A Visit to Picasso’s Salty House and Other Townhouses of Note
It was normal to expect lines to enter the newly renovated Musée Picasso at noon on Sunday, but hardly anyone was there. It was shocking. This was a ‘sneak preview’ to the museum, it having been closed for five years for major renovation/reconstruction, open especially for the two days of Les Journées du Patrimoine this past weekend with only a few of his works on display. The museum is officially planning to open on October 25th with the art (now stored in crates) on the walls, however, its doors will open once again prior to that during La Nuit Blanche on October 4th.
Situated within a two-minute walk from my apartment, I’ve been watching it for the last five years wondering how it would take shape. The mansion in which the museum is housed is known as the “Hôtel Salé,” considered to be one of the grandest of the 17th-century “hôtels particuliers” in Paris. For those of you who think a “hôtel” is where you stay for a few nights while traveling, that is true, but not in this context. Think of a hôtel particulier as a “townhouse.” Ordinary houses were built as part of a row, sharing walls with other houses, but a hôtel particulier was more often free standing surrounding a courtyard or garden.
Le Marais is teeming with them and this is one of particular note. Built by a salt-tax farmer (hence the name “Hôtel Salé” meaning “salty”), Pierre Aubert, about the same time as the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte built by Nicolas Fouquet, the elaborate home was a product of the fortunes he made as a financier, advisor and secretary to the king and collection of tax on salt in the name of the king. The area he chose on which to build his home was underdeveloped at the time, and where Henry IV wished to encourage construction near his Place Royale (now Place des Vosges).
Le Marais is certainly not an area of the city one would call “underdeveloped” in today’s Paris. The apartments at Place des Vosges overlooking the garden are highly coveted. The Musée Picasso Web site has a wonderful synopsis of the history of the building worth a read, and now there is a new chapter to be added as one might not recognize its interiors — with the exception of the central staircase, the masterpiece of the house. It was based on a design by Michelangelo for the Laurentian Library in Florence and is truly the center focus of the new museum.
As we wandered through the rooms, trying to remember the museum as it was prior to the renovation, we wondered “what took so long?” Like most construction projects, there are always surprises and so it was with the Hôtel Salé. Their first priority was to restore original detail, repave the main courtyard, repair the roofs and create more exhibition space, all with a way for a visitor to have an extraordinary experience while exploring the collection of Picasso’s works.
Even without the works on the walls, their accomplishment to achieve just that is evident. The rooms are bright and spacious, the flow of the museum easy and fluid from beginning to end, where you complete your visit and land in the beautiful garden. We were impressed by the chandeliers — hand made in a contemporary yet organic fashion, as fitting to the Hôtel Salé as the Pyramid is to the Louvre. The original floor-to-ceiling windows of hand-blown glass were left in tact, but sealed by new windows. Original stone is exposed in strategic places and the floors are a combination of woods and marbles.
If I were to be critical at all, I’d say that in typical French fashion, the gift shop is too small and has been overlooked as a place where visitors will want to purchase their mementoes and a center for additional revenue (is that the capitalist in me thinking this way?).
The Picasso wasn’t the only monument visited during Les Journées du Patrimoine — as the neighborhood was chock-a-block with amazing things to see all in one day, including walls and walls of notarial documents centuries old housed in the National Archives in the Hôtel de Soubise; the stuffed heads and full bodies of animals killed in the hunt at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in the Hôtel de Mongelas and the lovely courtyard where one can dine at the Institut Suédois in the Hôtel de Marle.
If any of this gives you a taste to explore the Hôtel Particuliers in Paris, they are easy to spot, even if not housing a museum or other institution. Most are now simply apartment complexes, much like the one I live in. You can recognize them by their classic large portal opening to a carriageway and then into a courtyard. Normally made of stone, the house would surround the courtyard — the first level for reception, the second level for the chambers and the subsequent levels for servants. They are now most often surrounded by tall, thin houses sharing walls, which filled in the land between them in later years. Some are imposing and others less assuming — but they once housed the wealthy whose life was somehow attached to royalty.
Now, there are just us poor paupers trying to eke out enough euros to pay our rent for one small portion of was once a grand hôtel particulier.
A la prochaine,
(with crated Picasso art)
P.S. Tonight an all new episode of House Hunters International airs in the U.S. and Canada — “Californians sell their Vineyard to Afford a Summer Home on the Costly Côte d’Azur” – Episode HHINT-7006H, September 22 at 10:30 p.m. E/P and 1:30 a.m. E/P. Sadly, we here in France don’t get to see it! So, if you have the ability to record it so that I can view it on Youtube or other venue (private, please, as this is syndicated programming!!), I’d be forever indebted to you! Just email me at [email protected] and many thanks!