Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Des Res

The day-trip ended up being to Fontainebleau, a pleasant but sleepy town about 40 minutes south of Paris, best known historically for being home to the most important royal château after Versailles, and these days for being the location for France's football academy, through whose doors most of their stars of the past few years have passed.

Though the château is not the only thing of note in the town - there are one or two interesting-sounding museums, including France's National Prison Museum - to be honest, had King François I not decided almost 500 years ago to establish the country seat of the Bourbons there, there would be little reason to go anywhere near the place today. The town is small, about 17,000 people, and the best-known non-royal landmark seems to be the enormous vintage carousel planted in the middle of the main square. It has probably been there longer than any of the town's citizens and no doubt kept going all the way through the Nazi occupation too. The sound of that generic organ-ground carnavel music generates an eerie effect as you eat your lunch on a restaurant terrace; it reminded me a bit too much of that spooky Disney movie, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Lady from Shanghai too, if my memory serves me right.

The château is less physically imposing than Versailles and its gardens are more peripheral. It is also less pristinely symbolic as, unlike Versailles, it continued to be used long after being the Revolution, being the favoured residence of all the Napoleons, from Bonaparte on. But for this reason, it is more interesting, as the building, often-extended and re-built is physical testimony to changing tastes and regimes. Though on the outside, the structure was maintained throughout its renovations as classically, even academically, baroque, the inside is like a living museum of additions and revisions, as one moves from stucco and fresco to wood-pannelled, porcelain-encrusted passages, to lush tapestries, to the splendid 80-metre long Diana Room, which was the royal, and later imperial, library. The centre-piece is Napoleon's enormous marble globe, which I think I have seen before but it may have been a similar contraption in a Vermeer tableau.

An unexpected impression I got was one of comedy. Reading the caption cards about the incessant extensions and renovations, the last major one being as recent as the 1920s, I could see a macro-version of the Irish Big House comedy, such as Castle Rackrent, in which the grand designs and the pomp of successive conceptions were forever being undermined by the bathetic changes of regime and allegience. Or maybe it was more like a novel by Günther Grass. I could hear History laughing down through the ages. Another amusing sight was Bonaparte's bed. It is usual for historical beds to be smaller and shorter than modern ones, as we have managed to outstrip our ancestors in average height. Bonaparte's bed however, at scarcely 5'6" long came as a bit of a shock. Even better was its height, cruelly elevated for such a short man, necessitating a couple of ornate steps to reach it. Perhaps that is why he might have turned out the man he did.