Paris, 26 November 2013
This morning I decided to find Montmor’s house. Henri-Louis Habert de Montmor (1603-1679) was the Master of Requests for Louis XIII and XIV, and ran a much-fabled scientific salon from his home in the 1650s and 60s. His hôtel still stands at the edge of the Marais at 79 rue du Temple. In Montmor’s time, the street was known as rue Sainte-Avoye. In the astoundingly detailed 1739 Turgot map of Paris, it is still rue Sainte-Avoye, and the manicured gardens of the five hôtels between the rue Geoffroi l’Angevin and the rue Michel le Comte can be clearly seen.
From my perch in the Latin Quarter, I walked toward the Hôtel de Ville, crossing the Pont au Double. With Notre Dame on one side and the Hôtel Dieu on the other, I walked across the Ile de la Cité. Notre Dame, even behind the usual throngs of tourists, never fails to move me. The Hôtel Dieu hospital, founded in the 13th century, was hung with slightly weather-worn banners protesting the closure of its emergency room. I crossed the Pont D’Arcole to the Place de Grève in front of the Hotel de Ville, where public executions used to take place. In the seventeenth century the Paris Medical Faculty was, rather conveniently for body-snatching, directly across the river on the other side of the Ile.
Across the street from the Hôtel de Ville, on the corner of the rue du Temple, is BHV, my favorite store in Paris, kind of Macy’s with a hardware store. A short walk toward the Marais down the narrow rue du Temple, counting the house numbers, and there was 79, amidst the wholesale jewelry and accessories vendors. Built by Montmor’s father in 1623, the house was extensively altered in the eighteenth century, and not much of the seventeenth-century house remains. A few doors down, the much larger Hôtel de Saint-Aignan from the same era is now a museum, but Montmor’s hotel holds law offices, so I clicked the gate and entered the courtyard.
A rather stern sign said “this hôtel is not open to visitors” but no one was in the courtyard. The entry gate (from the outside, across the very narrow rue du Temple, and from the interior courtyard)
looked seventeenth century to me, and the staircase
is original. The rest looked eighteenth century.
The great natural philosopher Pierre Gassendi spent the last two years of his life in this house, and anyone who was anyone in the new science in the 1650s passed through this gate. I wondered if the anatomist Jean Pecquet surreptitiously trundled a body down that narrow street 350 years ago to demonstrate yet again the thoracic duct, his great discovery.