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17th Century 18th Century Animals French History History Museums Royal History Uncategorized

Strange Meetings: The Royal Menagerie at Versailles – an Extract from Vintage Script Magazine

Royal Menagerie at Versailles

This month, you’ll find a piece I’ve written in Vintage Script, a new magazine dedicated to all things vintage, historical and retro. What’s most delightful about it is the range of different historical periods, as well as the different approaches taken to bringing them to life. In this month’s edition you’ll find stories on the history of tea time, flapper girls of the 1920s, Durham Cathedral and the truth behind the Scarlet Pimpernel. It really is well worth a read, so do please visit the web site and take a look.

Versailles Menagerie by D'Aveline

The Versailles Menagerie during Louis XIV’s reign, by D’Aveline.

In an attempt to whet your appetite, here’s an extract from my article on the history of the Royal Menagerie at Versailles. You’ll have to take my word for it, but the stuff I’ve cut out here is stupendous, so you really should get the magazine!

We take up the story from Louis XIV’s death. Before the Sun King, the French Royals had not had a permanent menagerie but instead contented themselves with a band of exotic or entertaining animals which followed them around their various royal residences. Louis XIV established two permanent menageries – one at Vincennes and one at Versailles, each with a different purpose and personality. The Vincennes menagerie was used for dramatic fights, such as the battle between a tiger and an elephant staged to amuse the Persian ambassador in 1682. The Versailles menagerie, on the other hand, was a model of order and rationality, where the far more fortunate animals were intended for peaceful display and, as all things at the palace, to augment the glory and prestige of the king. The conflict between these two very different styles of menagerie reflected the conflicts in Louis’ personality and style of leadership, but by the end of his reign the Versailles style had clearly won out, and the Vincennes zoo was closed.

Map of Versailles, by Delagrive (1689-1757), 1746.

Map of Versailles, by Delagrive (1689-1757), 1746 (via Wikimedia Commons), with the location of the menagerie highlighted. Below, the former site of the menagerie today, from Google Maps.

[cetsEmbedGmap src=http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=versailles&hl=en&ll=48.804772,2.09502&spn=0.013143,0.033023&t=h&z=16 width=598 height=400 marginwidth=0 marginheight=0 frameborder=0 scrolling=no]

In some magical way Versailles transformed itself to match the character of the king at its heart, so when the Sun King died and was succeeded by his grandson Louis XV, everything changed. Louis XV was more interested in hunting animals than observing them in his menagerie, and his taste for exotic wildlife restricted itself more or less to Madame de Pompadour and his seraglio of royal mistresses. Animal gifts kept coming from every corner of the ever-expanding French trading empire, but the king lacked both the funds and the inclination to give them much of a welcome. When an elephant arrived in 1772, it was forced to walk more than three hundred miles from the coast to Versailles.

One can imagine the elephant was quite miffed about the debacle (but must have created quite a stir in the towns and villages along the road) and things got no better once it arrived at Versailles. The pond dug for the exotic birds to wade in was full of silt. The wall enclosing the rhinoceros which arrived two years earlier was literally crumbling (not a good thing, as the rhino was no doubt angered by visitors who laughed at its absurdly wrinkled skin). Even the animals in the once beautiful paintings which lined the walls of the observation room were faded and peeling. The elephant stuck it out for as long as possible, but in 1782, broke free of its enclosure and rampaged round the grounds of Versailles. Next morning, a strange new elephant-shaped island was found floating in the Grand Canal.

Sadly, the elephant died too late to witness the last gasp of the royal menagerie. Louis XVI had ascended the throne in 1775, and found a financial and political situation as neglected as the menagerie. Unlike his grandfather Louis XV, Louis XVI could not rely on winning charm to see him through – he had none. He was therefore much more attuned to symbolism, and strove constantly, in the face of an ever-deepening crisis, to project an image of undimmed power and royal prestige.

Although they never knew it, the animals of the menagerie were a perfect instrument for this. The very fact that they were there at all spoke eloquently of the scope and scale of the king’s influence. Overcoming the difficulties of finding and catching such rare and beautiful creatures, overcoming the problems of long distance travel and communication, overcoming the self-interest of every captain and sailor along the way who might have sold his precious cargo, the king had commanded that animals be brought, and they had come. The strength of his will even seemed to overcome death itself: such animals were notoriously difficult to keep alive on long voyages. Exotic birds especially had an irksome habit of dropping down dead when cannon fired, or simply pining away. Whispers began to circulate that the most beautiful birds of all simply could not live without their liberty.

Louis sent out a shopping list to his representatives around the world. “An elephant; 2 zebras, male and female; mandrill and baboon monkeys; 6 guineafoul”. Perhaps Louis wished to tame the zebras and teach them to draw his carriage, as some of his more flamboyant contemporaries did. But Louis was never to receive an elephant and only got one of the zebras he asked for, though the menagerie did benefit from an influx of new inmates, including a lion, a panther, some hyenas, a tiger, some ostriches and several kinds of monkey.

The popularity of the menagerie was also boosted by great vogue for the study of nature that flowered during Louis XVI’s reign. Naturalists had grown tired of studying the dusty tombs of Cabinets of Curiosity, where brown pickled fish bobbed in vinegar and faded birds stood stuffed in a peculiar imitation of life that seemed to startle the thought of death into everyone who looked at them. There was now, prompted by the bestselling work of Buffon, a desire to observe living animals. Now then, the animals of the menagerie had a new torment, as fashionable men and women toured the menagerie, staring deep into the eyes of monkeys and, with a pained expression, wondered aloud “What is it to be human?”. Nobody ever seemed to wonder what it is to be monkey.

As it turned out, of course, even if Louis had managed to obtain a hundred zebras to draw his carriage, they couldn’t have saved him from the coming of the Revolution. Perhaps the animals noticed a glow of torchlight up at the palace on the night in October 1789 when a crowd of thousands arrived to remove the royal family and take them back to Paris (henceforth to be caged and regarded with the same mixture of awed and disgusted curiosity that the inhabitants of the menagerie had been).

The menagerie must have been a sad and dispiritingly quiet place for the next couple of years, as history was written elsewhere, and the fate of a dwindling bunch of pampered pets was of no importance. But, in a perverse way, the violence and inhumanity of the revolution was to foster a new concern for these animals. After a few years, with the Terror in full flow, the bourgeois leaders of the Revolution began to grow concerned that the populace was becoming too accustomed to blood, too wild. They needed to be brought back to the civilising influence of orderly society – and what better way to demonstrate its advantages than through the example of these wild animals. If even a lion, when it is well cared for by enlightened rulers, can be tamed and made gentle, then there’s hope for anyone. This attitude to animals was extraordinary: in 1794, the Paris Commune received complaints about ‘disgusting displays’ of animals in the Place de la Révolution, but none about the twenty guillotinings that took place in the same square every day.

At the last minute, the few remaining animals of the royal menagerie, which had been due to be killed and stuffed, were saved, and made a part of plans for a new state menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Following a ban on animal shows, the authorities had sent out agents to round up all wild animals being kept or sold in Paris for this purpose. The only problem was, there was nowhere to put them except the basement of the museum at the Jardins des Plantes.

The wrinkly rhinoceros died before it could make the journey (run through, according to legend, by a revolutionary’s sabre), but the lion from Versailles was taken to Paris in 1794, and found itself in a room full of the motliest collection of animals since the Ark. Here was a leopard, there a sea lion. Perched on a crate were three eagles, bleating in the corner were three sheep with various lurid deformities, and god-knows-where was what had been promised to be a sea lion when the harassed zookeeper agreed to take it on, but was discovered on arrival to be a polar bear. There were in total 32 mammals and 26 birds.

Gradually a permanent, if very basic, home for these forlorn creatures was put together, and, amid trumpeting revolutionary rhetoric that the animals would “no longer wear on their brows, as in the menageries built by the pomp of kings, the brand of slavery”, its doors were opened to the public. This new, state menagerie was intended to be a pacifying haven of contemplation and rational study. It didn’t quite work out that way. As soon as the doors opened, the citizens of Paris made a beeline for the old lion from Versailles. They pulled at his fur, and shouted abuse when he tried to sleep, and spat at him because, they said, he used to be a king too.

The lion bore his torment for a short while, but in the famine-frosted winter of 1795, when there was no money for food and none to buy anyway, half the animals died, the lion probably among them. After this time, conditions at the menagerie slowly improved, and with the conquests of Napoleon, it was repopulated with inhabitants from new outposts of empire.

Today, there’s no trace of the menagerie beneath the impeccably manicured lawns of Versailles, but a piece of it survives. If you go to the Jardins des Plantes, past the small zoo which still survives and into the Natural History Museum, you’ll find a large glass case, containing a leathery rhinoceros, the first to ever be stuffed and preserved. Today people file by and study him quietly, as civilised and dispassionate as they were always meant to be, save perhaps for the occasional chuckle at his absurdly wrinkly skin. But this is an extraordinary survivor, called across the sea by the last pulse of royal power from France, witness to the end of an era, one of the last beings ever to truly live at Versailles, victim of the violence of the revolution – and yet, here he is. Through all the storms of history and politics, the revolutions and counter-revolutions, monarchies and republics, wars and peaces, the rhinoceros has stood safe in its glass case. Even today, the Versailles menagerie is drawing long-severed worlds into strange meetings.

Louis XV's Rhinoceros

Louis XV’s rhinoceros, at the Natural History Museum in Paris.


The rhinoceros was recently featured in an exhibition at Versailles, ‘Sciences and Curiosities at the Court of Versailles, which I’m bereft at having missed. This nice little video was made to coincide with the exhibition.

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18th Century Biography French History History Paris Uncategorized

Marie Antoinette on Trial: Your Cut-Out-and-Keep Guide to Reading the Trial, Part 1

To coincide with the English account of Marie Antoinette’s trial I uploaded last time, today I begin a guide to reading what can be a confusing and obscure document, and understanding this fascinating event in context.

The background to the trial 

To some extent ever since the Royal Family had been forcibly removed from Versailles and taken to Paris in October 1789, and much more urgently since the failed attempt by the family to escape the city in June 1791, the fate of monarchy in France had been one of the Revolution’s more awkward unanswered questions. When the family was captured at Varennes during the botched escape and returned to Paris, the crowds that lined the streets to watch greeted them in total, uneasy silence – forbidden to make a sound either to cheer or harass the captives.

The return of the royal family to Paris after Varennes

The return of the Royal Family to Paris, after the disastrous flight to Varennes. By Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, after a drawing by Jean-Louis Prieur, 1791.

Marie Antoinette in 1791

Marie Antoinette in 1791, painted by Alexandre Kucharski. Already a sombre-looking figure, legend has it her hair turned white overnight during the return from Varennes.

From this point on, the king was in reality no more than a figurehead in what was still technically a constitutional monarchy. Then on 10th August 1792, large crowds stormed the Tuileries Palace (then located next to the Louvre), and the Royal Family was forced to flee to the protection of the Legislative Assembly. The next day, Louis and Marie Antoinette sat in the Assembly and listened as the country was declared a republic and the position of king and queen ceased to exist. They would henceforth be known as Citoyen and Citoyenne Capet (a title both objected to as being inaccurate, Louis being of the House of Bourbon not the extinct medieval dynasty of Capet).

The Assault on the Tuileries Palace

The assault on the Tuileries Palace, by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, 1793.

Inevitability is such a tasty spice to season history with, though often it tends to overwhelm the subtlety and complexity of the other flavours always present. In this case though, it seems accurate to say that the fate of the former king and queen was sealed during that session of the Legislative Assembly. العاب طاولة محبوسة Stripped of their powers, their necessity to the state and their mystique, every plausible scenario had to end in their death. Alive, they simply posed an unacceptable threat to the stability of the Revolution, and they could never have been allowed into exile, where they could regroup with the existing counter-revolutionary forces.

Despite this, the decision to execute Louis was not an easy one to take, even with the disastrous Brunswick Manifesto, a statement by the invading Imperial and Prussian powers which threatened to wreak ‘an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction’ unless the royals were released unharmed. Louis’ trial was held before the full convention, and most observers agreed that he acquitted himself with affecting dignity, even if it was somewhat shabby and increasingly sad. The guilty verdict on “conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety” was assured from the start, but the vote on the sentence was surprisingly close. 361 voted for immediate execution (plus a further 72 for a delayed execution), 288 against.

The Execution of Louis XVI

The execution of Louis XVI.

The king’s death in January 1793 removed any legal, constitutional, or practical obstacle standing in the way of executing Marie Antoinette too. The sympathy that the king was still able to engender was not to be a factor in proceedings against the queen, who was widely and bitterly reviled by the population at large, and held to be actively working against the Revolution. For this reason, many of even the best biographies of Marie Antoinette tend to dismiss her trial simply as a sham, affording it a couple of pages, perhaps, but otherwise seeing it as a blip in her inexorable descent towards the guillotine. This fails to do the event justice, as though it quite clearly was a sham in the sense that the verdict was never in doubt, that doesn’t make it any less interesting, both as a penetrating insight into the character of Marie Antoinette in this final stage of her life, and into the attitudes of the revolutionary authorities who were to try her.

In the time between the execution of the king and the trial of Marie Antoinette, significant developments radically altered the atmosphere in Paris and gave an added sense of urgency to the Revolution. The Reign of Terror began, which saw rapid and violent strikes against the forces of counter-revolution both within and outside France, as well as seismic shifts in political power away from Danton and towards Robespierre. قوانين لعبة اونو The Vendée rose in revolt against the revolutionary government; a revolt which was so firmly suppressed that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 lives were lost on both sides in the fighting. During the summer of 1793 Marseille, Bordeaux, Lyon were all in conflict with the Convention, and the port of Toulon surrendered to the British. In July, Marat was assassinated.

The War in the Vendée

The fighting in the Vendée, a later (1853) painting by Jean Sorieul.

As summer turned to autumn, a kind of hysteria prevailed throughout France. The revolutionary authorities were almost entirely focused on securing control, and sealing off France from the chaos that surrounded it and threatened to eat it up from within. With so much confusion, the trial of Marie Antoinette suddenly seemed wonderfully controllable and powerfully symbolic – a chance for uncomplicated, visceral, unifying vengeance against a clear enemy of the revolution, and to sever one of the last remaining links to the ancien régime. العروض الترويجية

In August, Marie Antoinette was moved from her prison in the Temple Tower to the Conciergerie prison on the Ile-de-la-Cité, the home of the Revolutionary Tribunal. There she waited, never sure of what was happening, until on 13th October 1793 she was informed that her trial would commence in one day’s time.

Next time: The Trial Begins

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18th Century French History Historical Places Paris Uncategorized

Marie Antoinette on Trial: A Contemporary English Account to Read Online

If there’s one thing everyone knows about Marie Antoinette, it’s that unfortunate cake remark (which, of course, there’s no reason at all to believe she ever said). If there’s a second thing, it’s that she got her head chopped off. A lie and an ending – the foundations of our conceptions of the entire life of a woman. So much is left out of that dessicated biography – good and bad, edifying and embarassing, important and trivial. But frankly, even when you do begin to learn more, even when you read one of the excellent biographies (even the superlative one by historian heartthrob Antonia Frasier) she remains a pretty enigmatic woman, almost impossible to pin down. So much about her life and character seems so contradictory, and to vary so wildly in different accounts, that it’s very hard to emerge with any feeling of knowing her.

There are though a few pivotal events in her life where her character suddenly crystallises before your eyes, and she practically seems to walk into the room. Her trial is certainly the most powerful of these moments, but frustratingly it’s probably one of the least known elements of her life story. In all the hoopla of ‘Marie Antoinette got her head chopped off’, it’s easy to lose sight of basic questions like how that came to happen or precisely why. For this reason and many others the trial record makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the real Marie Antoinette, and more widely anyone interested in the Revolution as a whole. You might say I’m a bit of a fan – so much so, in fact, that I wrote a play about the trial a couple of years ago.

I’m going to write more about the trial in my next post, but for now I wanted to simply post this English account of the proceedings at the trial, published in 1793, the year after the trial, which I’ve scanned from an existing copy. I’m very excited to make this available, as I’ve been unable to find an English account freely available online, and it’s a document that deserves to be available to all.

http://cultureandstuff.com/Authentic_Trial_at_Large_of_Marie_Antoinette_via_Cultureandstuff.pdf

Click here to download the file as a PDF.

Although, as you’ll see, the preface and epilogue added to the record in this edition make the compiler’s sympathies for Marie Antoinette perfectly plain, the account of the trial itself tallies well with other published versions, and this one is most likely based on the accounts which appeared in English newspapers at the time. It is, as far as all my research shows, an authentic account of the proceedings. Also included are a brief  biographical sketch, the ‘secret interrogatories’ (questioning of Marie Antoinette that occurred in private before the trial itself), a description of her execution and events after the trial was closed, and a lamentation for the dead Queen.

I’m biting my tongue to stop myself talking more about it, because it’s remarkable enough to speak for itself and that’s what I want it to do. But I’ll be back next week with more details on the story of the trial, its more extraordinary moments, and its cast of characters.

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17th Century 18th Century 19th Century Historical Places History Lost Paris Medieval Paris

Lost Paris: The Dark (and Dirty) History of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont

There are certain places in the world where sadness collects and seeps into the ground; certain gnarls, certain pockmarks, certain flaws that crept in during the formation of the face of the earth, which can never heal.

Here is a picture of one of them.

The Parc des Buttes Chaumont, by Jean-Louis Vandevivère via Wikimedia Commons.

Alright, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont may not look the part today. In fact, it’s probably my favourite park in Paris, and a beautiful spot for a peaceful picnic or a lazy afternoon in the sun. But don’t let appearances fool you – this place is a pretty strong contender for most godforsaken spot in all of Paris, historically speaking.

If you will get hung up on the visual aids, perhaps this one will help.

© Albert Harlingue / Roger-Viollet

Now we’re talking. Something tells me this chap isn’t here for a picnic. For you see the Parc des Buttes Chaumont occupies the spot where once the infamous gallows of Montfaucon stood. First built in the early 13th century by Saint Louis, this proved such an excellent spot for a hanging that in the 1320s Charles IV demolished the rather amateurish gibbet that been used here, and replaced it with the blood-curdling monstrosity you see above – a 16 metre-high stone structure, allowing of course for more hangings but also for the more efficient display of the corpses of the executed. Situated on a prominent hill, the gibbet could be seen for miles around, and here lifeless bodies could be left for two or three years, bearing less and less resemblance to humanity as crows and wolves gnawed on their bones. As grisly as this warning to those considering a career in crime no doubt was, it doesn’t seem to have been particularly effective, because the gibbet didn’t finally close until 1627.

Montfaucon gibbet in the medieval period.

A bad start in life – you’ll concede – for this particular part of Paris, but a troubled adolescence perhaps, a prelude to happier days? Nope. Happiness would have to wait. The curriculum vitae of this area reads like a descent through the seven circles of hell. First it became a dumping ground for all the ripe sewage of Paris. Then it graduated to a life as a knackers’ yard, where in good years 15,000 unfortunate horses could be sent to meet their makers. The sinister efficiency of Montfaucon meant that these frightening activities spawned horrifying sub-industries of their own. The sewage was processed into a fine powder and sold to gardeners, who sprinkled it over their tulips. The horse hides were sold to tanners (whose own foul stench was legendary), and the festering horse guts were used to breed maggots for fishing.

Miraculously, beneath these layers of filth were found deposits of beautiful white plaster of Paris, so tunnels were driven deep into the ground, adding further to the pock-marked, extra-terrestrial effect of the landscape. Gangs of thieves and bandits soon occupied these tunnels (as they seemed to do in any space left open in Paris for any length of time – like a liquid flowing to fill its container).

The area in 1852, in a photograph by Henri Le Secq.

It’s a mark of the breathtaking audacity of Napoleon III (who was an ardent admirer of London’s great open parks and longed to bring the idea to Paris) and Haussmann that they looked at this terrible place, with its toxic history, and decided to reverse it at a stroke. The gouges in the landscape would make perfect lakes for boating and a romantic grotto, and the area’s natural elevation could be used to display not rotting corpses, but a picturesque temple. And so, in the 1860s, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont was engineered, and history was, quite deliberately, wiped out.

But a past this dark refuses to release its grip without a fight. When the light-headed dreams of Napoleon and Haussmann came crashing down, violence very quickly returned to the Parc des Buttes Chaumonts as in 1871 Communards occupied the park until the government shelled them into submission from the heights of Montmartre. And even today, one of the bridges leading to the temple is referred to, with chilling casualness, as the ‘suicide bridge’.

The ‘suicide bridge’, by austinevan via Flickr.

I don’t believe in the concept of evil, and of course the idea of curses is thoroughly alien to serious history. But it’s hard to avoid the impression that some deeply ill fate hung over this place for much of its history. But then, it’s so beautiful now, such a delightful place for a stroll – there can’t really be anything sinister at work there, can there? Quick, another visual aid – happy thoughts, happy thoughts!

The park, in happier times. © Roger-Viollet

More

  • Paris: Biography of a City by Colin Jones This post is heavily indebted to this wonderful book – I’ve recommended it until I’m blue in the face. If you don’t have it, buy it.
  • Paris en images – a fantastic online resource for historical images of Paris, even if they charge for everything other than measly low-res images!
Categories
17th Century 18th Century Historical Places History Lost Paris Paris Royal History

Lost Paris: A Night at the Palais-Royal

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It’s a July evening in 1786 and you’re visiting Paris for the first time. Perhaps you’re staying with an elderly aunt. You’re quite fond of the old goose really, and to give her her due, she’s been an expert guide to most of the sights of Paris you’ve always dreamt about. But she is a creature of unswerving habit, eating early and packing herself off to bed well before the sun, leaving long nights to fill by yourself. As soon as your beloved tante has retired upstairs and you’re free to leave the house, there’s only one place you want to go – the Palais-Royal.

You’ll have heard lots of rumours about the Palais-Royal – in fact, it’s probably the only thing a lot of people talk about when the subject of Paris comes up. You’ll have heard them cluck about it, in the same way that in years to come they’ll cluck about the Moulin Rouge, and explain to you that the Palais-Royal is a wicked place that proves there’s nothing in Paris but sin. “In a royal palace too”, they’ll say, “the boyhood home of Louis XIV no less!”.

And in a way, they’re right. There is a lot of sin at the Palais-Royal, dilutable to suit all budgets, and available in whatever flavour you happen to prefer. But there’s so much more besides.

With a mixture of curiosity, excitement and nervousness you wind your way through the streets towards the building at the heart of royal Paris, right opposite the Louvre and next to the Opera. The cluckers were right, too, that this was once a tranquil royal palace, quite suitable for leisurely strolls, and a spot for the well-to-do of the city to see and be seen.

The plan de Turgot gives a good impression of the Palais-Royal before the changes of the 1780s – the sort of manicured, orderly place of which no-one could have disapproved.

The Palais would have stayed that way, were it not for one inescapable problem; the same problem which, when it comes down to it, was behind almost every action taken by royalty and high nobility in the 17th and 18th centuries. That problem was that they were constantly strapped for cash. The Orléans family, which owned the palace, had been forced to convert the gardens into a sort of shopping centre in the early 1780s onwards, adding pavilions for shops and cafés, and enclosing the gardens with new streets. Respectable Parisians were absolutely scandalised at these plans to throw the gates open to the hoi polloi and sully the place with the stain of commerce. The poor Duc d’Orleans was lampooned in songs and plays, and booed openly on the streets. Even the king mocked his cousin’s new career as a ‘shopkeeper’. Parisians had decided they hated the new Palais-Royal and always would.

Parisians are – not just in cliché but in historical fact – a fickle bunch.

By 1794, they’d decided that in fact they loved the new Palais-Royal, and always had. It didn’t matter that some of the more ambitious schemes for the redevelopment had come to nothing due to lack of cash, and as a result what greeted the visitor was rows of sordid, muddy tents (known popularly as the Camp of the Tartars). It didn’t matter that almost straight away these tents became a notorious hang-out for thieves, swindlers and prostitutes. The Palais was a runaway success, which every Parisian – even those who’d bewailed the loss of the polite walking ground – came to in their droves. The reason for this apparently mystifying about-turn is that strangely, inside the home of one of the most powerful establishment figures in France, an amazingly rich and varied popular culture had quickly taken root, which carried on the communal tradition of the Pont Neuf and the now vertiginously declining annual fairs – for which Parisians of this time undoubtedly had a need as fundamental as breathing.

So, you, back in the role of our wide-eyed tourist, follow the pulsating glow and the amazing cocophony of sounds until you find yourself inside the Palais. At this point, the Palais became a dizzying ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story.

– It really is the sin you’re after, and you want to meet one of the famously obliging Parisiennes. Perhaps clutching a copy of Almanach des adresses des desnoiselles of Paris de tout genre et de toutes de les classes, a published guide which gives full details on what’s available, you find a girl to suit your budget and your proclivities, and head to the corresponding café. Perhaps you’re here to visit one of the sosies de vedette – a speciality of the Palais – girls who dress up as celebrities of the day, especially opera stars and actresses. It’s unlikely that anyone will judge you. There are 2,000 prostitutes to be found in the Palais at any time of day, and a steady stream of customers. Most of the men of Paris have probably indulged at one time or another.

– You could never face your aunt over breakfast in the morning if you dallied in any of that, thank you very much, so you sidestep the prostitutes. You’re here for the spectacles. You want to see the ombres chinoises, a popular shadow show where tempests, cascades, shipwrecks, and the forges of vulcan are conjured before your very eyes. You want to see the Petits Comédiens, where to circumvent the Comédie-Italienne’s monopoly on stage performance, small children are employed to stand on stage and move their mouths precisely in time with adult actors who sing songs and deliver speeches unseen from off stage. Maybe you want to go to a first night in another theatre, and enjoy the rumpus as rival playwrights come to shout insults and drown out the piece being performed. Like it or not, you can’t avoid seeing Paul Butterbrodt, the 400-pound man, and you might as well drop the few coins necessary to see the miraculously preserved corpse of Zulima (who died 200 years ago), or enter Monsieur Curtis’s waxwork museum, where a reproduction of Marie-Antoinette and her family is the prize exhibit. But what fills you with the most child-like glee is undoubtedly the balloons, which are all the rage at the palais. Tonight, a balloon that’s shaped like a galleon and 26 feet long is bobbing above the Palais. A few weeks ago, it was a lifesize dirigible horse, ridden by a chevalier over their awed heads of the gawpers below.

– You’re a learned soul and demand something more edifying than petty entertainment. You could witness one of the many automaton displays, or watch the universe turn on its axes in Sieur Belon’s mechanical model of the solar system. You could go to a demonstration of scientific experiments. You’ll find these attractions right next to the cheap theatres and cafés, and may be surprised that the queue outside them is just as long. In Paris, the line between magic and science remains blurred, and both are delivered with equal amounts of razzmatazz. There’s a mania for all things new and genuine wonder in scientific discovery. Here at the Palais, there’s even the Musée de Comte d’Artois, a serious institution frequented by some of the great names in contemporary science, and open to any male deemed ‘respectable’. There’s the Club des Planteurs ou Societe des Colons, open only to colonial pioneers, and the Club du Salon des Arts, where members can play chess or peruse opera scores. The Societé Olympique is a sort of League of Extraordinary Gentlepeople, where the criteria for joining seems to have been simply that you were somehow amazing (three Princesses of the Blood were card-carrying members). The Masons are here, of course, and there’s the Societé Philharmonique, a musicians’ club which annoyed the other clubs by constantly making a racket.

– You’re here to shop. Not a bad motive for travelling to these parts, as in the little boutiques one can buy bear grease (for thinning hair), fans, ink, books (including some forbidden and filthy ones), telescopes, opera glasses, stolen dogs, fold-up rubber raincoats, royal lottery tickets, enchanting glowing phosphorous trapped in glass bottles, and a thousand and one other delights.

– You’re here to drink. I admire your honesty. Pick a café – there are lots around – and order any beverage your addled mind can think of. The most famous is the Café de Foy, where, along with your refreshment, you’ll find willing ears for any kind of talk – and, increasingly, it’s political chatter that you’ll hear buzzing around you. One day soon, Camille Desmoulins will jump onto one of these very tables and ignite the revolution, and even the palace’s owner, Philippe d’Orléans will get swept up in the excitment fizzing about in his own backyard, style himself Philippe Égalité and go down in history as the man who voted his own cousin, the King, to the guillotine. But not yet. For now, the politics is whispered, and drowned out by the din of people having fun.

However you chose to spend your night at the Palais-Royal, you’re sure to remember it long after the indigestion of your breakfast with auntie has faded. Nowhere else in the world can offer the kaleidoscopic range of entertainments and stimulations. Nowhere else seems to stimulate every nerve in your body in quite the same way. A Russian who visited in 1790 called it ‘the heart, the soul, the brain, the very synopsis of Paris’. It’s for precisely this reason that the revolution was cradled here, because ironically, within the walls of a palace, the ancien régime hadn’t held sway for a while now. Here, a specifically Parisian form of democracy – both ancient and breathtakingly modern – was the governing force. Here, where there was relatively little reverence for the traditional class system, the church or high nobility, any idea could succeed if it excited the hearts and minds of enough people, and any voice could be heard if it was powerful and interesting enough to rise above the racket. Soon, the king himself would come to resemble one of those children with mouths gaping like fish as others provided his words, and the people of Paris would find the courage to shout from the audience that they’d seen this tired old play before, and it was time for a new and more thrilling spectacle.

Traces Today

In 21st century Paris, the Palais is still a wonder, but for totally opposite reasons. It will often be quiet even on very busy days in Paris, and sitting inside at one of the cafés it’s very easy to forget that you’re in the city at all. There’s a sad, morning-after feeling, coupled with the romance of faded grandeur.

There’s one relic of the scientific mania that gripped the palais in its heyday. In the gardens is a small canon, once fitted with a lens which caused it to fire every day at noon. Its a strange little survivor, but perhaps if you contemplate the eccentricity of this oddity, and multiply that by a thousand, and picture the whole Palais full of such wonders all competing for your attention, you might get close to some sense of what the Palais was like in its prime.

The canon at the Palais-Royal

The canon at the Palais-Royal, by dalbera via flickr.


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 The photo used at the top of this article is by DomiKetu via Flickr.