Jardin du Luxembourg, it may be vast and prestigious, but it has not lost its neighborhood feel – and is still the park that Quartier-Latin dwellers flock to in their free time. And don’t be surprised if you see a Dalou, Bourdelle, Rodin or Zadkine statue (there are about 100 sculptures there). Couples sit by the Fontaine Médicis, and students revise on the countless green wrought-iron seats. Families go there, as do tennis and basketball players. And, if you have a scale-model boat, bring it to try it out in the central lake.
The Luxembourg Palace, Marie de Medici (wife of Henri IV of France ) bought the land on which the Palace now sits and started plans for the building in 1612. Up until the French Revolution, it was a princely residence. Declared a National Palace in 1791, the Luxembourg Palace became home to the Directoire, the House of Peers (1814-1848), and the Senate of the Third Republic (from 1879).
The Medicis have given two queens to France, both builders: Catherine, the spouse of Henry II, who started the construction of the Tuileries, and Marie, widow of Henry IV, who built a palace that never bore her name, but will forever bear her imprint on it. Maria di Medici had never been happy at the Louvre, still semi-medieval, where the fickle king, did not hesitate to receive his mistresses.
Maria Medici’s Palace:
The death of Henry IV, assassinated in 1610, left the way open for Marie’s project. When she became regent, she was able to give special attention to the construction of an imposing modern residence that would be reminiscent of the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens in Florence, where she grew up. The site was quickly chosen: close to the residence Faubourg Saint-Germain, close to the residence of Léonora Galigai and Concini, a special mansion was built covering eight hectares – the property of François de Luxembourg, Duc de Piney.
Neighboring houses and lands were also acquired, although not the environs of the Carthusians, which the disciples of St Bruno refused to part with. The development of the 25-hectare park, which was to serve as a jewel-case for the palace, began immediately.
The construction of the palace was to prove less easy: the architect, Salomon de Brosse, began the work in 1615. Only 16 years later was it to be completed. Was he faithfully inspired by his Italian model? The two palaces, it is true, bears more than a passing resemblance to each – to begin with, the Tuscan-style bossage decoration, but the plan, in which the precincts of a fortress can still be made out, is of French inspiration.
Already a precursor of Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles in rather more than an outline, the Palace of Luxembourg affords a transition between the Renaissance and the Classical period. The “Medici Palace”, majestic in its proportions, presents to its visitors a décor of exceptional opulence: The regent saw to that: in the salons and apartments on the first floor, reached by a staircase situated in the middle of the main building, Philippe de Champaigne and Jean Mosnier composed its sumptuous decoration. To decorate the great French-style gallery in the West wing, Maria di Medici ordered 24 canvases from Rubens, today in the Louvre, retracing the great political themes of her regency. Installed in the palace in 1625, Maria di Medici thought it judicious to offer the “Hôtel du Luxembourg” as a gift to Armand de Richelieu, her “creature”. Misfortune overtook her: it was at Luxembourg that the saga of the “Journée des Dupes (1630) unfolded. Summoned by his mother to get rid of his minister or herself, Louis XIII, a Cornelian type of king, kept his minister. Forced into exile, Maria di Medici left her palace forever, in February (1631). On her death in 1642, her younger son, Gaston d’Orléans, leader of the Fronde, inherited the Luxembourg which, from that time until the Revolution, was to bear the name, the “Palais d’Orléans” [Palace of Orleans].
The first public art gallery:
In 1750, the Director of the King’s Buildings installed in the wing the first public art gallery in France, in which French and foreign canvases of the royal collections are shown. The Count of Provence and future Louis XVIII, who was living in Petit Luxembourg, had this gallery closed in 1780: leaving to emigrate, he fled from the palace in June 1791.
Declared truly national, Luxembourg, for the first time in its history, was deserted. Very soon, however, a new but dramatic role was found for it; it was converted into the “Maison Nationale de sûreté” [National Prison], in which there were up to 1000 prisoners, Camille Desmoulins, Danton, André Chénier, among others. They often left it for the scaffold. After the 9th Thermidor, it was the turn of Robespierre’s friends to take the place of their victims. The Terror ended… With the “Thermidorian revolution” (1795), the palace was assigned to the “Directoire” Executive.
The Petit Luxembourg housed four of its five Directors. Only Barras was not satisfied with it and installed himself in the Grand Palais, where he organized brilliant entertainments. The cost to the State of the 18th Brumaire drove out the directors. The senators of the Empire were to succeed them, thereby opening a new page in the history of the palace which had formerly been princely and was now parliamentary. The constitution of the year VIII (1799) instituted a “conservative Senate” to be the guardian of the constitution. Luxembourg was assigned to it. The palace had to be altered and given the imposing style desired by Bonaparte. The architect, Chalgrin, was thus persuaded to remove the terrace at the back of the courtyard, and on the ground floor provide a vestibule with columns at the site of the main staircase; and, in particular, to do away with the old Rubens Gallery and build the Honneur monumental staircase in the west wing.
The old apartments of Maria di Medici were altered. The floor, which the 80 senators only occupied in 1804, was built in the middle of the present Conference Hall. A political assembly composed of moderates, conservative in its final objectives, but opportunistic in addressing the reality of its day, the Senate was to be laden with honors for fifteen years… before, in 1814, at the proposal of Talleyrand, voting the Emperor’s downfall.
On his return, Louis XVIII set up the House of Lords, soon converted into a political court of justice; tragic times, which saw the Lords condemn Field Marshall Ney to death, executed in the Avenue de l’Observatoire on 7 December 1815. The second House of Lords, that of Louis Philippe, which counted more than 270 members, clamored for an appropriate chamber. The palace had to be enlarged. Alphonse de Gisors decided in 1836 to extend the lateral façades in the same style as the side facing the gardens. In the space thus gained at the expense of the park, he provided a new Chamber of Sessions paneled with sculpted woodwork, on the first floor. In order to complete the work of Gisors, Delacroix decorated the cupola and the half-dome of the library overlooking the garden.
After the digression of the Second Republic (1848-1851), Luxembourg renewed its parliamentary tradition. For the grand solemnities of a vast and richly ornamented hall, Napoleon III intended the Senate of the Second Empire. The former Chamber of Sessions of the House of Lords and the adjoining rooms were then converted into a single gallery for solemnities, taking the name of the “Galerie du Trône” [Throne Gallery]. This brilliant period ended with the collapse of the Empire (1870).
After the end of second empire:
Luxembourg again went through tragic times: a council of war sat there, members of the Commune were judged and the sentence was carried out in the gardens. Later, after the fire at the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), it was the prefecture of the Seine that was installed in the Palace, a tenancy to end with the Third Republic and the assignment of Luxembourg to the Senate (1879).
The Palace of Luxembourg then became once again the pinnacle of power. The illustrious politicians who sat on the benches of the Senate, Victor Hugo, Jules Ferry, Joseph Caillaux, Georges Clemenceau, Raymond Poincaré were no longer to be counted… Occupied during the Second World War by the General Staff of the Luftwaffe-West, the Palace was to be liberated on 25 August 1944, and house, in turn, the Provisional Consultative Assembly, the High Court of Justice and the Peace Conference before, once again, in December 1946, finding its “parliamentary vocation”. Yesterday, the Council of the Republic, today, the Senate of the Vth Republic sits there.
The modern Senate:
The present Senate has been able to adapt the palace to the needs of a modern political assembly, while scrupulously respecting this exceptional treasure of Parisian architecture. It looks after the Petit Luxembourg with as much care. The latter now consists of two main buildings; the older one looks out onto one side of the Jardin de la Reine [the Queen’s Garden], and the other one onto the rue de Vaugirard, the most modern being the residence of the President of the Senate.
Acquired by the regent, the former residence of François de Luxembourg, built in an open “U” shape on the rue de Vaugirard, surrounded by a plot enlarged to receive the Congregation of the Daughters of Calvary, was given in 1627 to Richelieu, who made a gift of it to his niece, the Duchesse d’Aiguillon (1639). Then the “Grande Condé” became its owner.
His daughter-in-law, Anne de Bavière, having decided to enlarge and redecorate the mansion; she turned to the architect, Boffrand, who, between 1710 and 1713, doubled the surface area thereby giving it the appearance it retains to this day.
Accessible from a majestic staircase, the Salons de Boffrand, whose windows open out onto the box-edging flower beds of the Jardin de la Reine, have preserved their décor still intact. It is in the other main building, built by Boffrand, that the Presidents of the Upper Chamber have resided since 1825. For almost forty years, they have been busy restoring their residence, in particular, the Chapel Royal, and maintaining the winter garden, a link between the Petit Luxembourg and the “most beautiful garden in the world”…