When Henry IV died in 1610, his widow, Marie de’ Medici, was elevated to Regent by virtue of her being the mother of the future king Louis III. It was an amazing bit of timing, as Henry had been killed by an assassin a mere two days after her coronation and it wasn’t exactly a happy marriage, having been arranged because Henry owed Marie’s father, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, an enormous sum of money due to the Duke’s support for one of Henry’s war. This was his sole way of repaying the debt. Children were however produced so the various dynastic expectations were met.
Marie decided to capitalize on this stroke of luck not only by banishing all of Henry’s mistresses but by building herself a new place, which today is known as the Palais du Luxembourg .Pining for her old home in Florence, she sent her architect there to make drawings of her ancestral home, the Palazzo Pitti. Work commenced in 1615on the Palais and she moved her household there in 1625.
Typically overwrought, even for the royal tastes of the times, the crowning glory of the place was a series of 24 paintings commissioned from and executed by Peter Paul Rubens. Known as the Marie de’ Medici Cycle, the paintings represent the challenges and triumphs of Marie’s life as a wealthy Florentine aristocrat and as Queen of France. Today, her struggle can be visited in the Gallerie Medicis in the Louvre.
Her fortunes took a downward turn in November of 1630 when she confronted her son and demanded that he fire Cardinal Richelieu as their relationship had soured. Known as the “Day of the Dupes,” the story centers on a group of courtiers who believed they had successfully driven a wedge between the young king and the Cardinal. Well, Richelieu won the day, and the Queen Mother was dismissed from court and into a self-exile in Compiènge. Scheming to the end, she died in Cologne in 1642.
Luxembourg passed through a series of royal hands before serving as the home of Marie Louise Élisabeth d’Orléans, Duchess of Berry, a woman known for her amazing promiscuity and even more outrageous parties and galas. In 1750, the palace became an art gallery, the forerunner of the Louvre, remaining as such until the Revolution in 1779 during which it was a prison. Before assuming its current as the seat of the Senat, it was Napoleon’s first residence in Paris as Consul.
Today it’s the seat of a magnificent 60-acre urban park, and certainly the center of the outdoor life in the 6th arrondissement. We’ve walked through it each time we’ve been to Paris, but limited ourselves to the portion around the lake, typically as we were on our way to somewhere else. This morning we decided to thoroughly visit it.
Like I’ve mentioned before, there is something special about a nice long walk in a city park on a sunny, spring morning. Birds singing, plants blooming, runners running and old folks strolling along arm in arm. The gardens are very close to this apartment, perhaps a 15-minute walk through the bustle of Rue de Sèvres, down a side street, past the magnificent 17thcentury Roman Catholic Église Saint-Sulpice and across Rue de Vaugirard. We chose to walk the perimeter, passing first a statue of Édouard Branly, the inventor of the first device capable of detecting radio waves, whose work ultimately led to the success of Giuseppe Marconi in demonstrating the capability of radio broadcasting. Today his head was home to a pair of courting pigeons, and as I looked upon his stern visage, I was struck by the fact that I was standing there cursing at Google Maps, an innovation made possible by his life’s work.
From there walked through the woods to the south entrance, left and wandered through the associated Jardin des Grands Explorateurs, to several small rectangular parks founded in 1867 to celebrate the achievements of the explorers, Marco Polo and Robert Cavalier de la Salle. While walking along the path there we were struck by an incredible red-brick building in the style of those Islamic adobe forts you find in sub-Saharan Africa. The paper map was of no use, nor was Google since it had failed to load any detail and we had no idea what it was until we found a map on the back of the toilettes publique. It turned out to be the Institut d’Art et d’Archéologie. Designed and built in 1925 by the architect Paul Bigot, the building facade mixes Florentine, Sienese and African Muslim influences. Iron-framed and covered in red bricks from Germany, the building housed the library patron and collector Jacques Doucet until 1997 when he granted it to the University of the Sorbonne, today housing their schools of art and archaeology.
We found a magnificent fountain at the end of the park. The Fontaine de Quatres Partes du Monde, ”the fountain of the four parts of the Earth.” Interestingly, we’d seen an astronomical observatory just up the street, in a straight line with the palace we’d just left. As it turns out, both the palace and the observatory sit on a meridian line that runs through Paris. The fountain does as well and if I recall, the same meridian is laid out in brass on the floor in Saint-Sulpice, used to calculate the date of Easter.
The fountain was by Jean Baptiste Carpeaux and uses four female figures supporting a celestial globe as allegories, one for each continent – Europe, Asia with a long braid of hair, America with a crown of feathers and Africa, with a broken chain representing the horror of slavery. Another artist produced the horses, turtles and dolphins that surround the central pillar. Quite an extraordinary find in a quiet neighborhood.
It was time to go hunting and gathering lunch, so we headed back past the palace, stopping to watch an angry mother duck defending her little flock of ducklings, then past the two heavily armed guards at the Senat and finally back on to the route home.
On the way this morning, we’d passed a store with the most beautiful eclairs in the window. Not those giant skinny Boston Cream Pies we’re used to, no – these were thin delicate and beautifully decorated. We stopped in on the way back- La Maison du Chocolat is not only a temple to the perfection of eclairs, but also one to the perfection of chocolates. We dealt with an extremely well-spoken and elegant young woman who offered us samples of their wares, and we departed 20€ poorer but bearing two small bags of wonderful things to sample later.
We dropped by La Grande Epicerie for lunch-makings – ham, rillettes, bread, cheese and a bottle of Sancerre wine (for later) and then went home for a midday feast.
Every time we visit a place like this, the temptation to carve out 3 months for an extended stay becomes strong. To really plunk down in a place and get a resident’s feel for it would be just wonderful. But it would be so hard to do. It’s always nice to dream.