Europe is full of beautiful monuments and historic sites. Unfortunately, not all of them are open to the public. The journées européennes du patrimoine (European Heritage Days), created in France as la Journée portes ouvertes dans les monuments historiques in 1984, then established throughout Europe in 1991, are a way to remedy that – at least for a short time. For one weekend per year, Europeans (and anyone visiting the continent) have a sort of free all-access pass to places they might otherwise never get to see. In Paris, this includes museums and monuments, as well as government buildings like embassies, ministries, state schools and universities, mayor’s offices, the Assemblée Nationale, the Sénat, and the Elysée Palace (the French White House). Though the latter is still almost impossible to get into, involving a notorious 5 hour + line, the other sites are generally easily accessible, with no more than an hour wait – and often no wait at all.
This year, the journées du patrimoine coincided with a visit from my brother-in-law, who lives abroad. With his gung-ho spirit and slight homesickness for France, we were goaded on to see a lot of different places. The most memorable were the Sénat, which we visited Saturday, and the Hôtel de Ville (Paris City Hall), which we toured on Sunday. I'm not at all a fan of politics, but these places are treasure troves of art and history, and those two things definitely float my boat.
(A fitting saying, come to think of it, considering Paris's coat of arms....)
As far as the Sénat goes, the French government is similar to the American one in its basic organization, with an executive, judicial, and bicameral (the Assemblée Nationale and the Sénat) legislative branch. The Sénat is housed in the Palais du Luxembourg and two smaller wings. Though in some areas its interior decorations and layout have been frequently changed over the years, the Palais basically dates to the early 17th century. It was constructed under Marie de' Medici, widow of King Henri IV, and Regent of France from 1610-1614 until her son Louis XIII came of age. Among other things, the palace was known by art lovers as the site of the enormous canvasses Marie de' Medici commissioned from Rubens to depict the story of her life. These have since been moved to the Louvre. The site today does still house a lot of art, culled from the collections of the state. A tiny portion of it is also a museum that features temporary exhibitions, but which I think is far too small to do justice to the great artwork you can often see there.
Behind the Palais is the Jardin du Luxembourg, one of Paris’s most stunning parks. Here's a photo of the Palais du Luxembourg taken from the park, and a photo of the park taken from a window inside the Palais:
Le Petit Luxembourg, a smaller building that was on the site when Marie de’ Medici acquired it, is the first place we visited. Today it’s used for official receptions. Its 18th and 19th century interior decoration is similar to that of many official French government sites – lots of pomp and circumstance and gilding…not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I found this 18th century French school painting to be very... French – a pretty, casually partially topless woman sits on a wall near the official dining area:
An example of an official table setting:
From the window, a view of a private garden:
Back inside, detail of a curtain pulled back against a wall:
Just about every French government building I’ve seen has some sort of shrine or memorial to Napoleon.:
A(nother) lovely statue:
In the second building, which houses the offices of the President of the Sénat, we saw some very unique and chic bouquets, created by the gardeners of the Jardin du Luxembourg:
The central courtyard is full of tropical plants. This statue made me think of Eve in the Garden of Eden:
In the Palais du Luxembourg, the grand staircase evokes the majesty of centuries past….
…while a sign at the top brings us back to the present, with information on how to get up-to-date news from the Sénat, online:
A room filled with display cases showing items on sale at the gift shop felt a bit off.... Most of the items were luxury goods, which I guess sort of makes sense, since France is known for them. But though they do have a history in France, I don't know that many people would find Senate Tarot cards a totally understandable combination....
TV interviews with senators often take place in the beautiful library.:
In Paris, each place that houses a government entity whose members have to get together to vote/debate, has its hémicycle – amphitheater-shaped assembly room. The Sénat’s was constructed in 1836-1841. We saw the one in the Assemblée Nationale a few years ago, and this one seems much more ornate:
Just outside the hémicycle is a collection of busts of former senators. Senators Reymond and Sebline impressed me with their formidable facial hair, faithfully captured in stone:
The breathtaking Salle des Conférences, whose decoration dates to the Second Empire (1848-1870):
Detail of the room’s very ornate ceiling:
The throne Napoleon sat on when presiding over the Sénat. I was moved by the worn “N” near where the Emperor’s knees would have been:
Over the door at one end of the long room is a painting featuring several famous figures in the history of France, including St. Louis, Joan of Arc, François I, Henri IV, and Louis XIV:
Outside the windows, a view of the courtyard just behind the Sénat's main entrance:
The beautiful Annexe de la Bibliothèque (Library Annexe):
The Salle du Livre d’Or no longer contains the livre d’or (record book), but its sumptuous friezes, frescoes, and paintings, created in 1817 and based on and incorporating elements of Marie de' Medici’s original palace décor, remain:
Further on, the Palais' decor gets a lot more modern. It’s hard to imagine that the doorway to Public Sénat, the French C-Span of sorts, is in the same building:
The U.S. has Uncle Sam; France has Marianne. A symbol of the French republic, each year a new model is chosen for her bust, which is found in government offices and other sites throughout France. This Marianne is from 1848:
The lovely Jardin du Luxembourg is one of Paris’s most famous public parks – and rightly so. I was surprised to learn that its upkeep is the responsibility of the Sénat, and not the City of Paris. For the journées du patrimoine, the greenhouses were open to the public. For all you flower-lovers out there, here are a few images, including one of the many orchids we saw:
I hope you enjoyed this trip to the French Senate. I think the place says so much about France, from its aesthetic (gilding, bare breasts, artwork, bouquets and gardens), to the preservation of history, to the lavish decor of the hémicycle (ideally a site of logic, justice, and reason – values that the French cherish today and that were, quite literally, worshipped during the first French Revolution and the Premier Empire). And what would an afternoon in Paris be without a stroll through a pretty park, to boot?
If you'd like to see rare pictures from inside another grandiose Parisian government building, please feel free to click here for pictures from my visit to Paris' splendid Hôtel de Ville (City Hall).