I have a confession to make: I tend to go to Paris’s museums more for the architecture than the art. Housed in many of the city’s grand old residences, they offer intriguing clues into how Parisians once lived and dined and slept and partied. And I’m particularly fond of the grand staircases that usually grace the old entrance hall, some of which are so magnificent they, to me at least, easily upstage the nearby paintings and sculptures. These are six of my favourite flights of fancy …
Musée Picasso Paris
This is one of the most beautifully preserved Parisian staircases, and one of the few remaining original features of this 1650s private mansion, built at a time when classic architecture was starting to straighten out a meandering medieval Paris, with its old sloping beamed buildings and spiral staircases. The original owner made his fortune by collecting salt tax; a sugar tax would have been much more apt, so sweet are these stairs, with their lacy balustrade and floridly carved ceilings overhead.
The lovely 18th-century Hôtel Biron, recently renovated, is like something from a French home magazine; the ice-cream-like colour scheme of pistachio walls, toffee floors and cream ceilings will have you rethinking your renovation moodboard. And this heart-flutteringly lovely staircase is a study in that simple-chic the French do so well: a beige curve of stone, contrasting with monochrome floor tiles and black-and-gold rails.
Musée Nissim de Camondo
This sweep of stone, edged in a gilt-flecked wrought-iron banister, is at once graceful and monumental, and sets the tone for a visit to this museum, which — warning —is a bittersweetly beautiful affair. For one, it’s brimful with the exquisite 18th-century treasures of Belle Époque bon vivant Moïse de Camondo, who commissioned the neo-classical townhouse to pass on to his beloved son Nissim. Tragically, the pilot was killed in aerial combat during World War I. That’s not the only reason for the sense of sadness that seems to linger in the air; Nissim’s sister Béatrice, along with her husband and two children, perished in Auschwitz. In that sense, the museum is a testament to the importance of never forgetting the dark spots that exist amid the glitter of the City of Light’s story.
Another Belle Époque townhouse, actually more like an urban chateau, the residence of banking heir Edouard André and his society-portraitist wife Nélie Jacquemart was much more flamboyant and (for the time) modern than Moïse’s 18th-century-inspired design. It similarly contains the old art and furniture of its aesthetically minded former owners, but their style was much more eclectic. And showcasing their glitzy approach to life were the stairs: a pair of marble twirls that seem carved by magic, topped by a large Tiepolo fresco, no less, and situated down by the delightful winter garden. So fabulous is the double-helix design that it’s impossible for a photograph to do the magnificence justice.
Musée Gustave Moreau
By the turn-of-the-twentieth century, staircases that swirled and twirled were back in fashion, in sync with the sinuous, leafy lines of art nouveau. The perfect example of a fin-de-siècle flight of stairs is the spiral that links the two upper gallery floors of this museum of, admittedly, dubious art. Almost all the gallery wall space heaves with heavy-framed paintings: otherworldly, macarbre visions in rather murky, dreary tones. Thank goodness for the glimpses of salmon-pink walls to infuse some brightness into the air, and this staircase to bring the fun factor, and make a visit worthwhile.
This 1900 building was always designed as a museum, so the stairs are not a focal feature, yet they should be. The Petit Palais — officially the Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris — is a gorgeous example of Beaux-Arts architectural style, with its exuberantly lofty ceilings and fairy-tale golden gates. The stairs were the only nod to modernity; it was the recently pioneered technology of reinforced concrete that enable the seemingly gravity-defying swoop.