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Mad about Castles (part I)

November 13, 2011

Mad about Castles (Part I)

Last Spring, I had the good fortune to teach at SCAD’s Lacoste campus, a magical place where you wake up one April morning to find that the entire valley floor has turned white, rimed with cherry blossoms. Magical too is the château that crowns the summit of the steep hill the village clings to, but its magic is of a darker ilk. The château’s legacy is colored, some would say stained, by its last Ancien Régime owner, the Marquis de Sade, author of such controversial works as Justine and The 120 Days of Sodom, who used this building for some of his infamous assignations and built a theater within to stage his own scandalous plays. And although Lacoste lies close to prehistoric and Roman sites and played a significant role in the Protestant history of the region, people are primarily interested in the Marquis and his hedonism, an interest that the present owner, Pierre Cardin, has breathed new life into by partially restoring the castle and extending (both physically and temporally) the Marquis’ interest in the theater by adapting the adjacent quarry for performances that draw record crowds annually.

Living daily in the shadow of the château, I grew increasingly curious about the appeal of this mixture — one castle (partly ruined), one deranged man (the Marquis de Sade) and spectacle – and wanted to learn more about how this building fit into the broader picture of the fantasy-driven association between madness and castles that starts to appear in the second half of the 18th century. Prior to that time, castles were usually viewed quite simply as aristocratic homes and therefore locations of refinement and polite behavior (though there were exceptions as I discuss below). The walls around the castles were meant to keep the wealth and luxurious trappings securely inside so that the owners could enjoy a relaxed, privileged lifestyle, safely protected from all of those annoying things like the Plague or people with poor hygiene.

About as “mad” as castle-dwellers got during the French Renaissance, was, for example, emotional eccentrics like Louise de Lorraine at Chenonsceau. By today’s standards she would be considered “super-emo” and Europe’s first and best “goth girl” since the Migration Period invasions — although she wore all white – the color of mourning at that time – rather than black. Louise, a quiet, pious woman came to live at Chenonsceau after her marriage to Henry III of France and was a devoted wife. When he was murdered in 1589 she was overcome with grief, became extremely melancholic and never recovered. The poignancy of her sadness was apparently unforgettable because it was so unusual.

She even went so far as to refurbish her bedroom to suit her mood. The room we can visit today has been reconstructed around the original ceiling. It was painted black and decorated with objects associated with death and mourning: grave diggers tools, lachrymatory (vials to collect tears), and thorns in the shapes of H and L, the royal couple’s initials. After she ordered this room redecorated, she packed up all of her velvet and satin dresses, wore only white and spent the last eleven years of her life murmuring prayers to, one imagines, secure heaven for Henry’s soul and precipitate her own demise. Yet, Louise de Lorraine’s behavior was atypical and it wasn’t until after about 1750 that her sort of behavior became more fitting in castles, a break that coincides with the rise of Lacoste’s infamous libertine.

Stayed tuned for Part II of “Mad about Castles” and in the meantime, let me know what other exceptions of mad castle dwellers prior to the 18th century that you’ve come across.

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