Category Archives: Architecture

Chenonceau Addition: Nobody Leaves Diane in the Corner!

Diane de Poitiers, portrait by unknown artist, Public Domain

Diane de Poitiers, portrait by unknown artist, Public Domain

Chenonceau’s most illustrious occupant was Diane de Poitiers, a beautiful and cultured noblewoman who was the longtime mistress of King Henri II of France.  In the portrait above, she is pictured as Diana, goddess of the hunt. 

If I Had to Choose a French Chateau: Chenonceau


Rumbling up the drive in a carriage, here is what the long-ago aristocratic visitor would have seen.  I suppose a line of nicely-turned-out servants would have stood at the ready, to haul in trunks. From this angle, Chenonceau  looks like a hundred other chateaux all across France.


But wait, there’s more! Chenonceau is the only chateau I know of that was actually built spanning an entire river. It stops just a short hop from the opposite bank. (During World War II, the River Cher was the border between Nazi-occupied and Vichy France. Prisoner exchanges and who knows what else took place here).  Back in 1514-1522 when the present chateau was built, I don’t know why everyone else didn’t run out and build one like it. I guess not everyone owned access to a river, or had the means to accomplish this feat of engineering.

The visitor enters Chenonceau the same way royalty did in days long gone: through a supremely French-looking courtyard and facade. As always, I find the details of Chenonceau every bit as enchanting as the overall dreamy effect of this pleasure palace built over a serene river.


The grand entry door has a person-sized smaller door within it, for visitors who don’t need to make a grand entrance. I didn’t have a sweeping ball gown, so the small door worked for me.


Fresh flowers from the gardens outside decorate all the rooms.  This was a study, overlooking the gently flowing river.  I’m not sure I’d get much work done here.


This stairway was reportedly one of the first that was not a cramped spiral.  Guests must have enjoyed sweeping grandly up and down this staircase.


The entire chateau is wonderfully light and airy.  And outside, gardens await, just as they did when Diane de Poitiers reigned here.

Diane de Poitiers, portrait by unknown artist, Public Domain

Diane de Poitiers, portrait by unknown artist, Public Domain

Chenonceau’s most illustrious occupant was Diane de Poitiers, a beautiful and cultured noblewoman who was the longtime mistress of King Henri II of France.  In the portrait above, she is pictured as Diana, goddess of the hunt.


Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Vienna’s Karlskirche Dome: Up Close and Personal


Vienna’s Karlskirche, St. Charles’s Church, is a spectacular Baroque creation, built between 1716-1737.  It honors St. Charles Borromeo, who was a church reformer of the 16th century and who also had a reputation for healing people with the dreaded disease of plague.  The Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI pledged to build a church to honor his namesake saint after the last plague epidemic in Vienna. In the photo above, notice the little round windows where the green copper dome meets the masonry below it. More on them later.



The spectacular paintings that decorate the inside of the dome have been under restoration for several years.  This required construction of an elevator right in the center of the church.


Someone had the grand idea of charging tourists a fairly nominal fee, about $8, to ride the elevator up into the dome and have a look. I’ve been twice, and I’d cheerfully go again. The last few levels have stairs–a tiny bit shaky, but that only adds to the adventure.


Remember those little round windows?  The stairway leads WAY ABOVE them!


How did artists create realistic-looking figures on curved surfaces far above the viewer?  The painters’ tricks are on full display, up close and personal.  They used techniques like foreshortening–making feet and legs subtly bigger than they would in a painting seen at eye level.  They used surprisingly subtle shading and liberally applied gold leaf. Up close, the scenes look completely modern, as though they could have been painted yesterday.



The illustrations of scenes from the life of St. Charles Borromeo are cheerful and exuberant. The colors are clear and bright, unlike other dome frescoes I’ve seen. So often, years of candle smoke and incense have darkened frescoes that were meant to be bright. Here, angels and other saints float around in the clouds and happily reach down minister to the sick. They all look like they’re having the time of their lives.


Charles Borromeo looks like a very happy saint, rising into heaven to meet the risen Christ.  From the story told in his dome, it seems his life was pretty serene for a saint.

The Baroque architect Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach worked on the church for the first 6 years.  After he died, his son took over.  The original frescoes were by J.M. Rottmayr.

If I were in Vienna right now, at the beginning of the high tourist season, I’d take myself to some out-of-the-way sights like the Karlschirche Dome.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Mompessons: Resting (With a View) in Salisbury


In glorious Salisbury Cathedral, I came upon these two striking effigies, looking much more colorful than most of the effigies lined up along the nave.  They somehow looked startled.  Also they lay in the opposite direction of most of their companions. The closer I got to them, the more curious I was.


Who were they, and what was their story?  As luck would have it, the photo I took of their names did not turn out.  What to do?  I posted my photos on one of the Facebook history groups I belong to, and had the answer within minutes.

I was looking at effigies of Sir Richard Mompesson and his third wife Katherine. Sir Richard was a local gentleman and politician, a Member of Parliament.  He died in 1627. He had made judicious marriages and enjoyed a comfortable life.  His family owned an early version of nearby Mompesson House, which is now a beautiful National Trust property.

I think I read a placard in the cathedral stating that the tomb of the Mompessons was facing a different direction from most, because it had once been repositioned during a change in the Cathedral.


The Mompessons must enjoy their view of the very beautiful Gothic ceiling of soaring Salisbury Cathedral. If those wonderful arches were my view, I’d keep my eyes wide open too.


Salisbury is one of my very favorite cathedrals.  I’m looking forward to entering its welcoming doors again.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Petit Trianon: It’s All in the Details


Not that many tourists make the trek from the over-the-top Palace of Versailles to the much smaller Petit Trianon, built as a retreat from the crowds that filled the main palace as soon as it was built.


I like the much-more-human scale of the Petit Trianon. So did Marie Antoinette.  OK, I’m sure her critics were correct in accusing her of hosting raucous parties there, but I’m sure she also appreciated the details in her more quiet moments.


There’s a round salon with exquisite, soothing painted panels.


The salon has a patterned marble floor, still pristine.


A long gallery is a mostly-white version of the main palace’s Hall of Mirrors.  It’s calming, not frenetic. I think it’s too bad the royals who succeeded the glory days of the Sun King did not use the peace and quiet of their retreats to think about how they could sustain the monarchy.  In nearby Paris, daring thinkers were meeting in obscure coffeehouses, sowing the seeds of revolution.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!



Versailles Palaces: Grandiose, (Merely) Grand, and Petit


Even the Sun King himself sometimes tired of the over-the-top splendor he had created at Versailles.  He heard Mass daily in his spectacular Royal Chapel, around 10:00.

Louis XIV by Rigaud, Public Domain

Louis XIV by Rigaud, Public Domain

I read somewhere that courtiers attending mass were seated such that they looked at the King in his elevated gallery.  Right now I can’t verify that, but it makes some sense.  The chapel was built and carefully decorated to celebrate the association between Louis XIV and his namesake, the only French king who became an actual saint:  Louis IX, AKA St. Louis the Confessor.

Grand Trianon, Azurfrog, Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution

Grand Trianon, Azurfrog, Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution

Louis XIV was anything but saintly in his younger years. He built a smaller palace, the Grand Trianon, as a private retreat where he could take his mistresses and closest friends. It originally had a facade of blue and white porcelain tiles, following the rage for Delft tiles. But the tiles deteriorated quickly.  The Grand Trianon was rebuilt in red marble.  By the time it was finished, in 1688, the Sun King had repented of his wild youth and “secretly” married the Marquise de Maintenon.


Louis XV, the successor to the Sun King, built himself a smaller palace yet: the Petit Trianon. Not many tourists make the trek to see it.



Marie Antoinette famously frolicked with her friends in the Petit Trianon. It’s my personal favorite at Versailles.


Louis XIV ended up spending a lot of time away from Versailles altogether, once he had all his nobles gathered there where he could control them.  Instead he went off to the absolutely charming chateau that he gave to the “secret” wife who tamed him in his old age.

Madame de Maintenon, Public Domain

Madame de Maintenon, Public Domain

It seems that even an absolute monarch with the world at his feet eventually can settle down.  Madame de Maintenon came in for a lot of criticism for taking the King away from the goings-on at Versailles, but I like to think the two of them were very happy together.

I wrote about the beautiful Chateau de Maintenon in these previous posts:…in-the-details/

Easter in Venice: One to Remember

Easter this year may not be the greatest in my memory.  I’ve been down for the past week with a bad case of respiratory flu–the one that we all heard the flu vaccine did not protect against. Just when I thought I’d made it through the winter without getting anything, the virus knocked me flat.  I can’t really complain, though.  After all, I know one person who ended up in ICU for two weeks with this crummy virus.  I’m getting better, but I may not even make it to church on Sunday.  I don’t want to expose anyone.

Anyway, I’m contenting myself with memories of my most spectacular Easter ever: in Venice, several years ago.  We got up super-early and hurried through almost-empty streets to the Basilica of San Marco, built in the 11th century and packed with pilgrims and tourists ever since. We were actually worried about getting seats. No problem! We breezed in the side entrance and found we could sit wherever we wanted.


What a perfect time to be there!  Typically, tourists wait in long lines, then get about 10 minutes to shuffle through the darkened cathedral, peering up in a vain effort to see the spectacular 12th and 13th century mosaics. Once in awhile some lights come on, and attendants periodically call for silence. Most times, I’d rather look at the mosaics in a book.


But during all of the many services on Easter Sunday, the interior of San Marco is brightly lit.  And worshippers get to sit down! This is why the best way to experience a church or cathedral that’s a tourist magnet is to actually attend a service.  Although we could not understand a word of the Easter service, we felt entirely welcome.  There were even some printed copies of the sermon in English–at least we thought it was the sermon.  Even in translation, it was hard to decipher.  But no matter.


We spent a wonderful hour soaking up beautiful sacred music, mysterious (to us) words, and an ambiance of golden light. We ventured to take a few photos, seeing that other congregants were doing so discreetly. Mostly, though, we loved having  time to gaze up at the 8,000 square meters of breathtaking mosaics depicting events from the New Testament and lives of various saints.


I’ll never forget the warm beauty of the mosaics in San Marco.

As a bonus, the Pala d’Oro, a golden altarpiece usually covered, was wide open and brightly lit. The Easter experience at St. Mark’s was so spectacular that we actually went back for another service later in the day.  The streets were getting crowded, and we figured we might never have this chance again.

Later on Easter morning, we wandered past the English Anglican Church. The doors were wide open and people were still filtering in. In we went. The place was austere compared to San Marco, but we could understand all the words. Afterward, smiling church ladies, stationed at a table in the foyer, offered small paper cups to us. All churches have smiling church ladies and I love them.  I happily accepted the little cup–lemonade, I thought, just like at home. Outside, next to the sparkling Grand Canal, I took a sip and stopped in my tracks.  It was champagne!


Am I planning another trip to Venice? Maybe someday, during whatever passes for the off season these days. I think I would like Venice in the dead of winter. But I keep readiing that floods are becoming more and more frequent–tourists slosh around in rubber boots and balance on temporary boardwalks.  The city, built on pilings in the lagoon, is slowly sinking even as ocean levels rise. There are high hopes for a new system of water control gates on the sea floor.

But there’s little hope for stemming the relentless tide of tourists.  Residents have left the city, moving steadily to the mainland over the past generation. It is just too hard and expensive to live in the beautiful and unique medieval city.  I just read that on a summer day, tourists outnumber residents 600 to 1.  Venice is becoming a victim of its own glorious success, first as a world naval power, and now as a tourist magnet.  Of course I’d have attended George Clooney’s wedding, but sadly my invitation must have been lost in the mail.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!


More Art Nouveau in Hungary

My apologies to those who received a post with no content.  I was trying to re-blog a post on “How to Travel in Winter” from one of my favorite travel blogs, “Picnic at the Cathedral.”  I’ll try again!

I’m just getting around to sorting my many photos of my first trip to Hungary, this past December. One of my favorite stops was the House of Art Nouveau in Budapest.  As I explained in a recent post, it’s not so much a museum as a collection of stuff that ordinary people owned, used and loved. Hungary enjoyed one of its few periods of peace and relative prosperity between about 1890 and the outbreak of the First World War.

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Furniture styles at the beginning of the period were staunchly conservative, even a little stuffy.  I’m not an expert, but I might call the bedroom set above a version of the “Biedermeier” style popular with the new middle classes of central Europe between about 1815 and 1850.

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The cozy dining nook above sits next to an Art Nouveau stained glass window original to the house. It looks ready for a cozy chat and a nice cup of coffee.

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Later in the period, the height of fashion was for furniture with fanciful flowing lines, like this dressing table.

I’ve seen much finer examples of Art Nouveau in the design museums of Paris and Vienna, but I love the common touch of the everyday pieces haphazardly crammed into Budapest’s House of Art Nouveau.

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And there’s a cafe, perfect for a quick meal while dreaming of the past.  The smiling waitress asked with great interest where we were from.  She thanked us profusely for coming to her country!  This friendliness is just one of the reasons why I love Hungary.

What are Plus Fours Anyway?

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

The media coverage of the late 11th Duke of Marlborough’s death made much of the fact that his pallbearers were Palace gamekeepers, or maybe groundskeepers, dressed in “traditional plus fours.”  I looked at the photos and all I saw was short pants worn with knee-high socks that seemed to slightly clash with the pants.  It turns out “plus fours” have a very specific definition: pants that are carefully tailored exactly four inches below the knee.They’ve been worn by British sportsmen since about 1860. The Duke himself very likely wore them when out hunting on his lands.

During his visit to America in 1924, the raffish Edward, Prince of Wales, famously wore plus fours. (He later briefly became Kind Edward VIII, until he famously abdicated in order to marry the divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson). His short pants gave him a sort of free-wheeling look that fit right in with the Roaring Twenties.  After Edward made his way back home across the pond, his stylish short pants caught on, especially with golfers and with anyone else who wanted to flout convention.  (I can well imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald sporting a pair).

I generally expect pallbearers to be close friends or relatives of the deceased.  It seems that having one’s groundskeepers perform the task must be a privilege and mark of very high status. After all, how many of us even have extensive grounds, let alone uniformed groundskeepers to tend them?  There’s also the implication that the Duke’s relatives are above any sort of menial task.

I’m reminded of the custom that shocked Consuelo Vanderbilt when she arrived as a young American bride at Blenheim, freshly married to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. A carriage met the newlyweds’ train in Woodstock.  Approaching Blenheim, men from the estate unhitched the horses and pulled the carriage through the grand palace gates. Things like that didn’t happen where Consuelo came from.

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Anyway, the Duke’s employees seem a very happy lot.  When I was in Woodstock last month, all the palace employees I encountered seemed extremely cheerful–and that is not always the case with people who attend the high and mighty.  I think the late Duke was a hands-on sort of man, genuinely loved by many.

As an American, I don’t suppose I’ll ever fully understand the subtleties of the British class system.  I do appreciate certain little perks.  For example, the late Duke’s name was John George Vanderbilt Henry Spencer-Churchill.  But his title gave him the right to use a most elegant signature:  he simply signed his name “Marlborough.” Now that’s class.