Wandering In Paris – The Marais

THE Marais is that district of old streets and palaces which is bounded on the south by the Rue St. Antoine, on the east by the Rue du Turenne, on the west by the Rue du Temple, and fades away in the north somewhere below the Rue de Bretagne. The Rue des Francs Bourgeois is its central highway east and west.

It was my original intention to devote a large proportion of this book to this fascinating area — to describe it minutely street by street — and I have notes for that purpose which would fill half the volume alone. But the publication of the £32,000,000 scheme for renovating this and other of the older parts of Pairs (one of the principal points in which is the isolation of the Musée Carnavalet, which is the heart of the Marais), coming just at that time, acted like a douche of iced water, and I abandoned the project. Instead therefore I merely say enough (I hope) to impress on every reader the desirability, the necessity of hastening to the Rue des Francs Bourgeois and its dependencies, and refer them to the two French writers whom I have found most useful in my own researches — the Marquis de Rochegude, author of a Guide Pratique à travers le Vieux Paris (Hachette) and the Vicomte de Villebresme, author of Ce que reste du Vieux Paris (Flammarion). To these I would add M. Georges Cain, the director of the Carnavalet, to whom I refer later.

No matter where one enters the Marais, it offers the same alluring prospect of narrow streets and high and ancient houses, once the abode of the nobility and aristocracy, but now rookeries and factories — and, over all, that sense of thorough insanitation which so often accompanies architectural charm in France and Italy and which seems to matter so little to Latin people. Hence the additional wickedness of destroying this district. The Municipality, however, having acquired superfine foreign notions as to public health, will doubt-less have its way.

Wherever one enters the Marais one finds the traces of splendour, intrigue and romance; howsoever modern conditions may have robbed them of their glory, to walk in these streets is, for anyone with any imagination, to re-create Dumas. For the most part one must make one’s own researches, but here and there a tablet may be found, such as that over the entrance to a narrow and sinister passage at No. 38 Rue des Francs Bourgeois, which reads thus : “Dans ce passage en sortant de l’hôteI Barbette le Duc Louis d’Orléans frère du Roi Charles VI. fut assassiné par Jean Sans Peur, Duc de Bourgogne, dans le nuit du 23 ou 24 Novembre, 1407.” Five hundred years ago ! That gives an idea of the antiseptic properties of the air of Paris. The Duke of Orléans, I might remark here, was symmetrically avenged, for his son assassinated Jean Sans Peur on the bridge of Montereau all in due course.

The Marais was at its prime from the middle of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth ; at which period the Faubourg St. Antoine was abandoned by fashion for the Faubourg St. Germain, as we shall see when the time comes to wander in the Rue de Varenne and the Rue de Grenelle on the other side of the river.

Let us enter the Marais by the Rue du Temple at the Square du Temple, a little south of the Place de la République. One must make a beginning somewhere. The Temple, which has now disappeared, was the head-quarters of the Knight Templars of France before their suppression in 1307: it then became the property of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, who held it until the Revolution, when all property seems to have changed hands. Rousseau found sanctuary here in 1765; and here Louis XVII. and Marie Antoinette were imprisoned for a while in 1792. More tragic by far, it was here that the little Dauphin died. Napoleon pulled down the Tower: Louis XVIII. on his accession awarded the property to the Princess de Condé, and Louis-Philippe, on his, took it back again.

The Rue du Temple has many interesting old houses and associations. Just north of the Square is the church of Elizabeth of Hungary, the first stone of which was laid in 1628 by a less sainted monarch, Marie de Médicis. It is worth entering to see its carved wood scenes from Scripture history. At 193 once lived Madame du Barry ; at 153 was, in the reign of Louis XV., the barreau des vinaigrettes — the vinaigrette being the forerunner of the cab, a kind of sedan chair and jinrickshaw ; at 62 died Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France, in the Hôtel de Montmorency.

From the Square du Temple we may also walk down the Rue des Archives, parallel with the Rue du Temple on the east. This street now extends to the Rue de Rivoli. It is rich in old palaces, some with very beautiful relics of their grandeur still in existence, such as the staircase at No. 78. The fountain at the corner of the Rue des Haudriettes dates only from 1705. At No. 58 is the gateway, restored, of the old palace of the Constable de Clisson, built in 1371. Later it belonged to the de Guise family and then to the de Soubise. The Revolution made it the property of the State, and Napoleon directed that the Archives should be preserved here. The entrance is in the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, across the green court; but do not go on a cold day, because there is no heating process, owing to the age of the building and the extraordinary value of the collections. The rooms in themselves are of some interest for their Louis XV. decoration and mural paintings, but one goes of course primarily to see the handwriting of the great. Here is the Edict of Nantes signed by Henri IV.; a quittance signed by Diana de Poictiers, very boldly; a letter to Parliament from Louis XI., in his atrocious hand; a codicil added by Saint Louis to his will on board a vessel on the coast of Sardinia, exquisitely written. The scriveners have rather gone off than improved since those days ; look at the “Registre des Enquêtions royaux en Normande,” 1248, for work of delicate minuteness. Marie Thérèse, wife of Louis XIV., wrote an attractive hand, but Louis XIV.’s own signature is dull. Voltaire is discovered to have written very like Swinburne.

Relics of the Revolution abound. Here is Marie Antoinette’s last letter to the Princess Elizabeth, written the night before she was executed ; a letter of Pétion, bidding his wife farewell, and of Barbaroux to his mother, both stained with tears. Here also is the journal of Louis XVI., 1766-1792, and the order for his inhumation (as Louis Capet), 21st January, 1793. His will is here too; and so is Napoleon’s. I say no more because the collection is so vast, and also because a franc buys a most admirable catalogue, with facsimiles, beginning with the monogram of Charlemagne himself.

On leaving the Archives we may take an easterly course along the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, with the idea of making eventually for the Carnavalet; but it is well to loiter, for this is the very heart of the Marais. One’s feet will always be straying down byways that call for closer notice, and it is very likely that the Carnavalet will not be reached till to-morrow after all. Indeed, let “Hasta manana” be your Marais motto.

One of the first buildings that one notices is the Mont de Piété, the chief of the Paris pawnbroking establishments. I am told that the system is an admirable one; but my own experience is against this opinion, for I was unable on a day of unexpected stress at the end of 1907 to effect an entrance at the very reasonable hour of a quarter past five. The closing of the English pawnbrokers at seven — the very moment at which the ordinary man’s financial troubles begin — is sufficiently uncivilised ; but to cease to lend money on excellent gold watches at five o’clock in the after-noon (with the bank closed on the morrow, too, being New Year’s Day) is a scandal. My adventures in search of relief among French tradesmen who had been at my feet as recently as yesterday, before supplies had broken down, I shall never forget, nor shall I relate them here. This aims at being an agreeable book.

It is interesting to note that one of the entrances to the Mont de Piété is reserved for clients who wish to raise money on deeds, and I have seen cabmen very busy in bringing to it people who quite shamelessly hold their papers in their hands. And why on earth not ? And yet your English pawner seldom reaches the Three Brass Balls with such publicity or by any other medium than his poor feet. Our Mont de Piété for the respect-able is the solicitor’s office. A trace of the wall, and one of its towers, built around Paris by Philip Augustus in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, may be seen in the courtyard of the Mont de Piété; but the wall is better observed in the Rue des Guillemites, at No. 14.

All about here once stood a large convent of the Blancs-Manteaux, or Servants of the Virgin Mary, an order which came into being in Florence in the thirteenth century and of whom the doctor Benazzi was the general. After the Blancs-Manteaux came the Hermits of St. Guillaume, or Guillemites, and later the Benedictines took it over. Next the Mont de Piété at the back is the church of the Blancs-Manteaux in its modern form. It is plain and unattractive, but it wears an air of some purpose, and one feels that it is much used in this very popular and not too happy quarter. Just opposite, in a doorway, I watched an old chiffonnière playing with a grey rabbit. Every inch of this neighbourhood offers priceless material to the hand of Mr. Muirhead Bone.

One of the old tavern signs of Paris is to be seen close by, at the corner of the Rue des Blancs-Manteaux and the Rue des Archives: a soldier standing by a cannon, representing l’homme armé. It is a comfort-able little retreat and should be encouraged for such antiquarian piety.

The pretty turret at the corner of the Rue des Francs Bourgeois and the Rue Vieille du Temple marks the site of the hotel of Jean de la Baule. Turning to the left up the Rue Vieille du Temple we come at No. 87 to a very beautiful ancient mansion, with a spacious courtyard, built in 1712 for the Cardinal de Rohan. It is now the national printing works : hence the statue of Gutenburg in the midst. Visitors are allowed to see the house itself once a week, but I have not done so. You will probably not be interfered with if you just step to the inside of the second courtyard to see the bas-relief of the steeds of Apollo. Nos. 102 to 108 in the same street mark the remains of another fine eighteenth-century hotel. There is also a house which one should see in the lower part of the street, on the south side of the Francs Bourgeois — No. 47, where by penetrating boldly one comes to a perfect little courtyard with some beautiful carvings in it, and, above, a green garden, tended, when I was there, by a Little Sister of the Poor. The principal courtyard has a very interesting bas-relief of Romulus and Remus at their usual meal, and also an old sundial. This palace was built in 1638.

Returning to the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, we find at No. 38 the little impasse already referred to, where the Duc d’Orléans was assassinated. At No. 30 is a very impressive red-brick palace with a courtyard, now a nest of offices and factories, once the hotel of Jean de Fourcy. A bust of Henri IV. has a place there. At No. 25 on the other side (seen better from the Rue Pavée) is an even more splendid abode — now also cut up into a rookery — the Hôtel de Lamoignon, once Hôtel d’Angoulême, built for Diane, Duchess of Angoulême, daughter of Henri II.: ,hence the symbols of the chase in the ornamentation. The hotel passed to President de Lamoignon in 1655.

And here is the Carnavalet — the spacious building, with a garden and modern additions, on the left — once the Hôtel des Ligneries, afterwards the Hôtel de Kernevenoy, afterwards the Hôtel de Sévigné, and now the museum of the city of Paris. The only way to under-stand Paris is to make repeated visits to this treasure-house. You will find new entertainment and instruction every time, because every time you will carry thither impressions of new objects of interest whose past you will want to explore. For in the Carnavalet every phase of the life of the city, from the days of the Romans and the Merovingians to our own, is illustrated in one way or another. The pictures of streets alone are inexhaustible : the streets that one knows to-day as they were yesterday and the day before yesterday and hundreds of years ago; the streets one has just walked through on the way here, in their stages of evolution : such, for example, as the picture of the wooden Pont des Meuniers in 1380 with the Tour Saint-Jacques behind it; the streets with dramas of the Revolution in progress, such as the picture of the emblems of Royalty being burned before the statue of Liberty (where the Luxor column now stands) in the Place de la Concorde on August 10th, 1793; such as the picture of the famous sermon being preached in the course of the Jeu de Paume on June 20th, 1789; such as the picture of the funeral of Marat. For the perfection of topographical drawing look at the series by F. Hoffbauer. But it is impossible and needless to particularise. The visitor with a topographical or historical bent will find himself in a paradise and will return and return. One visit is ridiculous.

The catalogue, I may say, is not good, therein falling into line with the sculpture catalogue at the Louvre. Everything may be in it, but the arrangement is poor. In such a museum every article and every picture should of course have a description attached, if only for the benefit of the poor visitor, the humblest citizen of Paris whose museum it is.

There are a few works of art here too, as well as topographical drawings. Georges Michel, for example, who looked on landscape much as Méryon looked on architecture and preferred a threatening sky to a sunny one, has a prospect from the Plaine St. Denis. Vollon paints the Moulin de la Galette on Montmartre as it was in 1865; Troyon spreads out St. Cloud. Here also are a charming portrait by Chardin of his second wife; the well-known picture of David’s Life School; drawings by Watteau ; an adorable unsigned “Marchand de Lingerie “; an enchanting leg on a blue pillow by Boucher; a portrait by Prud’hon of an unknown man, very striking; and some exquisite work by Louis Boilly.

The Musée is strong in Henri IV. and the later Louis’, but it is of course in relics of the Revolution and Napoleon that the interest centres. A casquette of Liberty; the handle of Marat’s bathroom; a portrait of “La Veuve Capet” in the Conciergerie, in the room that we have seen ; a painted life-mask of Voltaire, very horrible, and the armchair in which he died ; a copy of the constitution of 1793 bound in the skin of a man; Marat’s snuff-box; Madame Roland as a sweet and happy child, — these I remember in particular.

Latude is, however, the popular figure — Latude the prisoner of the Bastille who escaped by means of implements which he made secretly and which are now preserved here, near a portrait of the enfranchised gentleman, robust, portly and triumphant, pointing with one hand to his late prison while the other grasps the rope ladder. Latude’s history is an odd one. He was born in 1725, the natural son of a poor girl: after accompanying the army in Languedoc as a surgeon, or surgeon’s assistant, he reached Paris in 1748 and proceeded to starve. In despair he hit upon an ingenious trick, which wanted nothing but success to have made him. He prepared an infernal machine of infinitesimal aptitude — a contrivance of practically harmless but perhaps somewhat alarming explosives — and this he sent anonymously to the Marquise de Pompadour, and then immediately after waited upon her in person at Versailles to say that he had overheard some men plotting to destroy her by means of this kind of a bomb, and he had come post-haste to warn her and save her life. It was a good story, but Latude seems to have lacked some necessary gifts as an impostor, for his own share was detected and he was thrown into the Bastille on the 1st of May, 1749. A few weeks later he was transferred to the prison at Vincennes, from which he escaped in 1750. A month later he was retaken and again placed in the Bastille, from which he escaped six years later. He got away to Holland, but was quickly recaptured ; and then again he escaped, after nine more years. He was then treated as a lunatic and put into confinement at Charenton, but was discharged in 1777. His liberty, however, seems to have been of little use to him, and he rapidly qualified for gaol again by breaking into a house and threatening its owner, a woman, with a pistol, and he was imprisoned once more. Altogether he was under lock and key for the greater part of thirty-five years; but once he was free in 1784 he kept his head, and not only remained free but became a popular hero, and did not a little, by reason of a heightened account of his sufferings under despotic prison rule, to inflame the revolutionaries. These memoirs, by the way, in the preparation of which he was assisted by an advocate named Thiery, were for the most part untruthful, and not least so in those passages in which Latude described his own innocence and ideals.

Our own canonised prison-breaker, Jack Sheppard, was a better hero than this man.

The little room devoted to Napoleon is filled with an intimate melancholy. Many personal relics are here – even to a toothbrush dipped in a red powder. His nécessaires de campagne so compactly arranged illustrate the minute orderliness of his mind, and the workmanship of the travelling cases that hold them proves once again his thoroughness and taste. Everything had to be right. One of his maps of la campagne de Prusse is here; others we shall see as the Invalides.

The relics of Madame de Sévigné, who once lived in this beautiful house, are not very numerous ; but they exercise their spell. Her salon is very much as she left it, except that the private staircase has disappeared and a china closet takes its place. Within these walls have La Rochefoucauld and Bossuet conversed ; here she sat, pen in hand, writing her immortal letters. “Lisons tout Madame de Sévigné” was the advice of Sainte, Beuve, while her most illustrious English admirer, Edward FitzGerald, often quotes her. He came to her late, not till 1875, but she never loosened her hold. “I have this Summer,” he wrote to Mrs. W. H. Thompson, “made the Acquaintance of a great Lady, with whom I have become perfectly intimate, through her Letters, Madame de Sévigné. I had hitherto kept aloof from her, because of that eternal Daughter of hers ; but ` it’s all Truth and Daylight,’ as Kitty Clive said of Mrs. Siddons. Her Letters from Brittany are best of all, not those from Paris, for she loved the Country, dean Creature ; and now I want to go and visit her ` Rochers,’ but never shall.” “I sometimes lament,” he says (to Mrs. Cowell), “I did not know her before; but perhaps such an acquaintance comes in best to cheer one toward the end.” With these pleasant praises in ouf ears let us leave the Carnavalet.

The Rue de Sévigné itself has many interesting houses, notably on the south side of the Rue des Francs Bourgeois; No. 11, for example, was once a theatre, built by Beaumarchais in 1790. That is nothing; the interesting thing is that he built it of material from the destroyed Bastille and the destroyed church of St. Paul. The fire station close by was once the Hôtel de Perron de Quincy. It was in this street, on the day of the Fête Dieu in 1392, that the Constable de Clisson, whose house we saw in the Rue des Archives, was attacked by Pierre de Craon.

The Rue des Francs Bourgeois is the highway of the Marais, and the Carnavalet is its greatest possession; but, as I have said, the Marais is inexhaustible in architectural and historical riches. We may work our way through it, back to the Rue du Temple by any of these ancient streets; all will repay. The Rue du Temple extends to the Rue de Rivoli, striking it just by the Hôtel de Ville, but the lower portion, south of the Rue Rambuteau, is not so interesting as the upper. There is, however, to the west of it, just north of the Rue de Rivoli, a system of old streets hardly less picturesque (and sometimes even more so) than the Marais proper, in the centre of which is the church of St. Merry, with one of the most wonderful west fronts anywhere — a mass of rich and eccentric decoration. The Saint him-self was Abbot of Autun. He came to Paris in the seventh century to visit the shrines of St. Denis and St. Germain. At that time the district which we are now traversing was chiefly forest, in which the kings of France would hunt, leaving their palace in the Ile de la Cité and crossing the river to this wild district — wild though so near. St. Merry established himself in his simple way near a little chapel in the woods, dedicated to St. Peter, that stood on this spot, and there he died. After his death his tomb in the chapel performed such miracles that St. Peter was forgotten and St. Merry was exalted, and when the time came to rebuild, St. Merry ousted St. Peter altogether.

St. Merry’s florid west front is in the Rue St. Martin, once the Roman road from Paris to the north and to England, and by the Rue St. Martin we may leave this district; but between it and the Rue du Temple there is much to see — such as, for example, the Rue Verrerie, south of St. Merry’s, the head-quarters of the ancient glassworkers; the Rue Brisemiche, quite one of the best of the old narrow Paris streets, with iron staples and hooks still in the walls at Nos. 20, 23, 26 and 29, to which chains could be fastened so as to turn a street into an impasse during times of stress and thus be sure of your man; the Rue Taillepin, also leading out of the Rue du Clôitre St. Merry into the Rue St. Merry, which has some fine old houses of its own, notably No. 36 and the quaint Impasse du Boeuf at No. 10.

Parallel with the Rue St. Merry farther north is the Rue de Venise, which the Vicomte de Villebresme boldly calls the most picturesque in old Paris. Now a very low quarter, it was once literally the Lombard Street of Paris, the chief abode of Lombardy money-lenders, while the long and beautiful Rue Quincampoix, into which it runs on the west, was also a financial centre, containing no less an establishment than the famous Banque of John Law, the Scotchman who for a while early in the eighteenth century controlled French finance. When Law had matured his Mississippi scheme, he made the Rue Quincampoix his head-quarters, and houses in it, we read, that had been let for £40 a year now yielded £800 a month. In the winter of 1719-20 Paris was filled with speculators besieging Law’s offices for shares. But by May the crash had come and Law had to fly. Many a house in the Rue Quincampoix, which is now sufficiently innocent of high finance, dates from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. There is a fine doorway at No. 34.

We may regain the Rue St. Martin, just to the east, by the Rue des Lombards, which brings us to the flamboyant front of St. Merry’s once more. The Rue St. Martin, which confesses its Roman origin in its straightness, is still busy with traffic, but neither itself nor the Rue St. Denis, two or three hundred yards to the west, is one-tenth as busy as it was before the Boulevard Sebastopol was cut between them to do all the real work. It is a fine thoroughfare and no doubt of the highest use, but what beautiful narrow streets of old houses it must have destroyed ! We may note in the Rue St. Martin the pretty fountain at No. 122, and the curious old house at No. 164, and leave it at the church of St. Nicholas-des-Champs, no longer in the fields any more than London’s St. Martin’s is.

And now after so many houses let us see some pictures !