Discover le Parc Monceau in Paris
When you enter Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement, you’ll probably notice first and foremost the joggers. If you want to run like a Parisian, suit up in your best jogging gear—many dress as extensively for jogging as they do for a stroll in the park—and join the pack circling the park in unison. The path tracing the outer edge of the park makes a loop of one kilometer, where runners rule, particularly on weekends and around midday. I felt out of place walking on this loop, forced to the edges to avoid the purposeful lunchtime joggeurs. Having trouble avoiding them while pausing and weaving around the path to check out the ruins and the plants, I fled as soon as possible.
I needn’t have worried, however, as you can easily escape the domain of the fit if you aren’t in the mood for jogging (yes, they use the same word. Just put on your best French accent). As it was for many a great 19th century artist—Marcel Proust, Emile Zola, or Claude Monet, to name a few—the inner paths of Parc Monceau will be quiet enough for an easy amble through the odd collection of ruins arranged haphazardly among the plants. Some of these ruins date to the origins of the park in the 1770s.
An Aristocratic Playground
At this time before the Revolution, what is now Parc Monceau stood outside Paris. Rather than the lush Haussmanian hotels and private residences, it was a lush forestland owned by the duc de Chartres, Louis-Philippe-Joseph d’Orléans. An aristocratic libertine and one of the richest men in France, the duc de Chartres commissioned the garden as a private getaway for the well-to-do.
Near the town of Monceau, the duc’s designer–a painter named Carmontelle–incorporated over eighty incongruous ruins. Some of these remain in the park today, and they mimicked building styles everywhere—an Egyptian obelisk and pyramid, Turkish and tartar tents, and statues from and mimicking styles from ancient Greece and Rome, to name a few. The garden aimed to be, in the words of one historian, an “enchanted wonderland” from “all times and all places.”
The pyramid remains today, as well as the Naumachia, a structure evoking what in Roman times served as a sort of coliseum for naval battles. These columns originate in another structure—a funeral chapel constructed by Catherine de Médicis for her husband, next to the Basilica of Saint Denis. The chapel was destroyed in 1719, and the columns were moved to what is now Parc Monceau at the beginning of its construction in 1769.
The seemingly random layout of the ruins has also puzzled historians searching for a meaning in the design. One suggested theory involves the duc’s role as Grand Master of the Freemasons, a universalist Christian cult whose leadership, at least in part, described Paris as a new Jerusalem. The arrangement of the ruins would have carried a secret mystical significance, available only to the initiated visitors. The theory remains a theory, with one of the article’s strongest statements explaining that “Carmontelle must have thought carefully about the duke’s involvement with freemasonry”[i] in the development of his design.
Still, having no knowledge of the park’s bizarre history on my first visit, the assortment of run-down structures seemed merely confusing, as if some aristocrat had merely run out of space in their private collection. Now, it’s still strange, but fun as well to think of the park’s early visitors deriving some mystical significance from the place as they escaped from the city to let their hair down (so to speak). The odd useless fact about 18th century aristocracy can change the way you see Paris…
Taxes in Parc Monceau
The park has changed significantly since its creation though, having changed ownership with France’s changes in leadership until the mid-1800s. In the decade preceding the revolution, authorities constructed a wall surrounding Paris, called le Mur des Fermiers Généraux. This wall bordered the northern edge of Parc Monceau, and its purpose was to regulate entry into the city for the collection of taxes.
There were several designated points of entry, including one opening onto the park. The old entry into Paris now serves as an entry into Parc Monceau, where you’ll see a round structure surrounded by columns. I supposed it might be an old temple replica, such as you can find at Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, but no—originally a tax-collecting station, it is now a grandiose public toilet.
Several of these stations still stand around Paris, including the Rotonde de la Villette, the Barrière du Trône and the Barrière d’Enfer (barrier of hell). They have all been repurposed as well, although in a slightly more dignified manner—la Villette has become a restaurant and art gallery, while part of the Barrière d’Enfer houses the entrance to the Catacombs. The wall and the taxes that came with it incited such wrath in Paris’s inhabitants that its construction helped feed the fire of revolution, and the barriers were some of the first locations taken over by the people.
In the years after the revolution, Parc Monceau also hosted a daring first in the world of aviation—the first parachute jump from a hot air balloon. André-Jacques Garnerin, a name otherwise forgotten, jumped from around 800 feet to land safely in the grass. His 1797 jump was the second in the history of the parachute, easily surpassing a 1783 drop from an observatory in Montpellier.
New Ownership of the Park
Parc Monceau had been seized by the state after the revolution, during which the duc de Chartres took the name “Philippe-Egalité and coldly voted for the execution of his cousin on the throne, only to fall to the guillotine during the Terror. Without the original owner, the restoration monarchy returned the park to the Orléans family in 1814. However, at the beginning of the Second Empire in 1852, the government demanded the family give up half the park.
Artists & “The Evils of Modernity”
Nearly going bankrupt in 1860, the Orléans family sold their remaining half of Parc Monceau to be developed by the ultra-wealthy bourgeoisie. This included prominent bankers and factory owners, who made the area prime real estate by building luxurious personal homes, while Haussman’s designers remade the park as we know it today. Some ruins of the original mystical wonderland remain, but the landscaping is otherwise new. Just one tree still stands from the early days of the park: the gigantic plane tree (platane d’orient in French) planted in 1814.
Emile Zola frequented Parc Monceau and the surrounding neighborhood, documenting the area in copious notes which would become his famous novel La Curée (The Kill). Your Parc Monceau will likely have little in common with Zola’s, however, as the novel uses it and the surrounding obscene wealth “as a metaphor for the evils of modernity.” [ii] Be sure to do your homework and read the novel before your visit!
Your experience, unless you’re out for exercise, will probably (hopefully) have more in common with Monet’s portrayal. Our posterchild of Impressionism (before his retreat to the gardens of Giverny) captured the park on numerous sunny canvasses. It was a common retreat for lesser known painters as well, such as Gustave Caillebotte, and many well-known writers and composers enjoyed the wooded pathways, including none other than Marcel Proust.
Artists, writers, and composers slowly took over the neighborhood, moving the park away from its association with high end real estate, and Parc Monceau honors them with statues scattered throughout. You’ll find the likes of celebrated writer Guy de Maupassant, composers Frederic Chopin and Charles Gounod, and many others. New ruins have also been added, along with the busts, including an arch left over from the old Hôtel de Ville. The arch we see today was salvaged from the building, having burned during the Paris commune in 1871.
The park has changed little since Zola’s day, though several of the surrounding mansions have become well regarded museums. Musée Cernuschi, built by politician and economist Henry Cernuschi and given to the city of Paris in 1898, hosts an extensive collection of Asian art.
Whether it’s an enchanted wonderland (sure!), a metaphor for evil (why not?), an aristocratic libertine playground (No no. Parisian amorous freedom does have limits, although people sometimes make you wonder); a running loop, picnic spot, or simply an easy stroll, Parc Monceau and its history rich as the city’s itself have much to offer the imagination.
Of course, there’s plenty more to be discovered in Parc Monceau. I haven’t even mentioned half the busts and statues, the artificial rocky outcropping covered in closely maintained flowers, the cute bridge overlooking the Naumachia, the carousel, and countless other old ruins which promise a winding history of their own.
[i] Hays, David. “Carmontelle’s Design for the Jardin De Monceau: A Freemasonic Garden in Late-Eighteenth-Century France.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 32, no. 4 (1999): 447-62.
[ii] Disponzio, Joseph. “Parc Monceau: An Appreciation.” SiteLINES: A Journal of Place 12, no. 2 (2017): 12-15.