7) PARC MONCEAU
Parc Monceau is a green oasis nestled on the boundary between the 8th and 17th arrondissments in northwest Paris. It's just a short walk from the Arc de Triumphe and the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
The park sits like an oyster, nestled in it's shell, with busy Boulevard de Courcelles forming a straight line across its upper border; the rounded underside of the oyster shell being formed by a semi-circle of exquisite mansions facing directly onto the park with no intervening road. The effect, tranquil opulence.
The mansions looking onto the park date from the 1860’s when the land around Parc Monceau was packaged and sold to wealthy Parisians, many of whom were Jewish bankers and millionaires such as the Rothschild family. Marcel Proust is quoted as saying that, “Only the fabulously wealthy could afford a view of the greenery of the Parc Monceau.”
A pair of brothers from Constantinople, Abraham and Nissim Camondo, who had accumulated significant wealth in banking both under the Ottoman Empire and subsequently in Italy under King Victor Emmanuel, purchased houses side by side on rue de Monceau. In 1911, Nissim’s son, Moïse Camondo, demolished his father's original house that had been built in 1867, and built a mansion in the late 18th century style. It stands today as the Musée Nissim de Camondo; the house preserved in the exact state in which it was left at the time of Moïse's death. Each magnificent piece of furniture, precious object, and artwork remains unmoved from where it had been placed under Moïse's discriminating eye.
To visit the museum today is to take a journey back in time. Initially, we're transported to pre-WWI Paris; the year, 1914. Moïse Camondo has recently been divorced by his wife, Irene; the mother of his two children, Beatrice and Nissim jnr. Irene has fallen in love with an Italian count who she marries soon after the divorce is finalized. Moïse is devastated, and becomes more reclusive with each passing year. His children, and his precious collection of 18th century art and furniture, become his entire world.
After our initial meeting with Moïse in the early 20th century, we are transported back in time to the late 1700’s, this time with Moïse — who is obsessed with this period of history — as our guide. The era: 1770-1789.
King Louis XV has reigned for 64 years after his great grandfather, the great Louis XIV, had ruled France for the prior 72 years. France has experienced a golden age of development and culture, particularly under Louis XIV, the 'Sun King’. This included the building of the grand Château de Versailles.
Louis XV inherited this extravagant opulence, along with his great grandfathers cultivation of France as an absolute monarchy, which inevitably led to increasing class disparity, and ultimately to the French Revolution of 1789. Historically Louis XV was severely criticized for his resounding political inaction, and for his wishy-washy policy making. After his death in 1774, Louis’ ill-fated grandson is crowned Louis XVI, and his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette, joins him at Versailles.
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette continue to live the exotic life of extreme wealth and privilege as the 1770's turn into the 1780's. There is, however, a growing rumbling of discontent amongst the working class. The poor have been getting poorer under both Louis XIV and Louis XV. The division between the 'have's' and the ‘have-nots' is widening. The excesses of the church and the ruling aristocratic upper class are being called into question; political turmoil is immanent.
The design of architecture, furniture, and art has peaked in its flamboyance and elaborateness in the Baroque period, and following the brief transitional Rococo during the reign of Louis XV, attention is turned to finer, more intricate detail in the Neoclassical period, with building and furniture particularly demonstrating this trend.
It is a refined era in terms of music and art also: the true Classical Period of music as exemplified so abundantly by Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven in his early period, and the extraordinary genius of Wolfgang Mozart.
Walking through the rooms of the Musée Nissim de Camondo is like walking through a small version of Versailles at its peak. Revolution is brewing. The nobility are afraid, but they have no inkling of what is to come — the bloody massacres, the cruel imprisonments, the swift death by the guillotine that awaits many.
Each room is decorated with precision and perfection. Nothing is out of place; not a piece of furniture, not a lamp, not a vase, not a painting. The positioning of every object is perfect.
The design of the house echoes the upstairs-downstairs arrangement prevalent during this period. The immaculate downstairs kitchen with its enormous wood-fired island cooktop and massive roasting oven sits adjacent to the servants dining room, and adjoins the head butlers office where the dumb-waiter carries food upstairs to the formal dining room.
Next to the upstairs dining room are no less than three superbly decorated salons and a library, with each room having it’s own theme and colour scheme. Everything is sumptuous—the rich carpets, the intricate tapestries, the gilded frames of paintings and mirrors, the immaculately made desks with exquisite parquetry inlays, the rich oak wall paneling and flooring that contains it all.
Upstairs again to the third level of the mansion, and we come to the inner sanctum: Moïse's private bedchamber. There is more life in this room than all the others rooms of the mansion put together.
I sit quietly for a while, soaking up the remnants of Moïse's story . . . and he is there. Lying on his alcove bed, Moïse is sad and alone. His wife has left him. His cherished son, Nissim jnr, has been killed in action in WWI. His daughter, Beatrice, is recently married and has moved away; she is not close to her father now that he is withdrawn and reclusive, and unable to express his affection for her.
Moïse points me to a framed family tree that is mounted in the corridor to his left. This private passage joins the sleeping chamber to le salle de bain, the bathroom, and to Moïse's private office. At the top of the family tree are his father, Nissim snr, and his uncle, Abraham, who arrived in Paris in 1867. Abraham’s only son, Isaac, died without children after a life celebrating the sensual pleasures that Paris so effusively offered during La Belle Epoque; his only legacy a massive art collection that was left to the Louvre Museum.
On Moïse’s side of the family tree: Nissim jnr, killed in action in 1917; Moïse himself died in 1935; Beatrice, along with her husband and two children, victims of the Nazi holocaust tragically ended their lives at Auschwitz in 1943.
The entire Camondo family is gone. Moïse’s magnificent house, and his collection of late 18th century art and furniture, a beautiful and tragic legacy . . .
November 7th , 2014.