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The Assemblée Nationale is one of the most important buildings in France. Beyond it’s immense political importance, it also exudes historical and architectural significance. The Palais Bourbon was once the seat of power for monarchs, and now it’s the political epicenter of the French Republic, as it serves as the offices of the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament.
This spring, the National Assembly welcomed artist Alexandre Benjamin Navet to present five installations, in conjunction with Galerie Derouillon. This was an initiative of the president of the National Assembly, Yaël Braun-Pivet. The idea is to create dialogue between contemporary art and heritage, by welcoming contemporary artists to showcase their creations.
Crafted to look like giant colorful vases, Navet’s installations have been given pride of place in the Cour d’Honneur and the Quatre-Colonnes garden of the National Assembly. For culture lovers, the promise of art, architecture and a heavy dose of history and politics is a mélange too good to be missed.
Considering the scale and grandeur of the National Assembly, it’s impossible to do it justice in one article, but I will share some of my visit highlights here.
A brief history of the Palais Bourbon and Hôtel de Lassay
France’s Assemblée Nationale is housed in the former royal residences Palais Bourbon and the Hôtel de Lassay. Both buildings were built simultaneously, from 1722 to 1728, on land acquired by the Duchess of Bourbon. She had ceded part of her land to her lover, the Marquis de Lassay.
Four architects were involved in the construction: Giardini, Lassurance, Jacques Gabriel and Aubert. The buildings were designed in the “Italian style.” This is also called the neoclassical style of architecture, with the influence of the Corinthian order, most apparent in the heavy use of tall columns throughout the building.
This massive property has gone through huge design changes over the decades, reflecting the whims and fancies of the monarchs who first built it, and later, the renovations to suit the needs of government parliamentarians.
It was confiscated from royalty by the First Republic in 1791. After a series of political upheavals where the control of the residence went back and forth between various power blocks, the French state definitively became the owner of the Palais Bourbon in 1827 and the Hôtel de Lassay in 1843.
A selection of highlights for visitors
Today, in order to provide every deputy with an individual office, the Cité Assemblée Nationale extends beyond this building into Rue de l’Université, Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue Aristide Briand. All these annexes connect to the Palais Bourbon, an all together cover an area of 124,000 square meters.
The front of the colonnade of the National Assembly was built between 1806 and 1810 by architect Bernard Poyet. It displays the statues of Athena and Themis, the Greek goddesses of Wisdom and Justice, as well as a group of four statues of the ministers watching over the Palais Bourbon. They illustrate the virtues of public service, with Michel de L’Hospital the conciliator, Sully the reformer, Colbert the worker and d’Aguesseau the codifier.
Visitors are allowed inside only after a security check. It is also mandatory to carry a photo ID for entrance. Once inside, you can feast your eyes on the ornate halls, paintings and sculptures created by some of the most imminent artists in France.
La Galerie des Fêtes or Gallery of Celebrations is one of the most spectacular spaces here. Decorated with chandeliers, big arched windows and a stunning ceiling, this opulent hall is now used for important gatherings, including hosting foreign dignitaries. It connects Hotel de Lassay to the Bourbon Palace. Once upon a time a much humbler wooden gallery used to be here. In In 1845, Jules de Joly replaced the old structure with this splendid new replacement.
A couple steps away is the Salle des Quatre-Colonnes or Hall of Four Columns. Preserved from the original building, it’s used today as one of the main meeting areas when parliamentarians speak to the media.
Next up is La Salle des Pas Perdus or The Hall of Lost Steps, where a large bronze statue of Minerva stands tall. If you look up, the ceiling is graced with a breathtaking painting by Horace Vernet. The lady with the olive branches represents peace.
Ceremonially, the President of the National Assembly crosses the Galerie des Fêtes, and then walks across this Salle des Pas Perdus on the way to presiding over the Salle des Séances, or the Sessions Room.
The La Salle des Séances or hemicycle is probably one of the most important rooms here. It is where members of the parliament convene to discuss pressing administrative matters of national and international importance. This half-circle shaped room is draped in red and gold colors, almost resembling a theater.
Very close to the Sessions room is the Bibliothèque de l’Assemblée nationale or library of the National Assembly. This is a magnificent space graced with a giant masterpiece by Eugene Delacroix as its centerpiece. This library houses 1,900 manuscripts, including a ninth-century bible, manuscripts from the trial of Joan of Arc and an Aztec calendar. It also contains several works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 80 incunabula, collections of newspapers and posters, and many original editions. This is not open to the public and is only meant for officials from the National Assembly.
Delacroix works can also be admired in La Salon Delacroix or Delacroix Room. This space engulfs visitors in a world of glorious colors and fantastic scenes painted over the walls and as frescos on the roof, depicting scenes from Greek mythology in the tradition Italian Renaissance. The work in this room was finished in 1847.
Alexandre Benjamin Navet’s Exhibit
The moody April sky and the stunning courtyard and gardens of the National Assembly provided the perfect backdrop against which to admire Alexandre Benjamin Navet’s latest artistic foray. His new installation is a collection of giant vases that have been given pride of place in the Cour d’Honneur and the Quatre-Colonnes garden.
Navet’s art invites viewers into a vibrant world of imagination, by breathing color and new perspectives. His work is noteworthy due to the way it merges objects of art within the domain of public space, injecting a sense of whimsy and delight in what is otherwise a very serious government building (albeit one that’s very exquisitely constructed).
Navet creations can be placed within the great tradition of French decorative arts. Playing with dimensions, scale and colors, Navet’s artistic oeuvre creates a delightful moment of suspended reality, providing an interlude where the realm of ideas and aesthetics collide with the humdrum of everyday life.
Some of his noteworthy earlier installations include shows at the Hôtel des Arts de Toulon in 2020 and at the Place du Commerce, Nantes in 2022.
How to attend the exhibition
The installation is showing in the garden until June 9 with free entrance. However, visitors must register beforehand via the National Assembly website.
Open to the public: every Saturday, and every day between April 17 and 29 (except Sunday).
To visit the National Assembly: Free to visit for the public but you must make prior reservation on the website.
National Assembly – Palais Bourbon
126, rue de l’Université, 7th arrondissement
Lead photo credit : The Assemblée nationale. Photo: Pronoti Baglary