Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Tuesday, 7 June, 2011

Subtitle to this blog entry:  The Toilet Travails of Traveling.

We were meant to leave Paris immediately after an early breakfast but the tour bus was over an hour late fighting its way through city traffic. I think that meant we were officially on French time. It was a wet and miserable morning so most of us were crammed into our hotel lobby. We occupied ourselves reading and chatting. I had thought to bring along the flowers my beloved had sent me but the peonies were wilting, as peonies quickly do. My lovely flowers weren't going to survive the trip so while we were waiting, I donated them to the lobby restroom and took one final photo. Adieu! 

As we finally drove away, I spied from the bus window a commemorative plaque honoring a man named Robert Jacques Houbré, a Résistance fighter with the rank of Sergeant in the French Forces of the Interior (Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur, aka FFI). Houbré, age 43, was mortally wounded on August 22, 1944 on this spot at the corner of Boulevard Saint-Michel and Rue de Vaugirard, and he was awarded the Croix de Guerre posthumously. This isn't far from the major intersection of Blvds St-Germain and St-Michael, a corner notoriously known as the Carrefour de la Mort during the intense seven day battle to liberate Paris. Some of the fiercest fighting took place in this area. Parisians blocked their streets to the Germans by building homemade barricades, a tradition in times of strife dating back to the 16th century. Houbré's plaque is also around the corner and down the street a bit from the Palais du Sénat at the Jardins du Luxembourg, where desperate fighting to wrest control of Le Senate took place. Clearly Robert Jacques Houbré was in the thick of things, but I have not been able to trace the details of M. Houbré's story.

Someone must still know it though, because a floral arrangement had been left to honor his memory. I found myself wishing that I still had a peony left from my arrangement to add to it. I've long been fascinated by the small and large acts of heroism of everyday folks who participated in La Résistance française during World War II. This plaque prompted quiet reflection about that time as our bus got underway.

Robert Jacques Houbré memorial

The farther we drove out of Paris, the better the weather got. Wendy and I occupied ourselves with meandering chitchat. It was a long drive to Falaise, about 115 miles.

Necessity soon dictated that I was to be the one to inaugurate the bus loo, which was neatly concealed under a seat in the back stairwell. A succession of women (our tour group was comprised of 30 women and 3 men) followed me, and unfortunately it soon became obvious that there was, well, mechanical trouble. We were scolded for not discarding waste paper in its proper receptacle as the signs...in French...clearly told us we were to do. Pity someone in the party who could actually decipher French toilet instructions hadn't used the loo first!

To add insult to indignity, when our bus pulled over at a rest stop the only loos available were Turkish squatters. I'd come across these twice before, in Egypt and outside of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire Abbey near Orléans. I didn't think I'd find one at a roadside rest stop in Normandy, but it makes sense given the low maintenance involved. There was much appalled muttering from our group over this contrivance. I later learned that Googling 'squatter toilet' provides much fascinating trivia regarding the history and usage of these devices, including instructional videos. The best piece of advice: "Use your hand sanitizer and remind yourself that travel is all about broadening your horizons."

Obligatory rest stop photo:

I was vastly amused while waiting at this pit stop to spy our driver leaving the bus gingerly carrying a large tree branch complete with leaves, which he'd apparently used as a plunger to attempt rudimentary toilet repair.

One does what one must, and makes do.

Driving through the Val d'Ante valley,  by mid-afternoon we had our first sighting from the bus window of the fortress of Falaise. It rose majestically out of the limestone and sandstone hillsides.  I think everyone on the bus gasped in unison.

Photo by Susan Taksa O'Dee

This fortress at Falaise occupies the site of the castle built by William the Conquerer and later greatly expanded by Eleanor's Henry. Proof of human presence in this area dates back to 60000 years BCE and fortifications on the rocks have existed since the Carolingian era (mid 10th century). The original castle was built by Richard I, Sans Peur (great-grandfather of William the Conquerer and 4x great grandfather of Henry II) and was one of the very first stone castles ever built in Normandy. Nothing substantial remains of that first castle.

The tall tower to the right is the Talbot Tower (built by Philippe Auguste, who had a thing for towers) and the Great Keep. Henry I built the keep over the first ancestral castle in the style of those built in England by his father, William the Conqueror.

It was time for lunch but as it was the French countryside, all restaurants were closed in mid-afternoon. I'd been wondering if that would be the case, based on previous experiences with this phenomenon. In smaller towns and villages of France, you can pretty much count on everything closing for lunch and not reopening until mid-afternoon -- which was right when we'd arrived in Falaise. Some of us wandered through Place Guillaume le Conquérant to Rue du Camp Ferme where we found a small marché and stocked up on croissants, cheeses and fruit (and begged the proprietress to let us clog, I mean use, her small bathroom). We took lots of photos along the way as we then made our way up to the castle.

Photo by John Phillips showing the whole of Place Guillaume le Conquérant, Hotel de Ville in background, chateau looming off to the right.

In the year 911, Viking chief Rollo signed a peace treaty with the King of Franks which created the Duchy of Normandy, and in honor of that event and to promote tourism Normandy was celebrating its 1100th anniversary in 2011. These banners were all over Falaise.

The creation of the dukedom of Normandy (the land of the north) ushered in a new political scene. The town of Falaise became one of the first cities of the new duchy. Fast forward a millennium and two-thirds of the town was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944 during World War II. Some older charming buildings like these still remain, though not from Eleanor's time!

Falaise was a center of commerce in Eleanor's time due to linen, hemp and woolen drapery, leatherwork, and farming in the surrounding countryside. Today it has about 8000 residents.

Also in the town square was Eglise de la Trinité. The original church was built around the year 840, and thus would have been known by Eleanor. It was destroyed during the siege of Falaise by Philippe Auguste in 1204 when he wrested control away from Eleanor and Henry's youngest son, John. The present church dates from the 1400-1500s:

We were drawn to this statue of William the Conqueror on a very big horse. It was sculpted by Louis Rochet in 1851, and two decades later statues representing the preceding six dukes of Normandy were added to the base. Those other six were Rollo, William I Longue Épée (Longsword), Richard I Sans Peur (The Fearless), Richard II le Bon (The Good), Richard III, and Robert le Magnifique (the Magnificent,  and father of William). The first three men were more likely known as Counts of Rouen since Richard I was the first official Duke of Normandy. Eglise de la Trinité is in the background in this photo.

Guillaume le Conquérant, dit également Guillaume le Bâtard, Guillaume II de Normandie et enfin Guillaume Ier d’Angleterre.

William was born in 1028 at Falaise Castle. He was the illegitimate son of the 6th Duke of Normandy Robert le Magnifique (also known as le Diable or the Devil for presumably killing his brother). His mother Herleve (most often called Arlette) was the daughter of Fulbert of Falaise. Before his conquest of England, William was known as The Bastard because of the illegitimacy of his birth. Despite those regrettable circumstances, he was named heir to Normandy by his father. William had to deal with all manner of challenges to his birthright but had secured it by the time he was 19. He married his distant cousin Mathilda of Flanders in 1053, and they had ten children. In 1066, William took advantage of a dispute over the succession of the English throne, crossed the Channel, and invaded at Hastings. After a fierce battle lasting nine hours, William defeated Harold Godwinson. He marched to London and was crowned Christmas Day 1066 in Westminster Abbey, the first documented coronation held there. (Harold Godwinson may have been crowned in Westminster earlier that year, making him the first, but there's no contemporary evidence to support this so I'm going with the Bastard on this one).

Eleanor's second husband Henry was the great-grandson of William.  That legacy loomed large over the Plantagenets, who considered themselves Norman and not English. Falaise is only 20 miles south of Caen, which was one of the places I dearly wished we could have visited in order to pay our respects at the burial sites of William the Conquerer and his consort Matilda of Flanders.

This monument to testosterone inspired Wendy to organize the future Bastard Tour of France and England. We're still waiting on the complete itinerary (Caen is one of the stops for sure) but in the meantime some of us adopted a name for ourselves after admiring this statue: The Bastard Babes.

We finally tore ourselves away from Bill the Bastard's sculpted manliness and headed to Château de Falaise, Château Guillaume le Conquérant, gazing at the outer ramparts as we walked up the hill.  

Photo by Malcolm Craig

When Eleanor's youngest son John lost Normandy to France's Philippe Auguste, Falaise fell during the Siege of Château-Gaillard in 1204. Once it was his, Philippe added the many semi-circular towers and the Talbot Tower. I told you he had a thing for towers, which served to defensively flank the curtain walls. The castle fell from French control during the Hundred Years' War in 1418, and was occupied by the English for 32 years until recaptured by King Charles VII.

During the Wars of Religion in the late 1500s, Falaise was held by Catholics who refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of the King Henri IV (remember that we previously discussed his skull). Henry IV laid siege to the castle from near-by Mount Myrrha and breached the ramparts with cannon. That was the end of an era for Falaise Castle, as it was no longer significant defensively.

In the 18th century Château de Falaise passed into private hands and underwent many alterations so it could function as an aristocratic residence. Over time the castle moats and ditches were filled. Amazingly it escaped destruction during the Revolution. The castle was officially classified as a Historical Monument in 1840, and the first restoration effort took place in 1863 by a student of Viollet-le-Duc. 

These youngsters were leaving after a field trip and had paused for a photo op. I could just imagine my own 7 year old son up there with them. Feeling briefly maternally melancholic, I headed to the castle itself. 

The center forebuilding which houses the reception and gift shop was constructed in 1996 by architect Bruno Decaris, who undertook an ambitious campaign of restoration beginning in 1986. He restored the Talbot Tower and the keeps, and built this structure to evoke the feel of classic forebuildings of Anglo-Norman keeps. Decaris used all modern materials in the parts of the castle where there were no traces of original materials, choosing to do so in order to evoke but not mimic the missing features. The forebuilding was controversial because the choice of modern grey concrete in a building of this size was criticized for disrupting the cohesive look of the castle grounds. However controversial, the building is in keeping with the UNESCO guidelines for architectural interventions to historical edifices. There would have been a drawbridge here, which is evoked by the suspended metal footbridge.

Inside we found a model of the early castle showing how it looked in Eleanor's time.

Henry built the lower keep with later additions by sons Richard and John during their reigns.

Sharon Kay Penman told us that Falaise was one of Henry's favorite castles and an important base of operations for him. We know for sure that Henry and Eleanor held their Christmas court at Falaise castle in 1159. A room on the upper floor of the Lower Keep, with these odd IKEA-like thrones, is meant to evoke the Great Hall where the court was held. It's an awfully small room for that purpose. Eleanor is depicted to the left in this photo of the Great Hall.

Sharon thought it very likely that Henry held Eleanor prisoner at Falaise after the family rebellion of 1173, before whisking her off for her long confinement in England.

We came across a fun display of the hierarchy of power and privilege in the Middle Ages, from Roi down to the lowly paysans et serfs. This hierarchy directly corresponds with how comfortable one's life would be. Falaise had many of these modern educational elements and judging by the rapt attention of the visiting children, it was all quite effective.

Photo by John Phillips

The visiting children no doubt enjoyed seeing this medieval garderobe. Mine would have, at any rate, and no doubt would have staged a posed photo op.

We walked around the grounds of Falaise and tried to imagine a younger Eleanor and Henry here in happier days. The view from the walls of the surrounding landscape was breath-taking and I imagined it to be a vista untouched by time, a scene not unlike what Eleanor might have seen when she stayed at Falaise.

Unmodified archer loop and/or ventilation slit to the left, probably circa 13th century. Modified archer loop with cannon holes to the right; the holes were added by the English occupiers in the 15th century to accommodate firearms.

Peeking from the upper bailey to the town of Falaise below.

Photo by Susan Taksa O'Dee

I have to admit that some of architect Bruno Decaris' 'evocative' modern materials gave me pause. For instance, this grating was used for flooring outside the keep and was easily one hundred feet above ground. It made me shriek with horror when I first realized what I was standing on, startling my fellow tour members. Sorry about that, folks!

After that, I decided not to venture to the top of Talbot Tower and settled for admiring it from a distance. Philippe Auguste's Tour Talbot is similar in design to the towers that he built for his arsenal at the medieval Louvre, which we saw yesterday. The tower is 115 feet tall with a diameter of 49 feet. It had six levels with wooden ceilings and stone-ribbed vaults. Light and ventilation were provided by slits; the large windows we see today were added during the 14th and 15th centuries. A well dug in the depths provided fresh water, and heavy loads could be winched up to each level through an internal opening.  The tower was not a party room; its purpose was purely defensive.

Great resource to learn more about Château Guillaume le Conquérant can be found at this website: LINK.

The second phase of modern renovation, from 1998-2003, was focused on restoring the upper rampart and courtyard of the castle. The third phase, evident by the ubiquitous scaffolding that we'd passed on our way up to the castle, is aimed at restoring the defensive character through further work on the ramparts, enclosure towers, and ditch.

I applaud all efforts at historical preservation. Restoration is a noble and welcome endeavor. But there is still something compelling about a ruin.

As we straggled back to our bus, Tee and I spied this charming chocolatier and of course a visit and some purchases occurred. Our loot helped pass the time on the next leg of our journey.

From Falaise, we crossed part of the area known as the Suisse Normande (Norman Switzerland) on our way to Mont St-Michel. I squealed internally every time we passed these vache charolaise!

Photo by Nicole Benkert

Next stop: Mont-St-Michel.

Sharon Kay Penman's blog entry about our tour of Falaise and subsequent arrival at Mont St-Michel can be found here:  LINK

Monday, June 11, 2012

Paris: Musée du Louvre

Monday, 6 June, 2011

Destination #3: Musée du Louvre

Before there was I.M. Pei's pyramid, Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace or the gift shop, there was the Palace of the Louvre:

Model of medieval palace in current Louvre

Eleanor's first husband Louis VII could acquit himself ably enough in battle, but he was never the military strategist that his son Philippe Auguste would prove himself to be. Nicknamed Dieudonné (God-Given) at birth, Louis' much longed-for son was born in 1165 (sharing a birth year with Joanna, the youngest daughter of Henry and Eleanor). Philippe was crowned at age 15 and took up where his father had left off sowing and cultivating seeds of discontent between Henry II and his sons Hal, Richard, Geoffrey and John (Eleanor was out of the picture due to her imprisonment by Henry). Philippe seemingly made it his life's work to destroy the Angevins. I can't help but wonder if father Louis' humiliation over the outcome of his marriage to Eleanor was transmitted to son Philippe, who took it upon himself to destroy as much of the Plantagenet legacy as he could by either might or manipulation for the glory of Les Capétiens.

Richard & Philippe quarreling after Messina. 14th century Illustration from Grandes Chroniques de France, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Philippe's interpersonal relationships were complicated, to say the least. It's beyond the scope of this blog to discuss Philippe's marital woes but they make for fascinating reading! Philippe spent most of his life fighting with someone, whether Pope or Plantagenet, vassal or wife. And yet, for all his presumed need for Plantagenet-based revenge, Philippe maintained what seems to have been a genuinely close friendship with the fourth son of Henry and Eleanor, Geoffrey Duke of Brittany. Philippe was allegedly so overcome with grief at Geoffrey's untimely death (which we saw memorialized earlier in a plaque at Notre Dame) that he had to be forcibly restrained from jumping into Geoffrey's coffin.

Let's just say that Philippe was never particularly subtle when it came to making grand gestures. Take the impressive Palais de Louvre, for example. Built in the late 1180s, it was intended to deter Henry Plantagenet should he consider casting covetous eyes upon Paris. It was considered an impregnable fortress the scale of which had not been seen to date, a fortified castle complete with water moat, drawbridge, crenelated towers 32 feet high, and thick walls. Philippe's cylindrical watch tower was known as Le Grosse Tour and was originally surrounded by a dry moat which was expanded. The complex eventually became home to Paris' archives and treasures of the kingdom. Philippe also kept his arsenal stored at this castle along with archives and treasure. The Louvre was never his residence.

Louvre in the time of Philippe Auguste by Louis-Pierre Baltard, circa 1803

The building was renovated and enlarged over subsequent centuries and in time it did became a lovely royal residence.

Illumination "Les très riches heures du duc de Berry" showing the much-enhanced Louvre in the time of Charles V, nearly 200 years later

The keep was razed in the 16th century by Francis I, but the foundations of Philippe Auguste's original Louvre fortress still remain in the bowels of the Old Louvre complex, which we'll visit a bit later in our tour today.

By this point most of us were limping along rather pathetically, having stomped through half the Rive Gauche, Notre-Dame, and the Cluny Museum by 1 PM. Time out for lunch on our own helped, but the Louvre is an intimidating stop even for the freshest of explorers and we were all rather wilted by this point!  Fortunately our guides took us directly to the only known artifact physically associated with Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Behold, the Eleanor Vase.

"Hoc vas sponsa dedit Anor Regi Ludovico, Mitadolus avo, mihi Rex, Sanctisque Sugerus."  

That is: "As a bride, Eleanor gave the vase to King Louis, Mitadolus to her grandfather, the King to me, and Suger to the Saints."

According to that inscription on the base that Abbot Suger added, Eleanor gave this vase to Louis as a
wedding gift. At some point Louis gave it to Abbot Suger for the Treasury at St-Denis.

Early Byzantine carvings of rock crystal often involved aquatic themes, which may be why later Europeans interpreted rock crystal as being petrified ice. Rock crystal was considered to be an allegory for the Fountain of Life....precious stuff, indeed. Its level of transparency and reflectivity was renowned and was popularly used in the Muslim world for the creation of precious lamps for shrines and drinking vessels. This leads to the intriguing speculation that perhaps the Eleanor Vase was never a vase at all, but instead was a drinking cup or lantern.

In Turner's collection of essays about Eleanor, historian George Birch believes that the piece was originally made in the Byzantine empire, possibly Persia, between 3 and 7 CE. He posits that Mitadolus was a Muslim emir from southern Spain, King Imad al-dawla of Saragossa, who gifted Eleanor's grandfather Duke William IX of Aquitaine with the vase in 1120 to win his support. This makes the vase all the more significant, not just as the lone surviving Eleanor artifact but as tangible evidence of Christian and Muslim collaboration from a unique era.

And yet Louis gave it away! The reason for Louis passing along a wedding gift (which is thought to have happened while the couple was still married) is unknown. It certainly seems to have been an awkward decision when looked at with modern sensibilities, and perhaps also from medieval ones! Perhaps it was an offering in hopes that the couple's barren marriage would be blessed by a child (two daughters, Marie and Alix, were eventually born to Louis and Eleanor).  Or was it a personal gift from Louis to his mentor Abbot Suger as thanks for rendering spiritual and state guidance?  Maybe it was the last remaining piece of a set and deemed not worth keeping around the palace! Whatever it once was, it remains an exquisite piece and visiting it set the bar high for finding further traces of Eleanor's world in the 21st century.

The original piece that Eleanor gave Louis was likely only rock crystal. What can't be seen due to the gilded silver setting Suger later added is the neck of vase, which according to the Louvre website extends upwards two centimeters. St-Denis Treasury inventories stated that the setting is of gold, jewels, and pearls, and mentioned two red jaspers "on one of which is engraved an idol, and on the other the head of a man." Those are long gone. The blue enamel medallions with fleurs-de-lis on the third band down are likely later substitutes for lost jewels. Suger believed that the beauty of precious objects such as this one helped worshipers transcend the material world, and he likely used the piece as a communion vessel (which again makes me wonder if it was contemporarily considered to be a drinking cup, not a vase). The crystal was reportedly in perfect condition until it was cracked in the 18th century (seriously not a good century for French artifacts).

The Louvre photo below shows the best detail so I am reproducing it here for discussion purposes. More details can be found on the Louvre website HERE.

Our group stood for a very long time at this display and we snapped many photos. My favorite shot is this one of author Sharon Kay Penman with the Eleanor Vase:

Photo by Lisa Williams Adair

We wandered around the Richelieu wing looking at other representatives from the Middle Ages decorative arts collection. There were a number of items from the Treasury of the Royal Abbey of St-Denis which resonated deeply with me, given the effort I'd made to visit this significant cathedral on my first day of the trip. The Eleanor Vase was displayed with two other pieces that Abbot Suger himself had a hand in designing:

Photo by Wendy Mehary

Suger found the middle piece, a vase from Egypt, and added the gilded silver eagle to transform it into a liturgical chalice. He explained:
And further we adapted for the service of the altar, with the aid of gold and silver material, a porphyry vase, made admirable by the hand of the sculptor and polisher, after it had lain idly in a chest for many years, converting it from a flagon into the shape of an eagle; and we had the following verses inscribed on this vase: "This stone deserves to be enclosed in gems and gold. It was marble, but in these settings it is more precious than marble." (Includi gemmis lapis iste meretur auro: Marmor set, sed in his marmore cavior est).
The other piece on display at far left was commissioned by Abbot Suger and is known as The Sardonyx Ewer. It was used for holding sacramental wine. Its inscription reads "Dum libare Deo gemmis debemus & auro Hoc ego Suggerius offero vas Domino" loosely translated as "Since we ought to offer to God with jewels and gold, I offer this, I make a vessel unto the Lord."

There is a fourth piece that is known to have been commissioned by Abbot Suger, currently in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  Since visiting these medieval treasures in Paris and learning about their provenance, I've made it a point to stop in to pay my respect to Abbot Suger's aesthetic whenever touring the National Gallery. Here it is:

This cup is believed to be of Alexandrian origin in the last century BCE, although of course the mounting is circa 1137-1140. It is described as a "sardonyx cup with gilded silver mounting, set with stones, pearls, and glass" and was used as a liturgical chalice. The National Gallery catalogue claims that Abbot Suger
....took particular delight in the swirling bands of this stone cup in which the sard's red hue...so keenly vies with the darkness of the onyx that one essence seem to be bent on invading the other. The fluted carving, with deep channels cut into the sides, accentuates the sense of natural forces in surging motion...

The chalice may have been used in the re-consecration ceremony for the new altar chapels of St-Denis on 11 June 1144, an event that Eleanor very likely attended. Abbot Suger did not disclose the provenance of this sardonyx cup but is thought that it might have been brought to Saint-Denis by dealers who flocked there knowing of his love of pretty things or it may have been a pawn redeemed by a wealthy lenders from the Jewish community who'd settled in Saint-Denis and Paris. This is likely how other items in the St-Denis treasury were procured as well.

How did this piece make it to Washington DC? The National Gallery catalogue explains:
In fulfillment of the law ordering the nationalization of the monastic orders, on 30 September 1791, the chalice was taken away from Saint-Denis and deposited at the Cabinet National des Médailles et Antiques. On the night of 16-17 February 1804, it was stolen from the Cabinet National, forced into a plaster bust of Laocoön, and smuggled, presumably by way of Holland, to England, which was then at war with France. It was acquired 1804 by Charles Towneley [1737-1805], London; in the Towneley family, London, until possibly 1920. (Harry Harding, London), in 1920; (Goldschmidt Galleries, New York), by 1921; purchased 20 March 1922 by Joseph E. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; inheritance from Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, after purchase by funds of the Estate; gift 1942 to NGA.
Much detail about this piece and Abbot Suger's visionary commissions can be found in the chapter on Medieval Metalwork and Styles in the National Gallery publication Western Decorative Arts: medieval, Renaissance, and historicizing styles.

One last look at detail on the sardonyx cup. While alterations have occurred over the centuries, this medallion with solemn haloed Christ, flanked by the Greek letters signifying 'I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End'" dates to Suger's time. I think that the intricate spirals of gold filigree, so detailed and done with the naked eye without modern visual magnification, are absolutely breath-taking:

Somehow I doubt it will ever make its way back to France to rejoin the other three Suger commissions, but I'd like to see that happen. They belong together.

Anyway, back to the Louvre. There were many other objects there from the Treasury of St-Denis, albeit from later eras. One that I found particularly intriguing was this patène de serpentine, a saucer inlaid with gold, precious stones, pearls, and colored glass. The paten itself dates to the time of Christ and a Glasgow historian gained some press in 2007 by speculating that this plate may be the legendary Holy Grail. The gold mount likely dates to the reign of Charles the Bald in the late 9th century, and this paten was used along with the Cup of the Ptolemies at the coronation of French queens. It's been associated with Abbot Suger but was probably not used during his time. Still, it's an intriguing piece:

When we finally tore ourselves away from the medieval decorative arts, we did a blitzkrieg highlight tour of the Louvre. We visited the Appartements Napoléon III and Cour Marley (see details about that on my other blog, The Historical Dilettante). We also had the opportunity to stop and see specific works such as Goujon's famous Diana and the Stag (forever associated with the fascinating Diane d'Poitiers); Venus de Milo (I was amused to later learn that founding members of The American Society of Plastic Surgeons had chosen to reproduce a likeness of the statue as their organization's emblem. Apparently for enough money, anyone can look like a beautiful woman with no arms); Winged Victory of Samothrace; and various Renaissance paintings including La Joconde (I have to admit to spending more time watching and being amused by the hordes of people jockeying for prime photo spots than gazing at the painting). Highlight tours are not my thing and I really hate being rushed through a museum. Oh well, such are the drawbacks of touring with a group.

Our most significant visit after viewing the Treasures from St-Denis was to the foundations of Philippe-Auguste's Louvre Fortress, deep in the bowels of what is considered the Old Louvre. 

As noted previously, although Philippe's fortress was razed during the Renaissance, excavations for the underground visitor’s center beneath I.M. Pei's glass pyramid uncovered the foundations of the original castle in 1983. These foundations are remarkably well-preserved and we enjoyed walking where once the wet moat protected the keep, and seeing the massive pediments.

We wandered on the long wooden walkway through the middle of the moat, down what amounts now to a dark tunnel beside the massive exposed foundations, and ended up in a mysterious little room of unknown purpose that featured a carving of this creepy fellow:

We returned by tour bus to our hotel. Some of our group attended a medieval-inspired dinner at a restaurant that had been arranged in advance. Since the menu was not accommodating to my dietary choices, I declined and instead had dinner with Paula, Sue and Nicole, and Yvonne at one of the restaurants at the Place de la Sorbonne. Sue and Nicole and I then wandered down to Montebello Quay for an evening boat ride on the Seine. We laughed a lot and enjoyed the sights of Paris (including several young men who mooned our passing bateau from the docks).

So much packed into such a short time! I was glad this was not my first trip to Paris, as I'd have felt cheated by the fast pace. When I look at my personal photos of this time, I am struck by how radiantly happy and excited and completely exhausted I look!

Tomorrow we will leave Paris to track Eleanor's life in Normandy and beyond, so it was back to the hotel for a good night's sleep.

Bonne nuit et fais des beaux rêves, Paris!

Sharon Kay Penman's blog entry about our first full day of touring in Paris can be found here: LINK.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Paris: Musée de Cluny

Monday, 6 June, 2011

Destination #2:  Musée de Cluny, officially Musée National du Moyen Age Thermes de Cluny

I take a special delight in visiting museums whose edifices are as interesting as the collections they house. The Musée de Cluny is one such place.

Back when Paris was Lutetia, the area was divided into two sections. The Cité, located on what we known today as the Île de la Cité, was connected to the banks of the Seine on either side by wooden bridges. The open suburbs stretching up Mont Sainte-Geneviéve (now topped by the Panthéon) were populated by villas and vineyards. The Seine was not bounded by concrete embankments and spread over a much wider area, extending into flood plains that stretched as far as what would become the Benedictine Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés in the 6th century. 

Representation of the Gallo-Roman city of Lutetia, from euratlas.com

Lutetia's aqueduct supplied three public baths. It can be hard to imagine the scale of these Thermae from the current ruins, which represent only about a third of the extent of the baths. It was a dynamic complex that continued to be expanded upon to meet the needs of the public, right up until its destruction by invading barbarians in the middle of the 3rd century.

Exterior shots of Roman ruins married to modern museum. Photos by John Phillips

The complex lay in ruins for roughly a thousand years until the Cluniac monks decided to establish a presence in the growing academic center of Paris in the 13th century. The reformed Benedictine order of Cluny was established in the 10th century by a predecessor of Eleanor's, William I of Aquitaine. In 1334 the order built a townhouse for its abbots abutting the ruins of the Roman Thermae, known thereafter as the Hotel de Cluny. It underwent modifications in the 16th century. Today it is one of the few examples of an intact late-medieval residence in Paris.
Cour d'Honneur of Hôtel de Cluny. Drawn by Gaucherel, steel engraving by Lemaitre, 1845

The building eventually passed into private ownership and an amateur historian named Alexandre Du Sommerard moved in sometime in the 1820s with his ever-expanding collection of medieval objets d'art. His collection soon became famous. It was popularly hoped that a permanent museum would be created, patterned after the Musée des Monuments Française founded by another amateur collector, Alexandre Lenoir (whom I wish I could like more for his preservation efforts but whose treatment of the reputed remains of Abélard and Héloïse left quite a lot to be desired; see my other  blog for details). 

When Du Sommerard died, his house combined with the Thermae become national property. The Cluny museum officially opened in 1844.

Over the years the collection has become more specific and refined, spanning the Roman Empire (28 BCE - 5 CE), Romanesque (1000-1250 CE) and Gothic eras (1251-1500).  The combination of the Cluny house and Thermae allows for a unique exhibition environment that remains dynamic and responsive to public needs. The museum has benefited from consistently responsible curatorship, an example being its closure in 1939 so the exhibits could be moved to a secure place for the duration of WWII. Although the Cluny does not contain any artifacts specifically associated with Eleanor, it is well worth visiting for any medieval history buff due to its history, location, and diverse collection. 

We entered through the medieval-inspired gardens.  I don't remember this space from my previous visit for good reason: the gardens were designed in 2000 by Eric Ossart and Arnaud Mauriéres. The plantings include medicinal and kitchen gardens and a section with mille fleurs. Much as I like gardens, I have to admit to being less than impressed...I'm not sure what medieval era the designers were trying to evoke with modern deck fencing. I guess that's why it's described as 'medieval-inspired."


From there we passed into the cobble-stoned Cour d'Honneur courtyard, with its charming old well and Flamboyant Gothic architecture.

I was particularly taken with the scallop shell theme in the Cour d'Honneur. Paris was a medieval gathering point for pilgrimages to the Camino de Santiago in modern-day Spain. Today's pilgrim would be hard-pressed to follow the exact medieval routes from Paris, since they've been covered by modern highways or buildings. But the interested aficionado of Santiago pilgrimages (and I have to admit that I'm rather obsessed) can find scallop shells and other St James symbols in historic places like the Cluny. Their presence conveys a profound sense of the pervasiveness of Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle to medieval life. The Cluniac order established a series of way houses for pilgrims along the route to Galicia, and the abbot or other prelates residing at Hôtel de Cluny would have blessed pilgrims departing from Paris. 

Photo by John Phillips

Once inside, I was tickled to see a familiar friend waiting for me:

You can just see some of the traces of medieval polychromy decoration on this limestone statue of Saint Denis, who is dressed quite formally. He's probably heading out for a party.

Photo by John Phillips

Perhaps lovely Ariadne here is going to be at the same party? This was a beautifully carved piece of ivory from Constantinople dating to the 6th century...old enough that I can pretend that perhaps Eleanor saw it! 

There was truly an embarrassment of riches in the Cluny of alabaster reliefs, stained glass, choir stalls, and sculpture encompassing a span of some 1500 years. Add to that a marvelous setting incorporating Thermae walls, 16th century Gothic architecture and modern conveniences, and the eye didn't know where to rest.

Photo by John Phillips

And of course, there was the charming and irresistible bookstore!

Photo by John Phillips
Our group spent a lot of time in the Notre-Dame room, where we came face-to-face with those heads of the Kings of Judah that had lined the gallery of the great cathedral, then spent nearly two centuries buried underground until the building of a Metro stop unearthed them. Here are a few:

We couldn't stop staring at beautiful Adam here, circa 1260, who once graced the south transept facade at Notre Dame with Eve. He's been well re-constructed (heh heh) but at one time he also held an apple. Methinks he is over-compensating for his missing, uhm, apple by strategically wearing not just a fig leaf but an entire juvenile fig tree. 

Perhaps he'll party with Denis and Ariadne later?

Photo by John Phillips

There were fragments from Sainte-Chapelle, St-Denis, St-Genévieve, and St-Germaine-des-Prés throughout the museum.  

Photo by John Phillips

I particularly liked this head of the Queen of Sheba from one of the long-gone original portals of St-Denis. She dates to 1137-40 and is likely to have been something Eleanor would have seen when visiting St-Denis. I hope I can be forgiven for imagining the sculptor had Eleanor in mind as his model when he created this fierce, regal queen. But I must admit that her bulbous eyes have me a bit worried about the condition of her thyroid!

Photo by John Phillips

The piéce de résistance of the Cluny Museum is in the Rotunda of the Lady and the Unicorn. 

Photo by John Phillips

Discovered at Chateau de Boussac and acquired in 1882, these six tapestries were commissioned by the Le Viste family from Lyon. The pennants and armor bear the arms of the sponsor, Jean Le Viste, a powerful nobleman in the court of King Charles VII. The tapestries represent the mille-fleurs style, a popular medieval motif which refers to a background consisting of so many little flowers and plants. The five senses plus a sixth sense that eclipses them all, that of love and understanding and perspective, are represented. The room was kept very dark in order to preserve the extraordinary colors of these enormous silk and woolen tapestries. They were woven in Flanders in 1400s and lost to public accounting until the early 19th century. Novelist George Sand brought public attention to the tapestries in her works.

I have had framed postcards of these tapestries hanging in my home for twenty years and it was a thrill to see the real things again! Ranier Marie-Rilke described them precisely:  

....there are six tapestries; come, let us pass slowly in front of them But first o all take a step back and look at them, all together. Are they not tranquil? There is little variety in them. See that blue, oval island in all of them, floating over the soft red background, which is filled with flowers and inhabited by small animals busy with their own activities. There only, in the last panel, the island rises a little, as if it had become lighter. There is always a figure, a woman, wearing different attires, but it is always the same lady. Sometimes, there is beside her a smaller figure, a maidservant, and there are always heraldic creatures: large ones, on the island, which are part of the action. To the left, a lion, and to the right, in light hues, the unicorn; they carry the same banner high above them; three silver moons rising on a blue band on a red field.
The tapestries came to the Cluny in varying stages of neglect and deterioration and have been subject to regular restoration efforts since 1882. 

Photo by John Phillips
Photo by John Phillips




À Mon Seul Désir
Photo by John Phillips

Scholarship related to the tapestries has shifted over the years from research into the commissioner of the works and location of the weaving, to more recent concerns about the meaning of the tapestries as related to and personifying themes in medieval literature.

A special 'Swords: Uses, Myths, and Symbols' exhibit included swords from the 5th to the 15th centuries. Joyeuse, the sword of Charlemagne described in the Song of Roland as changing color thirty times a day, had been moved from its customary home in the Louvre for this exhibit. I am saddened to report that I saw no color-changing swordplay that day.  In truth, the sword identified as that of Charlemagne is really a composite of various bits from the 10th to 13th centuries. It was used as a coronation sword for Kings of France from 1270 to 1824.

Photo by John Phillips

Our last stop before leaving the Cluny was a visit to the sublime Flamboyant Gothic chapel. After the death of her husband Louis XII, Francis I kept Mary Tudor at the Cluny to assure that she was not pregnant, as a child would have threatened his succession. To be extra safe, he married her off here to her knight-in-shining-armor, Charles Brandon Duke of Suffolk and Viscount Lisle. We were also told that one of the former owners of the Cluny was a physician who used this chapel as a dissection room!

Photo by John Phillips

One piece in the Cluny collection that I can't remember seeing but which would have special relevance to our group was a Limoges reliquary of St. Thomas Becket, dating to 1190-1200. Becket relics were quickly distributed all over Europe following his martyrdom and canonization, and at least fifty surviving Limoges reliquaries of this type were created to house the new saint's relics. Eleanor was kept colossally busy in the last dozen or so years of her life, which is when this reliquary dates to, and I'm pretty sure she had better things to do than visit random Becket shrines. While I doubt she ever saw this particular reliquary, one never knows! It's certainly exemplary of the type that existed in her lifetime, and I'm sorry none of us saw it.

Photo from Wikipedia Commons

Next stop, lunch!  Then, the Louvre.