After the splendor and solemnity of the large reception galleries of the Hôtel de la Marine, let’s discover the richness of the apartments of the intendant of the royal Furniture Storage (“Garde-Meuble royal”). If the magnificence of the grand galleries may overwhelm the visitor, the intendant’s apartments allow the latter to experience the intimacy of a noble house as it was at the end of the 18th century.
It must be said that the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, the entity which has been in charge of the Hôtel de la Marine since the end of 2015 was keen to restore the intendant’s apartments as close as possible to their state at the time of Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville d’Avray, the second intendant of the royal Furniture Storage.
A long process – based on the archives – of identifying and locating pieces of furniture and original decorative objects, has made it possible to restore the initial atmosphere of the intendant’s apartments.
If the grand galleries were renovated under Napoleon III, the intendant’s apartments have kept their original decorations (sometimes hidden under several layers of paiting) or at least sufficient vestiges to allow the Centre des Monuments Nationaux to restore their initial state. Some exceptional pieces were in national public collections and thus lended, others more difficult to identify were replaced by equivalent period pieces which were acquired.
The original distribution of the apartments is respected, with the apartments of Monsieur de Ville d’Avray, those of Madame and in between, the reception rooms.
The textiles, which are of pure beauty, have been the subject of particular care. An active search campaign for old textiles was carried out during the restoration of the intendant’s apartments and the abundance and diversity of floral and Indian motifs are astonishing, far from the heavy and pompous brocades that one often sees in museum palaces. Exoticism, highlighted by Marie-Antoinette’s taste for floral, joyous and light patterns, and the trade operated by the French India Company, is in fashion at that time.
As a result, the visitor listening to an audio guide which alternates music and explanations (and a treasure hunt for the children) expects at almost every step to bump into the intendant of the royal Furniture Storage and his wife. The scenography, which presents everyday objects in every room, transforms the visit into an immersive experience and allows to evolve in the intimacy of a noble house where the table is set, the game tables still dotted with cards or the library supplied with period books.
The first intendant of the Royal Furniture Storage, Pierre-Elisabeth de Fontanieu moves there in 1772, having fitted out sumptuous apartments. Fontanieu is a man of taste and he knows how to unearth young talents during the process of creating new furniture for the royal residences. He thus has the cabinetmaker Riesener work for his own apartments before placing official orders with him for the royal residences. Under the aegis of Fontanieu, several rooms in the apartments were decorated in an innovative style that often foreshadowed that of the royal palaces.
The flying table is one example. The dining rooms are rare at the time, it is necessary to undergo the preparation of a temporary table in the living room, in the middle of a ballet of servants. The flying table imagined by Fontanieu goes up and down between the new dining room and the office located on the floor below thanks to an ingenious system of ropes and pulleys. This innovation, the cost of which was such that even Louis XV gave it up for Versailles, nevertheless augurs the preponderant place that gastronomy will take in the following decades in the intangible heritage of France.
Another innovative setting is the Cabinet des Glaces (the Mirrors room). Fontanieu, a bachelor and a libertine, has a small intimate cabinet fitted out as close as possible to his room, with a sofa and covered with mirrors painted with naked women. It is the wife of his successor, Madame de Ville d’Avray who will change the decor out of modesty by replacing the naked women with putti (little angels… also naked) but the room remains lovely.
The Fontanieu administration officially took up residence in the building in 1774 and carried out its activities there for fifteen years. In charge of furnishing the royal residences, the royal Furniture Storage presides over the creation of new pieces but also ensures the maintenance and conservation of thousands of objects, whether they are pieces of decorative art or the French Crown jewels.
Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville d’Avray succeeded Fontanieu in 1784. Freshly ennobled, his taste is not as sure as that of Fontanieu and he changes the furnishings of the intendant’s apartments by choosing more ostentatious pieces of furniture.
Fontanieu’s room, deemed probably too dark, is abandoned by his successor and, as we have seen, the adjoining Mirror Room gains a new virginity.
The Revolution is a source of many upheavals for the royal Furniture Storage.
First, the Ministry of the Navy partially invests the premises after the departure of King Louis XVI from Versailles to Paris.
Even more serious is the theft of the French Crown Jewels in September 1792, which marks the beginning of the end of the royal Furniture Storage, finally taking place in 1798. The theft is carried out from September 11 to 17, 1792 under the noses of the guards by about forty brigands who climb the facade of the building in order to access the loggia and enter the grand galleries. Nearly 10,000 stones are stolen, including priceless pieces such as the “Great Sapphire” of Louis XIV or the “Regent” jewel.
Eight people are condemned for spoliation of the Republic.
Nevertheless, the investigation reveals glaring inconsistencies: the locks of the furniture containing the jewels were not forced and it is difficult to believe that all these people did not attract the attention of the guards, four evenings in a row.
Even if most of the jewels are found two years later (with the exception of the “Bleu de France” diamond which will reappear twenty years later, recut and known since its name of “Hope” diamond), the identity of the true sponsors of what has been called the “millennium heist” remains unknown to this day, suspicion having fallen on Monsieur de Ville d’Avray (although in prison) then on politician Danton. The general insecurity that reigned everywhere in Paris at that time and the weakness of the protection granted to the Crown Jewels nevertheless remain the most likely suspects.
October 21, 2022