STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

A Visit to the Palais Lascaris
An Incredible Musical Instrument Museum

February 15, 2022

The old town of Nice is one of my favorite places in the south of France. There’s no obvious rhyme or reason to the way the narrow streets twist and wind from one end of the small neighborhood to the other, though I’m sure it probably has a lot to do with the terrain in this particular area. The tall buildings are densely packed up one against the another, sometimes making it difficult for the sunlight to penetrate. It’s very easy to get lost here, especially if it’s your first time to wander through this energetic maze of shops, stores, houses, churches, museums, restaurants, galleries and more. It can be incredibly busy during the summer months when the tourists are out in full force, but even in the off season it’s vibrant and lively. It’s hard to believe that this incredibly popular, animated and prosperous part of Nice was for many years a slum full of garbage, rats and thieves.

Constructed at the base of what is today called “Castle Hill,” Nice’s old town dates back well over a thousand years. Most of the buildings still standing today were built between the 16th and 18th centuries. Major renovations in the 1950s and 1960s saw many of the old, decrepit structures torn down. Extensive rehabilitation projects brought many more of the old buildings back to something close to their original glory. You’ll find dozens of beautiful old buildings around each corner but most of them are not open to the public.

One that is open to the public is the wonderful le Musée du Palais Lascaris, a 17th century mansion that now serves as a city museum. Dedicated to the art and music of the 17th and 18th centuries, Palais Lascaris is one of what I consider to be the “hidden” treasures of Nice. It’s considered to be the most remarkable civil (as opposed to religious) examples of Baroque architecture in Nice but even so it’s not on the radar of most tourists and every day thousands of people walk right past it without a clue about what lies inside. There are well over a dozen popular and very well-known museums in Nice including Musée Matisse, Musée National Marc Chagall, Musée Massena and the Musée d’Art Moderne. All are worth a visit. However, if you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary, a little off the beaten track, you can’t go wrong with the Palais Lascaris. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

A Little History About the Building

From the street the building doesn’t look like much. However, once you step through the doorway into the entrance hall you will almost certainly be impressed and dazzled with the Genoese Baroque decor that lies before you. From the arches, sculptures, paintings and tapestries to the colorful ceiling frescoes, luxuriously decorated rooms and monumental staircase it truly is a masterpiece of the baroque architectural style.

Built during the middle of the 17th century (work first began in 1648), Palais Lascaris first served as a residence for Jean-Baptiste Lascaris, a wealthy French aristocrat who was part of one of the richest and most powerful families in Nice at the time. His uncle was Jean-Paul Lascaris, the 57th Grand Master of the Order of Malta. Since then it has gone through several renovations and served multiple purposes. The building was altered and expanded in the 18th century. It remained in the Lascaris-Vintimille family (lords of Castellar and counts of Peille) until the French revolution and was sold in 1802.

Over the next hundred and forty years the building suffered significant deterioration. In 1942 the property was purchased by the city of Nice with the aim to turn it into a museum. In 1946 it was classified as a historical monument. It took over twenty years for the necessary renovations to even begin and they weren’t completed until 1970 when it was opened as a municipal museum. In 2001 the city of Nice transferred its historical musical instrument collections from the Musée Masséna to the Palais Lascaris and effectively turned the museum into a music museum. In 2011 this permanent exhibition of musical instruments was opened to the public.

Today the Palais Lascaris is considered, along with a handful of other structures (mostly churches and chapels) located nearby, as part of a group of buildings showing the evolution and phases of Baroque architecture from the beginning of the 17th century until the end of the 18th century.

The Ground Floor

The ground level floor contains a small gift shop and a space used for temporary art exhibitions. A small entrance vestibule (open to the outside elements) sits next to the magnificent staircase that leads up to the first floor (note I am using the French method of floors here – what is the first floor in France would be called the second floor in the U.S.). Two stone newel posts with carved reliefs and finials announce the beginning of a journey into the 17th century. Elaborate salmon and white floral ceiling frescos adorn the space above the stairs, supported by columns on the left and right. At the first landing a marvelous statue of a Roman warrior sits in a small enclave, lit from behind. As the stairs turn there are more frescos and more statues, several of which sit in elaborate carved out niches in the wall. Just walking up this staircase alone is worth the price of admission.

The First Floor

Today the first floor of the museum is usually devoted to some type of temporary art exhibit. When Carole and I visited the museum in May of 2021 we were lucky enough to see an exhibit entitled “De la Cour À la Ville – Cent Portraits Pour un Siècle” (From the Court to the City – One Hundred Portraits for a Century). As the name implies, 100 beautiful portraits from the time of Louis XV and Louis XVI were on display. Some of the furniture and musical instruments that are a permanent part of the museum were mixed in with the paintings and it was a fascinating presentation.

The Piano Noble Floor

Located on the second floor (the Piano Noble floor), the living quarters of the house feature rooms that are taller and more spacious than those in the rest of the building. The splendor of the Baroque period is represented in these rooms, located on both sides of the monumental staircase, which feature 17th century ceiling decorations that combine stucco and paintings to illustrate mythological themes. With names such as “The Parade Room,” “Venus and Adonis,” “Knights of Malta” and “Room of the Seasons” these rooms today house a mixture of furniture and musical instruments.

In addition to the beautiful ceiling frescos there are numerous paintings, graphic arts, sculptures, furniture, art objects and tapestries from Aubusson and Flanders. Unique carved wooden doors separate one room from another. Decorated with silver leaf they feature special asymmetrical hinges that allow the doors to be opened very wide and to avoid wear on the rugs placed on the floor. Over the top of most doorways are paintings which date from the 18th century. They are replacements as the original paintings that hung in these places disappeared during the French Revolution.

The Antechamber (also know as the Salon of Venus and Adonis) served as a waiting area where guests would gather before being ushered into the Ceremonial Room. The ceiling fresco features the goddess Venus and her lover Adonis being carried away in a golden chariot harnessed to swans and driven by Mercury. It dates from the end of the 17th century.

The Ceremonial Room (also known as the Champbre d’Apparat) is richly decorated with a variety of frescoes, tapestries, furniture, paintings and other “objets d’art.” The ceiling fresco features Psyche being carried off by Mercury towards Olympus in order to rejoin her lover Cupid.

The Grand Salon (also known as the Salon of Phaeton) is the largest room in the palace. It was used for social occasions such as balls, large meals and receptions. The ceiling fresco (known as “The Fall of Phaeton”) was created near the end of the 17th century and features Phaeton, son of Helios, the sun.

The Bedroom (also known as the Salon of the Seasons) features yellow ochre panelling which is decorated with motifs set with silver leaf similar to the doors. The 17th century ceiling fresco is titled “The Abduction of Ganymède by Zeus” and show the abduction of Ganymede (supposedly the most beautiful of all mortals) by Zeus who plans to make her his lover.

A small Chapel (with an anteroom) was used by the Lascaris family for private services. Marriages were performed there until the mid 1700s. At some point it was transformed into a bedroom alcove, but has since been restored to its original religious use. It features a ceiling of gilded stucco which surrounds a central cartouche containing a fresco with the title of “Wisdom Defying Time And Death.” There is currently no altar in the chapel but the ornate Baroque woodwork leads scholars to believe that one did indeed exist at one time.

[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

The Collection of Musical Instruments

The heart of the musical instrument collection is a large selection of rare, beautiful and fascinating devices that once belonged to a nineteenth-century collector from Nice named Antoine Gautier. Born in Nice in 1825, Gautier was a wealthy aristocrat who also happened to be an amateur musician (he played the violin and viola). A lawyer by trade, he began collecting instruments at the age of 18 and performed with his brother Raymond in a quartet for over sixty years. When he died in 1904 he left his collection of more than 225 instruments (along with a rare musical library) to the city of Nice. With instruments from the 16th to 20th century, the collection spans a wide period of time and showcases the musical tastes of the elite upper class in the 1800s.

Over the following years the city continued to add to this collection and it was displayed first at the Musée des beaux-arts, then the Musée Masséna, the Conservatoire de Nice and now here at the Palais Lascaris. Today there are over 500 instruments and it is considered to be the second largest collection of its kind in France (the Musée de la Musique in Paris has a collection of more than 8,000 instruments) and one of the most important in Europe. The collection brings together mostly “classical” instruments that date from the end of the 16th century to the middle of the 20th century. Various countries from all over Europe are represented in this stunning assortment. The collection is now also part of the MIMO (Musical Instrument Museums Online) Project.

There are many, many highlights of the collection, but among some of the most historically important instruments are:

  • a tenor sackbut (a type of trombone) by Anton Schnitzer from 1581
  • a bass violin by Paolo Antonio Testore from 1696
  • several extremely rare baroque guitars from the 1600s
  • an 18th century harpsichord
  • a rare collection of clarinets
  • one of the most famous guitars by Antonio de Torres from 1884
  • saxophones and a saxotromba made by Adolphe Sax
  • several violas d’amore and violas da gamba from the 1600s and 1700s

In 2013 additional instruments (harps, pianofortes, lyre-guitars, mandolins and more) from the collection of Gisèle Grandpierre-Desaux, an internationally renowned harpist and friend of Gabriel Fauré, were added to the museum. A total of 65 instruments, some of which date from the early 1600s, are on loan from the Institut de France, and are now classified as a Historic Monument. Together with her husband, Paul Tissier, Grandpierre-Desaux created the famous “Fêtes d’Art” festivals which took place on the Côte d’Azur in the mid 1920s.

[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Cent Portraits Pour Un Siècle

As I mentioned above, a temporary exhibit often occupies the first floor of the museum. When Carole and I visited we saw the “Cent Portraits Pour Un Siècle” display. In the 1700s the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture established a hierarchy of genres and placed portraiture on the list just after history. This was, of course, before the advent of photography and official artists would create the portraits of the kings, the royal family, various friends from their court and more. Artists included in this show include Van Loo, Elisabeth Vigée le Brun, Duplessis, Ducreux and many others.

All of these paintings were lent by the Conservatoire du Portrait du Dix-Huitième Siècle (CPDHS) (Conservatory of Portrait of the Eighteenth Century) located in Versailles. I think this exhibit is worth a more in-depth article on its own, so I’ll try to write about it sometime in the near future.

Access

Le Musée du Palais Lascaris is located in the heart of Nice Old Town at 15 rue Droite. There are several public parking garages nearby so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a place to park. The museum is open every day (except Tuesdays) from 10AM to 6PM. It’s closed on New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, May 1st and Christmas Day.

Tickets are 5€ though you can purchase a three day Nice Museum Pass that will allow you access to all the municipal museums in Nice for just 15€ (well worth the price if you are visiting more than 2 or 3 museums). If you live anywhere in the Nice Metropolitan area (of which Vence is included) you can get a free pass that gives you access to all the public museums in Nice. A lot of people who live here don’t know about that.

Guided tours for groups are available with a reservation and can even be done in English with enough advanced notice.

Juste les Faits:
What: Musée Palais Lascaris
Where: Nice (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: Every day except Tuesdays
Phone: Palais Lascaris Gift Shop – 04 93 62 72 40
Website: www.nice.fr
Facebook: Palais-Lascaris

One thought on “A Visit to the Palais Lascaris
An Incredible Musical Instrument Museum

  1. A splendid find!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Will make every effort to enjoy this site later this year, thank you very very much for showcasing this treasure. lindy W

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