Beside the majestic palace of the Louvre there’s another, less known, less crowded, whose walls tell a story as troubled as the one if its illustrious neighbor. Its events don’t only concern kings, duches and great ladies, but also and foremost the Parisian people.
Palais-Royal could have followed the hushed destiny of many other splendid royal residences of the capital, but property speculation by a penniless duke will instead put it at the center of the city life until it will eventually become a sort of little Las Vegas (no kidding!).
In another article, I told about when Palais-Royal was built by the order of Cardinal Richelieu in the XVII century and how later on it became the property of the cadet branch of the royal family: the Dukes d’Orléans.
(You could also read: Palais-Royal: a TV-Show’s worth of stories)
In the year 1780 came the man who would give the palace his modern appearance, and the most extravagant role for a noble residence. I’m talking about Louis-Philippe de Borbon-Orléans (1747-1793), duke of Chartres and d’Orléans, who later will change his name in Philippe Égalité, not for short, but because noble titles were so last year since equality had been established with bloody promptness, one head after the other. But let’s not rush: we better start by asking who is this guy.
Now, I’m going to tell you every fact I know for sure, but I have to be honest, even I haven’t been able to completely crack this man’s ambiguous personality.
Louis-Philippe was duke d’Orléans, cousin of King Louis XVI and, as such, a “prince of the blood”, a title that implies the possibility to be in line for the throne if the main family branch, for some reason, is completely extinguished.
Courtly Gossip: between the duke d’Orléans and his sister-in-law, queen Marie-Antoinette, the relationship always remained extremely cold, partially because of the grief that the duke had – indirectly, to be honest – caused to one of the Queen’s closest friends, Madame de Lamballe (1749-1792). As far as the Queen knew, the husband of her dear friend had died prematurely because of the debauchery the duke had dragged him in.
To exacerbate the relationship with the sister-in-law there also was the duke’s ambiguous political behavior. Louis-Philippe was considered a “Jacobin” by his friends, so to say a liberal, progressive-thinking. What? Duke and Jacobin? Well, yes: Louis-Philippe dared to link the word “monarchy” to a term extremely unpalatable to the court, and so I beg Their Majesties to pardon me if I take this liberty at such a small distance from their portraits but… the term in question was “constitutional“, constitutional-monarchy.
Basically the Duke seemed to sympathize with the idea of a king ruling respecting the mandates of a constitution, foregoing the absolute power that French monarchs had always held so dear. The theory was modern, almost cutting-edge, except that in England the model was already ongoing. But an itty bitty detail that the duke omitted was that the enlightened king the duke fantasized about had his features, his name and his gall. A dangerous game, duke!
For sure, Louis-Philippe was a very ambitious man, and the idea of sitting on the throne of France could not be far from him, however, in the heat of the French Revolution, when his friends and supporters offered him the crown, he turned it down. Now we’d call him “The Dud-Duke”, then he was called “The King of Spades”.
Under the l’Ancien Régime, the duke d’Órléans had a reputation as a “POP” aristocrat, and to boost his reputation of modern nobleman came the opening to the public of the new gardens of Palais-Royal (1784) that became to the city a sort of ante-litteram mall. Citizens could stroll, protected from the weather and the traffic, under the vaults of three new galleries designed by architect Victor Louis: the Montpensier gallery on the west, Beaujolais north and Valois on the east (they were named after the titles of the duke’s sons).
These colonnades, 180 vaults, are still there today, and at the times they housed 88 between boutiques, restaurants, cafés, show halls, game parlors, and the always popular pleasure houses.
Apart from the colonnades you can still see today, between the Montpensier gallery on the west and the Valois on the east, there were more, incredibly crowded galleries covered in wood (see picture below)
To have a correct idea of the place, you should imagine a true “Pleasure Island” and a zone of depravity where police couldn’t even enter. Yes, being the duke d’Orléans had its perks, including being above the law. The derogatory names of Palais-Royal, like “Field of Tartars” and “Temple of Pleasures”, come from that debauchery-filled period.
The main attraction of this Parisian Las Vegas, apart from gambling, were the many ladies of petite vertu (‘of loose morals’, in other words: prostitutes) freely roaming the premises. Don’t be fooled, the system worked like clockwork: you don’t leave such a lucrative activity to chance! Prices varied depending on the zone where the lady “practiced”: the cheapest offers were in the wooden galleries, while the professionals with the highest fees were under the stone ones, and ultimately the luxurious cocottes waited outside specialized establishments.
The competition was fierce, and every “lady” had to find a way to set themselves clearly apart from the others. They could take advantage with their eventual resemblance to some famous person and dress up to strengthen the illusion. It’s not a random example: it’s right here in Palais-Royal that the famous doppelganger of Marie-Antoinette was found, the one who would play a key role in the famous Diamond Necklace Affair.
The galleries were open to the public until two in the morning, and if today this doesn’t seem so much it’s because we’re children of electricity. The innovation of Palais-Royal’s galleries was also in the lighting: visibility was granted until well after the midnight oil was burnt, thanks to the lanterns lighting up the vaults.
Louis-Philippe had made available to the citizens of Paris a sort of porticoed Las Vegas. Modernity oblige? Not at all! The pressing need for money had forced the duke to rent some of the gardens of his Parisian property, but still His Highness had played the role of “the cool guy” before the people, once more.
Today, the galleries are peaceful, almost melancholic, with that touch of neglect that grumbles sulkily in some corners. But even if the crowd and the merchants are gone, the charme of a stroll at Palais-Royal is far from gone.
Before getting to know – in the next article- the unexpected wonders of Palais-Royal’s galleries, now disappeared, I leave you with a last fun fact: the reputation of the palace as “Temple of Pleasures” is also confirmed through literature!
The duke had a secretary who was also an army man, a brilliant writer and, above all, a faithful friend, named Chorderlos de Laclos. Maybe this rings a bell to some of you: he’s the author of a famous epistolary novel that created a huge scandal at the times, and that unsettles people even today, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (‘Dangerous Liaisons’ from which came the namesake movie by Frears with John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman in 1988. Great book, great movie, great actors and here’s the trailer.) He had to take his inspiration from somewhere, and so why not under the galleries he walked under every day?
In Palais-Royal, where I remind you police wasn’t allowed, Laclos could start his subversive Journal des Amis de la Constitution (‘Newspaper of the Friends of the Constitution’), a “Jacobin” magazine funded by the duke himself, his mentor, friend and patron. Poor Laclos, how disappointing the King of Spades would reveal himself to be!
Finally, a local anecdote: perhaps not everyone knows that Forte Laclos, on the island of San Paolo in the Gulf of Taranto, takes his name from him! Years after the death of the duke, while he was serving under Napoleon in Italy, Laclos died from a dire form of disentery in the Convent of Saint Francis of Taranto and, having refused the religious sacraments being an atheist revolutionary, was buried in the parade ground of the fort and not in hallowed ground.
After Napoleon’s fall, his remains were scattered with dishonor, as happened to those of the dear duke under the Revolution. Even today, fishermen prefer not to get close to the cursed Island where the ghost of Laclos, they say, roams, anguished. Some very dangerous rocks right at water level could have helped those good men’s resolve…
Farewell Laclos, ghost or not, you were a very good writer.