June 6 – 8
As reported earlier, I left Café Maa and entered the Musee Cluny for what would turn out to be an entertaining and enlightening visit. The big attraction in this museum of the Middle Ages is the remnants of the third century Gallo-Roman baths known as the Thermes de Cluny, thermal baths from the Roman era of Gaul. The museum consists of two buildings: the frigidarium (“cooling room”), within the vestiges of the Thermes de Cluny, and the Hôtel de Cluny itself, which houses its collections, a vast assemblage of objects and art from the Middle Ages. Among its principal holdings are the six tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn (La Dame à la licorne), which is what Joanna was most interested in.
The first and perhaps most impressive area you see when you enter are the baths, which constitute about one-third of a massive bath complex that is believed to have been constructed around the beginning of the 3rd century. The best-preserved room is the frigidarium, with intact architectural elements such as Gallo-Roman vaults, ribs and consoles, and fragments of original decorative wall painting and mosaics.
Like all Roman Baths, these baths were freely open to the public, and were meant to be, at least partially, a means of Romanizing the ancient Gauls. As the baths lay across the Seine River on the Left Bank and were unprotected by defensive fortifications, they were easy prey to roving barbarian groups, who apparently destroyed the bath complex sometime at the end of the 3rd century.
The bath complex is partly an archaeological site, and it is the occasional repository for historic stonework or masonry found from time to time in Paris. Although somewhat obscured by renovations and reuse over the past two thousand years, several other rooms from the bath complex are also incorporated into the museum, notably the gymnasium, which now forms part of gallery 9 (Gallery of French Kings and sculptures from Notre Dame that were taken down during the iconoclasm (recurring historical impulse to break or destroy images for religious or political reasons) of the French Revolution. The caldarium (hot water room) and the tepidarium (warm water room) are both still present as ruins outside the Musée and on the museum’s grounds.
Overall, the museum is 11,500 square feet, 6,500 of which are designed for expositions. It contains around 23,000 artifacts dating from the Gallo-Roman period up until the 16th century. There are currently 2,300 artifacts on display and the collections contain pieces from Europe, the Byzantine Empire, and the Islamic world of the Middle Ages.
As we usually do when visiting museums and other exhibitions, Joanna and I separated in order to move along at our own pace, spending as much or as little time as we chose at different stations, halls, or exhibits. Also, I tend to graze while Joanna takes in the detail, so I often finish before her, allowing me to find a place to sit and cool out while I wait for her to finish. I worked my way through several halls checking out items on display, including a collection of religious items as well as furniture and objects used in daily life.
Eventually I found my way to the hall that features the centerpiece of the Museum’s collections. In the 15th century, the opulence of urban elites encouraged artistic production as the demand for art increased. This phenomenon is particularly evident in the considerable rise in demand for tapestries. The most famous tapestries at the Cluny today are that of the Lady and the Unicorn (La Dame à la licorne) series. There are six tapestries that make up this collection, each one representing a different sense. There are the five main senses (smell, hearing, taste, touch, and sight) and it is the sixth tapestry that depicts the Lady with the Unicorn. The mysterious meaning of this sixth has produced multiple interpretations over the years and the most embraced interpretation understands the Lady as representing a sixth sense of morality or spirituality, as she puts aside her worldly wealth.
It’s an impressive sight and one worth spending considerable time viewing, best to find a seat in the crowded room and let each tapestry soak into your consciousness. After an instructive amount of time, I worked my way through the last few exhibit halls and soon found myself at the entrance to the museum, where I met Joanna not long after and we repaired to the Café Maa for a rejuvenating cup of coffee before hopping back on Line 96 for the journey back to Cosmos.
On the way we hopped off in order to walk to Maison BapBap, a Parisian craft brewery, reinforcing yet again the growth of the craft beer movement in Europe since our last visit in 2017. We approached the bar and ordered a beer apiece, a Vermeil (Berliner Weisse Groseille) for Joanna and the Orginale (Pale Ale) for me. Groseille is French for Currant, and one could see it in the pink tinge it brought to her beer.
The beers were good but while we were sitting outside at a table on the street (seating to accommodate Covid spacing) a down in the mouth looking individual approached us in a non-threatening manner but before he could get to us another young man ran up from nearby and in a flash clocked him, knocking him down, while shouting at him in French, some statement we couldn’t understand. It was just one of those odd happenings that one encounters when on the road, an event where we will never truly know what transpired.
Draining the last of our beers, we walked back to the bus and returned to Cosmos, stopping at the bakery for a pastry and hitting the Franprix for thin sliced ham, Boursin cheese, a fresh baguette, butter, and a bottle of Duvel Strong Blond Ale to consume in the room for dinner. It would be another easy meal after eating out and with more restaurants to haunt in the future, allowing us to relax for the evening and prepare for another day of sightseeing.
Musee Cluny: https://www.musee-moyenage.fr/
Maison BapBap: https://www.bapbap.paris/
Lady and the Unicorn: https://www.tchevalier.com/unicorn/tapestries/