the best way to introduce him to the city.
Our 20 minute walk down from Place de la République was rather beautiful, taking us by the Temple and then the National Archives. We had a lovely exit path, too, passing Place des Vosges, the Hôtel de Sully, and Rue Saint-Antoine. It is hard to go wrong in a city full of monuments! We arrived at the museum right on time after a picnic lunch on a park bench; Paris museums are requiring booked arrivals to ensure the concentration of guests is not too large for plague conditions.
The Carnavalet Museum is distinctive in that it is operated by Museums of the City of Paris, along with the Petit Palais and the Catacombes and others, rather than the National Museums of France, which operates heavy-hitters like the Louvre and Versailles. The initial building housing the museum dates from 1544, though it had substantial additions in 1654 under noted architect Francois Mansart. I enjoyed the oddity of the name Carnavalet being a distortion of the name “Kernevenoy,” an owner of the building back in 1572. In the late 1980s, the museum doubled its exhibition space by incorporating the adjoining Hôtel le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau. The latter is a spring chicken by comparison; it was only constructed in 1686!
The City of Paris decided in 1866 to create a museum of its own history. The odd contrast is that this period was one filled with destruction throughout the city. Seine Prefect Baron Haussmann was the perfect instrument of Napoleon III for reshaping Paris during the Second Empire. The emperor wanted wide, straight boulevards, and Haussmann was perfectly willing to bulldoze existing structures to create them. I guess we should be grateful that Haussmann thought it might be worth storing engravings, paintings, and photographs of the Paris he was actively destroying? It is probably no mistake that the Carnavalet Museum houses a painting of Haussmann that takes up an entire wall. Perhaps if Haussmann hadn’t spent in excess of 2.5 billion francs on renovations, the City of Light wouldn’t shine so brightly.
I would highlight just a few things that made me feel really happy in the Museum. The first was a 17th century painting of Paris itself by Tamburini. I get absolutely fixated on historic maps, and it was lovely to see this one up close. It measures roughly two meters wide and 1.5 tall, so one can make out many landmarks that are now lost (such as the Temple) and others that were not yet in place (such as the Champs-Élysées).
I also loved the paintings, drawings, and models of the Pont Notre-Dame (a Seine bridge at a spot that has always had a bridge), showing the bridge absolutely littered with people’s homes and businesses. In 1499, the bridge had collapsed since its structure couldn’t properly be maintained against periodic floods. The image above pictures the bridge in 1756; just thirty years later all of these buildings were demolished. The bridge was then rebuilt in stone (1853), but that structure caused a lot of accidents for boats passing beneath it. The metal bridge currently in place was constructed in 1919.
At first glance, the figure above might appear to be in blackface. Instead, his face covering is a leather mask. He represents Harlequin, a servant from the Italian popular theatre at the Palais Royal. Italian comedy had reached France by 1603, and commedia dell’arte became a big deal across all of Europe.
The Revolution, at last
Okay, I got distracted. Our goal in visiting the museum was to show my brother Tom exhibits from the time of the French Revolution. Happily, the museum sets aside quite a lot of space for this period, powered by the 1881 donated collection of Comte Alfred de Liesville. The painting above by J-L David represents the “Tennis Court Oath,” where deputies of the National Assembly began negotiating a constitution for the Republic of France. If you have ever been in student government, I dare you to imagine yourself in this place without cringing.
Of course I love remnants of the past, and I absolutely salivated at this model of the Bastille. What makes it special? This was carved from one of the stones that comprised the real thing! Pierre-Francois Pallow, the fellow who won the contract to demolish the obsolete fortress, decided to carve 83 of the blocks into replicas. One was sent to each department of France. Who knows how much that cost on shipping!
Natasha always spots the best stuff, and this time I mean the worst. These earrings were manufactured around 1880, almost a century after the French Revolution. Wasn’t it obvious that they were in bad taste? Yes, those are royal heads dangling from the bottom.
I have seen the term “sans-culotte” used to describe the politically-minded members of the laboring class during the revolution. I found this 1792 painting of a sans-culotte by L-L Boilly to be strangely affecting. I am reflexively opposed to populists who try to whip up unthinking mobs and the people who let themselves be used by populists. On the other hand, it is clear that the people of France had been horribly used for centuries. For many of them, joining the Revolution must have seemed the only option to a better life.
Natasha was moved by a recreation of the final room in which Queen Marie-Antoinette was imprisoned. I also liked a painting of her ostensibly created in her last days of life.
This wheel chair was probably constructed around 1780 for Georges Couthon, a paraplegic deputy to the Convention who helped unify the revolutionary movement (“La République est une et indivisible”). Eventually he became President of the Assembly. His life, along with that of Robespierre, was snuffed out on 28 July, 1794.
Of course, the Revolution itself soon surrendered power to Napoléon I, who soon gained total control over Republican France, reorganizing it as an Empire. I couldn’t help but take my brother’s photo with this 1809 painting of the emperor by Robert Lefèvre.
We had a great time in the Museum Carnavalet. I may need to sneak up there for another look when I have fresh legs! I want another look at the Georges Fouquet art nouveau boutique by Mucha and examine the antiquities down in the basement…