By Rebecca Smith
There is no shortage of beautiful chateaus dotting the French countryside. But one is known distinctly as the “Château des Dames”, the “Ladies’ Château”. It is the Château de Chenonceau located in the Loire Valley and is so called because it has been designed and owned predominantly by women, a remarkable feat, especially considering the times. The transitions have not always been smooth or managed with female solidarity, but women can herald it a glowing success story nonetheless.
An exquisite model of French Renaissance architecture, Chenonceau elegantly spans the River Cher and includes a moat-enclosed courtyard. Early in the 1500s it was but a dilapidated manor house and mill. Thomas Bohier bought it from the Lord of Marques and tore it down, leaving only the well and tower. Bohier’s wife, Catherine Briçonnet, then designed and commissioned the new structure. Of special note are the grande entrance and France’s first straight staircase.
Sold in 1535 by their wayward son to King François I, it was turned over to Diane of Poitiers, the young mistress of his son, Henri II. Diane expanded the estate adding formal gardens, a bridge across the river and a farm and vineyard, all of which turned a tidy profit.
When the king was killed in a tournament in 1559, Catherine de Medici, his widow, in, it is thought, a fit of spite, sent Diane packing and took control. She then revamped the landscaping and added new structures. Those included an elegant 60-meter long, 2-story gallery atop the bridge. It was at that time that Chenonceau became the site of numerous balls and galas and fireworks and became famous for its revelry and pomp.
That changed completely when the subsequent owner, Louise de Lorraine, took possession of it after the assassination of her husband, Henri III. She instilled an atmosphere of grief and sadness. She herself wore mourning white and had the ceilings painted white, as well. Indeed, she was known as the Reine Blanche.
Upon her death, the castle was bequeathed to her niece and, after that, was acquired by Farmer General Dupin, whose wife became its next ruler. Madame Dupin added a new intellectual touch. She initiated a salon of many of the most renowned minds of the time. She also was widely known and beloved for her charity work, which may have saved Chenonceau from being destroyed during the French Revolution.
In 1864 the chateau was bought by Madame Pelouze, who spared little expense in renovating and embellishing the property, rearranging statues and replenishing interior art and decorations.
Today thousands of visitors enjoy Chenonceau; it is one of the most photographed of all the chateaus. Attracting the photographers are a splendid 16th century fireplace and mantel, superb Flemish tapestries, stained glass windows in the chapel (replaced after being destroyed in WWII), glass cabinets with the signatures of past inhabitants, a library and Bureau Vert, paintings by Rubens and Mignard, and the glorious history-making straight staircase leading up to the Five Queens’ Bedroom. The gallery atop the bridge, which served as a hospital during WWII and as the symbolic boundary between Free and Occupied France, is certainly a highlight. As is the Wax Museum, which relates the long, intriguing history of the estate.
The Miller family are the current owners but undoubtedly the entire country, and women, in particular, feel a proud ownership of La Merveille du Val-de-Loire, the Wonder of the Loire Valley.
Chenonceau with historical guided tour - 3D: sketchfab.com/3d-models/chenonceau-with-historical-guided-tour-bab90b3131d74b699a428d0804d6e9c6
By Rebecca Smith
This mural is found in the town of Béziers at l’Ancienne Comedie (just behind the building where this fresco is painted). A plaque explains:
“Monsieur Poquelin and his troupe have had some setbacks. But the protection of the Duke of Orleans, brother of the king and governor of Languedoc, established very comfortably in Pézenas, allows Molière and his family to create, play, entertain and attract a growing public. Thus, in 1656, a year before definitively leaving Languedoc, Molière created in Bélziers a play in 5 acts, Le dépit amoureux.”
Le dépit amoureux, reportedly copied from an Italian comedy, l’interesse (Self-Interest), by Niccolo Secchi, is a comedy in verse and is the story of two young men courting the same young woman amidst a case of mistaken identity. It was first performed in Béziers in December 1656, debuted in Paris at the Théâtre du Petit-Bourbon in June 1659 and was revived in July 1679 with opening music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. One of Molière’s best loved quotes, “You only die once and it’s for so long”, comes from the play.
The ancient southern French town of Béziers, located in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, welcomes fewer tourists than its neighbors, even with the set of 17 murals, which include this Molière gem. Nearby Pézenas generally proves to be more popular. The town capitalizes on its association with Molière, with streets and businesses using Molière-themed names.
During his 14 years of touring the provinces, Molière returned periodically to Pézenas, because it was the home of the Prince de Conti, the company’s patron from 1653 to 1656, who hosted their performances at his chateau. The prince abruptly broke with the company in 1656 after he came under the influence of a Tartuffe-like director of conscience who turned him against theatre.
“Pézenas has the feel of a small town with plenty of charm. Take a walk around the back streets and you will wander through medieval alleyways and squares bordered by tall elegant individualized houses replete with charm. There is a beautifully preserved Jewish ghetto settlement dating back to the middle ages, and the town is famed for being the dwelling place of French writer Molière.”
“Pézenas sits on the plains between the Haut (“Upper”) Languedoc National Park and the Mediterranean coastline. It is a mere twenty minutes from the clean sandy beaches of the Hérault, half an hour from the beautiful rugged hill country inland and half an hour from what is surely one of the world’s most attractive cities – Montpellier. Add to that the charm of a beautifully preserved town centre with its narrow streets, individually stylised architecture, alleys and squares where Molière famously spent his days, and you begin to have the ingredients for a beautifully positioned location for that maison secondaire.”
Promotional material for Pézenas claims a number of writers live and work there. Will any reach the status and longevity of Molière?
Perhaps more murals will be added to the 17.
By Rebecca Smith
In September of 2020 various French dignitaries, including artists, politicians and intellectuals, petitioned President Macron to move the bodies of the poets, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, to the Pantheon in Paris, where many prominent French literary names in history, among them, Voltaire, Dumas, Rousseau, Malraux and Hugo, are entombed (similarly, in 2010, President Sarkozy solicited the re-internment of Albert Camus there). Rimbaud and Verlaine had been refused burial there due to their licentious lives, marked by sex, drugs and criminality. But the petition argued, “It would be only right to celebrate their memory today by bringing them together to the Pantheon, alongside other great literary figures.”
With that description, one would expect Molière, clearly one of the most famed writers of France, to be ensconced there, as well. But Molière’s body is found in Père Lachaise Cemetery. How it got there is a story in itself.
Molière died following his final performance in The Imaginary Invalid - too suddenly to receive last rites or to renounce the acting profession, which was required at the time. Armande, his wife, requested that Louis XIV arrange a church burial. Louis, fighting the archbishop of Paris, and reportedly using a loophole applying to infants who died before baptism and possibly relegating the body to a distant corner allowing for suicides, finally succeeded in having him entombed in consecrated but nondescript ground within the cemetery of St. Joseph. It was a night burial, rather discreet and circumspect.
During the French Revolution, 130 years after his death, the revolutionaries saw political value in Molière and tried to claim him as one of their own. He, was, after all, the “common folk” - the son of an upholsterer, never recognized as a member of the upper classes and shabbily treated on his death. In 1791 new theater laws were enacted eliminating all royal control. Any company could produce any play it wanted. Molière’s plays were performed more than ever, although it most often were his lesser “low” pieces that were the most popular. His greater works were revised, removing all royal elements.
In 1792, the revolutionary government wanted to rename a section of town after Molière. His body was to be exhumed but its exact location was unknown. Regardless, a body was dug up, pronounced to be Molière and was moved to a church basement, then to municipal offices and finally to a sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments where it remained until 1817.
It was at that time that Père Lachaise, a grand park and cemetery, was being developed in the 20th arrondissement but, located so far east of the city, it held little appeal to most Parisians burying their dead. Adding a celebrity like Molière to the funeral grounds was a promotional idea to win over the community. Seemingly, it worked; it can be argued that, without Molière, Père Lachaise might not have come to be.
It is, it has been reported, the most visited cemetery in the world and is a major tourist attraction. i.e. a tremendous boon for France itself. It is estimated to hold 300,000 – 1,000,000 bodies and Molière’s plot one of the most visited sites. Alongside him are some of the most popular figures in history; his neighbors include Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Sarah Bernhardt, Honoré de Balzac, Isadora Duncan and, Molière’s friend, Jean de La Fontaine. Jim Morrison of The Doors is a big draw.
Whether the bones are his or not, the presence of Molière lives on illustriously at Père Lachaise, probably to a much greater extent than if he lay in the Pantheon. Location, location, location, after all.
His life was not an easy one, filled with struggle and pain, but he may be enjoying a rosy afterlife.
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