les journées du patrimoine, or how sometimes guilt makes us to do good things
Last weekend was les journées européennes du patrimoine, the once-a-year event in which “unusual” historical monuments that are normally closed to the public open up their doors for one weekend. In Paris, this meant that the city featured special art, city and historical exhibits, including showcasing the Palais de l’Elysée (the French President’s residence), the Sénat, and the Assemblée Nationale.
If you’re anything like me, you might see all this, feel slightly obligated to be semi-interested by some sort of weird guilt driven by a vague desire to be knowledegable and sophisticated, but in the end you really don’t care. You may have already clicked out of the page! I don’t really blame you. And frankly, I don’t think any Parisiens were actually at these events; too many lines, too much rain, too many other things to do. For me, I felt like I was sitting around the apartment and that perhaps I should spend my time actually taking advantage of the fact that I live in a city filled with cultural and historical opportunities—so there I was, with my umbrella and two other friends that no doubt were driven there by other forms of should, lining up in the endless queues outside the Assemblée Nationale.
^ That first photo there includes Amanda and Sara, the two Swedish girls that went with me to the Assemblée Nationale. The second photo is one of the back of the building, and it includes a nice little game of where’s waldo—try and find me in it!
But like how things always seem to go in my life, what I expected to be boring was actually really worthwhile. As soon as I entered the building, saw the beautiful architecture and ornamentation, and actually started learning about what actually this building was and why it exists, it all started getting really fun. The actual building is called the Palais Bourbon—named after the Duchess of Bourbon, the daughter of Louis the XIV. He had this palace built for her in 1722, to be a maison de plaisance. It sits on the Seine, and faces the Jardin Tuileries to the East and the opening Champs-Elysée to the West—not a crummy location for a home, eh?
Anyway, over the next fifty years it was recycled by monetary transactions into the ownership of multiple French kings and princes who I doubt are very memorable other than the fact they were obviously filthy rich and, well, royal. By the time the French Revolution came around in 1789, the building was nationalized and it became the place the Council of the Five Hundred met and tried out their hand at creating a democratic government in France. This lasted until 1799, when Napolean stormed the chambers and led the coup of 18 Brumaire, paving the way for the establishment of the Napoleanic French Empire.
While I was walking through the salle de séances (the assembly session room — here’s a picture of me in it), I liked thinking that this was where the stumbling blocks of creating the first French democracy occured. It’s where powerful, rich Frenchmen sat and argued, trying to figure out how to rule a country—sometimes through the attempts of a Republic, sometimes through the means of an authoritarian regime, no doubt always with the idea that what they were doing was virtuous. (For that matter, it’s also no doubt still the place where powerful French men (and now women) sit and still argue—though now I guess it’s probably over things like labor laws or same-sex marriage or how many documents they can demand of individuals for every transaction. Sometimes I have a hard time figuring out if everything or nothing has changed over the past couple hundred years.) Hanging in the center of the salle de séances is a big tapestry of Raphael’s School of Athens (fun fact: it’s one of my favorite paintings). Looking up at the art made me wonder how France’s current and past politicians see that tapestry, and what sort of ideals it inspires in them, if any.
I also liked seeing the extravagent, ornamental detailing of the entire palace. I mean, for one, it’s just extremely pretty to look at; it doesn’t take much to make one’s jaw drop when walking through the palace. But I also liked it because it reflects that specific, but really important part of France’s past—all the Marie Antoinette-esque extravagence, so over-the-top in all its ways. I know that now in the modern era France has moved on to its humble democratic governance, but still, this past seems to reflect a big part of the French personality that I think is still engrained in the culture today. A culture which I have obviously just barely scratched the surface of. Stay tuned for if I’m able to get further than that one day.
Anyway, after the Assemblée Nationale, I also met up with other friends to go to Hotel de Ville—where the Mayor of Paris and all the people that preside over the functioning of the city work. The building itself was finished sometime around 1628, and it is seriously stunning from the outside. However, at this point, I was still running a cool history high from the Assemblée Nationale and I was rather snobbishly not too impressed by the Hotel de Ville. Even though I’m sure the building has its own very interesting history about it, I didn’t spend much effort trying to figure out what it was. I was instead still focusing on the whole democracy-Napolean-seat-of-power narrative in the Assemblée Nationale playing out in my head. Hey, feeling guilty to learning new things can only carry us so far, right? Still, I took some semi-pretty photos there, too, so here you go.