Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Model Maréchal

While we were in Paris we visited the Army Museum, which is vast. The thing that first drew us there was the display of models made by Vauban of the fortifications he built for Louis XIV.

We had previous seen some Vauban models at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Lille (which has the second biggest collection) and had intended to see the rest at a display at the Grand Palais in 2012 (but didn't when we saw the queue out the door in perishing weather). We have also seen a number of the fortifications: at Lille, Calais, and Ile-Saint-Martin, where we stayed in a campsite built against the walls (as seen in the photo at the bottom of this post).

Maréchal Vauban (more properly Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban) was born in 1633 at Saint-Léger-de-Foucherets, France (now Saint-Léger-Vauban) the son of a family of the petty nobility. As a young man he enlisted as a Cadet in the army of the Prince de Condé, a rebel fighting against France. After being captured by royal troops in 1653 he changed sides, and in 1655 joined the newly-formed engineer corps in the army of Louis XIV. He proved himself to be a good soldier and brilliant engineer and had rapid promotion.

Vauban's statue - at the opposide end of les Invalides to the square named in his honour.
After the rebellion Vauban undertook his first fortification work, working on various places in Alsace-Lorraine (near the German border). In Nancy, he was involved in the demolition of fortifications, and saw new fortifications constructed at Alt-Breisach, on the Rhine.

When war broke out again it was against the Spanish in the Low Countries, and Vauban found himself on the front lines once more. He played an important part in the capture of the cities of Tournai, Douai and Lille, and was rewarded with a pension, a position in the Royal Guards and the governorship of the citadel of Lille, which he had constructed.

Ile Saint Martin from the sea - the models are about 1:600 and incredibly detailed.
He assumed the duties of the Commisary General of Fortifications and after the war in the Spanish Netherlands. His new duties took him all over France, inspecting existing fortifications and identifying new sites to be fortified. He became a trusted advisor of the king and worked closely with Louvois, Louis XIV's war minister. In this period of peace Vauban visited Roussillon to work on the fortifications there, but was also asked to advise the Duke of Savoy, at that point an ally of France, on fortifying his territory. This was unfortunate for France, which later went to war with the Duke.

Louis XIV went to war with the Dutch between 1672 and 1679, during which time Vauban proved himself as good at laying seige to towns as he was designing their defences. After the Dutch War, Vauban again set to work fortifying the new conquests and securing France's frontiers. He designed several fortresses during this time including Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Landau.

With the War of the Grand Alliance, Vauban gained the rank of Lieutenant-General and directed the siege of Philippsburg in 1688. After seeing much action during the war, he set about designing his last fortification work, the impressive Neuf-Brisach. This was a fortress town that was designed from scratch by Vauban, the inhabitants coming from the nearby town of Alt-Breisach, which had to be destroyed as a result of a treaty.

In 1703 Vauban was made a Maréchal of France, but was recalled from service later that year. In his retirement he wrote a treatise on fortification and siege warfare, which was reproduced in many different European languages and used for many years to come. In 1707 he published a controversial paper condemning the French government's unfair tax system and proposed a better system. His reforms were rejected by the king, and Vauban died shortly afterwards in 1707.

Ile-Saint Martin from inland. The campsite we visited in 2013 was just inside the nearest buttress.
Vaubin is commemorated by the over 300 citadels and fortified cities he improved the defences of, including Antibes (Fort Carré), Arras, Auxonne, Barraux, Bayonne, Belfort, Bergues, Citadel of Besançon, Bitche, Blaye, Briançon, Bouillon, Calais, Cambrai, Colmars-les-Alpes, Collioure, Douai, Entrevaux, Givet, Gravelines, Hendaye, Huningue, Joux, Kehl, Landau, Le Palais (Belle-Île), La Rochelle, Le Quesnoy, Lille, Lusignan, Le Perthus (Fort de Bellegarde), Luxembourg, Maastricht, Maubeuge, Metz, Mont-Dauphin, Mont-Louis, Montmédy, Namur, Neuf-Brisach, Perpignan, Plouezoc'h, Château du Taureau, Rocroi, Saarlouis, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Saint-Omer, Sedan, Toul, Valenciennes, Verdun, Villefranche-de-Conflent (town and Fort Liberia), and Ypres.

He directed the building of 37 new fortresses, and fortified military harbours, including Ambleteuse, Brest, Dunkerque, Freiburg im Breisgau, Lille (Citadel of Lille), Rochefort, Saint-Jean-de-Luz (Fort Socoa), Saint-Martin-de-Ré, Toulon, Wimereux, Le Portel, and Cézembre.

Vauban is also commemorated in Paris by statues and is buried near to Napoleon, a singular honour for a man employed by Louis XIV.

A la cuisine hier: I made chocolate pots and had a small disaster. As I poured the hot water in to the bain marie I heard a crack, but couldn't see any damage to any of the jars and there was no sign of chocolate custard leaking. So I put the tray into the oven and cooked the pots. Once they were done I lifted each jar out of the water and onto a towel to dry. Number 4 made it to the towel, but its bottom hit the towel while I was still holding the pot up in the air. The entire base of the jar had broken off and there was chocolate custard everywhere.
Firewood Logistics: Our firewood supplier, who was due to make a delivery yesterday morning, rang at 8.30 am. He was worried that with all the rain the wood was very wet and would not burn well. He suggested I leave it out in the sun to dry off for the day. I didn't have anywhere to put it that gets the sun at this time of year, so he left me half a stere and said to leave it out to catch the breeze but to be sure to take it in to the garage before evening or it would get damp all over again in the night air. We agreed for rest of the delivery to stay at his place for a few days in the hopes that we get some fine weather and he will deliver it next week.
If any of our readers are a " registered elector who is a British citizen living overseas" - that is a British citizen who is registered to vote in British elections at their French address, can you please get in touch? I have paperwork that needs an attestation.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Musée de Cluny

Officially these days the Cluny museum is la Musée national du Moyen Age (the National Museum of the Middle Ages). It is a superb museum, and makes it into my top three Paris museums (the other two are the Louvre and the Orangerie, since you ask, and if you want my top five, add the Petit Palais and either the Rodin Museum or the Musée Jacquemart-André).

For all that, until our early February visit this year, we had not been there for 13 years. I was shocked at how long ago it was!

The building is the former Hotel de Cluny, that is, the town house belonging to the Benedictine abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, which itself stands on the foundations of some Roman baths. The museum is not large, but it is a rabbit warren of complicated levels, passageways and linked rooms, and it doesn't have a cafe. Its collections of tapestries, carved wood, stone and above all, ivory, stained glass and objects such as reliquaries are outstanding. They are also displayed so you can get right up close to objects. With things like the stained glass this is especially fun. Stained glass in situ is always up high. So being able to see tiny details is a real thrill.

I've chosen some personal favourites from the permanent collection to show you below. Simon would choose different objects, more stone and wood I am sure.

If people know anything about the Cluny it is the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries. They are justly world famous for the charm of their subject matter, the completeness of the set and the quality of the weaving. This one below is the last of the six, and the most mysterious. The others appear to represent the five senses, but the meaning of this one is uncertain. What does 'A mon seul desir' represent? In fact we know almost nothing about the tapestries. Stylistically they come from the late 15th century, but even stylistically they are unique in certain aspects. We have some hints about who commissioned them, but nothing certain. You could spend hours looking at all the detail and teasing out the riddles. I highly recommend the fictionalised account of their creation, The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier. You'll learn a lot about tapestry weaving and life in Europe in the late Middle Ages.

I chose the carved ivory casket with gilded copper fittings below not because it is the finest ivory carving in the collection, but because it is a secular object. By the early 14th century, when this was made, both men and women of aristocratic birth were addicted to courtly romance stories. All sorts of personal objects were decorated for the first time in centuries with scenes not from the Bible but with vignettes from tales with titles such as Assaut du Chateau d'Amour (Assault of the Chateau of Love). The Chateau d'Amour was defended by women who threw flowers...

More unicorns. The Cluny's collection includes three aquamaniles, for pouring water for handwashing before a meal. The one below is made of a copper alloy but they were often ceramic. This one is a unicorn and they were often in the form of fantastic animals or beautiful women. It is German and dates from the late 13th or early 14th century.

This instruction manual created to teach a late medieval German princeling how to fight is unexpectedly charming. The page at which it is open seems to be regularly changed. On the day we were there it was open with a fairly standard knightly thrust and parry manoeuvre being demonstrated on the right. The left is intriguing though. A girl armed with a slingshot is getting ready to bop a boy with a club, who is inexplicably standing in a hole... 

I chose the tapestry below (detail) not because it is one of my favourites, but because it has been so widely reproduced. You see small mass produced copies a couple of metres across hanging in private homes, restaurants and winery tasting rooms. The real tapestry, known as Les Vendanges (The Vintage) and dating from around 1500, is probably about 6 metres by 4 metres, so the characters are nearly life size and it depicts the grape harvest on the right and wine making on the left (which is what my detail shows). The reproductions often only show one half or the other (and of course are not actually tapestries, but jacquard loom woven). This tapestry seems to have sparked a fashion for scenes of the vendanges on tapestries and there are a number of other later examples of the genre.

The tapestry below was chosen because the series of over 20 tapestries from Auxerre telling the legend of Saint Stephen (Saint Etienne) that it belongs to is amazing and because the detail shown in this photo may reassure those who have been perturbed by the kerfuffle over the current restoration project at the Cathedral of Chartres. One of the many criticisms levelled at the restoration is that the newly painted trompe l'oeil marbling on some of the columns is completely inappropriate and unauthentic. However, I was immediately struck by some of the architectural detail in some of the scenes of these tapestries -- the columns in this one are fairly clearly woven depictions of painted decoration intended to mimic marble. This series of tapestries is also a costume historian's dream come true. You have no idea how many possible versions and combinations of leg and footwear are displayed on the dozens of characters portrayed. I could spend hours studying this series.

On the exterior of the building, looking up from the courtyard I was also struck by how similar the cat like creature under the first floor balustrade (below) is to the ones over the door at Ussé.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Yet More Metro Movies

I said I love the Métro and mentioned that it is the respect for its own heritage that I really like. Here are yet more examples:

The purple plaque talks about the ceramic frames for adverts, which were made in the town of Gien especially for the Paris Métro, and its predecessors CMP and Nord-Sud. It also mentions the white tiles which many of the stations have on their walls. These are deeply faceted to try and disperse light from what was originally very dim lighting

There are purple heritage plaques at many of the metro stations, and we have blogged about them before (here, and here)

I have also made a little video of the journey between Bastille métro and Gare d'Austerlitz station on one of the new trains serving line 5. I cut out a little of the trip through the tunnel between Bastille and Quai de la Rapée, but it really does show how close the stations are to one another. The video isn't perfectly framed: it was filmed on the sly holding the camera at waist level so I don't have any real idea where I was pointing it. It should give you a decent idea of what metro travel is like if you have never done it.

A la cuisine hier: Galettes (otherwise known as buckwheat pancakes).
Au supermarché hier: Good news local British expats -- Auchan now stocks currants (raisins de Corinthe). They are, of course, in ridiculously small plastic boxes for a ridiculously large amount of money -- but frankly, who needs currants? I've never understood what they were for.

Auchan was featuring different beef breeds yesterday, so I bought Charentaise shin, Limousin stewing steak and ribs and Parthenaise stewing steak. This last is a rare breed I'd never heard of, from Parthenay in Deux Sevres, to our west.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Ninth Annual Coucou

Nine years....


2014             2013             2012             2011             2010             2009             2008             2007

This is easily the earliest of the cowslip photos we have taken for our annual post, two weeks earlier than the previous earliest cowslip photo, and over a month earlier than in 2009. I am not sure if the fact that we have been doing this for nine years is more amazing than how early this year the photo is or not.
A Historical Update: We've had an email from someone who was browsing the blog and realised that we mentioned his grandfather. The post that got his attention was the one about us buying two pieces of old correspondence relating to Désiré Poupineau selling potatoes. Seed and grain merchant Poupineau was the owner of our house and barn in the mid-20th century, and he was offering to sell potatoes to Louis Menin, the grandfather of the reader who wrote to us. For all the additional information he provided please revisit the original post.