garden tales from a Brit abroad
The little park around the Chapelle Expiatoire on boulevard Haussman is traditionally planted with white flowers, in memory of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. So it was somehow fitting to visit yesterday during a major snowstorm in Paris. Everything was rapidly being engulfed in deep, soft whiteness.
This place was once the cemetery of La Madeleine, and became a dumping ground for as many as 3,000 guillotined corpses during the terrors of the French Revolution. In 1793 the bodies of the king and (some months later) his queen were hastily buried here in a pit. Later a royalist, Pierre Desclozeaux, acquired the site and quietly marked what he believed to be the royal burial spot with a planting of willows, cypress and hornbeam.
After the restoration of the monarchy, Louis XVIII had the purported remains of the former king (his brother) and queen re-interred in the royal selpulchre at Saint Denis, and commissioned Pierre-François Léonard Fontaine to build a chapel on the spot where their bodies had first lain. It seems the plants of Monsieur Desclozeaux were not enough of a memorial.
The small domed chapel is a splendid, Neoclassical edifice, currently in the process of being cleaned and restored after suffering storm damage last year. The small park which surrounds it, known as Square Louis XVI, is pleasantly planted with scented white-flowering shrubs and perennials, including roses, viburnum and lilacs. They grow in the shade of a mixture of trees (horse chestnuts, sycamores, cherries, maples, hawthorns, clipped yews), chosen to reflect the wide range of people killed during the Revolution. There are also lots of benches and a small toddlers’ playground.
The Square is tucked away behind railings near the grands magasins in the 9th, and the dramatic pale curves of the chapel always somehow take me by surprise when I glimpse them among the traffic and shoppers and dense surrounding buildings. If this were a more populist blog, I would mention that Marie Antoinette’s ghost is said to haunt the place. But instead I will just point out that the chapel is open to visitors (see the website for details) and that the little park is a splendid place to sit quietly and ponder.