Tag Archives: French Revolution

Fontevraud l’Abbaye

If I didn’t already believe in ghosts, I’d be positive they exist after visiting Fontevraud Abbey in France. I was looking forward to seeing it again on my last trip to France. I last saw it years ago, and expected it to be more developed for visitors now. It is, but not in a good way, at least not for me.

The Abbey was begun in the 1100s and for centuries was the home of generations of nuns.

Many of them were noblewomen who either chose monastic life or retreated to the convent when they were widowed or retired from public life. Also, quite often women who were in disgrace were packed off to convents so that everybody else could feel better about them. An exhibit in the cloisters earnestly uses this fact to argue that monastic life was similar to prison life. Much is made of uniforms and hierarchies. I don’t buy the argument.

There were actually four different orders of religious people at Fontevraud, one of them made up of male monks under the authority of the nuns. Fontevraud was very unusual in that respect. It was set up as a kind of utopian community run by women. I’m all for that! But there’s very little information posted about the history of the Abbey.

Eleanor of Aquitaine retreated to Fontevraud in her old age and died there. Eventually, her husband, Henry II of England, was buried alongside her in Fontevraud Abbey. Life in the convent was dignified and refined. Eleanor’s effigy shows her peacefully reading a book, probably Scripture (but I like to think it was something racy).

Eleanor and Henry’s son, King Richard the Lionheart, was buried in the same place, along with his sister-in-law Isabelle of Angoulême. Life went on placidly in the convent for centuries.

Then came the French Revolution. The Abbey was deconsecrated and the nuns were unceremoniously turned out.

Sacred images were smashed. Treasures were hauled off. Gold crosses were melted down. Only a few religious images remained, high up on walls.

Then in 1804, after all that was over, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the creation of a high-security prison which soon held as many as 2000 unfortunate men at a time. (I think the prisoners were all men). It became one of the harshest prisons in France, and remained so for over 150 years. The cavernous spaces were filled with cells and workrooms.

Guards patrolled the cloisters where generations of nuns once walked.

Today, an exhibit explains prison life. I think the photo above shows prison authorities. There were some photos of prisoners, but I could hardly bear to look at them. During World War II, resistance fighters were imprisoned at Fontevraud. Ten of them were shot on the grounds.

Prisoners did forced labor in complete silence, never allowed to speak even to each other. They were subject to terrible abuse. They worked day and night with very little food or rest. Life expectancy was 8 months.

I felt chilled and fearful the entire time I was in the Abbey. I felt certain that the place was haunted by the thousands of prisoners who suffered and died there. The prison finally closed in 1963.

Today, there is very little visible information about the royal tombs. Actually, what is visible is probably just the effigies. The tombs are very likely elsewhere.

The huge nave is cold, empty, and unconsecrated. Only a few fragments of wall paintings remain. There’s nothing much to look at except a kind of desk off to one side, where one person can sit and look at computer images. A small group was huddled over it and I could not even get close. And the building was really cold, even on a sunny day in May. It felt like more than just a physical coldness.

I’d have to be a much bigger fan of Romanesque architecture to venture through the Abbey doors again. But I won’t make it that far anytime soon. Entry to the Abbey is through a modern annex that somehow feels prison-like, with automatic sliding air-lock-type glass doors. I didn’t see any free guide brochures, and for once I didn’t feel like springing for a guidebook. Entry fees are stiff, too, and nobody is especially welcoming. Signs directing visitors are few and far between, and confusing.

I know there are other buildings in the complex that I missed. But most of the buildings seem to be closed.

Parts of the complex still seem to be under renovation or off-limits for other reasons. Back in the entry/exit/bookshop, I paged through a guidebook. I couldn’t find anything that tempted me to go back inside.

Maybe I lack imagination when I look at empty ancient spaces. Maybe I just wasn’t persistent enough. But I couldn’t wait to escape Fontevraud. I blame the ghosts.

I left and rushed to the nearest chateau, Usse, where I got in just before it closed for the day. If there are ghosts at Chateau d’Usse, they are friendly, welcoming ones. I know that a lot of people love Fontevraud. But it left me cold. And I don’t think a warm coat would have helped much.

Forget Versailles: Get Lost Instead

If there is a ground zero for summer tourism, it may be the Mona Lisa, whose smile seems less mysterious than long-suffering when viewed against the constant crush of tourists around her. As many as 40,000 people rush the picture every day at the Louvre, according to the Paris museum.

The photo above, from a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, shows hordes of tourists crowding around the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Been there, done that. Actually, I’ve been lucky enough to visit when I could get up close to the most famous painting in the world without being jostled or impaled by someone’s selfie stick. But that was some years ago, and the enigmatic lady is behind glass anyway.  I’d rather look at her in a book. On more recent visits to the Louvre, I’ve escaped her overcrowded gallery as fast as possible. There are plenty of less popular treasures in the Louvre.

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There are also the glorious gardens just outside in the Tuileries–surely less crowded and just as inspiring. Other Paris sights?  The article cited above says that officials at Versailles just outside Paris are actually asking tourists NOT to come to Versailles. They are going to cut off ticket sales to the Palace, and they suggest the vast gardens instead. The 25% drop in the Euro is luring huge numbers of tourists to Europe, many of them first-timers who are understandably intent on seeing the biggies they’re been hearing about all their lives. Last time I visited Versailles, the Hall of Mirrors looked like this:

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Right now, it’s much worse:  wall-to-wall people, shuffling along shoulder to shoulder. It would be impossible to see and appreciate the grandeur. I wouldn’t go near Versailles or any of the major tourist “must-sees”  in the height of the coming tourist season.

Here’s what I would do instead: forget the major tourist draws, even for people who have never seen them. They’re all in books and movies and videos. Get lost instead. Just a short drive outside of Versailles, the countryside opens into vast serene fields, dotted with farms and pretty towns. It’s easy to get lost with a car and an intrepid driver–preferably equipped with some kind of GPS device when it’s time to get un-lost.  But it would work with a railpass and a pair of good walking shoes too.

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On a trip through the Loire Valley, I came upon a chateau I had never read about in any of my guidebooks.

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I walked up its paved driveway, admiring the symmetrical beauty of the facade. Although I managed to take a tour of this chateau, I can’t tell you its name.  My husband and I had the entire place almost to ourselves.

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What lives played out behind these elegant windows? Who strolled in the gardens beside the dreamy moat?

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No one seemed to be around.  We walked around the little gatehouse until a lady appeared, wiping her hands on her apron.  She’d been making lunch and not expecting visitors. She made a phone call, and eventually another lady appeared in the courtyard to give us a guided tour. Three other people appeared for the tour. In we went. Instead of the burnished surfaces of Versailles, we were looking at genteel faded elegance:  dusty mantelpieces, faded floral wallpaper peeling in places, slightly tattered lace curtains covering ancient wavy glass windows.

Alas, the tour was only in French. Still, the tour guide made valiant attempts to explain the history of the family.  My French was just adequate to understand the most surprising fact:  during the turmoil of the French Revolution, the chateau was occupied by an elderly noblewoman who was never once disturbed by what was going on just a few miles away at Versailles. The King and Queen were arrested and hauled off to imprisonment and eventual execution in Paris. All over France, nobles lost their lands–and in Paris, hundreds of them lost their heads.  Churches became Temples of Reason.  Chateaux were sacked and burned. But at this particular chateau, life went on as before.

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No doubt there were many anxious days and nights, but the local residents loved this woman and her family.  Never once did an angry mob try to cross her moat, which was never built for defense in the first place. The old lady lived out her days in peace, no doubt doing good works among the local peasants.

Generally I buy a little guidebook, but  there didn’t seem to be one to buy.  The name of the chateau? The name of the family that once lived there?  In one ear and out the other.  We were given laminated information sheets which we had to return. No photos were allowed inside, so I didn’t even think to snap a photo of the information. Now, I’d like to know the name of this chateau and the history of the family who built it. Maybe a reader can enlighten me.

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The nearby village is substantial enough to have a nice little park.

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There’s even a City Hall. It looks just like hundreds of other city halls in small towns in France.  OK, I’ve learned my lesson.   Now I fill up my camera with pictures of signs–towns, sights, works of art.  It’s nice to know where I’ve been.

Still, I have a memory of an unforgettable sight that I took in without mobs of other people breathing down my neck. I had a chance to muse about the actual life of the lone noblewoman who lived out her days in peace and tranquility during the darkest days of the French Revolution. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Versailles already. Even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t trade a hectic day-long visit to Versailles for my two peaceful and intriguing hours at my Mystery Chateau.

Update: May 6, 2018. I just returned from a trip to the Loire Valley where I went to a lot of chateaux. I did not get a chance to find my Mystery Chateau, but I think it is Dampierre. I think it is fairly close to Versailles, not in the Loire Valley. I stopped briefly at Versailles and decided I’d like to go back there again in the winter, when there would not be near as many visitors. Maybe I’ll get to look up my Mystery Chateau too. It’s almost always worth going back to sights I’ve already seen. There’s always more to see and learn.

The article cited above, from The Wall Street Journal, is at

http://www.wsj.com/articles/europe-braces-for-a-summer-travel-crush-1432847803

Slummin’ with Marie Antoinette

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What’s a Queen to do when the gilded glories of Versailles get to be a bit much? Early in her reign, Marie Antoinette larked around Paris, shopping and taking in theatre and opera performances.  Adoring crowds applauded her beauty and grace.  That was then. Things changed, for the worse.  Retail therapy became a lot less therapeutic.  The Paris crowds began to turn restive, then hostile, and finally lethal.

The Palace of Versailles was the permanent and mandatory home of at least 3,000 people, courtiers and their servants.

The Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon are elegant, smaller, private palaces conveniently close to the ever-crowded main palace.  They’re great for private dinners away from the majority of prying eyes.  But still, a girl sometimes needs to just get away from the whole kit and kaboodle.

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Marie Antoinette’s haughty pose was set in stone, as far as the angry intellectuals and hungry mobs plotting revolution.  (After all, she had been raised to carry herself like a queen). But she had fond memories of running wild as a child in the wooded grounds of Schonnbrunn Palace, with her many brothers and sisters. She had an idea:  she ordered up her own personal getaway within the vast grounds of the Palace.

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Le Hameau de la Reine, The Hamlet of the Queen, was built for Marie Antoinette in 1783.  It was a large fenced-off area, open only to the Queen, her children, and her dearest friends.  It included private gardens much more informal than the main grounds.  There were pretty, grassy walks and a Temple of Love on an island.

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There was a grotto–a sort of custom-made concrete movie set meant to look like a cave.

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The grotto was perfect for games of hide-and-seek with the many lovers the queen was rumored to entertain. Were the rumors true? In the end, it didn’t matter one way or the other.

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But the most notorious feature of the Hamlet was the Queen’s Farm.  Quaint rustic buildings created a fairy-tale version of a working farm.  The Queen spent carefree days dressed in simple white muslin and a straw hat. She milked carefully groomed cows using specially made Sevres china buckets. There was a special billiards room attached to the main house–naturally, an important room in any farmhouse. There was an actual working farm nearby which provided shampooed and scented cows, sheep, chicken and ducks.  I’m sure her kids loved it.

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Today, the Hamlet is a place to ponder the wretched excesses that led to the French Revolution. When angry mobs arrived at the gates of Versailles, they had no sympathy at all for a Queen who played at being a peasant. For Marie Antoinette, there was no escape from her destiny.

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Petit Trianon: It’s All in the Details

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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.

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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.

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

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The salon has a patterned marble floor, still pristine.

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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!

 

 

Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun: Painter and Survivor

 

"Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat," Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, 1782, Public Domain

“Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat,” Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, 1782, Public Domain

Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun, in the self-portrait above, could be mistaken for a conventional 18th century woman, getting ready to pursue a conventional pastime like painting flowers.  But underneath the modest smile lurked talent, ambition, grit and a fierce determination to survive and thrive. She lived  through turbulent times when many others in her position lost their heads–literally. As a protege and friend of Marie Antoinette, Elisabeth adroitly escaped the horrors of the French Revolution, and even made the political turmoil work in her favor.

As a talented teenager, Elisabeth began painting portraits of society people, helped by her father, a fan painter, and later other teachers who recognized her talent. An important benefactor was Louise de Bourbon, wife of the Duke of Orleans. Early in Elisabeth’s career, everything in her studio was confiscated by the authorities–because she didn’t have a license to paint!  (In modern times, we often think our world is over-regulated. But at least in most places, being a starving artist does not require a government license). She applied for membership in the Academie de Saint Luc, and was somehow admitted.  It sounds to me like they didn’t realize they were dealing with a young girl. Maybe she just used her initials when she submitted paintings for approval.

"Marie Antoinette," Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, 1783, Public Domain

“Marie Antoinette,” Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, 1783, Public Domain

Her marriage helped her career.  At age 20, she married Jean-Baptist-Pierre LeBrun, a painter and art dealer.  His grandfather had been the first Director of the French Academy under Louis XIV, the Sun King. Soon Elisabeth was painting Marie Antoinette and her family members–about 30 royal family portraits in all.

When the French Revolution broke out, Elisabeth decamped to safer surroundings. She worked for several years in Russia, Italy, and Austria. Eventually, she was allowed to return to France while Napoleon I was Emperor. She continued to paint well into old age, once causing a minor scandal by painting a self-portrait with her teeth showing.  This was simply not done–probably for good reason, since most people had terrible teeth in those times. She died in 1842, at the ripe old age of 86. She left behind over 600 portraits, plus 200 landscapes and history paintings, which now appear in museums and private collections all over Europe and in the United States.

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