For those who are interested in interior design- and more specifically wall hangings- the Gobelins family and factory will need no introduction. However, if you’re not in the know when it comes to French tapestry creation, the Gobelins family were wealthy tapestry manufacturers during the middle ages. And located in the 13e arrondissement of Paris, down a little winding lane, you’ll find their former mansion residence, Château de la Reine Blanche.
Jean Gobelin, the River Bièvre and the Gobelin Workshops
For the following to make sense, you’ll need to understand a little about the history of the area, as well as the Gobelins family themselves. Basically, it all began in the 15th Century when a Flemish man, Jean Gobelins, set up shop in a then very marshy area of Paris.
His speciality was tapestry manufacturing and his workshops were set along the River Bièvre. In fact, Rue des Gobelins (one of the roads the mansion house and former factories lie along) was actually known as Rue de la Bièvre until 1636, owing to the river (eventually the stream was channelled underground from 1910 onwards) and the road was renamed in honour of the Gobelins factory and fame.
The Bièvre river at the end of the 19th-Century, shortly before it was covered over. Tanneries and factories sprouted up along this branch of the river, and the stream became so polluted that it had to be diverted underground.
As the Gobelin industries grew, they developed a particular skill for dyeing fabrics and soon gained fame, notoriety, and wealth as a result. The family’s most valuable asset was producing rich scarlet tones, a colour then (and still) associated with wealth, power and fame (so you can imagine how popular this particular colour was amongst the nobility!) The factory soon expanded out into the surrounding area and, by the 17th-Century, the Gobelins were one of the most famous of all Parisian families.
Indeed, the wealth and power of the family was certainly helped by their penchant for branching out into all aspects of French- and Parisian- life. Members of the Gobelin clan soon turned their hand to financial and religious careers, meaning that the Gobelins had their fingers in all the Parisian power pies.
17th-century intricate tapestry produced at the Gobelin Factory. Titled “Susannah Accused of Adultery“, recounting the events of the biblical story in Chapter 13, Book of Daniel. This rich tapestry is just one of a six, all depicting scenes from the Old Testament.
Château de la Reine Blanche: Origins and History
Not far from the Gobelins factory, you’ll find a little set of buildings dating back to the XV, XVI, and XVIIth Centuries and were once home to the prestigious Gobelin family. Collectively, however, the buildings standing on the site of a former château are known as ‘Ilot de la Reine Blanche’ (Island of the White Queen), though no one knows exactly why.
I like to believe the theory that they are so named thanks to their alleged former occupant, the Queen of France (though sadly there is little evidence to back this up). This collection of structures have been designated historical monuments since 1980. The theory suggests that the site has been inhabited since at least the 13th Century and long before the Gobelin family even arrived in the area. The first château was conceived when Queen Marguerite de Provence ordered her castle be built here on this marshy bit of land (and away from the then centre of Paris).
It was here that she lived until her death in 1295 and why the buildings are named for the ‘Reine’. (Reine means queen in French). For centuries, particularly during the medieval period, it was customary for widowed French queens to dress in white as a sign of mourning for their husbands and so this is what Queen Marguerite did when her husband, Louis IV died and why her castle was named the way it was.
Of all the buildings still standing, Hôtel de la Reine-Blanche is the most complete medieval building and dates back to at least the 1500s. Here, you’ll find traces of old architecture in every corner; vaulted cellars, spiralling staircases and Gothic lintels.
The Gobelins Arrive on the Scene
By the 15th-century, the Royals had abandoned the Îlot de la Reine Blanche in favour better Parisian locations and more modern buildings- or so the story goes. The reasoning being that the Royals didn’t want to be associated too closely with the local industries that had sprung up in the area; i.e. the tapestries of the Gobelins family, as well as the Canaye family.
The Gobelins moved into the Château de la Reine Blanche in the 1500s and established further production buildings for the factory onsite, as well as family residences based in the former French Château. Throughout the residence, you’ll find little pieces of Flemish architecture, further evidence of the Gobelin Family’s time on site. Although the place was badly damaged during the French Revolution and in the decades that followed, in 2002, extensive works were carried out to repair the château, restoring it to its former glory.
Visiting Château de la Reine Blanche the former mansion residence of the Gobelins Family, 17 Rue de Gobelins, 13e arrondissement of Paris
Paris is known across the world for its Huassmannian architecture, wide boulevards, and street side cafés. Wandering around the 13e arrondissement a little while ago, we came across this site which was atypical of standard Paris. It’s well worth a look, particularly if you’re after something a little more ‘off the beaten path’ in the City of Lights.
During the summer months, free tours of the grounds take place on a regular basis. The tours are also held on heritage days throughout September, though if you’re visiting during any other time of the year the château is well worth a look from the outside. The nearest metro station is Les Gobelins (metro line 7) and a trip here can easily be combined with a visit to the equally pretty nearby ‘Cité Florale‘.