Hôtel de la Marine : will France go to the highest bidder ?

Jacques-Ange Gabriel (1698-1782)
Hôtel de la Marine (Garde-meuble)
Before restauration (photo : Decembre 1985)
Paris, Place de la Concorde
Photo : Bernardo Achirica (licence Creative Commons)

In this very discreet fiftieth anniversary of the Ministry of Culture, French citizens should feel the duty to gather support in defense of their national heritage, in this case the Hôtel de l’Etat-Major de la Marine and those projects which the ministry seems powerless to prevent. Alas, it would appear that our leaders need to be reminded of the history of the Hôtel de l’Etat-Major de la Marine since they seem determined to divest of it, when they are in fact supposed to protect and maintain the nation’s heritage as they were elected to do. Such a sale would be an irreparable loss for French national heritage since this monument represents, in more ways than one, an important period in the history of art as well as that of the country’s museums.

Currently, the Place de la Concorde, as planned by the king’s first architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel starting in 1755 constitutes one of the most beautiful urban landscapes anywhere in Europe along the east-west perspective traced by Le Nôtre from the Tuileries all the way to Etoile (the Arc de Triomphe). It thus occupies an exceptional place in the history of Paris’ urbanization.
The layout and the architecture of the two buildings, inspired by the colonnade at the Louvre built during the reign of Louis XIV, also influenced the development of the north-south axis with the Madeleine and the Palais Bourbon, thus constituting an urban ensemble which is unique in its harmony.

In 1765, Louis XV decided to place the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, a prestigious administrative department which was in charge of furnishing royal residences and was the predecessor to the current Mobilier national, in the building which today houses the Naval headquarters.
The apartment of the Intendant du Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, at that time Pierre Elisabeth de Fontanieu, is located in the pavilion on the side of the rue de Rivoli. It was installed between 1771 and 1774 by the architect Gondoin, responsible for the Ecole de Chirurgie in the rue de l’Ecole de Medecine, a masterpiece of Neo-classical Parisian architecture. With few alterations over the centuries, this apartment represents one of the very rare and truly exceptional examples left in Paris of an ensemble which was designed and decorated according to the rules and customs of the 18th century.
For Fontanieu, the wealth and quality of the interior décor reflected the prestige of his department, which was considered a veritable extension of a royal residence. Gondoin employed the same team of craftsmen who had worked on the Petit Trianon in Versailles to create an apartment worthy of a royal establishment. Thus, in the corner Grand Salon and in the Cabinet du Billard, the fireplaces in cherry red or blueish grey marble which are the most luxurious there is, are ornated with magnificent gilt bronzes. The overdoors, the mirrored trumeaus and the cornices are of very high quality sculpture. Some pieces, extremely original, reflect the imagination and level of French craftsmanship, such as the Cabinet des Glaces, decorated with painted mirrors mounted on gilt paneling and painted “au naturel”. The refinement and beauty of the décor are such that Louis-Philippe had it taken apart and reinstalled in Fontainebleau. Can it be possible that this ensemble which was restored and then replaced in its original setting barely ten years ago might now fall into private hands ? These décors, executed between 1770-1774, constitute some of the rarest and earliest expressions of the Neo-classical style remaining today in Paris, ahead of their time by at least ten years and of unparalleled quality. Between 1786 and 1788, Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville d’Avray, Fontanieu’s successor, commissioned other décors for his apartment located over the courtyard. He pursued the tradition of quality initiated by his predecessor, with inlaid parquets, fireplaces in superb portor or cherry marble ornated with gilt bronzes and mirrored trumeaus magnificently sculpted. All of these are still intact.

Along with the administration of the Garde-Meuble, the hôtel also held the first museum in the modern sense (the collections on display did not belong to the king in person) and especially of the first decorative arts museum, before even that of the Louvre.
Around 1772-1774, Pierre Elisabeth de Fontanieu had installed, behind the colonnade, three large exhibition rooms to present the collections belonging to his department, a result of acquisitions made by French sovereigns since the Renaissance. The Salle d’Armes displayed royal suits of armour and arms since François I, which are today located at the Invalides and the Louvre. The Galerie des Grands Meubles housed the most precious fabrics and tapestries in large armoires, now found at both the Louvre and the Mobilier national. The Salle des Bijoux presented vases in coloured stones and rock crystal, silversmith pieces and diplomatic gifts, as well as the Crown jewels, now exhibited in the Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre. From 1786 to 1788, Thierry de Ville d’Avray installed on the other side of these halls a Galerie des Bronzes, of which a large part also belongs to the Louvre now.
During the Revolution, some of these ensembles were sold whereas the most beautiful pieces were moved to the Louvre : the current Département des Objets d’art is the direct heir of the collection, along with the Mobilier national for the tapestries and the armoire doors from the Galerie des Grands Meubles. Under the reigns of Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III, the exhibition rooms were transformed into reception halls but some of the original décor, such as the cornices, are still visible.

Thus, the Hôtel de la Marine represents a major link not only in the history of Paris’ urbanization but also in the history of architecture, interior décor, furniture, of taste and mentality, for the history of collecting and the emergence of museums. Can this prestigious building, built, arranged, decorated and furnished by and for the State for over three centuries be put up for sale ? Now that all of this furniture is listed and that the Chambre de Fontanieu, the Cabinet des Glaces as well as the colonnade with the halls located behind it have been restored thanks to patronage by Bouyges, it is particularly scandalous and deplorable that politicians, entrusted with protecting national heritage, would think of selling it off in such a contemptible way, due to their lack of culture and above all respect for these landmarks which represent the country’s memory as well as for the citizens and patrons who fight to preserve them. What kind of government and political class are these which have become totally indifferent to the nation’s culture and memory and see only the monetary gain ? Why couldn’t this building once again house the Mobilier national thus returning it to its original location since the possibility of installing a government department there has been brought up ? Was it a sincere proposal or just a ploy to gain time ?
The Intendant’s apartment could thus be opened to the public and present the high quality furnishings commissioned by the Navy in the 19th century, the 18th century furniture having been dispersed during the Revolution. The rooms behind the colonnade could serve as exhibition halls for decorative arts, as an extension of the Galerie des Gobelins. In this way, the government would at last carry out its mission in preserving one of the greatest monuments in the capital’s history, thus saving it from a degrading purpose.

Version française

Stéphane Castelluccio, mardi 31 mars 2009

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