By special guest writer Philippa Campsie, Toronto, Canada
One of our favourite places to stroll is the Palais Royal – a quiet garden in the middle of the city surrounded by arcades in which are some delightful boutiques and one of Paris’s oldest restaurants, Le Grand Véfour.
Some people are a little surprised by the Cour d’Honneur of the Palais Royal where Daniel Buren’s art installation of260 truncated black-and-white columns (colonnes) fill the space. First installed in 1986; they were recently restored and reinaugurated last month. When our friend Meg Dolen first saw Barbara’s picture of them (at right), she said, “They look like hatboxes!” We think that’s appropriate for a fashionable shopping place. And considering that the space used to be a car park, we think the columns are a great improvement.
Palais Royal, a fashionable shopping place
Barbara is particularly drawn to Didier Ludot’s vintage couture boutique in the Galerie Montpensier of the Palais Royal. As she points out, “It costs nothing to try things on.” Her grandmother was a seamstress and dressmaker (Barbara was in her late teens before she wore store-bought clothes), and she appreciates being able to fully examine the garments for their structure, material, and composition.
Didier Ludot also runs a second boutique in the Palais Royal called La Petite Robe Noire (the Little Black Dress), where he sells his own line of LBDs, based on some of the classic haute couture fashions in the vintage shop. We haven’t bought one – yet. Maybe on our next visit.
Philippa and her husband used to visit Le Prince Jardinier – a boutique for gardeners. It recently moved to the rue du Bac, but you can still buy metal garden chairs similar to those in the Palais Royal gardens, so it maintains its contact with the place.
We’ve also had picnic lunches in the garden, enjoying the sound of birds and children’s voices just a few metres away from some of Paris’s busiest streets. But it wasn’t always this quiet.
Palais Royal, a popular gathering place
At the end of the 18th century, the place was noisy, crowded, and chaotic. The cafés were popular gathering places for Revolutionaries. Prostitutes hung out of the upper windows, trying to catch the eye of passersby. They also had a nasty tendency to empty their chamberpots (vases de nuit) out of those windows to ensure that those passersby were paying attention.
The brothels offered the special entertainment of sosies de vedette – girls dressed up as famous women of the day. Presumably you could spend the evening with someone dressed as, say, Marie Antoinette.
At one Palais Royal café the people of Paris heard an inflammatory speech on July 12, 1789, that led to the storming of the Bastille on July 14. And a few years later, when the Terror was at its height, and the guillotine was chopping off dozens of heads a day, someone came here on an urgent and strange mission.
Charlotte Corday and Jean-Paul Marat
Charlotte Corday (1768-93) was a young woman from a good family in Normandy. Her full name, as befitted a young woman with a pedigree, was Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d’Armont. Her mother died when she was young, and she was brought up by nuns in Caen. It can’t have been your average convent, because apparently she was able to read the works of Rousseau and Corneille while she was there.
Charlotte was appalled by the news of the Revolution coming from Paris. As events spiralled into violence and terror, she feared for the future of her country. She particularly blamed Jean-Paul Marat, the radical journalist and politician, who incited the revolutionaries to violence against aristocrats. By 1793, she decided that if nobody else was going to try to stop the leaders of the Terror, then it was up to her to do something. On July 9, she travelled from Caen to Paris.
Early on the morning of July 13, she came to the Palais Royal. It was so early that the shops were still closed, and she paced up and down in the garden, waiting. As soon as the shopkeepers began to open the shutters in front of their shops, she made a beeline for a quincailler (a person who sells hardware and household goods) and bought a black-handled table knife in a sheath for 40 sous.
Just before noon, she went to a house on the rue des Cordeliers (now the rue de l’Ecole de Medicine) on the Left Bank, claiming to have important information for Jean-Paul Marat. The housekeeper was suspicious and told her to go away. But Marat heard the commotion and called for her to be let in. Since he suffered from particularly nasty form of psoriasis, and spent much of his time in a bathtub (baignoire) to soothe the pain, Charlotte was shown into the room where the bathtub stood.
She got his attention by offering him the names of people in Caen who opposed the Revolution. Marat wrote them down and promised her they would all be guillotined. Charlotte took that as a confirmation of his vicious nature and stabbed him with her Palais Royal knife. Marat had time to cry out only briefly before he died.
Charlotte didn’t flee or try to avoid the consequences of her act. She was arrested, tried, and sentenced to be guillotined. The sentence was carried out four days later, on July 17. She had hoped to stop the violence, but the Reign of Terror lasted another full year.
Why did this young woman from a sheltered background resolve to murder a prominent man? She has been the subject of poems and stories and even an opera, but her actions and motives are still a mystery.
Since her day, the Palais Royal has seen its share of ups and downs. It suffered in the 19th during the revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, went through a period of decline, but came back to life in the late 20th century – without, thank goodness, the chamberpots.
Note that Palais Royal is spelled without an “e” (unlike the lakeside ballroom in Toronto, the Palais Royale). The colonnes de Buren are known officially as “Les deux plateaux,” which means “The two levels.” The sosies de vedette were celebrity lookalikes – sosie means a double of someone, and vedette is star. Chamberpots are vases de nuit, and bathtub is la baignoire. Marat was stabbed with un couteau de table à gaine à manche noir (a table knife with a sheath and a black handle), bought from une quincaillerie (a hardware shop).
Vocabulary: French to English translations
Café: Small restaurant where drinks and snacks are sold.
Couteau de cuisine: Kitchen knife.
Haute-Couture: Made to order for a specific customer, often trend-setting fashions for women.
Petite robe noir: Little black dress.
Vase de nuit: Chamber pot.
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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
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