DIRECTLY before the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Louis the Rue de Sevigne leads through to the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois where at the angle of the two streets stands the chief treasure of the Marais, the famous house of Madame de Sevigne, the Hotel Carnavalet. The perfection of the type of private dwellings, of which the Hotel de Sully is a later and more ostentatious development, the Hotel Carnavalet, having been taken early by the city for the installation of its municipal museum, has escaped all the misfortunes of degenerating private occupation and ownership. Lodged in its own chief exhibit, the museum is one of the most thrilling which Paris offers. It deals with the history of the city, especially in the parts which the average visitor knows bestthe Revolution and Napoleon. It has all the charm of the souvenir of that delightful letter writer, its most famous occupant.
The fame of Carnavalet covers many generations. The original part of the hotel, which had been largely added to accommodate the growing collections without disturbing the effect of the authentic portion, is contemporary with the famous facade of the court of the Louvre, upon which we have dwelt at such length, and it also presents the work of the same architect and sculptor. Begun by Pierre Lescot and Jean Goujon, in 1544, it was completed when two years later these two were called to the Louvre, by Jean Bullant assisted by several students of Goujon, who did not want to abandon entirely its sculptures.
The house has had many occupants. It was built for Jacques des Ligneris, president of the parliament of Paris and representative of France in the Council of Trente. The next important owner was the widow of Francois de Kernevenoy, a grand seigneur of Brittany, first equerry to Henri II and preceptor of the duc d’Anjou, later Henri III. At the court the rude Brittany ” Kernevenoy ” became ” Carnavalet,” the name which above all others has survived as the title of the property.
The original house, as one can readily see, consisted of a square of buildings surrounding a small open court. At the time of its first owners it comprised a main structure whose handsome facade with reliefs, if not by Goujon himself, at least of his school, faces us as we stand at the grill under the archway of the entrance. The wings were of one story only and the court was closed across the front by a facade of which the feature was a sort of triumphal arch, embellished with sculptures by Goujon.
Madame Carnavalet died at a great age, in 1608, and her successor, Florent d’Argouges, treasurer of Marie de Medicis, made the first changes in the house, building as it is thought the upper stories of the wings. In 1654 under another occupant Francois Mansart entirely transformed the hotel, respecting, however, in the main, the work of Lescot and Goujon.
Standing in the old court of the hotel, the main facade is decorated by four large reliefs of the Seasons, each accompanied by its appropriate sign of the zodiacSpring with the ram, Summer with the crab, Autumn with the scales, and Winter with the goat. Except for the Ceres, which is much the most lovely, these reliefs are too evidently inferior to the nymphs of the Fountain of the Innocents to be from the same chisel, and three of them were probably executed by another hand, from Goujon’s design. Of the sides or wings of the court, the lower floor only dates from the Renaissance and the handsome heads or masks, fauns and satyrs, ‘of the keystones of the arches are attributed to Paul Ponce.
For the decoration of the new facades Mansart employed two sculptors of unequal talent. The more than mediocre reliefs of the upper storey of the right wing, representing Juno, Hebe, Diana, and Flora, with their attributes, are by an unknown sculptor. The reliefs on the opposite side, representing the four elementsEarth, Water, Air, and Firesurmounted by their attributes, are thought to be the work of Gerard van Obstal, a Flemish sculptor brought to Paris by cardinal Richelieu to work upon the Louvre.
Above the entrance door to the main stairway are beautiful reliefs of Jean Goujon representing two geniuses reclining and holding lighted torches, symbolical of the vigilance of Justice even when she seems to repose. Upon the arch of the porte-cochere are admirable figures of Jean Goujon in his best manner. The figure of the keystone, Authority standing upon a globe, is supported by two figures of Fame lying on the extrados of the arch, holding palms and laurels. The two submissive lions which now form part of the decoration of the street facade were originally placed over -the two little side doors of the court and completed the symbolism of this ensemble, which recalls that this hotel was built for a president of parliament.
In the centre of the court is the bronze statue of Louis XIV, by Antoine Coyzevox, formerly at the Hotel de Ville. The king is represented standing, wearing the Roman costume of a warrior. On the pedestal are two reliefs by the same sculptor; to the right France annihilating heresy, a souvenir of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes; to the left Royal Munificence distributing food to the starving poor, in souvenir of the organized charity after the terrible famine of 1662.
This statue was erected in the court of the Hotel de Ville on July 14, 1689, a century to the day before the storming of the Bastille. It commemorated the reconciliation of Louis XIV with the city of Paris, after the troubles of the Fronde, which the king was long in pardoning, and since which he had never been willing to appear at the Hotel de Ville. Finally, on January 30, 1687, he accepted an invitation to be present there at a f festin given in his honour. Upon entering the court he saw the marble statue of Gilles Guerin, erected in 1654, which represented the king as a Roman trampling under foot the rebel Parisian. ” Take away that figure,” said Louis, ” it is no longer in season.” The same night it was removed and now decorates the interior court of the chateau of Chantilly.
In memory of this solemn banquet Coyzevox was asked to make the statue erected two years after. Somehow it escaped the Revolutionary storm and before 1871 was again in the court of the Hotel de Ville and in 1890 was transported to its present place at Carnavalet.
The facade of the building on the Rue de Sevigne dates from the Mansart constructions in the XVIIth century, but preserves the sculptures of the original entrance, attributed to Jean Goujon and Germain Pilon. To the right and left of the door are the two square reliefs, first placed inside the court, of the subdued lions against a back-ground of war trophies. These reliefs are by Goujon, and are thought to have been inspired by a famous morceau in the Grand’ Salle of the Palais. ” On the door of the Chambre Doree, where parliament sat,” says Corrozet, ” there was a large, gilded lion, having the head lowered to the ground and the tail between his legs, signifying that every person, of whatever. rank in the realm, should obey and humble himself under the laws and judgment of the court.” The lion of the Palais gave the sculptor the motif for those which he carved for the hotel of Ligneris, the president of parliament.
Opening upon the garden of the museum, in the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, is an arch, called the Arc de Nazareth, which once traversed a street of that name in the Cite, near the Palais de Justice, and established a means of communication between the old Chambre des Comptes and its archives. When the Palais de Justice was ex-tended this street was suppressed and its arch taken down and transported stone for stone to Carnavalet.
The fragment undoubtedly dates from the time of Henri II for we see upon the eight consoles supporting the arch and its archivolts, the monogram and device of this king several times repeated amongst the heads of satyrs and women. The excellence of its style and the vigour of its sculpture also would indicate that Gou j on, if not Lescot, worked upon it, or that it is at least of their epoch. The grill which closes the arch is part of the restoration.
We find the same device and monogram, commonly accepted as a direct and official allusion to the amours of Henri II and Diane de Poitiers, on the Louvre, at Fontainebleau, in the chapel of the chateau at Vincennes, in the church of Gous sainville, etc., surmounted by the royal crown. We know that Catherine de Medicis was forced to accept the presence of her powerful rival even in the menage and so with that indomitable will which enabled her to endure humiliation without appearing to accept it, she did her utmost to live down the scandal by accepting the device of the monogram and the crescent as her own. After the death of Henri II, Catherine continued piously to use the symbol, marking, however, distinctly the ends of the crescent to form the letter C, as we see it engraved on the tombs at Saint-Denis and on the astronomical column, which she had built during her widowhood and which still stands against the old Halle au Ble (now the Bourse du Commerce).
We have been able to touch but lightly upon the treasures of the Marais, than which no quarter in Paris is more rich in historic relics. Carnavalet is in many respects its chief jewel as it is the last monument of civil architecture of the Renaissance which modern Paris offers to the admiration of artists. Of its many occupants it is Madame de Sevigne who has left the most potent souvenir of her passage. She adored Carnavalet and lived there nearly nineteen years, from 1677 to 1696, up to within a short time of her death. She did not, however, die in the house, but at the Chateau de Grignan.
The property was seized by the state under the Revolution and in 1866 Paris bought it for its historical museum. At this time the name of the street which passes before the house was changed from the Rue Culture Sainte-Catherine to Rue Sevigne, which adds nothing to the glory of the letter writer, but by which Paris loses the last trace of an old monastery which existed here before the XIIIth century.