6) LE JARDIN DU LUXEMBOURG
From Marie de’ Medici to the French Senate, le Palais du Luxembourg has had a colourful history with many interesting residents over the years. Le Jardin du Luxembourg— a classical French formal garden surrounding the palace on three sides—creates one of the largest public outdoor spaces in Paris. A marvellous extension of manicured trees line the boulevard leading southward towards the Paris Observatory.
A large octagonal reflecting pool is the central focus of the magnificent gardens and, even on a cool November afternoon, many locals, as well as a few canny tourists, are relaxing on chairs scattered around the picturesque pool in the dappled fading sunlight. Small remote controlled sailboats are available for hire from a rustic van near the pool. A brave young boy is trying his luck skippering one of the antique boats; he squeals with delight.
The city of Paris had expanded very little onto the rive gauche --the left bank—by the early 1600’s because the water table was very low on that side of the river, and all water needed in the area had to be carried from the Seine. Interestingly, images of the Roman city of Lutecia, settled in around 50 BCE, shows the entire settlement on Île de la Cité and on the left bank. The right bank, being very marshy (le marais) was considered unsuitable at the time. In 1620, an aqueduct was completed bringing reliable water to rive gauche, and building on this side of the Seine took up in earnest.
The Luxembourg Palace itself was originally built by Marie de’ Medici between 1620 and 1645. Marie was the widow of King Henry IV of France: the first great Bourbon king. She was also the queen regent to her young son, the future King Louis XIII. Marie was famous for her vociferous quarrelling with King Henry’s many mistresses, and for the hierarchical juggling and intrigue that went on at court as a result.
The most fascinating resident of the Luxembourg Palace, however, would have to be the Duchess of Berry. It became her home in 1715; she was just 20 years of age, and recently widowed. She was said to be extremely beautiful. She was also said to be extremely promiscuous, and apparently had an insatiable appetite for 'strong liquor and sheer gluttony'. Le Palais, and its surrounding gardens, became the scene of extravagant parties, often including Madame de Berry as the main actor in colourful tableaux that prominently featured her cleavage . . . amongst other things. She was known to have concealed a number of pregnancies in her short life, and died soon after a particularly long and painful labour that produced a stillborn child in 1719. She was 24 years-old.
Le Palais du Luxembourg was refashioned after the French Revolution into a legislative building and has been the home of Le Sénat since 1958. It is of modest proportions, and is only lightly decorated on its exterior when compared with other grand residences of this early Baroque era. It does, however, have an imposing presence in this glorious setting.
Adjacent to the east face of the palace is the wonderful Medici Fountain. This installation also has a complex history, having been renovated, relocated, reworked and redesigned on a number of occasions since it’s first incarnation in 1630.
Today, the beautifully manicured environment around the fountain has the most peaceful aura of any outdoor location I have visited in Paris. Overhanging trees and sculpted ivy on trellis line the walkways by the pool. The long reflecting pool itself leads to an elaborate stone backdrop: a bronze statue depicting Polyphemus, a Cyclops, discovering lovers, Acis and Galatea, in white marble, the centrepiece of the fountain backdrop.
In Greek mythology, Polyphemus was a man-eating giant with a single eye in the middle of his forehead. He loved the sea nymph, Galatea, but she spurned his advances. When Polyphemus discovered Galatea in the arms of another, Acis, he crushed the boy with a rock. The statues depict a moment of the lovers’ intimacy just before it is interrupted by the terrifying demon; the statues characterized by an extreme dichotomy of emotional tone—hate and love—in this moment before the brutal act.
The Medici Fountain may well be my go to place in Paris for outdoor beauty and inspiration from now on . . .
November 5th, 2014.