Beauty in its Age

February 25, 2012

There’s no accident Belle Epoque contains in its title a reference to the beauty which demarcated the few decades before World War One when the cult of elegance, exemplified not only by vain women whose occupations were strictly limited at their toilette but by the increasing number of dandies, amongst whom we can number Montesquiou and Wilde, was at its peak. If wealth had become unlimited and huge sums of money were spun in stock exchange transactions which bourgeois dominated superlatively (don’t forget it was admittedly their century with the Revolutions and Republic to proclaim their newly gained status), proportional fortunes were also wasted on anything that worshiped the publicly embraced sin of the time: vanity, which, obviously, the French mastered best.

More than at the extincted Court of Versailles, where one’s aesthetic value had been constantly eclipsed by the exaggerated richness of rococo style, lush beauty prevailed and Paris became the Mecca of fashion, epicenter of trends, eccentricity and mania with the parisienne as central exponent.


The cheval glass, ebony combs and pocket mirrors gained sacrosanct qualities, being cult object to serve beauty, while cosmetics were gazed as chrism, as incense for the religiously performed ceremony of adorning.

woman looking in a mirror

Dressing tables, recommended two, one destined to washing and the other for styling the hair, occupied the position of altar, where the final product was polished. Perfumes vials filled the toilette’s marquetry surface, spreading delightfully their scents of ambergris or labdanum, combined with vanilla, flowers and woods across the lady’s chamber (“the holy of holies, her dressing-room, where no profane foot may enter, which is forbidden ground to her nearest and dearest-where some people imagine that she loses herself in admiration of her own perfections, like a Buddha of the Hindoo heaven”). A visitor’s olfactory senses could always perceive the musky haze and patchouli, bergamot or oakmoss fragrance immersing from her cabinets and Fortuny designed negligees with most refreshing effect, covering him, dazzling him. Coordinated by a skilled connoisseur, these lingering odors even turned in rhapsodies  like the ones Huysmans juggled with in his masterpiece of a novel, “À rebours“, evoking colors, landscapes and insidious desires at the user’s will. They were the opium of a posh woman’s lover, quite ineffective if we consider the many chaps flocked in shabby dens to smoke the hallucinogen drug but still appealing.


Against aging, various remedies were proposed by domain authorities (usually aristocrats or alleged nobles) like Baroness Staffe, a living encyclopedia on beauty and grace who dispersed her wisdom throughout Europe, preaching the gospel of narcissism in such a manner it almost sounded christian. She advices socially active women to reserve a day per week for total rest, Chinese recipes of cremes to combat wrinkles, moisturizing oils and rigorous hygiene assisted by touches of powder. Massages were said to keep the skin’s elasticity, rubbing alcohol on swollen calves helped them recover and for limp thighs or double chin, wraps in silk  strips previously soaked in sandalwood were rumored to give astonishing results.


But it was not on pedicure, manicure, perfumes and massages most money were spent by respectable dames. Furriers (they had no PETA then, you know…), bootmakers, tailors, glovemakers, hairdressers and milliners cost the upper-class banker wife around 40, 000 francs a year (the equivalent of $100,000 today) which their boorish, elderly hubbies had to supply not counting the presents and expensive jewels offered galore during the same period.

Gowns, especially, had to fit each and every possible occasion with its etiquette, from luncheons where light dresses with gloves were required, morning walks which asked for darker outings and perhaps veils, to Opera evenings habitually followed by soirees that obliged a décolleté; a chic woman hence changed 4 to 8 times a day, not to count the  ball costumes, tea gowns and thematic toilettes for Grand Prix! Imagine the taffeta and tulle spectacle behind the folding screens as the dress slipped on her corseted body in elegant waves of glittering fabric and the ravishing outcome…

Exponents of their man’s affluence and good-taste, being a gorgeous socialite was a full-time job partly meant to aid her spouse’s political aspirations (if any) and, when faultlessly done, impel him to the higher echelons few bachelors penetrated.


A notorious sample of woman social accessory who played her part giving great evidence of knack in her marriage blanc (a.k.a. a torturing alliance for her husband because it speculated lack of sex) was my favorite Belle Epoque female personage, Amélie Gautreau (January 29, 1859–July 25, 1915), granddaughter of a French Marquess brought up in a Louisiana plantation manor but educated at Paris, where, otherwise,  she continued living as the talk of a whole decade. You might remind her as John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X”.

A professional beauty, she was well experienced in the rite of embellishing and even more in that of hypnotizing the public eye so  she fabricated the most surprising apparel accepted by the canons of fashion, daring a originality which ultimately delineating her from the mere crowd. In a place where pale skin was wildly appreciated, Amélie naturally had the whitest complexion which, after adding some artifices, became like diaphanous milk, contrasted by her eyebrows painted with  mahogany pencil, copper hair, crimson lips and the rouged tips of her ears .

In his memoir, Pringue describes her strange entrance into the effervescent cliques where women seemed false wearing their balloon sleeves, fake curls and ample trains which made men stumble or caught in the doorways: “an antique statue, auburn hair with gold reflections, thrown back and tied in a Grecian knot, freeing a proud forehead, and admirable face of absolute regularity of feature, without the slightest defect, with the transparency of alabaster, set on a long neck, magnificently placed on perfectly rounded shoulders”.

Slender but voluptuous, majestic though quite young, Amélie , with her crescent tiara royally set on her head instead of elaborated jewels, instantly captured people’s interest.

Madame X

Men stopped “as if awe struck with her beauty, to let her pass”, rows of admirers preceded her carriage as a cortege fitted to a queen, illustrious characters searched her company and newspapers exploded with information about “La Belle Américaine“, her schedule, her words, her looks.

Amélie had a “distinctive wardrobe that received extensive coverage” (Deborah Davis said it) from great critiques like those at Le Figaro, La Gazette Rose and L’Evènement, who raved about her flamboyant style: a “salmon colored velvet dress” once, ” a magnificent Directoire gown of white satin with crystal drops, a shower of diamonds on her shoulders (to assort her diamond studded lorgnete) and an orange Crepe de Chine scarf around her waist” the second time, “a red velvet dress with bodice of white satin” and another with pearl netting afterwords. Simplicity prevailed.

The crazy Bavarian King Ludwig II (yes, the one with the imposing castle which inspired Walt Disney) came in person to meet her one evening at Palais Garnier, inciting his cousin, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, to go admire Amélie’s pulchritude at Nice a little after. The gossip about her charms reach the Kiser’s ears too and soon she was recognized as the Countess di Castiglione or the Madame Recamier of Belle Epoque, a “Vénus républicaine” prized in art and poetry.

Amelie Gautreau

Few beauties achieved her fame, climbing at Amélie ‘s level and even fewer outshining her, of whom Liane de Pougy ( 1869 – 1950) was a renowned courtesan- dancer (like Victoria’s Secret models today) and Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe ( 1860– 1952) a Salon hostess and Balletes Russes patron (witty woman, unlike our Angelina Jolie).

Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe

Beauty was the Sun around which these flamboyant women gravitated, the fountain of life whose draining meant their  condemnation to misery, an essential trait of Belle Epoque figures nobody could forget too soon as it represented the last glimpse of noble luxury before the war came and human’s priorities and views radically altered.

I deplore the loss of vanity, good old, genuine, narcissistic tinted, authentic vanity!


Exactly when you assumed that you’ve seen or experienced all the possible scripts in which you’re firendzoned, seemingly the romantic horror of our century, here comes the Middle Ages feminist and patented poet, French-Italian Christine de Pizan (1363 – c. 1430) with a brand new formula of expelling her male suitors: if poems, she mused, are chief means of expressing borderless love to one’s own sweetheart, why not turn them into torture tools by sending through them messages like “I’d rather we remained pals” ? According to my humble judgment, coincidentally elaborated by historians too, sounds legit.


Here’s the juicy example I found browsing an old manuscript available on internet courtesy to my favorite digital library, Gallica:

Long temps a que je perdi
Tout mon soulas et ma joye,
Par la mort que je maudi
Souvent; car mis m'a en voye
De jamais nul bien avoir;
Si m'en doy par droit blasmer;
N'oncques puis je n'oz vouloir
De faire ami, ne d'amer.  

Ne sçay qu'en deux ne fendi
Mon cuer, du dueil que j'avoye
Trop plus grant que je ne di,
Ne que dire ne sçaroye,
Encor mettre en nonchaloir
Ne puis mon corroux amer;
N'oncques puis je n'oz vouloir
De faire ami, ne d'amer.  

Depuis lors je n'entendi
A mener soulas ne joye;
Si en est tout arudi
Le sentement que j'avoye.
Car je perdi tout l'espoir
Ou me souloie affermer.
N'oncques puis je n'oz vouloir
De faire ami, ne d'amer.

And, as I bet you haven’t been able to comprehend much, let me enlighten you with the approximate translation: I was hurt and men trifled with my poor, feeble heart so you, dear, loyal buddy, you, who bear for me these strong, steady feelings… have no chance but remain my platonic friend. The repeating syntagm “de faire ami, ne d’amer” (make friends, not lovers”) gives both the tone and the title of the composition and were doubtlessly a delight for the unfortunate guy to whom she had addressed them.

These are the lyrical words with which gracious Christine shuddered all her admirer’s hopes like the merciless widow she was, excusing her insensibility by the contrary, too much sentiment engaged in previous affairs that, ending disastrously due to unrecorded factors, traumatized the poor woman to such extent she refused to adventure walking once more on the risky wire of love. You’d be tactless to insist proclaiming your adoration after being dedicated this, right?

Smart woman.

christine de pizan

Don’t you consider it a great example of friendzoned in the Middle Ages?

Women of the Harem

February 16, 2012


The loftiness of the Ottoman Empire captivated and excited my imagination ever since I first stepped into the balmy scented, richly adorned Topkapi Palace, the very core of  the former world power, with its slim columns sustaining the low roofs and a general medieval feeling which doubtlessly made half its charm. Another world, really. Gold everywhere, lush vegetation, slim shapes full of majesty and a winding whisper, somehow projected from the depths of time, dominating over the general silence… The official residence of the Sultan for more than 400 years, Topkapi is a tad similar with the surreal places vividly depicted in Scheherazade’s 1001 stories and a great example of Muslim architecture: I’ve seen artists drawing its laboriously detailed buildings from the cool shades of old trees, inspired by the mellifluous ambiance. It quite felt like inside a Turkish baklava, metaphorically, of course.

My favorite section of the Topkapi complex was doubtlessly the Harem (which means “forbidden or sacrosanct place” in Arabic), where the prevalent stillness was taking another flavor,  immersing the visitors who, thought many in number, didn’t make any noise, with the reminiscences of a life long extinguished but still lingering over the paved walls and marble floors. How amusing to watch the otherwise garrulous tourists strolling in complete silence through the beauteous chambers once belonging to the highest esteemed concubines of the Paddishah (a courtesy title for the obese, bearded Sultan) when nothing but the stately view imposed it to them!It was something dignified about it, a haughtiness none could expect to perceive in the house of slave courtesans.

I would later learn the muteness induced to those walking across the Harem was just an ancient trick employed by the most experimented concubines to hear every murmur, plot, gossip, every step of their rivals. Oddly enough, its echoes subsisting over centuries as if maintained by veritable  ghosts. Well, that’s disputable.


Anyway, I became  keen on the Harem life and the women who, prisoners in a jeweled cage, had to constantly and respiteless resort to diligence for their survival. These female characters, so vivid and strange to the western mind, are the most bizarre examples of metamorphosis as they’re obliged to pass from one initial identity (the pure girl of a merchant, the precocious daughter of a huntsman), abandon their native language, lifestyle, clothes and even name to undertake the Ottoman traditions and become odalisque, the wealthiest slaves we know. They suffer a forced reincarnation and transform in what’s inflicted, forgetting their roots or remembering them through a curtain of mist, illusory memories loosing, in time, any tangency with  reality; the arcane women.

I couldn’t help to do some research about them, remove their veils and reveal the real human beings, not just the cryptic projection. It was in vain  for the only materials I’ve found presented the same enigmatic essence: brief facts, synthetized biographies, the ambiguity remaining unsolved.


In a generation of concubines in the Paddishah’s Harem, the sole registered by history is his mother, former Hasaki (favorite to the dead Sultan), who successfully succeeded to protect her child from her rival’s poisons and murder attempts, sustaining him to snatch the title of Oriental King. They weren’t women, but atrocious hunters filled with grace, fighting to obtain supremacy and gain even the slightest amount of liberty, achievable only by being Valide Sultanas. Mistakes could cost their whole struggling.

Just look at the ingenious plans made up by the most powerful Valides: Nur-Banu (ca. 1525 –  1583), consort of  Selim II, concealed his corpse in an icebox for approximately 12 days, until her son,  Murad III, came to Istanbul from Manisa, where he had occupied the function of governor; she also corresponded with Queen Catherina de Medici and, assisted by the Grand Vizier, held a great political influence over the Sultan’s decisions; her daughter in law, Safyie (ca. 1550 – fl. 1603), previously Sofia Baffo of Venetian nobility, ensued Nur-Banu as Valide and reigned with an iron hand, aiding Queen Elizabeth to secure the trading treaties with the Porte and gaining such domination over her servants she could earn thrice more than the next valide, Handan (ca. 1574 – 1605), until the end of her days.


True, old-fashioned manipulation at its highest: women with a brilliant knack have always been able to trick faith and overpass any state, be it slavery or other. Here you had the paradigm.

Souvenir from Rembrandt

February 13, 2012


This is an original printing after Rembrandt van Rijn’s etching my brother made with his own two hands in a visit at the Museum Het Rembrandthuis in old Amsterdam, 2 months ago, when we had the coincidental inspiration of stepping into the painter’s graphic workshop exactly as the doors closed and a demonstration, presented by a nice, middle-aged, historian lady, began. Lucky us!


Dozens of people were cramped in the square, relatively small chamber  which contained faithful copies of the initial instruments utilized by the 17th century men, listening the guide’s concise information on the subject. She said Rembrandt’s real passion were these printings (exhibited all around the room) that, contradicting what many believe, actually made him famous in the epoch as his pictures were commissioned only by rich art patrons and never revealed to the  larger public. They were small, easily made and cheep, so even a mediocre butcher could afford buying least one, relishing their delicate beauty. The themes he depicted recalled those he usually painted: religious scenes, self-portraits-galore, Saskias (his wife and muse with a rodent’s face), local landscapes and, occasionally, erotic compositions. All were inspired by former masters of diverse conceptions such as Mantegna, Raphael and Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione whose printings he had collected avidly along the years.

Rembrandt used both the etching and engraving technique, the lady continued explaining, of which etching represented a chemically based practice and engraving the incising of a design onto a flat copper surface by cutting groves. The latter requested hard work and the result was marked by visible contrasts between shadow and light while the first permitted softer lines similar to a sketch’s, rather fitted for painters. Obviously, he opted for etching and the guide further showed us how it was done step by step.

The museum’s site offers an online demonstration: Etching in 9 Steps

Basically, you take a copper plate, polish it smooth, apply a wax mixture ground, draw what you’ve planned with a special needle, coat it with acid-resistant varnish and leave it a few minutes then clean the plate, ink it using a dabber, wipe it off (a tip: the hands are preferable here) and print it on a damped paper by running it slowly through the wooden-press (my brother kindly volunteered to do this last part, which freely won us the thing you saw above). Voila, you’ve got a tiny work of art!

The originals conventionally bear the stamp of an official institution like the Het Rembrandthuis  museum to prove its authenticity:


And a final advice: if you ever enter in the possession of a legitimate print by any author, remember to take care and frame it so the protuberances around the margins of the illustration could be observed- they attest it’s not a mere copy reproduced through modern means but the genuine product of etching.



This piece of divine beauty, all gilded silver, enamel, blue glass and emeralds masterly blended in the form you can admire, is the toilette de la duchesse de Parme whom I met personally some time ago, while I was doing my job as foreign tourist in Paris, visiting the chief museums, that is. When I first set my greedy-of-luxury eyes on its shimmery surface with minutely carved figures I couldn’t help to jump straight to it and analyze it closely. Expensive, massive objects posses magnetic powers which never fail to capture me like in a Circe charm.

So there was I, leaping around it feverishly, a young teen literally seized by the sparkling richness of the exquisite toilette, refusing for about half an hour to continue the tour through the other Salles of the Musée d’Orsay although I knew there were enough other equally gorgeous items to gaze at. I just continued to stare, passing my fingers over its magnificent shapes (I think it’s me to blame for the glass case they put it in now), reading the ivory inlaid inscriptions in words quite hard to understand because of their flourished style, watching the miniature portraits of great French ladies, Blanche de Castille, Jeanne d’Arc, Santa Redegonda or Clémence Isaure, absorbing its genuine beauty. I barely managed to leave it behind as the museum was soon closing and I realized that I shamelessly hadn’t said hello to Manet’s “Olympia“, which was the main purpose of my going to Orsay along with some Renoirs and Monets, also ignored.

Arrived home, I began to browse for more information regarding the lovely toilette, thus learning it had been commissioned around  1845 by a subscription of the Legitimist Ladies of France with the occasion of Louise-Thérèse de Bourbon ( King Charles X’s granddaughter) and duke Charles III of Parma’s wedding. The lavish gift, representing exactly the French values and the opulence they promoted, was intended to exalt the virtues of marriage guarded by twenty examples of French women renown for their piety, courage and talent whose faces are set on two jewelry cases reassembling 12th century Mosan reliquaries. Lilies and roses intertwine with delicate ivy on the decorations around the mirror, evoking conjugal fidelity.


A multitude of different styles were mixed and projected to blend homogeneously, from the Islamic inspired ewer with basin to the candlesticks based on 17th century bronze models.

The toilette was little more than an official present – it incorporated the very essence of the French mentality, history and art, a token, a reminding of Louise-Thérèse ‘s origin when she’ll be moved to Italy, in a region marked by political tension and reluctant to modernization or in the face splendor.

The affluent display of putti sculpted in Renaissance manner, the realistic flowers and numerous fineries must’ve been inappropriate for a duchess whose power wasn’t approved by the authority of the city, but they represented modernity with ancient basis. Surely Louise-Thérèse  enjoyed the gift and the others coped with it.

The toilet chest was completed finally in 1851 and sent to London, Crystal Palace, the same year, where it was presented at the World Fair, strange destiny for such a piece.


The eclecticist ensemble, exponent of the Second Empire’s ideals, caught the attention of a French journal, “Opinion Publique“, that wrote:

“Imagine a walker fine, graceful like your bracelet, like your pin, like your ring, but as big as a coach, imagine this enormous jewel covered with branches and leaves, birds, of inscriptions, emblems of all sorts, and add to everything that the imagination can more freely invent Inspired by nature, all that art and reason can dream if a heart and guide, when intelligence leads them; then you will not even have an imperfect idea of what the ladies of France will offer to His Royal Highness the Duchess of Parma.”

A majestic description of a precious masterpiece which keeps astonishing people hundreds of hears later.

You might not believe in its enchantment, but if you’ll ever stumble across it in the Salle des Fêtes at Musée d’Orsay you’ll certainly freeze before this gigantic monument of wealth. The sensation is blissful.

Another French Duchess

February 11, 2012

Yesterday night, from complete lack of inspiration and a notable quantity of suffused boredom almost conspiratorially added to it, I’ve watched this nicely realized film which exploited the relationship between the flamboyant Louis XIV and his brilliant but nonetheless obdurate subject, the Italian composer Jean-Baptiste Lully: “Le Roi Danse” (you might like to check it out for its gorgeously reproduced atmosphere, Francophiles!). The actors were mostly fortunate choices, combining the proper looks with a quite probable epoch attitude, especially Louis, whose brass locks really reassembled those suggested by Bernini in his sculpture at Versailles. The ambiance of 17th century French court, which has always occupied a doubtlessly high rank on the scale of my interests and fascinations, reminded me some stories I read years ago regarding the main female characters in the Sun King’s time. His many mistresses, friends, companions,  relatives; I had to stop the movie for a while just to visualize their names and what motley peaces of information I had gathered about them in the past: the Princesses, the Countesses, the Annes and Louises, the intrigues and machinations engaged by or through them- what a vivid world!

So today I planned to present you my favorite feminine figure at Versailles in the early 1600s, the fair Marguerite Charlotte de Montmorency.

Charlotte Marguerite

Daughter of Henry, the Duke of Montmorency, by his second wife, Louise de Budos from an illustrious Provence noble families, Marguerite Charlotte first saw the light of day  in Pezenas on the 11th of May (surprisingly we share the same astrological sign: Taurus, that is) 1594. Her background was rich of renowned official personalities, statesmen, Grand Masters of France, diplomats and audacious soldiers (Anne de Montmorency, her Renaissance grandfather, became Constable and Marshal under Francis I), which I think wasn’t enough of a consolation for the young Marguerite Charlotte who lived in relative solitude, apart from her busy father and cruelly deprived by a mother that died prematurely before she celebrate 2 years, in the care of a senescent aunt full of religious zeal. It was a too common faith for the toddlers of her own status and those gloomy days profoundly marked Marguerite Charlotte.

However, when she had barely passed the age 4, a flourishing girl abandoning the period of infancy, writer Gédéon Tallemant reported her obviously blooming beauty which others say was extraordinarily conserved until very late in Marguerite Charlotte’s tumultuous life. Contemporary voices elected her as a paradigm of pulchritude and all women who were considered, objectively or not,  to posses great physical appeal, compared to her, proved less attractive in the public eye.

In either 1608,  Marguerite Charlotte had the opportunity to be introduced into French high society with the occasion of  Gaston’s baptism , King Henri IV’s offspring. There, at Fontainebleau, she managed to catch the royal attention through her dancing skills and was instantly offered to climbe the hierarchic stair by entering Queen Marie de Medici’s service. Now, evidently the elderly libidinous King couldn’t restrain falling for her ballerina grace and thus annulled Marguerite Charlotte’s engagement with Marquis François de Bassompierre , preferring to marry her tohis cousin,  Prince Henri II de Bourbon-Condé  (another Henri… why, humdrum aristocrats, you wanted to know everybody’s name so you only christened them “Henri” and “Louis” ?). There was a catch, though: this Prince was assumed to fancy the company of men so the King could woo Marguerite Charlotte whenever he pleased and to what extent he found delectable. Fortunately for the young lady, things went completely wrong: while she was laughing at the loutish attentions of Marie de Medici’s Henri (paradoxically, the best rulers are docile pets when in love), her own Henri, perhaps cured of his inclination for sodomy by his new wife’s charm, opposed the expectations and, jealous, flees the court with Marguerite Charlotte.

Marguerite and Henri

Could the mighty King support a defeat and give her up? What an absurdity! Surely he followed them to the countryside, trying shamelessly to approach his young sweetheart under various disguises, a cat-and-mouse game which could just enrage the Prince de Condé  who decided to withdraw in Brussels and request protection from Spain, France’s bitter enemy… Smart move.

Is it for Marguerite Charlotte that Henri IV declares war to the Emperor in 1610?

She was locked in her chambers all day, constantly monitored and very bothered by her hubby’s discourteous behavior, so what else could she do other than scheme her escape as the Prince fought on behalf of Spain somewhere in Milan? “Scheme” is the key word because she never actually did. Dear husband romantically held her prisoner in their house until the old man was assassinated on 14 May, 1610, by a catholic fanatic, after which she was free to return to Paris, subject of more gossip than ever.

And Providence had many other happenings in store for her who’d been quite restless: the Prince couldn’t help mingling in the state’s welfare by rising against Marie de Medici’s authority, taking the head of the opposition despite previously being in her graces. Oddly enough, once his wife became short of royal admirers, he simply abandoned her for concentrating on plots directed to diminish the Queen’s power as regent. In 1616, Marie concluded she had had enough from the conspiring de Condé and imprisoned him at the advice of minister Concini.

Ready for a surprise?

Guess who asked permission from Louis XIII to join her beloved spouse in jail! Yes, the very Marguerite Charlotte the Prince sequestered only years before, the one who had to stand his numerous whims and crises  of jealousy, made a 180 degrees change and wanted to accompany him, chase away his solitude! People, she might be one of the first known historical figures that actually experienced the Stockholm syndrome!

The coupled seemed to approach scarcely then, in the gloomy landscape, and Marguerite Charlotte even gave birth to their daughter, Anne-Genevieve (1619), soon-to-be  Duchess of Longueville, in Vincennes (no, not a tidy French mansion but a sober jail).

The next year they were released and in 1620, Louis, Duc d’Enghien (the future Grand Condé) came to make them happy for getting a male heir. Armand, Prince de Conti,  followed in 1629 but shortly after the two husbands begin to strain once more, this time the rupture is ensued by the Prince’s departure to Burgundy, with Louis, whom he sends to the Jesuits (meaning a spartan education for him). Marguerite Charlotte remained staid at the Hôtel de Condé to dutifully take care of the two remaining children, condemned to live without their father’s presence exactly her.

She frequented the notorious Hôtel de Rambouillet, a gathering place for the elite of literature and arts (perchance she was there as a muse) like  Madame de Sévigné, Madame de La Fayette, Duchesse de Montpensier and La Rochefoucauld.

Still beautiful, pious (not excessively), cultivated, patient and armed with noble titles galore, it wasn’t hard to obtain Queen Anne of Austria’s esteem, especially with her refined intelligence which kept Marguerite Charlotte out of any dangerous coteries. A tactful mind, although despising the Prime Minister, Cardinal de Richelieu (the Cardina Richelieu you remember from the “Three Musketeers” that were four…) didn’t meddle in the political affairs which ruined half the blue-blood instigants.

Her only interventions occurred one in 1627 (she interceded, without success, in the name of her  cousin,  Count de Montmorency-Boutteville, found guilty of violating the edict against duels introduced by the dreadful Cardinal) and another in 1632, when her last sibling, Henri II de Montmorency  (is he the 5th Henri we mention?), contriving against the vile Richelieu, was arrested, trialed and sentenced to death. The aristocrats, together with Queen Anne of Austria and Marguerite Charlotte begged Louis XIII to spare him yet Montmorency was beheaded, putting an end to the direct line of the distinguished family.


Marguerite Charlotte, since then Duchess de Montmorency in her own right, could never pass over the tragedy;  humiliated and hurt, she left Paris to dedicated herself to the upbringing of Anne-Genevieve and Armand.

In 1643, Queen Anne elected her to be the patron of the Dauphin, future Sun King (the one who caused all my remembering this), a great privilege that made her turn back to court. Louis XIII was dead and the Queen controlled the throne, assisted by Cardinal Mazarin, keeping Marguerite Charlotte close, as intimate friend. It was a peaceful time in the Duchess’ life, with her son achieving glory in his battles and being nicknamed “Grand Condé”. The Prince perished in 1646, which didn’t affect her much giving their crumpled marriage, and she took up the style “Dowager Princess de Condé” without respite.

During the Fronde, a civil war initiated to remove Mazarin from his position, Marguerite Charlotte was betrayed by all her children and, loyal to the Queen who disagreed the public revolt, retreated at St. Germain. Their treachery, leaded by the easily influenced Anne-Genevieve who further persuaded Louis and Armand, completely broke her heart and her legendary beauty started to fade.The true blow came when, in 1650, Mazarin captured them, just the Duchess of Longueville  prevailing to run abroad, and Marguerite Charlotte couldn’t bear it anymore. She died on 1 December, 1650, aged 56, at Châtillon-sur-Loire, and was buried in a Carmelite convent, Faubourg Saint Jacques, Paris.

She had lived quite like an adventurous character of Dumas’ : mistress, a French Helen of Troy, unlucky mother, faithful subject (rare case for the time when fidelity used to be bought with gold), still depicted in paintings centuries subsequent to her death…

What do you think of her?

the Mysterious Model

February 8, 2012

I first saw this oil on canvas painting hanging on the walls of the Victoria&Albert museum, under the scrutinizing views of thousands of cultured and less cultured visitors, in a time when I was specially susceptible to visual messages (which I still am in a milder way), and it struck me as being not particularly beautiful or entrancing (be serious! she sort of reassembles a frog!) but the fundamental Victorian belle, with the features and facial proportions wildly appreciated in the age. Through her appearance I could literally catch a glimpse of one of England’s most flourishing epoch’s ideal in a single moment. Her wet, wide eyes like licked stones, as Virginia Woolf would’ve said, her tiny, red mouth and dark hair call to mind the very haughty Queen of her time.

The portrait above depicts this lady, the object of my expressed admiration: finished in 1840 by quite obscure Charles Robert Leslie (1794– 1859) under the  alleged title “Griselda”, who was the prototype of patient, obedient woman in folklore and inspiration for Boccaccio, Petrarch and Chaucer (kind of like Julianna Marguiles as Alicia, in “the Good Wife”, only better).

Charles Robert Leslie

I became so intrigued with the model’s impeccably Victorian looks that I just had to find out more about her mysterious character; experience taught me most people represented in art have delicious life-stories to relish with a cup of Starbucks and some French macarons. Thus I hastily did my research, studied the records, read the required books, googled a couple of individuals and, voila, I barely succeeded to find a thing or two. It sincerely shocked me the little amount of information about this distinct figure in Leslie’s work. The sitter’s identity, in which I channeled all my interest, was merely presumed as being a certain Sophia Riley Gillman thanks to the notifications provided by one of her granddaughters, Mrs Ianthe Gillman.

This Sophia, whose father, Alexander Riley, lived in “Euston Square, London and the Burwood and Raby Estates, near Sidney, New South Wales”, married James Gillman Jr. (born 1808) on a sunny February day, 1837, in the Chapel of the British Embassy at Paris, the reason why they were abroad remaining unclear.

Sophia Riley as "Sophia Western"

The bride, as Leslie’s later paintings attest, was indisputably charming, of mixed Irish and Spanish descent (so she should’ve been fiery, intellectually emancipated…), with a raven mane Ianthe reported as one of her distinctive traits.  A good match and a lovely wife at that. Insipid James, turned Reverend at a point, was never heard to have been complaining about her, probably because he spent more time renovating churches and pleasing the Duke of Wellington than checking on his presumptively devoted spouse.  However, they seemed happy, having 7 plump children (James, the eldest, Alexander, Arthur, Charles, Lucy Eleanor, Amelia and Sophia).

James Gillman

Sophia died in 1862 and her husband followed, ten years later. That’s pretty much all I could discover, really unsatisfactory compared to what I’m used to when it comes to portraits of gripping women… The material I’ve obtained this time disappointed me.  No mention of the way she met Leslie from either parts, no specification in his otherwise detailed autobiography! How did he feel about her and why did he paint Sophia repeatedly if no commissions from James Gillman generated the many celebrations of her gentleness on canvas? It’s compelling… and also gives way to our rich human imagination.


Was she his well concealed mistress? The responsible wife I’ve read about?!

Was she his tenth muse without acknowledging it, a person he’s seen only several short times but whose remarkable features persisted in his mind so well he could paint her over and over again without refreshing any memory? His friends sustain Leslie was so keen he could’ve do somebody’s portrait after approximately two hours of gazing the sitter, which denoted a huge observatory talent. And with Sophie’s looks, epitome of the Victorian Aphrodite, it mustn’t have been hard.

I bend for the second supposition (don’t you?) as he doesn’t appear like the dream lover but more like her own husband: elder, of mediocre status, possibly stout and certainly not flattering. And the puzzle pieces would blend better through that prism. On Sophie’s side I really don’t spot one reason why she’d open her legs, and less probably her heart, for such an ordinary artist.


Leslie, on the other hand… he kept using her figure to model many of his painted ladies for decades, almost up to the day he died, 5 May 1859, composition after composition. Some works he even titled with her first name, pretending to belong to the fictional darling of  Tom Jones, hero of a popular novel in the age, Sophie Western. Coincidence? A melancholic gesture?

She’s a hell of a mysterious model!

the toilette/necklace

We’re all familiar with the legendary icon Grace Kelly became soon after marrying the Prince of Monaco and more than likely recognize the newest consort of House Grimaldi, obnoxious Charlene Wittstock with her annoying flatulence, so I thought of presenting something on the same lines but clearly diverse: a titular heiress to the Monaco throne.

Her Serene Highness Sovereign Princess Louise-Hippolyte Grimaldi of Monaco, Princesse de Château-Porcien, Marquise de Les Baux, Chilly and Guiscard, Comtesse de Carladès Baroness of Calvinet and Buis-les-Baronnies and Massy, Sovereign Dame of Mentone and Roccabruna, Dame de Saint-Rémy de Province (wonder how long did it take to call her that way) was born one October evening, 1697, at Prince’s Palace, the sixth child of Antoine I and wife Marie of Lorraine, yet the first one to survive infancy, alongside her future sister, Marguerite Camille Grimaldi (1700–1758), who had no  issue despite wedding French Prince d’Isenghien.

Prince's Palace

Her education had been complex and vast from the very beginning, considering she was the sole hope of continuity for the Grimaldis, in a situation quite similar to Queen Victoria’s but decidedly less rigid compared to that of the renowned sovereign. Foreign languages were a priority and, as any refined aristocrat, she also played the piano, fashionable instrument at royal courts. Notice, though, Louise had no political training as her prospective spouse was expected to undertake the real power of governing. Her father even arranged, with the permission of the extravagant Louis XIV, that her husband should assume their dynasty’s surname, Grimaldi, in order to rule Monaco, because their other relative bearing the title were either too poor in finances or too old for Louise Hippolyte.

Louise of Monaco

The prospect of having their own Principality through union with Louise attracted a few nobles, especially considering the girl on stake wasn’t a negligible beauty at all, sure, not as charming as the Marquise de Montespan, Sun King’s most celebrated maîtresse en titre, but very graceful nonetheless, with nice, proportional, facial features and dark cat eyes.  Among her suitors, Jacques François Goyon de Matignon, a rather boorish Count whose candidature had been proposed by his family and explicitly supported by Louis XIV, distinguished himself more. This lead to a short engagement and, on 20 October 1715, one stylish wedding ceremony like those we’ve gotten used to watching Grace Kelly and Charlene, gathering the main crowned heads of Europe.  The bride, 10 days before celebrating 18, was simply stunning, obviously eclipsing the groom, 8 years her senior, and making an entrance to remember, principally for the little Louis XV, who was there as part of his first formal act during the Regency of the Duke of Orléans.  Jacques’ sponsor, Louis the Great, had died a month earlier of gangrene.

Louise and Jacques of Monaco

Louise Hippolyte bore Jacques 9 children, 6 boys and 3 girls, but, due to the numerous diseases haunting the society that time,  just Honoré Camille (1720-1795) and Charles Maurice (1727-1790) managed to pull through babyhood.

Like most arranged alliances, Hippolyte’s was an emotional failure, with her bored husband preferring to live at his Parisian residence, Hôtel Matignon (currently the official domicile of the French Prime Minister), and do routine visits to Versailles between two rollings in the hay (evidently, he had his share of lovers).  Ironically, she was pretty captivated by him, as  her romantic letters evidence. The swain.

Louise of Monaco

On 20 February, 1731, Antonio I  passed away, making Louise Hippolyte, his dear offspring, Princess of Monaco in her own right, the only one ever recorded.

She went straight to Paris, where the royal administrators threw a spirited reception to honor her newly acquired position; when Jacques came, though, some witness sustain that the festive clamor chilled a bit. Was it solidarity for her abandoned-wife state? Historical sources don’t mention.


Unfortunately, Providence wasn’t, for mysterious reasons, by her side, and Louise Hippolyte’s reign lasted merely306 days, until smallpox destroyed her after Christmas, on 29 December of the same year.

Her earthly remains were buried in Saint Nicholas Cathedral , the traditional tomb of the Grimaldi’s, in a relatively small commemoration, putting an end to Princess Hippolyte’s regrettably undeveloped potential.


It’s common knowledge only French have the chic to elevate mere fashion to epitomic art, enhancing the pith of a plain fabric to its full potential of divine clothing which oozes sophistication through simplicity, and who could represent this natural flair better than Chanel?

For almost a century, the house founded by Coco in 1910 aggrandized the heritage of haute couture, making it a public delight and a genuine style-idol worldwide,  thing projected not just in Karl Largerfeld’s shows but also in the commercials for No. 5 or Mademoiselle I consider the most elegant of all. Mainly because they promote a perfume and particularly because of the French touch, the No. 5 advertisements have a certain atmosphere of a posh intensity, always luxurious and as sensuous as the fragrance they evoke. Short, indeed, yet amazingly substantial.

No. 5

Since 1921, when it was given as Christmas gift to best costumers, the elite of society,  No. 5 remained firm on its position: Earth’s most famous scent, archetype of fineness embottled in an expensive crystal recipient reassembling a whiskey decanter. Slogans developed to describe its power sound like “every woman alive loves Chanel No. 5” or “Chanel becomes the woman you are” and contain subliminal messages of striking quality, followed by pictures which call upon the aesthetic proclivity of the customer.



In the next picture, with model Suzy Parker as the Chanel femme (because the women presenting it tend to be of Bond girl’s type), it’s explained that the perfume’s chemical composition was developed especially to blend with one’s “own delicate essence”. It “becomes you because it becomes you”, a play of words with double meaning underlines it.


In 1950, Marylin Monroe took the liberty of promoting No. 5 voluntarily, increasing its celebrity over the Ocean. When asked by a curious interviewer what she wore to bed (wonder what answer he expected…) , the controverted actress and sex-symbol retorted provocatively: “five drops of Chanel No. 5!”

Marylin and Chanel

Afterwords, the signature fragrance’s appearance in pretentious magazines like  Elle significantly amplified, more and more public figures considering a sign of wealth, of welcomed refinement, to put on No. 5. It soon became synonym with voguish.


Now that we passed the introduction we get to the fun part: contemporary TV adverts, modish and of undoubted quality.


Parisian belle  Catherine Deneuve introduces No. 5 as “one of the pleasures of being a woman”, mostly speaking about it in her French accent whose charm she augments through luring gestures. Brief and clear, that’s how we can summarize it.

Catherine Deneuve by Chanel

Chanel and Vanessa Paradis

Vanessa Paradis, here posing like in Ingres’ “the Source”, was the 1992 image of Chanel and the spot, depicting her as a caged bird in Mademoiselle Gabrielle’s Ritz suite, was quite gripping and ingenious. The chromatic selection was basically simple, concentrating on a lustrous black, very Coco otherwise and evidently smart.

Vanessa Paradis by Chanel

Nicole Kidman by Chanel

But truly inventive was the 2004 Chanel “film”, starring Nicole Kidman and Rodrigo Santoro on the celestial music of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune“: a concentrated love story between a superstar and one ordinary man who saves her from paparazzi in a tornado of pink feathers, takes her to his peaceful penthouse and is forced to let her go when she’s demanded back. Profound, accelerated, beautiful, colors contrastingly rising from the fluid darkness which deepens the sentiments and contours a classy ambiance. The final scene, with Kidman walking on the red carpet in a black dress, compresses the spirit of Chanel: select, sinuous melancholy.

Nicole Kidman by Chanel

Audrey Tatou by Chanel

After playing Gabrielle in “Coco avant Chanel” movie, Audrey Tatou was elected to be the new representative for No. 5, filming a commercial  directed like a tale of love at first sight, an instant seduction in the Orient Express, charged with feeling galore and flaming as no other before. The spectrum of tints brightened, adding a lush sensation, but the timeless purity of the clothes’ lines remained unaltered.

Audrey Tatou by Chanel

Chanel No. 5

The last Chanel ad has Estella Warren as Little Red Riding Hood entering a golden safe with a stash of  No. 5 bottles from which she takes one, anointing herself with the perfume and thus being able to control the wolf threatening to eat her. Concise, original, flirtatious; a slight modification in the manner of filming.

Estella Warren by Chanel

Coco Mademoiselle

For the younger fans of No.5, Chanel introduced a modern version of the famous fragrance, “Coco Mademoiselle”, whose spokesmodels are Kate Moss and Keira Knighltey.

Kate Moss by Chanel

A year ago, the Coco Mademoiselle commercial with Knightley was broadcast on TV, in two variants.

Keira by Chanel

One shows Keira as a femme fatale, playful and alluring, misleading the photographer in charge with her pictorial only to abandon him when was fully seduced.  The theme color is cream, the shade of affluence, and her apparition on assorted motorbike screams novelty, being extremely fresh with a tiny bit of vintage.

Keira Knightley By Chanel

Keira, by Chanel

The second is rather fancy, in the typical Parisian landscape, with Keira undressing a masculine shirt (allusion to Gabrielle’s habit of borrowing some of her lover’s clothes) and throwing a flapper hat to dress in a red gown scented with Chanel, while Joss Stone sings “L.O.V.E.”  in the background.  Here we see once more the high-class of Chanel company: a mixture of old and new, an undying high-class.

Keira Knightley by Chanel

Watching these most glamorous commercials, can you refrain to wonder what will be next?

As most of us, desolate singles, keep complaining there’s no person out there fitted for us , no suited pair to cast away our solitude or lust, thus having to endure massive hopelessness and subsequent depression, I thought I could write an amusing post about two gentle giants (yes, you read well: giants) who’ve found love against the odds.

In the time when future Queen Victoria was still a young Douchess over-protected by her mother, Kentucky registers record the birth of Martin Van Buren Bates (1837-1919), an average infant from a normal-sized family, who suddenly, with no motive whatsoever, developed into one 7 feet 9 inches (2.36 m) tall man due to an accelerated growth spurt which evidently astounded his parents and the small community where they lived. Mayday! mayday!a Gulliver landed in Lilliput!

Parallelly, in a Canadian nest of Scottish immigrants, Anna Haining Swan (1846-1888) first saw the light of day on a mild August noon, peculiarly big for a new-born child with ordinary ancestors (18 punds!).  Throughout her childhood, she proportionally grew up to 8 feet, a stature nobody could have foreseen from a seventeen year old girl whose brilliant intelligence, musical inclinations and acting talent were supposed to award Anna the label of good-match. But she was literally out of every man’s reach, popularly considered more of a circus exhibit than an emotive girl with her sensibilities and issues.

Anna Haining Bates

People were tolerant with Anna’s odd presence and sustained her amiably when she played Lady McBeth or gave a piano concerto, even rescuing her from a fire at Barnum’s museum despite her injuring, from a haste injected by fear,  some men sent to help. After all, she was a tourist attraction in her own right, an iconic figure increasing the flux of  snoopy excursionists who traipsed the streets just so they could describe a meeting with the “Giantess”  and implicitly make profit to the local shops. No wonder Anna was reputedly never bullied, on the contrary, treated kindly, encouragingly.

Remotely happy, she was least contended to have been approved, no, embraced by a society which, if habitually merciless with wierdies whom they reckoned to find exclusively at fairs, in the Victorian Era was the tidiest climate she could have found.

Well, of course she did her share of touring and entertaining curious audiences, at one point succeeding to be invited for private presentations at court, for pretty good money (a five figure number…), while her  preordained Prince Charming, Martin, quitted being a schoolteacher and joined the Confederate Army where he facilely climbed at the rank of captain thanks to his height.

Martin Bates

Faith scheduled their encounter in Halifax: Anna was exceptionally attending a circus spectacle as a mere onlooker when the promoter spotted (such a strenuous job as her head popped up from the crowd…) and instantly hired her to supplement their main “exhibit”.

Little did she know her alleged partner, non other than our Martin (coincidence?), would prove to be her eternal soul mate (not that she had many giants to choose from)… It didn’t take much for love to intervene.  Partly because of their difficult dimensions which diminished the possibility of bumping into a more becoming spouse, partly as a result of Cupid’s arrows, on 17 June 1871, while in London, Reverent Rupert Cochrane united their destinies, and Anna, who had had lost all  hope of ever being somebody’s lawfully wedded wife, became Mrs Bates.

Ocular witness (meaning half the London’s population) confirm Queen Victoria’s presence, who, apart from providing the gown, sent  generous diamond-studded gold watches  of $1,000.00  as gifts, a jeweler projecting them especially to correspond with the unique measures of the couple. Royal favorites indeed.


Throughout the 1860’s, Anna and husband Martin crisscrossed Europe with their company, giving adorable representations which drew the endearment of people no matter the country, language or religion. Their broad, sincere smiles and cultivated demeanor were genuine magnets for the flock everywhere.

Returned to America, the Bates continued to oscillate with the circus between the 37 states that time, and, proceeded by their newly acquired fame, made a huge furor. Business was greater than ever and the manager ought to have congratulated himself for employing Anna, back in Halifax. A true success.

the Bates

The couple had 2 children, both unfortunately dead before passing  infancy, one stillborn and one, who presently holds the record for the largest newborn ( 23.12 punds, 30 inches), survived only 11 hours.`”It was on the 19th day of May, 1872, that our first child was born only to die at birth. Doctors Cross and Buckland were the physicians in charge. It was a girl weighing eighteen pounds and being twenty-seven inches tall. This loss affected us both, and by the advice of the doctors I took my wife upon the continent. There we traveled for pleasure, only giving receptions when requested to do so by Royal Command.” says Martin, in his autobiography, about the incident.

Anna Bates

“We journeyed west. While in Ohio, I purchased a farm in Seville, Medina County.”  he pursues. “I built a house upon it designed especially for our comfort. The ceilings have a height of fourteen feet, the doors are eight and one half feet in height. The furniture was all built to order and to see our guests make use of it recalls most forcibly the good Dean Swift’s traveler in the land of Brobdignag. I had determined to become a farmer.”

Despite the tragic adventures of having descendants, the colossi lived quite lovely together and, more importantly, they were still in demand, to better or worse.

“My rest was not to last long, for yielding to the soliciations of managers, I consented to again travel. The seasons of 1878, 1879 and 1880 found us leading attractions of the W.W. Cole circus.”

Soon afterwords, though, the two decided they had had enough of both money and celebrity, thus retreating in the coziness of their enormous home for a double family life, far away from the spotlight which had earned their existence the past 20 years. Anna insisted they attend religious services on Sundays at the local Baptist Church she’d joined in 1877, where a pew had to be modified so they could sit adequately. She also taught Sunday School there.

Perhaps that was the happiest period of their relationship, sharing a romantic intimacy and relishing the country life with its simple pleasures.

Sadly, like all good things, it didn’t last much: Anna died one day before her forty-second anniversary, in 1888, succumbed to heart failure.


Martin erected a titanic funeral monument to honor his wife, with a 15 foot Greek Goddess inspired by her dominating upon the tomb, but Anna’s corpse wasn’t placed there at once because of a problem with her coffin, which delayed the burial.

the Bates grave

Despite conjoining with a normal woman, Lavonne, in 1897, and having a peaceful, monotonous marriage, Martin’s true love remained Anna.

bates and wife

Nephritis killed him in 1919 and he was inhumed near her and their children in Mound Hill Cemetery, Seville, Ohio, where they’re supposed to remain together for eternity.

In the end, tell me, what was the chance for two giants, of opposite sexes, to coexist in the same Era and fortuitously meet? Anna was presumed doomed to endure abstinence, yet found a man with which to indulge in the most delightful attachment. Isn’t it like a message from the Providence: there’s-someone-for-everyone type?

You judge.


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