This bicentennial year of the French Revolution may be the most fitting time to visit Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson, who witnessed the beginnings of the Revolution, spent only a few years in Paris, but France had a profound influence on his taste ever after.
In fact, a love affair in Paris may have contributed to the feature most associated with Monticello--the wondrous dome that overlooks the verdant hills of central Virginia. It was the first dome erected over a private home in America.
In 1786, Jefferson, then the American minister (or ambassador) in Paris, met Maria Cosway, a 27-year-old English-born, Italian-educated painter, at the Halle aux Bleds, the new and expansive grain market in central Paris.
Its enormous dome was the architectural delight of the city. But Jefferson, a 43-year-old widower, seemed at that time less interested in the dome than his new friend, whom he described later as "the most superb thing on earth."
Maria Went Home
Biographers do not agree whether the friendship flamed into a love affair, but if so, it did not last very long. Maria returned to London with her husband after six weeks, then made another visit to Paris in 1787 for three months, but did not see Jefferson very often that time.
Historians believe it significant that Jefferson, when he rebuilt Monticello after his return to the United States, modeled some aspects of the dome after the Halle aux Bleds.
"Jefferson, in tearing down and rebuilding Monticello after the pattern of the place where he first met Maria Cosway," wrote Fawn M. Brodie, one of his biographers, "may have been unconsciously defining and redefining the ideal woman, which he had clearly not yet found in his own life."
Monticello, a glorious legacy of early America, stands on an 867-foot hill a few miles east of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded and designed.
Tourists are always fascinated by the home, for its crannies and gadgets and art and design reflect all of Jefferson's intelligence and sensibility and attention to detail. It is an idyllic monument to the voracious curiosity and sweeping knowledge of a remarkable statesman.
Minister to France
But visitors do not always understand the French influence fully. Jefferson represented the Continental Congress as minister to France from 1784 to 1789, during the transitional period between the end of the Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution. It was the only time in his life that Jefferson spent any time outside North America, and the future President was clearly enthralled by France and the French.
"A more benevolent people I have never known," he wrote years later. "Nor greater warmth and devotedness in their select friendships. Their kindness and accommodation to strangers is unparalleled."
French liberal friends like the Marquis de Lafayette tried to draw Jefferson into their politics of reform, for he was known throughout France as the author of the American Declaration of Independence.
Although Jefferson resisted taking part, he did commute to Versailles frequently to hear the debates in the new National Assembly that was challenging the authority of King Louis XVI. He witnessed some of the major moments of the French Revolution, and heard firsthand accounts on the same day of other events, like the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789.
Jefferson left Paris in late 1789, expecting to return, but soon accepted an appointment by President George Washington as the first secretary of state in the new American government under the Constitution. He never returned to France.
Built in Two Phases
Monticello was built in two phases. Although it was still unfinished when Jefferson left for France in 1784, it already impressed visiting Europeans.
"Mr. Jefferson," wrote the Marquis de Chastellux, who had been a commander of the French army in America, "is the first American who has consulted the Fine Arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather."
The second phase began after Jefferson tired of Cabinet squabbling and resigned as secretary of state in 1795. Returning to Monticello, he redesigned the house and started to enlarge it from eight to 21 rooms, adapting many ideas from Parisian architecture and placing classical French art and exquisite French crafts throughout.
"Were I to proceed to tell you how much I enjoy their architecture," Jefferson had written to a friend from France, ". . . I would want words."
In his most dramatic change, Jefferson removed the second story of the original Monticello and set the distinctive octagonal dome upon it. Although his use of glass and wooden ribs followed the architectural principles of the Halle aux Bleds, Jefferson based the overall design of the dome on that of the Hotel de Salm, near his own Paris home on the Right Bank of the Seine.
The Hotel de Salm, now the Palace of the Legion of Honor alongside the enormous Museum D'Orsay, was built during Jefferson's stay in Paris, and he told friends that he was "violently smitten" with it.
Other French Influences
There are a host of other French influences in the Virginia house: the double tier of bedroom windows patterned after the pavilion in the Parc Monceau of Paris; the use of skylights over the dining room and main bedroom; sculptures by Jean Antoine Houdon bought directly from his studio in Paris; exquisite French clocks, including one made by Chantrot of Paris from Jefferson's design; lovely Parisian mirrors; a French portrait of Benjamin Franklin; a great number of Louis XVI chairs and other splendid furniture and goblets that Jefferson commissioned from Paris silversmiths.
It is not surprising that there are so many French furnishings. After Jefferson left Paris his assistant, William Short, shipped 86 cases of the future President's possessions from France to Virginia. Under Jefferson's injunction to leave anything unsuitable for America behind, Short did not pack five dumbwaiters and a few other items.
Jefferson also took a French chef with him to Virginia, and the dominant Gallic tone of the Monticello table and wine cellar was known throughout the new United States. After dinner in Monticello, Daniel Webster remarked that it had been "served half in Virginia, half in French style, in good taste and abundance."
Although Jefferson's talents as an architect and designer were sometimes derided in the 19th Century, Monticello, after it was bought by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923 and restored, has become one of the most popular sites from early American history. It attracts upward of half a million visitors every year.
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Monticello is open every day except Christmas. Hours 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. except during winter, when the home opens half an hour later and closes half an hour earlier. Visitors are guided through the home. Prices: adults $7, seniors $6, children 6 through 11, $2.
For further information about travel to Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home, Monticello, write to the Virginia Division of Tourism, 202 North 9th St., Suite 500, Richmond 23219, or call (804) 786-4484.