Every time someone asks me to recommend an attraction in Paris, my first recommendation is not the Eiffel tower or the Louvre museum, but a museum not many have heard of – the Carnavalet museum for the history of Paris. This is my favourite museum in the City of Lights, and I wish to dedicate an entire post to this wonderful museum and cultural gem.
Although the history of Paris is usually quite violent, the museum dedicated to it resides in a quiet, intimate palace, despite its location in the bustling heart of the Marais, in Rue des Francs Bourgeois and its many boutique stores. The palace was built by the widow of the Polish king’s emissary in France during the 16th century. The emissary’s name was Kernevenoy, but since the French simply couldn’t pronounce his name, somewhere along the way it turned into Carnavalet instead. During the 17th century this palace was home to one of the most talented writers in France, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné (1626-1696), and here she wrote her famous letters to her daughter, Comtesse de Grignan. In this letters she described, in detail, the life in the Marais quarter and in the king’s court in Versailles, and to this day those letters constitute an important historical source to anyone interested in the history of France at the time of Louis XIV.
The Carnavalet palace was bought by the municipality of Paris in 1866, in order to host architectural gems that were saved from the destruction forced on Paris by Napoleon III and the Baron Haussmann as part of the reconstruction plans for the City of Lights. Over the years, as the museum continuously grew bigger, it has been expanded to the adjacent Hôtel Peletier Saint Fargeau. On first glance, the museum seems very old-fashioned (it has no interactive signs like in Château de Champs-sur-Marne, and doesn’t have enough material and written explanations in English (although they do have English audio guides), but it allows us to travel along several thousands of years of Parisian history, and find not only the kings and counts, but also the “ordinary people”, which is, in my opinion, the main reason that this is one of the most important museums in Paris (personally, I always make a point to go there whenever I guide a tour).
The birth of Paris
The French history exhibition begins in the rooms dedicated to the earliest period of Paris, the Neolithic period (approximately 10,000 BC). It turns out that Paris was not founded in Île de la Cité, but in Bercy area, where remnants of various stone tools have been discovered, such as knifes, plates, spoons, and even a ladle.
I’m pretty sure that if they dig deep enough, they will also find a buckskin apron that was used by the first Parisian waiter (anyone who came across the Parisian waiters probably noticed their straightforwardness, lack of flexibility and strictness, which they probably dragged along with them straight from the stone age).
Next you can see remnants from Lutecia, which is what Paris was called during the time of the Romans and the Gauls. Lutetia means marshes, much like the word Marais that describes the quarter in which the museum resides. There you can find, among the rest, knifes and other chirurgical devices, which bear great resemblance to the tools surgeons use today.
Before we continue: Dinner and a Seine cruise - the perfect combination?
The renaissance period and the French revolution
From this point we take a time-leap into the renaissance period (if you wish to get to know Paris of the medieval ages, you will have to go to Cluny museum). Here you can find a very interesting combination of items residing in the same room.
For example, a portrait of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (1542-1587), who was also the queen of France for about a year, while married to François II (who ruled in 1559-1560), is exhibited alongside a painting of a party, in which a drunk man feels up a woman by the Notre Dame cathedral. You will find here a portrait of Queen of France, Catherine de Medicis (1519-1589), who planned the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, in the course of which thousands of protestants were murdered in the streets of Paris. Her black eyes and her severe gaze make her portrait seem as if it had been a stone sculpture, and not an oil painting. Without a doubt, a single stare from her would turn any of you catholic.
And that is exactly what happened to her son-in-law, Henri IV, who converted his religion several times, until he finally converted into Catholicism and came up with the saying “Paris is well worth a Mass” (“Paris vaut bien une messe”). Henri IV is commemorated in a rather strange way in this museum. He has no chamber of his own, but a hallway, where you can find remnants of his original statue that was located at the Pont Neuf, and was destroyed by the revolutionaries in 1792. The Carnavalet museum somehow managed to get their hands on a giant boot, an arm, a hand, and a horse’s leg, which became sort of a memorial jigsaw puzzle.
And indeed, the section dedicated to the French revolution is the most interesting part of the museum, in my opinion, because that turbulent era is presented through the eyes of ordinary people. There you can find signs that have been raised during protests, which were undoubtedly created at home by the protesters themselves, mainly because of the spelling errors one can find there (one of the signs says Libeté instead of Liberté).So any of you who studies French these days can relax – even in the 18th century most of the French had spelling errors, so your teacher can’t complain about your own.
There are also quite a few portraits of public figures dressed in revolutionary clothes (which was a good idea in a time when anyone who couldn’t prove their patriotism was sent to meet the “national razor”). It is interesting to see that most of the paintings are very primitive, which probably means that most of the good painters have escaped France during this period. And speaking of the guillotine, it is also very present there, with miniature ivory models.
However, the strangest exhibit in this wing is a clock that shows the revolutionary time of the day (the revolutionaries divided the day into 10 hours of 100 minutes each, and each minute was consisted of 100 seconds). Interestingly enough, this invention didn’t catch on. Just think about it – if each revolutionary hour was equal to 2.4 of our hours, the famous Parisian lunch break, which lasts about two hours, would have lasted nearly 5 hours (a very good reason indeed to start a revolution).
The last days of the king of France are also well-documented here, since the museum managers had managed to reconstruct Louis XVI and his family’s rooms in Temple fort. One can see that the king had a reasonably-sized bed, a bookshelf, and even a miniature billiard table for his son (future Louis XVII). Especially interesting is the king’s laundry list. It appears that in the last two weeks of his life, he sent 17 shirts, 8 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of pants, and 3 sheets to be washed. It doesn’t sound much, unless you recall that the only clothing item the prisoners received was a scarf to hold their long hair as the guillotine blade descended on their necks.
The 19th century
The Carnavalet’s section related to the 19th century well-presents this turbulent period, when in less than 80 years, Paris exchanged an imperial regime for the monarchy of the Bourbons (1814), the monarchy of the Bourbons for the monarchy of the Orléans (1830), the monarchy of the Orléans for the Second Republic (1848), the Second Republic for the second imperial regime (1851), and the second imperial regime for the Third Republic (1870). What a historic mess!
Here you can find on the walls fascinating paintings, showing us how historical structures – some of which don’t exist anymore – were built, before they were destroyed in the 19th century. It is common knowledge that most of the destruction that took place in Paris didn’t occur during wars or revolutions, but rather in times of peace. Between 1853-1870, Baron Haussmann destroyed quite a few historical structures, some of which were real gems, in order to build the avenues as we know them today.
From here stems the great importance of this museum, since this is the place where they sometimes managed to bring entire rooms from palaces that had been destroyed. An excellent example for that is the staircase of Hôtel de Luynes, whose fresco creates an amazing three-dimensional illusion. After visiting the chambers related to the turbulent periods of Paris, you’re welcome to enjoy the chambers dedicated to the Belle Époque (1871-1900).
This is the time of the great exhibitions that brought us the Eiffel tower (1889) and the Parisian Metro (1900), when Paris had bloomed like never before. It is one of my favourite eras, and the Carnavalet museum contains quite a few paintings of Parisian street-scenes. If you look at these paintings, you’ll understand that if we ignore the ladies’ fashion and the men’s beards, which came out of fashion since (and have lately returned), one may think that these paintings could have been painted in our days.
The cafes have a respectable place in the Carnavalet museum, and alongside quite a few paintings describing scenes that took place in cafes, there is also an entire room taken from a café that no longer exists. It is a private, VIP room, where the rich Frenchmen could have privately entertain their wives or lovers.
And that is the best thing in the Carnavalet museum. The unique, and sometimes strange items exhibited there, manage to convey the ambiance of each and every period in the history of Paris, from the time when it was a mere fishing village, and all the way to our times, when it has become the cultural capital of the world. I assure you that after a few hours of visiting this museum you will also fall in love with it, just like I did, and you’ll understand why this is one of the most important attractions in the city, one that you really don’t want to miss.
due to renovations, the Carnavalet museum is currently closed, and will remain so until sometime in 2019. This article was originally written a few years ago, and I believe it is still relevant and important.