In Paris, in front of the northern wing of the Louvre, lies a palace that has a story as vivid as its illustrious neighbor.
Palais-Royal, today seat of the State Council and the Ministry of Culture, hides a shady and fascinating past, the perfect symbol of the tormented soul of the Parisian people of the time, a whirlwind of ideals, vices, dreams, hopes, crimes and shame.
A subtle access on the left of the palace opens on the gardens and the elegant porticoed galleries wanted by the heir of Palais-Royal, duke Louis-Philippe d’Orléans (1747-1793) in 1784. His Highness, cousin of King Louis XVI, was up to his ears in debt, and so he had decided to build on the borders of his property’s garden a number of establishments to rent.
So, it was just for prosaic property speculation that Paris gained not only an ante-litteram mall but also a gathering of illicit activities like game parlors, pleasure houses, and clandestine political circles, all perfectly happy of paying rent to the Duke to enter the shadow of his immunity. Yes, because the police weren’t allowed in Palais-Royal!
“If Paris is the capital of France, Palais-Royal is the capital of Paris”(de Lamothe-Langon, novelist, 1825)
In an entertainment venue such as this there had to be places dedicated to show and culture. The most famous is surely the Comédie-française,but the history of this theatre – hosting the troupe founded by Molière in the XVIII century – deserves its own article.
For now, let’s focus on the galleries starting our imaginary tour through the wonders of this vanished Parisian Las Vegas what, between the XVIII and XIX century, attracted soldiers, degenerates, gold-diggers and con artists from all over the world.
(You cal also read: “Palais-Royal, from Ducal Palace to “Temple of Pleasures”)
Montpensier Gallery (west)
Numbers 7 – 12
We fell right into the year 1787. Right under these vaults in the west galleries, we could have accessed the Café Corazza, perfect place for ice cream, but beware any politic talk: this was the main headquarters of the Jacobins, the extremist republican faction that lead the angry mob during the French Revolution. A good number of summary executions that went down in history were planned at the little coffee tables of Café Corazza!
Upstairs, we could have had some fun in the game parlors like the “Pince-C…” (‘Pinch-A…”, and I’ll leave it to you to complete the name as you prefer). Beware of the open windows: suicidal patrons who had just lost their whole fortunes weren’t an unusual happening.
I’ll suggest you to invest a tuppence and enter the spectacular Wax Statues Cabinet of Doctor Philippe Mathé-Curtz, also known as Curtius. Since 1770 doctod Curtius, doctor and sculptor, had the brilliant idea to use wax, already used for anatomical duplicates, to portrait the famous people of his time. The narcissism of his aristocratic clientéle granted him a huge success and since 1785 his masterpieces were exposed right here, under the vaults of Palais-Royal. Curtius was the first to present life-sized wax figures of the personalities of his time, who didn’t have the modern media and social coverage. It was possible, for example, to admire the Royal Family at the dinner table, quite the uncommon view for the citizens of Paris.
Helping the good doctor there was his incredibly skilled adopted niece: the most renowned Madame Tussaud! In much less happy times, in the heat of the Revolution, Madame Tussaud will find herself forced to keep up her work doing death masks (and I daresay she was never wanting for work). Her most famous creations include Queen Marie-Antoinette’s, Louis XVI’s, Robespierre’s…
And now let indulge in some gallantry at the Café des Milles Colonnes (‘Café of the Thousand Columns’), where to be honest the columins were just around thirty, but reflected in strategically positioned mirrors to create the illusion. in 1815 we would have queued together with a number of gentlemen to sneak a peek to La Belle Limonadière (‘The Beautiful Lemonade Seller’) whose real name was Madame Romain and was the owner’s wife.
She was renowned for her extraordinary beauty and she sat in plain sight, like a work of art, luring in hosts of admirers who made the fortune of the establishment. We don’t know if Monsieur Romain was a jealous man or not, but what’s sure is that after the accidental death of her husband, in 1826 for a nasty fall from a horse, the beautiful widow ultimately retired in a nunnery. The reputation of her charms was so widespread that poems and songs were dedicated to her, and a lot of literary quotes that never ended, not even decades after her disappearance, for example in the César Birotteau by Balzac.
Pay attention to the fierce Café de Foy from where the storming of the Bastille itself started! This tranquil-looking dining venue occupied, since 1784, as many as seven vaults, and its little tables soon became a beloved gathering point of the omnipresent Jacobins who, clearly, much preferred to talk about politics and executions in front of good ice cream, fresh lemonade or a coffee.
July 12, 1789, Camille Desmoulins, lawyer and journalist, close friend of Robespierre, jumped over one of the outside tables declaiming at the top of his voice his legendary speech that closed with the call “aux arms!” (‘to arms!’). The uprising had started, the days of the Bastille were numbered…
At this point, we could try and catch a good show at the Beaujolais Theatre, then called Theatre des Variétés, directed – hear, hear!- by a woman, Marguerite Brunet, also known as Mademoiselle Montansier (1730-1820), favorite of King Louis XVI and queen Marie-Antoinette.
Montansier was sixty at the opening of the theatre, but her career was at its peak and her vitality unbreakable. Her legendary head for the business told her, since the location of Palais-Royal was so licentious, to let the courtesans enter her theatre’s foyer. No coincidence that the seven vaults controlled by Mademoiselle hosted two pleasure houses as well.
The theatre had so much success that the Comédie-française‘s troupe, neighbor and rival, who had enough of having their room half-empty while Montansier was sold-out, obtained from Emperor Napoleon I a decree to force her away. But the almost octogenarian Mademoiselle showed enough strength to fight and defeat even the unbeatable Bonaparte.
Following the constant protests of the troupe, her faithful friends, and she herself – a true tiger!- Napoleon yielded and granted her his protection, and the permit to build yet another Théâtre des Variétés on boulevard Montmartre. It was built in 1807 and it’s still there!
The beautiful theatre you can see externally in the gardens of the Palais-Royal,peeking from the corner between Rue de Montpensier and Rue de Beaujolais, is the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. After Mademoiselle Montansier was forced to leave her showroom, the theatre was refurbished and reopened in 1831. But the magnificent façade with mosaics by Sèvres was designed by Paul Sedille fifty years later (1880).
Beaujolais Gallery (north)
On the first floor lived the one and only Mademoiselle de Montansier, director of the nearby theatre. The windows of her salon overlooked the beautiful gardens of Palais-Royal, while inside composers, poets, artists, playwrights, journalists, actresses, and famous courtesans piled up… a real center for cultural exchange!
Between these walls the great Montansier – to whom Paris hasn’t dedicated even a plaque or a street! – died after ninety years of fights, but sure to have fought to her last breath for herself, her theatres, her actors.
At this point of the stroll, we could take a little snack break in one of the many cafés opening in front of our eyes but… which one? How to choose? The competition is fierce and they’re one more intriguing than the other!
For starters, here’s the café de Chartres, (numbers 79-82), founded under the kingdom of Louis XVI and in business until 1820. Some details of the walls’ boiserie are still well preserved, but the lavish neoclassic interior decors inspired by Pompei’s frescos – you can spy them from the shop windows!- go back mainly to the 1820, year in which Jan Véfour, the new owner of the café de Chartres, decided to open a luxury restaurant named after himself.
The Grand Véfour is, to this day, a little jewel of French cuisine, but we’re taking a stroll in the past of the galleries and we have to keep our eyes peeled: in the XIX century, at lunchtime, it would have been quite normal to see Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Lamartine, la Belle Otéro, enter the establishment… and later Colette, Maria Callas, Jean Cocteau…
Just beside it, Le Véry (numbers 83-86), would have caught our eye for its fixed-price menu, a total innovation for Paris! The restaurant opened at the height of the Napoleon age (1808) and had to face the fierce competition of the Grand Véfour, who ended up incorporating it in 1859.
In 1806, in one of the apartments over the Beaujolais gallery, died at the age of 74 the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), famous for his licentious paintings. The artist had worked at court for the highest dignitaries (and lechers) of France, but after the French Revolution, since his patrons have become quite scarce, he found himself penniless. As if it wasn’t enough, his tomb, in Montmartre cemetery, is unrecognizable, and as such lost forever.
Personally, I would have spent some time at the café du Caveau o du Perron where, around the 1780s, people discussed music, specifically about two composers fighting over the Opéra:one faction defended the Italian Nicolò Piccini, the other supported Christoph Willibald Gluck, professor of singing for Queen Marie-Antoinette and her favorite composer.
At this point, our attention would have certainly been caught by the queue of people waiting outside the café Méchanique, a wonderful expedient that opened its doors in 1785 and closed at the beginning of the French Revolution (1789). Once inside, we wouldn’t have seen any staff, apart from the cashier. We would have sat down at a table, and an opening would have appeared on its surface. Through this, we would have placed our order, speaking directly into it. The opening – or rather, the extremity of a mechanical dumbwaiter – would have then closed, and after a little wait would have opened again revealing our order!
Now we have gathered up enough courage to sneak inside the Café Lamblin or Lemblin, opened since 1805.
Until 1830, the French political square was a point of contention for two main factions, skillfully represented by painter Boilly in this painting representing a typical scene at the café Lamblin: on the right, the “hooligans”, the conservatives, nostalgic of the Ancien Régime and of the monarchy, represented by an old player parading a decoration of the Order of Saint Louis – an ancient knight order – and aristocratic coulottes; on the left a younger opponent dressed up to the nines – clearly bourgeois – shows the Legion of Honor, a knight order instituted after the fall of the monarchy by Napoleon Bonaparte. Needless to say, brawls were a common event, to the point that, under the counter, emergency swords were kept. Just to be sure.
Valois Gallery (east)
After miracolously escaping the brawl, here we fall prey to the claws of a true sin purveyor. Under the vault, during the French Revolution, the Café Fevrier was the stage of a famous homicide. January 20th, 1793 – the trial that sentenced to death the deposed king Louis XVI had just ended – an ex-bodyguard of the sovereign entered the café and marched towards the Marquis Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau who, after long consideration, had voted pro the execution. According to the witnesses, this is their exchange:
«You’re that wicked Lepeletier, who voted for the death of the king?», the soldier asked
«I voted following my conscience. What do you care?»
«Here, get your reward».
… and the marquis found a sword stuck inside him.
Always here, in one of the game parlors on the upper floor, the terrible prussian field-marshall Blücher lost a stellar amount of money at the roulette. It was the 1815 and the field-marshall had just defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and invaded Paris with his troops. It’s said that Blücher lost at game the equivalent of 48.000 euros in just one night. What a revenge for the Parisian folks!
From 1784 to 1870 we could have caught the licentious shows at the erotic puppet and shadow puppetry theatre, the legendary Théâtre de Séraphin. Lechery and kid shows in the same place: how modern of those ancient people! Some rare traces are scattered through many Parisian museums.
On the external side of the gallery, the one facinf the road and precisely number 11 of Rue Valois, more wonders awaited the wealthy nosy people who could afford a ticket for the Soirées fantastiques (‘Fantastic Evenings’) of Monsieur Eugène Robert-Houdin, father of modern illusionism.
The shows took place here, from 1845 to 1852, and even if they were expensive they were always sold-out.
(Also read: A Brief History of Magic: phantasmagorias, illusionists and museums of the impossible)
Do you perchance need to assassinate someone for a “good cause”? The Cutlery shop Badin has everything you need! Right here the enigmatic Charlotte Corday bought the fateful knife with which she then assassinated the fanatic revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat.
In the little time she had left to live after her endeavor, the blonde Charlotte, 25 years old, beautiful, educated and with a spotless past, became a living legend. Her trial was one of the most surreal events of the time: the glacial calm and candour of Charlotte were such that the people attending clearly saw that her whole defense consisted in “she had none at all”, since the beauty made no effort to deny her guilt. We almost went full farce when the prosecutor asserted that she must have “trained much” with knives to be able to kill with one blow, and so the homicide must have been premeditated for a long time.
«Oh! What a monster!», she exclaimed, “Do you take me for an assassin?“.
(to know everything about this crazy endeavour you can read: Charlotte Corday, the surreal trial of a beautiful assassin)
I hope you enjoyed this fast stroll through the ghosts of Palace-Royal’s galleries; next time you’re walking in its nice gardens, now that you know, your walk could feel less peaceful.