Pass up the Boulevard Sébastopol, going southward from the Pont Saint Miche, and a few minutes will bring you opposite the gardens of an ancient edifice on the east side of the great street. This is the Hôtel de Cluny, one of the most thoroughly interesting mansions in this city of wonders. The ruins that lie between it and the street are the remains of the old Roman Palnis des Thermes.
The Emperor Constantius Chlorus built a palace here about the year 300, and it was upon this spot Julian the Apostate was proclaimed Emperor of Lome. The old palace passed at length into the hands of the Frankish Kings, and about the year 1180 became one of the principal royal residences. In 1340 it was given to the Great Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, which owned a large amount of property in Paris, but had no town house there. The Abbot Jêhan, bastard of Bourbon, began the present Hôtel de Cluny, but did not live to the close of the work. He died in 1485, and the house was finished by Jacques d'Amboise, about the year 1515. It was noted as the most beautiful mansion in the city, and, indeed, is to-day a model of the Semi-Gothic Renaissance style.
Although they had taken such pains in building the house, the Abbots of Cluny seemed to care but little for it, and rarely made it their place of residence. For the most part it was occupied by the Royal family, or by some of the great Princes of the land. The widow of Louis XII., (Mary, daughter of Henry VII. of England) resided here. From the custom of the French queens to wear white mourning, she was called La Reine Blanche. Her chamber is still shown in the building. Francis I. also spent much of his time here; and it was here that his daughter, Magdalene, was married to James V. of Scotland. After this, the Cardinal de Lorraine, the Duke of Guise, and the Duke d'Aumale dwelt here. A troop of actors installed themselves in the mansion in 1579, and remained in it until 1584, when they were expelled by order of the Parliament.
About the period of the Revolution it became private property, and was occupied by its successive owners until 1833, when it was purchased by M. du Sommerard, an eminent antiquarian, who converted it into a Museum of the Middle Ages. He was very generous in showing it to the public, and at his death the State bought the mansion and the collections for five hundred thousand francs. At the same time, the city authorities ceded to the crown the Palais des Thermes, which stood next to the Hotel de Cluny. Louis Philippe undertook the task of restoring it, and made great progress with the work during his reign. The restoration was completed by the present Government, and the edifice presents a rare specimen, both externally and internally, of a mansion of the Sixteenth Century. The building of to-day, however, preserves very few of its interior decorations. The chapel is the best preserved, remaining entirely as it was originally built.
"The battlements on the wall facing the Rue des Mathurins have been restored, and the staff and scallop-shell, the badges of Jacques d'Amboise, have been replaced. The body of the building, which faces the visitor on entering, is supposed to be the oldest part, and is almost Gothic in design, and richly ornamented. The double frieze and the balustrade above the first floor, with their grotesque carvings, and the magnificent dormer-windows, deserve particular attention, and the chimnies are the finest of that date in Paris. The wing on the left is much more richly ornamented. On the outer wall is a circle cut in the stone, said to represent the circumference of the great bell of Rouen."
The entrance is from the rue des Mathurins, by two doors, one large and the other small, in the battlemented wall. Here you must produce either your passport or a stamped card in order to obtain admission. Crossing the court-yard, you enter a large hall, slightly raised from the ground, and constituting the first room of the Museum. You may purchase a catalogue of the articles from the gatekeeper for two francs, and you will be wise not to attempt to see the collections without one. The Museum contains three thousand seven hundred and seventy objects, each of which is ticketed and numbered. The catalogue is very well arranged, and by its aid you can spend several agreeable and profitable hours here.
You will find these old rooms themselves decidedly one of the most instructive portions of the Museum. They show you, simply and eloquently, the way in which the "old time folks" kept house. Some of the apartments are dreary and cheerless enough, but the others must have been marvelously comfortable when the big logs see the bright flames roaring up the huge chimnies. Stately rooms they are, too, and worthy, still, to be tenanted by royalty. The woodwork is exquisite, and the chimney-pieces are marvels of carving.
Here is gathered the richest collection in existence, of objects relating to the early history of France. Here are sculptures, reliefs, altars, and carvings from the old churches and palaces; paintings so old and faded that many of them are almost indistinct; beautiful oratories, reading-desks, rose-windows; manuscripts, the crowns of the Gothic kings, and the croziers of Saints. Here are weapons and armor of the ancient Gauls, and articles of domestic use of that age. Here are banners and pennons that flapped in the hot winds of the Holy Land, and swords and lances that laid many an infidel low. The collection of ancient armor is particularly rich and interesting. You will find specimens of every description here, from the rude weapons of the Gauls down to the complete adoption of gunpowder. The religious relics are numerous and very interesting. The tapestries and hangings on which the dames of old toiled so patiently, are in an excellent state of preservation, and are very numerous.
Some of the ecclesiastical robes are gorgeous. There are numerous specimens of the household furniture of the Middle Ages, almost all beautifully carved, but clumsy and uncomfortable for use. The great saloon contains the "entire collection of ebonies, images, crystals, little figures, Italian, Flemish, and French ivory, mosaics in hard stone, birds, landscapes, cornelians, inlaid work, shells, miniatures, cabinets, china, bass-reliefs, jugs, coffers that are named in Brantome, plate, low cupboards, all the apparatus of good living, vases as brilliant as gold, cups, basins, glasses, the massive Flemish side-board, everything clever or ingenious that has ever been produced by the manufacturers of Faenza, of Montpellier, of Limoges, of Flanders, and of France, in a word, the finest works of Bernard Palissy, and his pupils."
In the beautiful Chamber of the White Queen are several old paintings, some of them dating from the year 1759. Adjoining this room is the chamber of Francis I. "The door of this chamber of Francis I.," says Jules Janin, "had been the door of the Château d'Anet, a discreet door, with a sill of ivory and gold, which remembers Diana of Poietiers and Henry II. The chess board had belonged to Saint Louis. A city of France had offered this rare treasure to Louis XVIII.; but Louis XVIII, who cared for nothing but his throne and his repose, gave the chess board of the pious king to a man in his household, and this man sold it to M. du Sommerard. The bed in this room of Francis I., was, in fact, that of the Knight King. The frieze pannel was painted by Primaticcio, the Christ is by Albert Durer; here are the stirrups and the spurs of the King of France; here is the complete armor, the buckler, the helmet, the armed vizor, the Spanish dagger, the good lance of Toledo, as the modern drama has since called it, the haulmes, the arquebuses, the gauntlets, the knee caps — all the apparatus of the soldier and the Knight."
From the Chamber of the White Queen, you enter the Chapel, a beautiful work. A pillar in the centre supports the groined ceiling, and the twelve niches which surround the room were once filled with statues of the Amboise family. The Chapel at present contains a number of relics from the old churches of France. A winding stairway leads down to an undercroft, the same in size and design as the chapel above, which contains several old statues. A door on the left leads into the garden, across which is the old palace of the Roman Emperors.
The Palais des Thermes, the history of which has been already sketched, adjoins the Hôtel de Cluny. It is one of the most complete Roman relics in France, but represents only a portion of the original palace. "The principal part of the ruins are supposed to have formed a part of the baths erected by the Emperor Constantius Chlorus. The first, the largest hall, the frigidarium, or cold bath, is a well proportioned and lofty hall of brick, which, though bare and stripped of its stonework and ornaments, still strikes the visitor with admiration. It is sixty-six feet long, thirty-eight feet wide, and fifty-nine feet high; on one side, but at a lower level, is the oblong cold bath. The remains of the leaden pipes, etc., may still be seen; the water was brought from beyond Arcueil, four miles off, traces having been discovered throughout of the acqueduct. In this hall have been placed some specimens of Roman sculptures; amongst others, two altars, of the time of Tiberius, dedicated to Jupiter, found in 1711 under the choir of Notre Dame. Beneath are vaults and reservoirs closed to the public. Besides this hall, vast masses of brickwork belonging to the vestibule, tepidarium, etc., may be seen, all in ruins, and formerly buried in modern houses. In the garden are a portion of a Roman road, formed of polygonal blocks of Fontainebleau, sandstone, several fragments of Gothic architecture, three Norman arches, which formed a part of a church of the Benedictines at Argenteuil, an iron cross from the summit of the church of Saint Vladimir at Sebastopol, and the Gothic façade of the College of Bayeux, which stood in this quarter of Paris.
Source: Paris by Sunlight and Gaslight; a work descriptive of the mysteries and miseries, the virtues, the vices, the splendors, and the crimes of the city of Paris. By James D. McCabe. .