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  • Writer's pictureTer Hollmann

A Brief History of the Palais Royal in Paris

What is the Palais Royal?

Palais Royal is a former royal palace in Paris that was built for Cardinal Richelieu in the 17th century and is now home to the Council of State and Ministry of Culture.

Palais Royal statue with pigeons

Palais Royal History

Designed in the 17th century by influential French Baroque architect Jacques Lemercier, this elegant palace was built to serve as the private residence of Cardinal Richelieu, the cleric who served as Chief Minister to the king. The building, originally called the Palais Cardinal, was bequeathed to King Louis XIII upon Richelieu’s death.

When the king died of tuberculosis just a year later in 1643, the palace became the home of Queen Regent Anne of Austria and her sons Philippe and Louis – or as he would later become known, Louis XIV, the Sun King. The palace also acquired the name by which it is still known today. Phillippe, then Duke of Orléans, would marry Henrietta Anne, the daughter of Charles I of England, who was living in exile with her sister in Paris; the Palais Royal would become their home and the social epicentre of Paris. The couple were famed for their lavish parties which hosted the crème de la crème of society. The duchess also created the ornamental gardens, which were said to be some of the most beautiful in the city.

In 1785, Louis Philippe II became Duke of Orléans. He was a notorious womanizer and often in need of cash. Using his entrepreneurial spirit he decided to create three arcades of rent-paying shops and apartments framing the garden, and opened this little centre of commerce to the public. Serenely removed from the grimy streets of Paris, the area became the place to shop. The stores along the arcade were some of the first in France to install large shopfront windows, allowing the middle classes to indulge in casual window-shopping even if they could not afford the high prices of some of the luxury goods. The arcades became an important part of Parisian intellectual life: their restaurants and coffee shops served as important centres of gravity for students, financiers and even some maverick aristocrats. It transformed nightly into the haunt of libertines, soldiers and prostitutes, many of whom rented apartments in the building.

During the French Revolution Louis-Philippe called himself Philippe Égalité (meaning ‘Equality’) and the Palais Royal was called the Palais Égalité. He was in favour of the revolution and called for a constitutional monarchy; his progressive views, however, were not enough to stop him from being executed by guillotine in 1793.

Today the Palais Royal is home to an array of governmental institutions: the Conseil d'État (or Council of State), the Constitutional Council, and the Ministry of Culture. Contrasting starkly and deliberately with its classical surroundings, Daniel Buren’s site-specific work stands in the Cour d’Honneur, the large central courtyard. Buren’s installation features 260 striped, octagonal columns of varying height. The work was called Les Deux Plateaux when it was unveiled in 1986, but is more fondly called Les Colonnes de Buren and has proved very popular with Parisians.

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