Tuesday, July 9, 2013

D'Artagnan in Nantes

One cannot pass through the city of Nantes in Brittany, France without spending some time visiting the magnificent Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

The back of Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

While the building was destroyed several times, including during WWII and following a major fire in 1972, the cathedral's foundation dates from 1434.

The cathedral houses an awe inspiring Gothic interior together with an ornate tomb that Anne de Bretagne (aka, Duchess of Brittany, the richest woman in Europe in her time and twice Queen of France) once commissioned to honour her parents.

The tomb of Francis II and Margaret de Foix,
Parents of Anne of Brittany

But what held my interest while in Nantes was the political intrigue that supposedly took place at the front of this cathedral on September 5, 1661.

We are familiar with D'Artagnan from the famous novel, The Three Musketeers. While its author, Alexandre Dumas no doubt took many liberties with creating his character, what is certain is that the original D'Artagnan was also a highly skilled man-of-arms attached to the royal court.

D'Artagnan served Louis XIV as Captain of the Musketeers of the Guards. Created in 1622, the Musketeers of the Guards were entrusted with protecting the King outside his palace. They were skilled with fighting both on foot and on horseback.

D'Artagnan had a long career in espionage. Louis XIV shared many delicate secrets with him. One such secret was that the King had had enough of his finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet.

Fouquet, an admirer of grand architecture had recently spared no expense in building his lavish Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte. Upon completion of this palace in 1661, Fouquet held dazzling celebrations where supposedly every guest was granted a horse. Even the great poet La Fontaine and the playwright, Moliere, good friends of Fouquet were invited at the inauguration, where a Moliere play was performed while an impressive dinner and fireworks show took place.

Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte

Of course there was no reason for Louis XIV to feel outdone by the beauty of Fouquet's new palace, or by the extravagant outlays of his minister. After all, hadn't our Sun King himself built the incomparable Chateau de Versailles?

Actually, no. At this time, Louis XIV had not yet expanded Versailles palace to the level of grandeur it would have for years to come. That feat would come much later, starting in 1669 and one can certainly imagine where the inspiration came from... Therefore, back in 1661, Louis XIV felt severely upstaged.

But circumstances were in his favour.

At the time, the man in charge of tax reforms, a certain Jean-Baptiste Colbert made an embezzlement attack on Fouquet. This was partly to secure himself the post of finance minister, which he eventually did take. Vexed as he was by Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte, Louis XIV naturally chose to attribute Fouquet's magnificent creation to his evident misappropriation of the royal treasury. In short, Jean-Baptiste Colbert's accusation was welcomed since it allowed our 22 year old king to appease his wounded ego by giving him an opportunity to do away with Fouquet.

Three weeks after visiting Vaux for the inaugurations, Louis XIV left for Nantes, kindly inviting Fouquet with him. In doing so, the king took Fouquet away from his own entourage who may have protected him. His guard down, and certain of having secured himself the king's favour, Fouquet never once suspected that D'Artagnan was in Nantes with his own royal mission...

On September 5, 1661, in front of the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Fouquet was arrested by Captain D'Artagnan.

Too bad our musketeer was on the wrong side of history.

It turned out that Fouquet had built part of the Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte especially for Louis XIV and had sought to flatter his king in an attempt to become his advisor. The king's attack was unjustified and in fact during his trial, Fouquet held the French public's sympathy, including that of poet La Fontaine. Fouquet's trial was in breach of many forms of justice and lasted almost three years. It became known as the "trial of the century". The court finally decided on eternal banishment but King Louis had the entire judge panel replaced in an attempt to reach a death sentence. He clearly wanted Fouquet eliminated. Again the court decided on solitary confinement. Faced with this, King Louis dictated cruel conditions, stipulating that Nicolas Fouquet was not to be permitted to read nor write and the soldiers guarding him were not to talk to him on penalty of death.

Our misled D'Artagnan was assigned to guard Nicolas Fouquet for four years until his final life imprisonment. To our musketeer's defense, it is said that upon receiving his orders from the king, d'Artagnan wept, so torn was he between his duty to Louis XIV and his friendship for Fouquet which persisted months later. It was also said that d'Artagnan was never able to forgive himself.

Nicolas Fouquet, a man who before his arrest was presumably the most wealthy and powerful person in France, suffered a terrible unjust fate. It is said that his cruel punishment resembles that of the Man in the Iron Mask and this has led some authors to trace the identity of Alexandre Dumas' Man in the Iron Mask to Nicolas Fouquet.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Vietnamese Child

Peering into age old family albums while visiting my Vietnamese grandmother in France revealed a treasure trove of historical wonders.

It was on one afternoon during May this year, that I found this wonderful photo of my grandmother, Phuong Lan.

Phuong Lan at ten

I was blown away, partly by the intensity of her gaze and by the exoticism of the Vietnamese setting. I love the way her hand is reaching out to caress that leaf. It is a hauntingly beautiful photo. You must know that my grandmother's mother, a princess, had eloped with a French man when Phuong Lan was only an infant. She disgarded her baby, leaving Phuong Lan with her father, never to return. Maybe I am imagining this but my grandmother's expression in this photo is so solemn that I can't help but feel that she would have deeply resented being abandoned as a child.

She is ten years old in this photo and you will notice that her hair is completely shaved. I asked her why. In response, she gave a shy smile and answered, "That is the way we did things."

Since my return from France, I did a little research and I found that it is common practice in traditional Vietnamese communities to shave off a baby's head. A newborn's hair is considered 'dirty' or not as healthy. It is thought that by shaving it off, one gives better chance for new, healthier hair to grow later. From a rational viewpoint, this practice would at least inhibit the growth of lice and other disease carrying agents to grow in the hair. Another interesting finding is that Vietnamese parents traditionally resort to practices that aim to 'confuse the evil spirits' who could potentially harm their child. It is best for example to call a child with an unpleasant name rather than use words to praise how beautiful it is. The idea is that spirits would not be attracted to an 'ugly' child. Similarly a girl, with a shaved head might look less attractive to the evil spirits hence ensuring that she is safe.

I mentioned in a post years ago, that when she married my grandfather, Yves Candeau, one of the conditions placed on my grandmother by her mandarin father was that she ought to never cut her hair. At this time, when she was twenty-four, her hair had grown long and healthy, down to her ankles. I ignore whether the shaving tradition she had followed as a child had paid off but she certainly had an abundant bunch of gorgeous hair as an adult!

And here she is in all her glory. 
She told me this is one of her favorite photos.