Tag Archives: Napoleon Bonaparte

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.

Talleyrand’s Chateau de Valencay

“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!

If It’s Friday, This Must be Fontainebleau

I’m continuing a brief rundown of my 9-day chateau blitz in France, with individual posts to come! Above is Chateau de Chambord, which I think of as The Really Big One With the Spiky Roof.

Francois I built Chambord starting in 1519 and naturally stuck his emblem, the flame-spouting salamander, all over the place. It’s a little short on charm but long on history and the Wow Factor.

Chateau de Langeais is a restored medieval chateau/fortress in a delightful town.

Langeais is most famous as the site of a secret wedding that changed French history: Anne of Brittany married King Charles III, uniting her coveted vast lands with the French crown. And she agreed in writing to marry his successor if Charles died (which he did). A dramatic tableau in the actual wedding hall (with narration every 15 minutes, in English once every hour) explains the characters and why this wedding was a very big deal.

Chateau de Villandry is most famous for its gardens, but the chateau has fine art, too. That’s a bust of Francois I in his armor above.

Chateau de Chaumont was the consolation prize given to Diane de Poitiers after Catherine de Medici kicked her out of the sublime Chenonceau. (See previous post, “Diane de Poitiers vs. Catherine de Medici). Diane hardly stayed at Chaumont, but shrewdly developed and farmed the estate to her great profit.

Later, Chaumont became a regular haunt of nobles and artists like Marcel Proust.

Today, Chaumont has fantastic gardens and art installations. When I visited, the chapel was filled with branches, flowers and beautiful found objects.

Chateau d’Amboise towers over the lively town of Amboise, right on the River Loire. Francois I brought Leonardo da Vinci here from Italy, to keep him company during the last 3 years of Leonardo’s life.

Leonardo died in 1519 at the mansion Francois I gave him, Clos Luce, just up the street from the chateau. He was buried on the chateau grounds.

Chateau de Gaillard, down a side street near Clos Luce, is really more of a mansion. But it was the home of the master gardener Charles III brought from Italy to do up his chateau grounds.

Dom Pacello was a monk with a serious green thumb. Among other great ideas, he brought orange trees to France. After Charles III died, Dom Pacello served his successors, Louis XII and Francois “The Builder” I. Today, the family renovating the estate is cultivating many of the 60 varieties of citruses grown by the gardener monk.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was the place that inspired Louis XIV, the Sun King, to go all out in building the Palace of Versailles.

Well, truth be told, it was more appropriation than inspiration. Louis was furious that his Lord High Treasurer, Nicolas Fouquet, had nicer digs than anything the King had at the time. So after a particularly grand blowout party in which Nicolas pulled out all the stops to amuse Louis, Louis turned around and had him arrested and imprisoned for life (overruling the court that failed to convict him). Then Louis made off with the great architect Louis le Vau, the painter and designer Charles le Brun, and the landscaper Andre le Notre, along with all the furniture. He even dug up the bushes.

Nearby Fontainebleau has been the home of French kings for centuries. There’s always renovation going on. But I really could not see the point of a short section of ugly fence right in front of the famous double staircase where Napoleon Bonaparte spoke to his troops after he was forced to abdicate. I think the fence was put there just to discourage selfies.

Napoleon especially liked Fontainebleau. There’s an absorbing series of rooms about him on display right now. Is that one of Napoleon’s outfits above? No. It’s just how he dressed one of his more important servants. The Emperor had style, for sure.

My very least favorite sight on this trip was the Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, where nobles and royalty once retreated to the monastic life. I saw it years ago, and expected it to be more developed for visitors now. It is, but not in a good way, at least for me.

The whole site was a fearsome prison for 150 years, only closed in 1963. The cavernous spaces were filled with prison cells for all that time.

Prisoners did forced labor in complete silence and were subject to terrible abuse. Life expectancy was 8 months. A series of exhibits in the cloister claims all kinds of similarities between prison life and monastic life. I don’t see it. Monastic life was usually (of course not always) a free choice of nuns and monks, and it was based on prayer and contemplation, not subjugation and punishment. I found the exhibit offensive and felt like the place was haunted by the thousands of prisoners who suffered and died there.

It’s true that Eleanor of Aquitaine spent her last days at Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, when it was a very pleasant place, and died there in 1204. Her effigy lies with those of her husband, King Henry II of England, her son, Richard the Lionheart, and Isabella of Angouleme, wife of King John of England. But the monastery was dismantled during the Revolution, and these may not be the actual resting places. Anyway, the space is cold, empty, and unconsecrated.

More serious fans of architecture could spend hours studying the Romanesque abbey, but I probably would not go back.

Kings, queens, nobles and assorted favorites acquired serious real estate over the centuries. Every chateau and abbey and church is one-of-a-kind, like the people who built and lived and worshipped in them. The ones I visited on this trip are just the most famous ones.

I’d like to take another whole trip going to lesser-known and farther-afield chateaux, and also to the churches I didn’t have time for. But I would always carve out a morning to gaze out the leaded-glass windows of beautiful, magical, sublime Chenonceau, draped like a necklace across the River Cher. The kitchens at Chenonceau are even beautiful, and they have that river view.

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

A Cradle Fit for a King (or Emperor or Duke)

BlenCradle

When Consuelo Vanderbilt did her duty and produced the required “heir and a spare” for the 9th Duke of Marlborough, she rocked her boys in a regal cradle, which is still on view at Blenheim Palace.   Consuelo’s mother, the irrepressible Alva Vanderbilt, wasted no time in ordering this cradle from Italy.  She had moved heaven and earth to marry her very rich daughter to the Duke of Marlborough.  The birth of a male heir insured that the Vanderbilt bloodline would forever have a secure footing in the British aristocracy.

According to a placard about the cradle in Blenheim Palace, it was a near-replica of the one made for Napoleon Bonaparte’s long-awaited heir in 1811. I don’t see much resemblance, though. Consuelo’s cradle is ornate, over-the-top with fanciful figures and gilding. (Actually, a baby being rocked in this cradle would have gone straight over the top and onto the floor–the mattress is even with the sides. If Consuelo actually used it, she must have used it with a lower mattress).

NapoleonCrib

 

Napoleon II’s cradle is now in the Imperial Treasury in Vienna, because the child’s mother was Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria. It was never actually subjected to a burping, crying child.  It was a ceremonial object–a “throne cradle”– presented to Empress Marie Louise by the City of Paris. This cradle has a distinctly military look. It was fashioned of 280 kg of silver, replete with symbols of power and good government:  horns of plenty, the Roman Capitoline Wolf, a laurel wreath, a crown of stars, and numerous bees. Napoleon the Emperor took the bee as his personal emblem; it was also an old symbol of Paris, indicating diligence. The foot of the cradle has a small eagle; Napoleon II was popularly known as “The Eaglet,” with the hope that he would surpass even the glorious exploits of his father.

Napoleon’s only legitimate son had a short and tragic life.  The Emperor made his son the King of Rome the instant he was born.  Glory did not follow, though. After his father’s abdication in 1814, Napoleon II’s mother was forced to flee home to Austria with her toddler.  She remained married to Napoleon, but never saw him again.  The child died in isolation in Austria, where he had to be kept from the public for fear of his father’s admirers trying to rally around him.  I read somewhere that the unfortunate child’s only companion was a pet bird.  He was a frail, sickly child, kept indoors almost all the time. He died of tuberculosis at age 21.

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Consuelo’s marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough was loveless and unhappy, but her older son, in the fullness of time, became the 10th Duke of Marlborough and her younger son lived out his days as Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill. Consuelo’s ancestors continue to occupy Blenheim Palace to this day.

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

My Own Private Odalisque

"La Grande Odalisque," Ingres, 1814, Public Domain

“La Grande Odalisque,” Ingres, 1814, Public Domain

I have a special fondness for a particular painting in the Louvre Museum in Paris: “La Grande Odalisque,” painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1814.  The original painting was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Queen Caroline Murat of Naples. (Early Popes invented “nepotism,” installing their nephews as Cardinals.  But Napoleon I took nepotism many steps further, installing family members on thrones all over Europe during the ten-year period when he was Emperor).

There is something a little off-kilter about this image.  Scientific analysis provided the reason, shortly after the painting first appeared in public: too much backbone. The painter Ingres defied all the known laws of anatomy and classical beauty in order to create a romanticized exotic image from an imagined Sultan’s harem. In order to enhance the sensuous curves of the woman’s body, Ingres painted this lady with at least five extra vertebrae. I guess she is alluring, if a little disconcerting. If you ask me, she looks quite a bit like a weasel.

Photo by Keven Law, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike2.0

Photo by Keven Law, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike2.0

I prefer my own Odalisque, a lady I rescued from a garage sale one fall afternoon.

photo

The artist who painted this very good copy was one M. Feste, signed in red in the corner. The copy shows just the Odalisque’s head and shoulder. I found her canvas leaning against a wall, in danger of being stepped on. My private Odalisque doesn’t suffer the indignity of having a ridiculously elongated backside. Now she just gazes calmly back over her shoulder at anyone entering my bathroom, confident in her exotic beauty.

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

 

 

 

Who is Buried in Napoleon’s Tomb?

Dome

Last spring I finally got around to visiting the tomb of Napoleon in the Invalides in Paris. I was hoping I might finally understand how the French see Napoleon.  I’m still baffled.

Tomb

 

Who was this man  who now lies in solitary splendor under a very grand dome? Why do tourists pay actual money to gaze down at the marble sarcophagus? (It was covered under my Paris Museum Pass, so at least admission was painless).

I understand that Napoleon Bonaparte was a great military genius–that is, until suddenly he wasn’t.  After conquering most of Europe, he led his Grand Armee into a ruinous march on Moscow–the subject of my very favorite novel, Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”  The locals simply abandoned their city, when he got close.  So instead of the customary obsequious welcome by those he conquered, Napoleon was greeted by deserted streets,  empty warehouses, and a city ablaze.  His troops died by the thousands as they retreated back the way they had come, through the frozen Russian landscape.

NapEarly

Napoleon certainly cut a dashing figure when he first appeared in Paris, after his early military victories. I understand why the French welcomed a strong leader able to restore order after the bloodbath of the French Revolution.  I don’t understand why the French went to all the trouble of rejecting their hereditary line of kings, only to allow Napoleon to declare himself Emperor. I don’t really understand why a man who left the nation defeated and almost bankrupt is revered.

But then, maybe he is not so revered.  Maybe his tomb stands, for the French, as a place of contemplation of national destiny–the failures as well as the successes.  Napoleon is one of the most controversial of all historical figures.  Maybe the whole point of visiting his tomb is to realize how little we really understand of history.

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