From one Renaissance to another
“It is well cut, my son; now, it must be sewn up.” It was on this final utterance to her son Henri III, that the “Queen Mother”, Catherine de’ Medici, passed away in her castle at Blois. About ten leagues – as the crow flies – from the Château de Chenonceau, it was there that she chose to die. While Chenonceau hosted diplomatic festivities, Blois was home to intrigue and political dispute. The meaning of Catherine de’ Medici’s last words referred to how having ordered the murder of the Duke and the Cardinal of Guise who threatened the country’s unity, Henri III must now get closer to their relatives, so as not to risk undermining the entire royal edifice.
Cutting, sewing up, the endless operation of women in action that are tormented by the “seamless dress of power”. A pair of open scissors, designating her destiny to be at task, could have been engraved on Gabrielle Chanel’s coat of arms… if she had one. Thus united through this metaphor of couture, Catherine de’ Medici and the House of CHANEL come together at the “Château des Dames” (the Ladies’ Castle), which still today retains the warmth of an enchantingly feminine cortege.
Chenonceau, three singing syllables to designate a castle-mirage floating across the surface of the River Cher, over which its silhouette reaches and is reflected. This silhouette does not stand out on the bank: instead it continues, most naturally, in the same way as a perfectly cut dress would follow the undulating line of a female body thus exalted and carried forth by expert hands. A symbol of permanence and domination in the folds of the valley it interrupts with its verticality, the castle is a mark of distinction, of taking possession. It signals the presence of strong souls and of tormented destinies, which its facade both glorifies and conceals at the same time.
Embellished in turn by women of great character – Katherine Briçonnet, Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de’ Medici, Louise de Lorraine and Madame Dupin – the current architecture of Chenonceau is predominantly the work of Catherine de’ Medici, who enhanced it tirelessly for thirty years. Imagine her striding down garden paths or through the corridors of the château, meticulous and vigilant, like a designer among her seamstresses, reviewing the construction of gallery balconies or the piercing of lateral walls, modifying friezes for dormer windows, arranging ceiling coffers. She also employed numerous artists whose duty it was to make even the briefest promenade with her ladies in the gardens and the park nothing short of delectable. The robustness of juniper and the spiked branches of hawthorn, as soon as they are planted, remove the need for any protective convoy. The queen and her ladies could thus spend hours alone, trotting around or walking along fragrant paths protected by the thorny shrubs.
Living in such a space requires amending it to one’s vision of the world, transforming its sumptuousness into a lifestyle. Only powerful women can live in a castle. Others must be content with haunting it, tested by its monumental dimensions, by the moving shadows linking the unfathomable space of its vaulted rooms. Can a castle ever really be a place of one’s own?
From the Latin word hábitus, “way of being”, came the French terms habiter “dwelling” and habit “outfit”. Close to habere, “to have” and habilis, “easy to wear, that goes well”. Long ago bridges and houses would be dressed, decorated, equipped and looked after. Hence their “habit”, their allure. A woman living in a castle should be unquestionably well-dressed. It is said that Catherine de’ Medici, with outrageous daring, was the first to put her leg on the saddletree rather than on the planchette intended for women when they rode a horse… to show off her well-shod leg. After that, all her ladies imitated her. Horses also provided a sense of freedom for Gabrielle Chanel. Her first step as a liberated woman was in fact a ride across Étienne Balsan’s estate in Royallieu. On horseback, a woman is not accountable to anyone. From this intimacy with the equestrian world, she retained an elegant and pure vision of fashion, indeed that it should serve the woman as much as dress her. Every accessory imagined by Gabrielle Chanel – from the jewelled chain to emphasise the waist without being stifling to the quilted bag worn over the shoulder inspired by military saddlebags – advocates a freedom of movement. Should we not occupy fabrics as we occupy a castle? From architect to designer, from workman to seamstress, what is the difference? “I am a worker, there are women who don’t like that word, but not me”, Mademoiselle would say, scissors in hand.
Castle – scissors. A shared origin: “castra”, “castro”: to take up, to prune, to cut, to subtract, to trim. The castle, just like the garment, requires the adjusting of elements to suit the movements of the body to provide it with shelter.
A castle is always imposing. One can imagine it cushioned with the solemn silence of majesty, heavy with the weight of those escorted royal personalities occupying it, heavy with their alienating duties and officialdom. It is easy to forget the eight to nine hundred workers, artisans and artists present daily in the grounds of Chenonceau, executing the endless alterations prescribed by the visions of the Queen Mother, constantly improving her showcase just as bees do their hive: with the same vigour, the same exactitude, the same ideal. One also forgets the agitation of the royal entourage descending, exhausted, from stagecoaches abounding in luggage; ladies, girls, women, each with her own role. The rustling of dresses in the corridors, the slamming of doors, the discreet slaloms of supple bodies belonging to the queen’s troop of ladies-in-waiting, more divine than human, sharply contrasting with the footsteps of purveyors supplying the kitchens one after another, or the metallic steps of Henri III’s quarrelsome and noisy mignons.
Wandering through Chenonceau is to hear the clatter of irons on the paving stones of the Terrasse des Marques signalling the start of the hunt; the creaking of the hinges of the oft folded back attic doors of the double gallery, welcoming the queen’s ladies; the crystalline sound of the fountain jets, whose pressure had yet to equal the majesty of Le Nôtre’s great waters at Versailles, but were nevertheless genuine hydraulic feats for the time. Catherine de’ Medici would not neglect the installations of animals whose sole purpose was the glorification of beauty. From the aviary escaped the impatient beating of wings belonging to exotically feathered birds released during festivities; from the menagerie visitors could hear the plaintive wail of a civet reared for its musky scent. Perfuming the ladies’ gloves, this fragrance was frank, sensual and said to be an aphrodisiac.
Catherine de’ Medici and Gabrielle Chanel were both tireless builders. Nothing could hinder the accomplishment of their visions. Remarkable similarities punctuate the existence of the two women. Both orphaned at a young age, they wore the same monogram, a double C that suggests infinite meditations on the meaning of these two curved, inverted, almost closed, fatally intertwined letters. This double C reflects the attraction held by Renaissance women and Gabrielle Chanel for the chain – a troubled accessory if ever there was one. The precise place of the chain’s birth is fascinating: that of a tangled succession of rings, which fit into each other, and whose symmetry is perfect. The chain becomes the very symbol of consistency, and the pattern signalled by just one of its links is infinitely open. Paradoxically, this interdependence of the rings – never welded nor entirely closed – suggests eternal renewal.
Catherine de’ Medici and Gabrielle Chanel were both confronted with the violent death of their loved ones. The same foreboding, the same anxiety, the same despondency. Two men in the prime of their lives, and yet… Catherine watched helplessly as Henri II was mortally wounded with a spear in his hand during a tournament on the rue Saint-Antoine in Paris. He took his last breath ten days later. As for Gabrielle, she was still ecstatic over her enchanting interlude with Boy Capel, when life took its revenge on this unashamed union. She had allowed herself rare but divine escapades with the one person who’d given her the confidence necessary for her success. In the depths of a moonless night, her butler carried out the macabre task of introducing the friend who informed her that Boy had been killed in a car crash, on a notoriously dangerous bend in the Var hills. Stoically, she embarked on a harrowing journey by road down to the French Riviera. When she arrived, ghostly and in mourning, it was not to attend the funeral, but to grieve the disappearance of this man and with him the dazzling love that had united them from their first encounter, sitting alone on the roadside marker where the Rolls Royce had crashed.
It was in this state of motion, this momentum that was their very raison d’etre, that these men disappeared. Like the ladies in their lives, each of them had mottos exalting action, ambition and impatience: Henri II had chosen “Until it fills the whole orb” when he was Dauphin and kept it after his coronation. Paul Morand compared Arthur Capel with the hero of his novel Lewis and Irene, who sees the world only from the point of view of risks taken, of the opportunities one dares to seize. After his death, the symbols that Gabrielle Chanel surrounded herself with immutably reminded her of Boy’s interest and taste for cosmic forces, reincarnation, esotericism and the occult sciences… All disciplines signalling a state of mind also favoured by the Renaissance, Baroque in its decor, generous in its splendour, heterodox in its beliefs, before being censured by 17th century classical rationalism that stiffened morals and taught men to dream with restraint.
Every woman’s life has its moments of splendour and its columns of silence. To take action, so as not to suffer, was the rule of those who lived at Chenonceau, those who intimately invested the castle by giving it the colour of their soul.
After the death of Catherine de’ Medici and the assassination of Henri III in Paris, Louise de Lorraine, now a widow, swathed Chenonceau with her inconsolable melancholy. The castle became her mystical retreat, the hermitage of her pain. Her room was connected by an opening to the sacristy of the chapel so that she could listen to the mass from her bed. Such arrangements signal a spiritual exaltation despite the drama, a grief rendered sublime by religious fervour. Its walls covered in black, Queen Louise dedicated this room to perpetual prayer and an impossible mourning. She buried her grief surrounded by funereal symbols: tears, picks, bones and sombre mottos adorned the walls at which she would gaze when not engaged in one of her three now usual activities: prayer, reading and embroidery. Gabrielle Chanel also lived in the shadow of the Cross, in spite of herself, when her widowed father entrusted her to the Aubazine orphanage in the attic of the abbey of the same name. In 1611, the Duchess of Mercœur installed twelve Capuchin nuns in the attics of Chenonceau, which today retain a trace of the asceticism that reigned there at the time. Beneath the eaves, hidden from the eyes of men on the other side of an opaque structure that muffled their sensible processions and the simplicity of their conversations, the orphan girls of Aubazine and the sisters of Chenonceau were given, in this timeless space, the chance to get closer to heaven.
The discipline of Aubazine had inspired in Gabrielle Chanel an unerring taste for austerity, which she pushed to new heights in the creations that would make her famous. The sobriety of the abbey’s Cistercian décor reveals the beauty of the geometric motifs and the numerical language, typical of the Holy Trinity and its mysteries. The Aubazine Abbey provided her still childlike imagination with the same kind of symbols that Louise de Lorraine loved to surround herself with. The colours were identical. The black of the monastery’s semi-darkness echoed the panelling of Queen Louise’s room and the colour of the velvet which covered all her furniture. The white cornet wimples of the nuns recall the widowed “white queen’s” headdress that gave her a new and surreal beauty. The transparency of her complexion without blush, which Jean Rabel rendered with such delicacy, appeared behind the white veil of her solitude.
The prestige of black and white derives from the two colours’ capacity to blend harmoniously with any décor, however whimsical or baroque it may be. At ease in black and white walking through scarlet panelled corridors or seated in the mauve-hued study of a court lady. At ease and liberated while everything else decays and must suffer from the fleeting effect of fashions and fads.
The same poetic spirit animated Gabrielle Chanel and the traditions of Renaissance princes. This can be seen in their shared taste for the motto and for the emblem. Gabrielle Chanel adopted the lion, a symbol of the strength she had lacked when, bereaved, she travelled through Venice – it is the city’s emblem – and of the cunning that every being needs to survive the blows of fate. Heraldry has always given the lion a special place, counting on the energy and grandeur that emanate from the animal’s arched muscles. We find it imposing, engraved on the mantelpiece and the tapestries of Katherine and Thomas Bohier at Chenonceau; statuesque, wise and mineral, on either side of the driveway leading up to the castle.
Portraits of Renaissance women were an essential part of their increasing power at Court, and these representations confirm this. Only the king could authorise and supervise the production of these works; this shows how their circulation had political purpose. If reigning is akin to appearing, the ladies of Chenonceau reigned a great deal more than their lovers, husbands and the sovereigns of the time. When contemplating the drawings and engravings of Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de’ Medici, Gabrielle d’Estrées or Louise de Lorraine, one is at first held back by the grace and steadfastness of their stately demeanour, immediately attributed to their attire. But closer examination confirms that the effect produced is in no way due to their ceremonial dress. Just as a simple tie would enhance the natural freshness and beauty of a bouquet of purple dahlias, the brocade dresses from which their resolute faces emerge simply serve as a sheath for the magnetic gaze of these women, reflecting the conduct they demanded of themselves. In these portraits they appear as unperturbable as the plot of history itself, as inexorable as the burden of their sacred duties. This explains why the viewer might feel unsettled when he admires a queen or her castle: it is thought, in these places and in these official portraits, that there are very few works in which the self takes up more space, and yet so little at the same time. What do we really know about these women, about their lives, their concerns, their desires, their accomplishments?
In the 18th century, a new rhythm imposed itself on Chenonceau. That of the pleasures and the games we see immortalised in scenes painted by Watteau. It was a rhythm of leisure that was less constrained, more nonchalant, softening the passage of time. Promenades, poetry, theatre and music were the daily occupations enjoyed by the new masters of the castle, Monsieur and Madame Dupin, and their guests. It was a time when the bonds of friendship, thanks to the proliferation of cafés and salons, held a new more democratic charm. To enter Madame Dupin’s salon in Paris, all you had to do was have spirit and to permeate it. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was welcomed there by tender hosts; Madame Dupin took him on as her secretary and as her son’s tutor. These were decisive years during which Rousseau himself said that the effervescence of his mind, provoked by lectures, encounters and conversations, led him to see the universe in a different light. Indeed, he became the thinker that posterity knows him as, in part thanks to the writings of a woman, Madame Dupin.
She entrusted Rousseau with the task of taking numerous notes and carrying out research. Under her dictation, he wrote the outline of a great oeuvre that defended equality between the sexes and the merits of women: two great minds from the Age of Enlightenment intertwine over the pages of this manuscript. Their preoccupations came together. In her work, Louise Dupin questioned conventions in an attempt to make life less corseted and more natural. What is nobility of spirit? What is worthy? Does friendship respond to laws?
Rousseau would compose poetry at Chenonceau: L’allée de Sylvie. The stunning Touraine landscape inspired in him a harmony and a taste for rhythm, which were put to good use at the château, where Madame Dupin would play the harpsichord daily, and where the Opéra de Paris would come to perform, when the whim of the owners demanded it. Rousseau had a three-act comedy, L’Engagement téméraire, performed in the back of the large gallery, where a theatre was set up. This work, according to its author, had “no other merit apart from much gaiety”. And that is enough for us. Within the intimate confines of Chenonceau, Rousseau tasted what he had always been too shy to taste: company; what he had never dared to love: luxury; and finally, what he had barely dared to name: pleasure.
If the cortege of women who lived in Chenonceau still touches us today with its own unique intensity, it is because each one of them took great care never to be an imitator. And yet instead of valuing the singularity of their personalities, the memorialists of their time misjudged them because they belonged to the “weaker sex”.
Henri II’s twenty year-long devotion to Diane de Poitiers is attributed to her enduring beauty. But the springs of human passion should not be underestimated, especially when maintained with such warmth and for so long. Her insatiable activity, that was perceived as frivolity – her hunting parties – or as greed – the work spent building and extending her estates – is proof of an unrivalled avant-garde spirit. A strong-minded, autonomous woman, in charge of her own properties, Diane de Poitiers decided how to spend her days like no other woman of the court in her day. We can be sure that the perpetual movement in which she was engaged helped keep her equilibrium. She had the bridge at Chenonceau built so she could get to the other side of the River Cher from her room more quickly and thus commence her solitary hunts as soon as the sun rose. One can imagine her leaping out of bed in the morning and dressing her slender body in an outfit more sporty than renaissance in order to satisfy the impetuosity of these wild cavalcades.
For her part, Catherine de’ Medici’s impassibility contributed to her dark legend as a cold and ferocious woman, which, had she been a man, would have qualified as political dexterity. Nothing could ever dissuade the queen, throughout her lifetime, from maintaining the Florentine vigilance instilled in her from childhood by Machiavelli’s rigorous school of thought.
Louise de Lorraine’s respectful restraint was taken for insignificance, when in fact it was discretion. Among the works found in the queen’s study was André Thevet’s Cosmographie Universelle, in which the royal geographer provided previously unpublished knowledge of the peoples of Asia, Africa and Brazil… A highly profane work for a widow said to be concerned only with religious devotion, inventoried in a sealed chest, it reveals a curiosity for elsewhere that was most unusual. Travelling from an armchair, with a view over the Cher, a simple occupation for great minds.
Louise Dupin was a tireless defendant of women’s merits, as was her great-granddaughter-in-law the writer George Sand. But the intelligence of her witticisms and the relevance of her reflections were deemed too unsettling in the century of the French Revolution. Despite the brilliance of her salon, frequented by intellectuals, ambassadors and men of the court, her great work, The Defence of Women and Gender Equality, was never published.
After her death, certain people would have liked to celebrate a Gabrielle Chanel with a more rounded character, with a less biting repartee. Yet if these women deserve our admiration and our respect, it is because they were aware of their right to intervene in the fields in which they triumphed: the court and the arts for the “ladies of Chenonceau”, and the world of fashion for Gabrielle Chanel. The energy they devoted to their quest for the ideal, and in particular to the moral and aesthetic improvement of women, now benefits the entire world and not just the small circle that surrounded the Renaissance queens or Madame Dupin in her time. They knew how to invent the present with grace, without ever mimicking the customs that were obsolete.