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At 1 rue du Figuier in the fourth arrondissement stands one of the few remaining medieval structures in Paris: the Hotel de Sens. (Other vestiges from the Middle Ages include 3 rue Volta, Nicolas Flamel’s house on Rue Montmorency, and the precarious-looking half-timbered twins at 11 and 13 rue François Miron.)
The gothic Hotel de Sens is a romantic reminder of what Paris looked like before Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III redesigned the city streets in the latter half of the 19th century. The Hotel de Sens is prominently located in the Marais, just a three-minute walk north of the Seine. The palace’s construction began in 1475 under the orders of Tristan de Salazar and completed in 1518; it was built in order to house influential archbishops from the important French cathedral town of Sens, who were desirous of swaying the royal court of Paris.
Turrets and arches remain part of this little restored castle, as does a small tower once thought necessary to protect the bishops from anticipated attack. The Hotel de Sens is one of the last known fortified domestic buildings. In the main arch and in the staircase of the lower courtyard, access was provided for the pouring of boiling oil! There is a cannon ball lodged in the stone façade, dating however from the July Revolution of 1830. The prophet Nostradamus was housed at the Hotel de Sens to be at the beck and call of King Henri II and the ever-so influential Catherine de Medici.
Although the fortress-like façade of the Hotel de Sens is a bit daunting on a dull day, its walls contain a beautifully restored garden laid out in a parterre of geometrical beds and clipped hedges. Today, however, the biggest draw of the Hotel de Sens is the intriguing Bibliothèque Forney, a public library dedicated to the decorative arts, the art and craft professions and their techniques.
Among this collection are 230,000 books, as well as 50,000 exhibition and commercial art catalogues, 9,000 samples of wallpaper, and 18th century fabric swatches. Over 200,000 prints and advertising posters are also housed within the Hotel de Sens along with more than a million postcards. Its collections of iconographic ephemera are astounding, and not limited to advertising brands, tobacco wrappers, and 20,000 cheese labels. There are also more whimsical finds such as 80 game boards from the end of the 19th century, plus paper hats and masks, advertising fans, and the cardboard crowns of kings.
Originally, the library, along with 200,000 francs, were bequeathed to the city of Paris by the industrialist Aimé-Samuel Forney, who, at the end of the 19th century, wished to increase the importance of domestic French crafts. The Forney Library was inaugurated on February 27, 1886 at 12 rue Titon, in the heart of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, a neighborhood at that time rife with craftsmen. The library was intended for students and apprentices, both male and female, wishing to improve their skills, and for professional Parisian graphic artists, woodcarvers, ceramicists, gold and silversmiths who could meet there, read, borrow books or patterns. The library widened their specialization to include painting, sculpture, architecture, and costumes and thus saw their audience diversify. The small library was a victim of its own success.
In 1911, the city of Paris bought the Hotel de Sens in an extremely dilapidated state. It was decided in 1929 to transfer the Bibliothèque Forney to the gothic building. Restoration work, first undertaken in 1929, was delayed by the Second World War and would not be completed until the impossibly late date of 1961, when the new library was officially inaugurated and the Hotel de Sens finally saved.
No stuffy library of yore, today the Bibliothèque Forney is vital and vibrant – one of the great heritage libraries of the city of Paris. The library has a strong, creative presence on social media. They were recently presented with unpublished drawings by the iconoclast illustrator Tomi Ungerer depicting a repugnant Père Noël! The Bibliothèque Forney has also arranged a winter walking tour – a stroll in the wake of Victor Hugo (an early defender of the Hotel de Sens’ restoration) – that will take visitors from the turrets of the Hotel de Sens to the shadow of Notre Dame to be immersed in the texts of Hugo and other notable French writers.
For the curious and the creative, the Bibliothèque Forney is goldmine of ideas and inspirations. Besides students and researchers the library is open to everyone but you must have the city of Paris library card to access the library’s collections. This card is free and issued onsite upon presentation of an identity document (identity card, passport, driver’s license or residence permit.)
The courtyard Exhibition Gallery offers a continuous roster of art exhibitions, depending on the current pandemic situation. An exhibition of 200 years of typography – “Divertissements typographiques” – will resume in January 2021. Always on hand at the gallery are a creatively curated selection of iconic treasures from the Forney library’s collections.
Free access, loans and the exhibitions will resume from early January, but please check ahead. For now students wishing to work onsite are required to make a reservation.
Bibliothèque Forney social media channels:
Lead photo credit : The Hôtel de Sens. Photo credit © Camlamb (CC BY 2.0)
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