By Rebecca Smith
In the late 1600s, “turquerie” was in full bloom in French court society.
Leading up to that time, the Ottoman Empire, in its burgeoning size and strength, was seen as increasingly important to France. Consulates in Tripoli, Alexandria, and Beirut were created. Trade, in carpets, dyes, linens, leather and waxes was greatly expanded, mostly through the port of Marseilles, which became the “door of the Orient”. Savary de Brèves, French ambassador to Constantinople, negotiated a favored status position for French trade and protection over that of the English, the Venetians, and the Holy Land. He brought back manuscripts, cultural items and scientific discoveries, all of which were instrumental in the opening of the French Academy of Sciences.
The first Ottoman presence on stage had been in 1561 with “La Soltan”, a tragedy of the 1553 execution of the elder son of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent by his wife and consort, Roxelane. A passion for exotic oriental fashion and décor, including turbans and caftans and sitting on rugs, ensued. Coffee was introduced into French society and coffee shops sprang up across Paris. Oriental elements entered into French literature and luxury goods from the East were in vogue.
It was in this heady atmosphere that Louis XIV invited to the court the Turkish ambassador, Soliman Aga, to further strengthen diplomatic and commercial ties, as well as to, in a sense of competition, impress upon the Ottoman emissary the equally ornate grandeur of French society. A grand gala and lavish feast was scheduled and an entire monthly issue of the Gazette was dedicated to the visit, fanning the public’s interest in the exotic. The King flaunted flamboyant dress in a full display of diamonds and a feathered crown, rejecting the more austere Spanish form of fashion, prevalent at that time. He began taking instruction in Turkish culture from Chevalier d’Arvieux, a French “orientalist” who had traveled extensively throughout the region and had mastered some of the languages. Finally, he ordered a “divertissement oriental” to be created by d’Arvieuxand the court artists, one that would include a new comedie-ballet by Molière. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was that play, built around the vain and selfish M. Jourdain and his misguided efforts to become a Man of Quality, at the expense of his family. In the dramatic climax, Jourdain is duped into marrying his daughter to her true beloved, who is disguised as the heir to the Ottoman throne.
It was an elaborate ceremony played out at Chateau de Chambord, with bejeweled costumes, four dervishes, a dozen Turkish singers and a panoply of exotic instruments.
The event did not entirely go the way of the king’s wishes. Soliman Aga, in what was perceived as possibly an insult, as well as a disappointment, arrived simply attired, as if it had not been worth his effort, and appeared to be indeed a lesser official than was expected. Yet more enraging, he reportedly claimed the Grand Sultan’s horse to be more elaborately adorned than Louis and his retinue.
Molière’s comedy, however, did please the king. The performance was repeated three times at Chambord that week, followed by three times at the palace at Saint-Germain-en-Layebefore it was played at Molière’s Palais-Royal theatre. Many critics then and since have questioned the Turkish folly of the play but audiences have continually delighted in it.
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