Opposite the middle of the Louvre, the Place du Palais-Royal
leads to the palace of Cardinal de Richelieu, built in 1624 and
willed to the royal family. Louis XIV lived there as a child, and
during the minority of Louis XV the kingdom was ruled from
there by the debauched but gifted regent. Late in the 18th
century Louis-Philippe d'Orléans, who became Philippe-Egalite
after the Revolution, undertook extensive building around the
palace garden. It was a commercial operation, and the prince
hoped to pay its debts from the property rents. "Well cousin,"
said Louis XVI, "so you're going to keep shop; well never get
to see you except on Sunday."
Around the garden he built a
beautiful oblong of colonnaded galleries, and at each end of the
gallery farthest from his residence, a theatre. The larger
playhouse has been the home of the Comédie Française, the state
theatre company, since Napoleons reign. The princely
apartments now shelter high state bodies such as the Conseil
The princes financial success was modest, but the social impact
was sensational. From the 1780s to 1837 the Palais Royal was
the local synonym for excitement. It was the centre of Parisian
political and amorous intrigue and the site of the most celebrated
gambling dens and popular cafés. Today the garden and its
galleries are still beautiful but are wistfully deliquescent, a
Pompeii where even the tourists are rare.
Just behind the garden is the Bibliothèque Nationale, the national library of deposit, with the expected enormous collections of books and prints, some 6,000,000 of each.
When Haussmann greatly enlarged the Place du Palais Royal in 1852, he did not molest the palace when he pushed through the Avenue de l'Opéra. At the top of the new street, where the Grands Boulevards crossed an enormous new place, the new Opera House was built, pulling pleasure seekers further away from the Palais garden. The Opéra (1825-98), the neo-Baroque masterwork of Charles Garnier, is a splendiferous monument to the Second Empire. By acreage it is the largest theatre in the world, but so much space is devoted to such embellishments as the Grand Staircase that in seating capacity it is not the largest theatre in Paris. Just behind the Opera House, the largest department store indulge in the same kind of uninhibited monumentality, the sort of thing they now avoid in their branches at suburban shopping centres springing up around the country.
On the rue de Rivoli the next place is the Place des Pyramides. The gilded equestrian statue of Joan of Arc stands not far from where she was wounded (at the Saint-Honoré Gate) in her unsuccessful attack on British-held Paris, September 8, 1429.
Farther along toward the Place de la Concorde the rue de Castiglione leads to the Place Vendôme, an elegant octagonal place, little changed from the 1698 designs of Jules Hardouin- Mansart. In the centre, the Trajanesque Vendôme Column, 44 metres high and spiralled in the bronze of 1,200 captures cannons, bears the effigy of Napoleon, who had it erected in 1810. It was pulled down during the Commune and put back up by the Third Republic. The place and the gas-lit rue de la Paix have lost none of their discreet distinction, nor have their shops. The rue de Rivoli shops, once equally chic, have in many cases acquired a disguised but unmistakably vulgar accent. The streets hotels maintain their traditional high quality. The German commander of Gross Paris, Dietrich von Choltitz, who disobeyed Hitlers order to burn the city, was captured in his headquarters at the Meurisse Hôtel August 25, 1944.
Thanks to the BMW Foundation, the WebMuseum mirrors, partners and contributors for their support.