Something Expensive for the Duchess

February 12, 2012


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.


2 Responses to “Something Expensive for the Duchess”

  1. bennythomas Says:

    You mean to say, you could access to all the museums V&A d’Orsay et al as Foreign Tourist ! wow. Even walking through these for me were one-in- a lifetime experience. I remember these as milestones in my cultural life,- Beardsley exhibition in V&A and 200 th anniversary of French Revolution at Vincent’s Road I think were all important. Your post brought it all to me- I have been very much onto Medici and French history in general. Lully, the duchess of Montmorency of previous post. Interesting read and thanks.

cat got your fingers? then type something!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: