The Musee de Cluny

By Grant Allen


The primitive nucleus of the suburb on the South Side consists of the Roman fortress palace, the "tete du pont" of the Left Bank, now known as the Thermes, owing to the fact that its principal existing remains include only the ruins of the bath or therma. This colossal building, probably erected by Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine, covered an enormous area south of the river. After the Frankish conquest, it still remained the residence of the Merwing and Karling kings on the rare occasions when they visited Paris; and it does not seem to have fallen into utter decay till a comparatively late date in the Middle Ages.

With the Norman irruptions, however, and the rise of the real French monarchs under Eudes and the Capets, the new sovereigns found it safest to transfer their seat to the Palace on the Island (now the Palais de Justice), and the Roman fortress was gradually dismantled. In 1340 the gigantic ruins came into the hands of the powerful Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, near Macon, in Burgundy; and about 1480, the abbots began to erect on the spot a town mansion for themselves, which still bears the name of the Hotel de Cluny. The letter K, the mark of Charles VIII. (1483-1498), occurs on many parts of the existing building, and fixes its epoch. The house was mostly built by Jaques d'Amboise, abbot, in 1490. The style is late Gothic, with Renaissance features.

The abbots, however, seldom visited Paris, and they frequently placed their town house accordingly at the disposition of the kings of France. Mary of England, sister of Henry VIII., and widow of Louis XII., occupied it thus in 1515, soon after its completion. It was usual for the queens of France to wear white as mourning; hence her apartment is still known as the "Chambre de la reine blanche."

At the Revolution, when the property of the monasteries was confiscated, the Hotel de Cluny was sold, and passed at last, in 1833, into the hands of M. du Sommerard, a zealous antiquary, who began the priceless collection of works of art which it contains. He died in 1842, and the Government then bought the house and museum, and united it with the Roman ruin at its back under the title of Musee des Thermes et de l'Hotel de Cluny. Since that time many further objects have been added to the collection.

At Cluny the actual building forms one of the most interesting parts of the sight, and is in itself a museum. It is a charming specimen of a late medieval French mansion; and the works of art it contains are of the highest artistic value…. At least two whole days should be devoted to Cluny--one to the lower and one to the upper floor. Much more, if possible.

[9] From "Paris."