Not typically on many first round of picks for Paris sightseeing, the Musée Carnavalet, tucked into a ‘modest’ hôtel in the Marais and around the corner from the popular Place des Vosges, is a haphazard mix of obscure relics, revolutionary portraits, Roman ruins and well-manicured gardens that, together, bring the history of Paris alive.
Even though it was a relatively small museum, each room was stuffed, choc-a-block with knick-knacks, portraits, sculptures, books and other relics of several bygone eras. Clearly too much to fully recap here; rather, I just have a few favorites I pulled from the numerous photos to share here, in hopes of piquing the curiosity for those who maybe visiting soon (Mere!)
Some of my favorite displays were those that showed Paris as a medieval city, prior to limestone facades and clean air (ick). The painting above shows houses on the Pont Notre Dame being destroyed after unsanitary conditions, overcrowding and unsafe building practices threatened the safety of the bridge itself, providing a glimpse into the chaos of that time.
Interestingly, it was due to the overcrowding of Pont Notre Dame that the order to build Pont Neuf was given by Henry II. Now the oldest intact bridge in the city, this “New Bridge” is decorated on both sides with grotesque gargoyle masks. The museum featured several of the original heads on display. The Pont Neuf is one of my favorite landmarks in the city and it is especially beautiful at night when lit with a soft yellow glow that accentuates the exaggerated, unique features of each mask. In person, the faces were gigantic – at least 3-4 feet in length and 2-3 feet across – really driving home the extreme difficulty it must have been to mount all 385 of them during construction.
The Carnavalet is particularly known for its collection of French Revolution memorabilia. Prior to making our way to that display, I took the time to really study these models of Paris neighborhoods prior to the uprising. Intercity guerilla warfare was used by the French people against the army, which often ended up trapped in narrow alleys and winding streets while in civil combat, leaving them completely exposed for attack. This inability to control the populace would later lead to the complete revamping of the city into one of long, straight, wide boulevards (by Haussmann) that could easily be used for maneuvering large forces, if necessary.
The collections of French revolutionary documents, portraits, paintings – even war drums – were truly stunning. After reading about the storming of the Bastille for years in history class, it was incredibly satisfying to see a model of the infamous prison in person. It appears that it was as impenetrable as the tales told. Even the keys for the cells were on display!
Two of the most striking paintings were those below depicting the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. I was caught off-guard to see how Louis XVI is still waiting for the blade, but the artist seemingly had no compunction about showing the blood spurting from Marie Antoinette’s neck.
The collection of royal pieces was extensive and there was even a replica of their prison room set up for viewing (very posh, for a prison cell).
After several rooms of that took us quickly through the Revoluton, Reign of Terror and the beginning of Napoleon’s Empire, it was definitely time for a bit of fresh air. One of the most stunning aspects of the museum were the gorgeously manicured gardens, invisible to the outside and there for the enjoyment (and picnic needs) of visitors. Fleur-de-lis were cut into the low-lying shrubs, and fresh flowers were blooming all around.
Benches were provided for guests to sit a while, perhaps enjoy a sandwich and take some time to process everything that had been seen. Ivy crawled over castle walls and other museum goers glanced out at the gardens from windows high above.
Even on a humid, hot, overcast day, it was a peaceful place to enjoy a bit of quiet, review the guidebook and reenergize for the last push through the museum, one that took us back farther than any exhibit yet.
Strangely out of chronological order (although wonderfully cool after transversing the somewhat stuffy museum), the Musee Carnvalet houses an impressive collection from ancient Lutetia, the Roman’s name for village that was to become Paris, when it was founded in 52 AD. These included partial statuary, a dugout canoe (apparently older even than the Roman settlement), sarcophagi and human remains.
It seemed fitting to end the tour in Lutèce as a reminder that a city has been in this place for millennia, called different names and lead by a wide variety of kings, emperors and, now, presidents. The overwhelming message was one of timelessness – in the face of revolution, terror, squalor or splendor, Paris lives on.