In his foreword to The French Royal Wardrobe: The Hotel de la Marine Restored, Philippe Bélaval, the President of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, illustrates how painstaking it was to rehabilitate the eighteenth-century building on the Place de la Concord. The project, which took place from 2017 to 2021, was “a complex operation” to return the glamourous building erected in 1755 to a state of refinement. The neoclassical palace was one of several designed by Ange Jacques Gabriel, who was the official architect of King Louis XV, to flank a newly created royal square that was also designed by Gabriel.
The department the building housed was charged with choosing, purchasing, and maintaining all the king’s furnishings, and the crown’s treasures were stored there until 1789. After the French Revolution, the building was allocated to the Ministry of the Navy (Marine), which it continued to house for 226 years, and after which it is named. The authors of the book that presents its history, noted journalist Jérôme Hanover, and historian and curator Gabriel Bauret, take readers through the metamorphosis of the Parisian gem.
Along with the photography of the evolution and its results by Ambroise Tézenas, historical visuals illustrate the building’s heyday during a bygone era. The project brought its organizers to a delicate paradox: in looking to the past, the heritage rooms had to be recreated in the former glory of the Enlightenment era to evoke the French lifestyle and savoir-faire of that time; in looking toward the future, the building would be open to the public and would include a museum, an exhibition hall, a bookshop, and three restaurants, which added the challenge of modernizing its infrastructure. Bélaval notes that the photographs recording the transformation of the monument are artworks in and of themselves, each of which will now “become part of the history of the building, enabling future generations to experience the rebirth of a remarkable example of French heritage.”
In the chapter “The Royal Wardrobe, High and Low,” Hanover writes that the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, as the institution is known in French, was a typical department that served royal households throughout Europe at the time, though King Louis XV had bigger plans for his administration, as he was determined to transform this household office into an ambitious political statement. He did so by placing the Wardrobe in an architectural masterpiece located on a square that was then named after him. This move was meant to send a message to the world that the grandeur of the French state and the genius of French arts were both alive and well.
The types of moveable goods managed by appointees to the Wardrobe included furniture, gold-brocade and other sumptuous fabrics, draperies, tapestries, silverware, bronzes, arms and armor, and the crown jewels. The precious objets d’art that were owned by the House of Bourbon were only in situ for fifteen years, the functionality of the Wardrobe interrupted by the Revolution in 1789. Initially, only half the building was tapped to hold the collection of items, but by 1767 the entire palace was filled with grand furnishings, arms, and jewels. “This building is an accumulation of countless histories—political, artistic, investigative, judicial,” writes Hanover. “When the Navy left the building to join the other armed forces, it created a breach into which history immediately leaped: the spirit of the historic Royal Wardrobe was just waiting to reoccupy the setting in which it rose to glory.”
As with so many aspects of life during the most glorious decades of the ancien régime, Louis XIV was the initial visionary. He made the earliest attempts at organizing the vast array of items owned by the Crown, the effort amped up by his successor. Quoting a book by Stéphane Castelluccio, Hanover explains, “‘The king first modernized the interior decoration of existing palaces such as the Louvre, the Tuileries, and Saint-Germain-en-Laye, then he enlarged Versailles and Trianon…To monitor the ever-expanding, increasingly varied and costly furnishings, a household administration more rigorous than those of previous reigns was required.’ From that period date the earliest surviving inventories.” Prior to then, according to Gaspard Moïse de Fontanieu, intendent-general of the Royal Wardrobe from 1719 to 1767, “nothing was in order.”
After more importance was assigned to the office of intendant-general, Hanover describes the position as glamorous because the person holding it took his orders directly from the king and members of the royal family, which was not true of any other departmental director within the royal household. “The role of the intendant-general of the Royal Wardrobe was complementary to the task of the director of the Office of Royal Works (Bâtiments du Roi),” Hanover explains. “Given their influence over the king, these two men defined ‘the French style’ and ensured the development of a lifestyle specific to each period—one was in charge of content (furnishings), the other of container (buildings).” All final decisions were with the kings, he points out, but these department heads had the freedom to (and were expected to) introduce the monarchs to new artisanal talent.
“Through the choice of artists he introduced to the king, and the stylistic arguments he employed, the intendant-general could encourage, prompt, and guide artistic developments of his day, at the very least nudging them, at best directing them,” Hanover writes. “Pierre Élisabeth de Fontanieu, the first intendant-general to move into Gabriel’s new building under Louise XV, could probably boast that he introduced work by cabinetmaker Jean Henri Riesener into the royal collection, thereby paving the way for what would become the very expression of Louis-XVI style.” The author explains that salon gatherings were the “social media” of the day when the opinion-makers drove changes in fashion in real life instead of online; he touts Marie Antoinette as the era’s star influencer.
Before its installation at the Hotel de la Marine, the Wardrobe had had a vagabond existence. Initially, it was housed in the Hôtel du Petit-Bourbon, which did not seem suitable because it had a tainted past as a residence that had been owned by a courtier who betrayed King François I. After the building was razed to make way for the Louvre’s new colonnade, the Wardrobe was moved to the Hôtel de Conti; then to the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs Extraordinaires, neither of which were suitable for its demands. These were the last make-shift buildings to contain the priceless goods, the palace on Place Louis XV up to the task of showcasing the collection in a way that did it justice.
Quoting Castelluccio again, Hanover notes, “For obvious practical reasons, [architect Gabriel] allocated the ground floor to the kitchens, storehouses, and workshops. He placed the apartments and showrooms on the piano nobile facing the square and the side streets of Rue Saint-Florentin and Rue Royale; those rooms thus had the finest view, with the lively square below, and the river and Palais-Bourbon in the distance. The storerooms gave onto the inner courtyards.” When the building was completed and the objects were arranged, the royal collection opened to the public, free of charge, one Tuesday per month from April to November. This made the hôtel the first decorative arts museum in Paris.
French historian and politician Jacques Antoine Dulaure claimed the Wardrobe was one of the “foremost curiosities in Paris for foreigners at that time.” Hanover adds, “The goal was likely dual-purpose: on one hand, it would help to establish the fame and influence of French decorative arts; on the other hand, it would symbolize royal power and the permanency of the monarchy in a display that would strike every visitor.” Hanover explains that during the same period, the Marquis de Marigny, director of the Royal Works, suggested to the king that the Louvre be opened as a pendant museum for the fine arts, displaying the crown’s collection of paintings.
The building was always meant to have resonance with the royal square it hems, the initial inspiration for the plaza the need for a setting that would be commanding enough to showcase a bronze equestrian statue of Louis XV that was being created. Pierre Patte, a French architect at the time, noted that the statue was meant “as a mark of the zeal, love, and gratitude of his [Louis XV’s] peoples.” The statue is the centerpiece in the square in the above colored print from 1763 titled View of Place Louis XV From the Saint-Honoré Gate in Paris, which is included in this chapter of the book. It no longer stands, as the populace participating in the French Revolution turned its wrath on the statue and dragged it from its masonry pedestal.
The statue by sculptor Edme Bouchardon took so long to build, the king had fallen from favor with his subjects by the time it was installed. Thirteen years had passed since it was commissioned in 1749 to the day it was unveiled on February 23, 1763, the date on which I was writing this review 259 years later to the day. With details like this and the visuals created during the Wardrobe’s heyday that illuminate this chapter, the book serves as a rich read for history lovers and feels like a lush visual trip into the past.
Visual examples in the book are engravings and prints of the square; illustrations of the statue around which ropes and pullies are wrapped as it is lifted onto a cart; an engraving of the people milling around the square as the statue is unveiled; and a print of the beheading of King Louis XVI, the empty piece of masonry onto which the statue had been hoisted just a stone’s throw away from the guillotine platform (shown below).
Hanover goes into detail about how the Wardrobe was affected as the country marched toward a bloody revolution. Robbed twice as the skirmishes intensified in the city, the edifice of the building still bears markings of forced entry. A lithograph of the crown jewels that were stolen during one of the raids shows a jaw-dropping number of faceted stones, while another page is dripping with diamonds in albumin prints from glass-plate negatives. As the book moves from the plaza and exterior into the interiors, there are only hints of the opulence we have come to expect from the era at first. Before the restoration was carried out, the main reception hall has only a muted gleam, even though it is illuminated by massive chandeliers smothered in crystals.
As the building in its former state of neglect is cataloged, Bauret takes hold of the text, explaining how Ambroise Tézenas received the commission to document the project in the various stages of transformation. Employing Tézenas’s metaphor of a ghost ship, he says the emptiness of the dormant building, devoid of human presence, was a kind of Flying Dutchman when he began documenting the process. By the time the work drew to a close, the quiet decay was replaced by a hectic ballet. “During his regular visits, Tézenas encountered the various artisans carrying out restoration and refurbishment,” Bauret writes. “Spaces slowly filled up with machines, and some rooms even changed shape, completely redesigned.”
Bauret quotes the photographer as saying the experience as the new Hotel de la Marine neared completion was like witnessing a derelict atmosphere morphing into a bustling beehive. In this chapter of the book, titled “A Sense of Place,” the long sequence of images “conveys the passage from silence to noise, from frozen time to imminent rebirth.” It is a dynamic involvement the eye experiences as age and abuse shows—fabric panels scraped away, wallcoverings dangling in layers with pieces of tape failing, unhinged doors leaning against columns, and busted cement. Slowly, the camera captures floors being ripped up and refurbished, crystal chandeliers wrapped in white cloth for their own protection, scaffolding erected to protect precious architectural elements, and boxes filled with doorknobs that illustrate the artistry for which France has long been lauded. Some 500 of the latter were restored as the project moved along.
Suddenly, as the images transition to restored rooms, there are luxuriant brocade wallcoverings, colorful carpets emblazoned with all the symbolism of a bygone time, gilt-framed portraits, exuberant tompe-l’oeil panels, and ornate furniture—each of these breathing life into the spaces. Bauret notes that the Royal Navy, which didn’t vacate the building until 2015, can be credited with the level to which the interiors could be decorated as they originally were because during the Ministry’s tenure, the premises were never irrevocably altered. The amount of information this gave to the restoration committee makes the hôtel an authentic model of eighteenth-century building skills late in the ancien régime.
“When studies first began for the major renovation described here, it slowly became clear that nearly eighty percent of the original features of the private apartment of the intendant-general of the Royal Wardrobe were still present,” the author explains. This was also the case for the stately rooms like the main reception hall. Researchers using stratigraphic probes learned that beneath successive layers of paint, the colors from the 1770s had survived, making it clear that the heart of the former Royal Wardrobe would once again offer a unique record of eighteenth-century decorative arts.
“Not just any old record, but testimony to the royal lifestyle led by the intendant-general of the Wardrobe, rivaling the quality of Versailles,” Bauret writes. “Its excellence and magnificence can be detected not just in the perfect alignment of the stonework on the façade but also in the splendor and lavishness of the interior decoration and furnishings.” He adds that the string of spaces may have actually eclipsed the king’s own home, citing a “flying” table that lowered beneath the floor so that servants could set and clear it without ever entering the dining room. “Not even Versailles had the like,” Bauret explains. “Louis XV had considered installing an elevating table at the Trianon but abandoned the idea.”
As the book begins to draw to a close, the rooms feel alive once again. Rich tapestries create dynamic backdrops, fanciful ormolu creatures and plants dance along fireplace surrounds and mirrors, nubile statues glow pristine as they command their niches, and the ephemera that would have dotted game tables then is scattered once again. How fortunate that the inventory logs provided a roadmap for recovering furnishings that had been sold to private collectors, had been acquired by museums, or had been sitting in the national repository awaiting a return to the spaces for which they were designed! When retrieval was not possible, reproduction was employed.
It boggles the mind how much talent must have been required to return this building and its contents to their former glory. The fact that the visionaries behind the project chose to document its history and its transformation was a brilliant move and a gift to future design historians. Nearing the end of the reveal, the narrative moves readers toward the Revolution that has been a quietly simmering subject and we learn the fate of the last intendant-general under the rule of Louis XVI rule. The story of Marc Antoine Thierry de Ville-d’Avray’s end combined with the images of the perfectly composed, sumptuous rooms of the director and his wife bring an eerie echo to the richness. According to Hanover, the director met a dramatic end because the opulence that surrounded him was a double-edged sword.
“The costly lifestyle of the intendant-general—who lived in his official apartment like the king at Versailles—made an unfortunate impression during the French Revolution,” he says. He then explains the gruesome nature in which the man’s life came to an end when he was slaughtered by “many blows of the sword to his head,” “a pike thrust into his body,” and “a burning torch in his mouth to silence him.” Contrasting that dark tale is visual brightness as the refurbished rooms are revealed—boiserie gleaming, passementerie lush, crystals effervescing, and brocade sumptuously draping.
As Bauret puts it, “The eighteenth century suddenly seems nearer, more real. It illumines the French spirit, a spirit that is not merely a style. It is expressed not just in the artistry of Riesener’s Muses desk, but in the very choice of an everyday item as a medium of expression.” Because rooms are outfitted as if the intendant-general and his wife still live there—replete with a game of cards in progress and a jewel-handled sword placed on a desk, the museum is a living work of art. This gorgeous book published by Flammarion is one as well, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who wishes to soak in the glamor of a long, lost era.
One of my favorite strolls in Paris is along the Seine by way of the Rue de Rivoli. I’ve walked past this building and sauntered through the Place de la Concorde (and photographed both) many times. Though the square is quite different than it would have been before 1789, surrounded now by booming traffic and teeming with tourists; thanks to the efforts of those who value the rich history of French artistry, the bustle can be escaped and a magical era entered by walking through the door to the Hôtel de la Marine. You can bet I will be when I make my next visit to town.
Hôtel de la Marine Restored © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.
All images in this post marked with credit to Ambroise Tézenas © The French Royal Wardrobe: The Hôtel de la Marine Restored by Jérôme Hanover and Gabriel Bauret, Flammarion, 2022, photographs © Ambroise Tézenas. No images may be used, in print or electronically, without written consent from the publisher. Serial rights are available; leave a comment for contact information.