“We need grand houses for people who occupy grand positions.” This remark, by Napoleon Bonaparte, was aimed straight at his Foreign Minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord in 1803.
When Napoleon told his people to jump, they asked “How high?” Also, Napoleon, at the time First Consul of France, was ready to help finance the purchase of a suitable chateau. So the Renaissance chateau of Valencay became Talleyrand’s new home in short order. A bust of Napoleon graces a mantel in the chateau.
The “Seated Portrait of Talleyrand” was painted by Francois Gerard in 1808.
The original is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but a very good copy presides over the Blue Salon in the chateau.
Talleyrand was an irrepressible ladies’ man, but his position required respectability, so Napoleon leaned on him to marry his mistress (who had once been a courtesan, but no matter). Catherine Verlée Grand had her portrait painted in 1783 by Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun. The chateau displays a copy; the original is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The couple drifted apart by 1816, but Talleyrand gave her enough money to live comfortably in London for the rest of her life. I’m not sure what’s going on in the portrait. Is Catherine rolling her eyes because the letter she is holding just informed her of some new exploit of her husband? It’s tempting to think so.
Talleyrand was born into an aristocratic but not wealthy family. It appears he had a club foot, most likely congenital (although Talleyrand blamed it on a childhood injury). The foot brace he used as an adult is on display in the chateau. It seems that his limp never slowed him down for a minute.
Talleyrand carried himself with great dignity throughout his life. Today, we’d call it “attitude. The bust above is by the sculptor Despres, 1838.
And what a life he lived. His parents sent him to seminary, hoping he would have a church career as illustrious and lucrative as that of his uncle, the very wealthy and powerful Archbishop of Reims. He was ordained at age 25 and might have risen quickly through the ranks of the Catholic Church. In fact, he became a Bishop four years later. But the French Revolution changed everything. As a Bishop, Talleyrand represented the clergy, known as the First Estate, in the Estates-General of 1789. Soon he was an enthusiastic revolutionary, stopped practicing Catholicism, and was “laicized” by the Pope in 1801. (This seems pretty close to being excommunicated, but he had lost interest in Catholic distinctions by this time anyway).
Talleyrand somehow escaped the deadly twists and turns of the Revolution, even when there was a price on his head. He spent some time in America, a guest of Aaron Burr. Eventually, when the dust settled, he returned to France and settled on diplomacy as a career.
He soon made himself indispensable to Napoleon Bonaparte, holding high offices and cheerfully accepting the financial “diplomatic sweeteners” that came with power. He loved the perks of power, like fine ceremonial outfits. The blue-ribboned badge above is the emblem of the French Legion of Honor, the dove denoting the Holy Spirit.
The magnificent document case above went everywhere with the charming and wily diplomat. The bees were Napoleon’s emblem, and the sun hearkened back to the glory days of the Sun King himself.
As Napoleon lost power, Talleyrand nimbly shifted loyalties. He represented France at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and came home with a good deal for France and a fine table for his chateau.
By this time, Talleyrand had accumulated titles: Prince of Talleyrand and Prince of Benevento. He was still called back to public life at times, serving France’s restored monarchy. But he had plenty of time and money to lavish on the young woman who was probably the love of his life: his niece Dorothee, Duchess of Dino, who had divorced his nephew. Dorothee was devoted to Talleyrand, and he called her “my little porpoise.” Their relationship was scandalously “modern;” it seems they both had other lovers, but somehow it worked. The portrait above is by Francois Gerard, Public Domain.
The couple hosted legendary dinners at their table, which could seat 36.
Talleyrand reportedly spent at least an hour a day with his chef.
The rooms of the chateau have the faded elegance of a beloved home, meant to be lived in. Floors are creaky and some of the well-used upholstery is tattered.
In his old age, Talleyrand puttered around his vast estate and spent quality time reading and writing in his comfy study chair.
In spite of their sketchy living arrangement, Dorothee worked to persuade Talleyrand to return to the Church. On his deathbed, he summoned a priest to give him the last rites. When the priest tried to anoint his palms, he insisted on having the backs of his hands anointed instead: the prerogative of his long-ago rank as a Bishop. He also signed a statement admitting his error in leaving the Church, so all was forgiven.
Valencay is off the beaten path of the more famous Loire chateaux. In early spring, it was downright peaceful.
Just down the road, there’s a fascinating motor museum, entertaining even for people without much interest in cars.
Admission to the chateau includes a fine audioguide, which tells entertaining stories about the Prince.
But I always buy the little guidebooks too, for the details that escape me when I’m trying to lose myself in the history of a place.
Valencay is a fine place to spend even a rainy day. In sunshine, it would be even better.
Join me next time for more explorations–I’m just catching up on all the chateaux I was lucky enough to see a couple of months ago!