In 1880, the museum opened in one of the most famous Renaissance-era hotels. The building owes part of its reputation to the big names that have passed through its doors: the sculptor Jean Goujon (circa 1510 - circa 1566), architect François Mansart (1598-1666), and even the Marquise de Sévigné (1626-1696).
A Renaissance hotel
The Hôtel Carnavalet is one of the rare examples of Renaissance architecture in Paris, alongside the Louvre’s square courtyard. Built from 1548 to 1560 for Jacques des Ligneris, president of the Parliament of Paris, it is one of the oldest hotels in Le Marais. In 1578 the hotel received its current name, stemming from a distortion of the name of its following owner, Madame de Kernevenoy of Brittany.
The original hotel was different from the one we see today: it had a ground floor on only three sides and a large main building with additional stories at the back of the courtyard. The sculptures that adorn its facades are attributed to Jean Goujon, who designed the décor for the Louvre of Francois the 1st and the Fountain of the Innocents. The entrance creates a strong impression with powerful bosses and allegories in strong relief (lions, prizes of antiquity with weapons and armour). In the courtyard, the four seasons are represented by figures located between the first floor windows. The corresponding zodiac signs (Aries for spring, Cancer for summer, Libra for autumn and Capricorn for winter) are located above. Grimacing faces of horned creatures, called mascarons, adorn the arcades of the ground floor. Today the entrance to the museum halls is reached through the arcades of the old stables, to the right.
The work of Mansart and 17th century relief
Beginning his work in 1655, the famous architect François Mansart completed the hotel, raising the height of the entrance from the street for the new owner, Claude Boislève. Sculptures by Gérard van Obstal, depicting the figures of the virtues and the four elements, adorned the added floors along the sides and on the façade, in harmony with the four seasons at the back of the courtyard. This is how it looked when Madame de Sévigné resided there as a tenant from 1677 to 1696.
Transformation into a museum
The hotel remained a private residence up until the end of the Ancien Régime. During the first half of the 19th century, it was occupied by several educational institutions, such as the École des Ponts et Chaussées (1814-1829) and the Verdot Institute. In 1866, the City of Paris bought back the hotel in order to transform it into a museum celebrating the capital’s history. Baron Haussman hired Victor Parmentier, a young architect, to oversee the restoration and conversion works. This is Parmentier’s only known work. The main building was returned to its original form through restoration of the high sloping roof, window mullions and large fireplaces. The modifications made to the side wings by Mansart were preserved, while their gambrel roofs were replaced with flat roofs.
The fires during the 1871 Paris Commune destroyed the collections intended for the museum: thus the museum did not open its doors until 1880. Meanwhile, from 1872 onwards, part of the space was used for the historical library. The historical library was a new institution developed to replace the library of the Hôtel de Ville (Paris City Hall), which had disappeared in the flames.
Expansion of the Hôtel Carnavalet
The unanticipated addition of the library called for new wings to be built around the garden for the museum collections. Elements were collected from several buildings slated for demolition: the Arch of Nazareth (1552), which had previously stretched across the street of the same name in the neighbourhood incorporated into the expansion of the Courthouse; the facade of the Cloth Merchants Bureau (1660), from Déchargeurs street; and the central body of the Hôtel de Choiseul (1710), located on Saint-Augustin street. Décor by Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) from the Hôtel de l’abbé La Rivière, 12 Vosqes square, was used to decorate the interiors of the new buildings.
In 1896, the library was relocated to the Hôtel Le Peletier, which allowed the collections to expand a little. But this was not enough: in 1907, construction work was begun to double the surface area of the museum. Due to World War I, this construction would not be completed until 1920. Later, the buildings around the Henri IV courtyard – which takes its name from the King’s equestrian figure (by Henri Lemaire, 1798-1880) from the old Hôtel de Ville (Paris City Hall), where it had been placed over the main door in 1834 – were built. Buildings were also built around the Victoire courtyard – where La Victoire by Louis Boizot (1743-1809) was placed in 1950, originally from the Palmier fountain (1807), Châtelet square, where it was replaced by a copy. The garden beds were also redesigned in 1950, following a classical theme that matched the monumental setting.
The Sign Galleries
A unique collection of signs spanning the period from 16th to the 20th centuries is housed in two galleries, offering a vivid glimpse of the atmosphere of the capital’s streets. Shopkeepers, whose customers were often illiterate, attracted the attention of passing trade by shouting their wares, but also by using pictures, hence the beauty and ingenuity of these signs on which griffons, fauna and black cats can be found side by side.
Paris in the 16th century
During this period, the capital experienced the tragedy of the Wars of Religion (the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and Catholic League riots) and the flowering of the Renaissance hailing the construction of new buildings including the Louvre, the Pont-Neuf bridge, and the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). The collections display the oldest representations of the city, as well as portraits of famous figures (Francis I, Catherine de' Medici, Mary Queen of Scots, ...). The furniture, chests, armchairs and a money-changer’s table are complemented by historical paintings depicting the lifestyle of the times.
Paris in the 17th century: the era of Madame de Sévigné
The numerous civil and religious construction sites depicted in these galleries (the Louvre, the Invalides, the former place Royale, now place des Vosges, ...), first fashioned the image of Paris as a modern city. Madame de Sévigné (1626-1696) made her mark on the Hôtel Carnavalet, where she lived from 1677 to 1696. A gallery is dedicated to her memory with objects belonging to her and portraits of prominent figures of the period such as Molière and Jean de la Fontaine.
Paris in the 18th century
The age of Enlightenment was characterised by a surge in interest in private architecture. Whether it be in the rocaille style (curves and organic forms) or the neoclassical style (antique columns and straight lines) it was conducive to creating a feeling of intimacy and gave rise to an expansion of the joinery trade. The prestigious collections of furniture and objets d’art showcase the skill of Parisian craftsmen. 1750 marked a revival in bold public building projects, such as the refurbishment of place Louis XV (place de la Concorde) and the construction of Sainte-Geneviève church (the Panthéon).
The link gallery To the Hôtel Le Peletier
This gallery on the first floor connects the two town houses which make up the museum. Many of the paintings on permanent display form part of the Seligmann donation (2000), depicting Parisian society of the Belle Epoque in about 1900.
Free temporary exhibitions including photographs, drawings and engravings are organised here on a very regular basis, alongside the permanent exhibits.
Crédit photographique: Cour des marchands drapiers © DAC - Antoine Dumont
Première salle des enseignes © DAC - Antoine Dumont