Monday, February 18, 2013

Silk and Spectacles in the Place des Vosges

photo: AINo
Place des Vosges, the centerpiece of the Marais district on the Right Bank of the Seine, was one of the few architectural undertakings of King Henri IV, who ascended to the throne in 1589 and eventually brought an end to France's religious wars. Originally named Place Royale, the square was intended to be a revenue-producing site, dedicated to the manufacture of silks and other textiles. The four-story red brick buildings that line the square were designed to house factories on the second and third floors. The ground floor shops, accessible through sheltered arcades, would sell the goods manufactured upstairs; factory workers and shop staff could live in dormitories and apartments on the fourth floors, under the eaves.

In tandem with its commercial purpose, Place Royale would provide Paris the public setting it lacked for the grand processions and elaborate spectacles that marked important events like royal births and marriages. Accordingly, the square was paved with cobblestones, and two pavilions were built for the royals' viewing pleasure. The Pavilion du Roi,

photo: Bruno befreetv
marked with Henri's monogram,

photo: Bruno befreetv
was erected on the north side of the square, and the Pavilion de la Reine anchored the south.

Construction, begun in 1605, proceeded to a rapid conclusion by 1612. However, the notion that the buildings would house factories died along with the king when Henri was assassinated in 1610. His wife Marie de Médici, regent to his young son Louis XIII, abandoned the manufacturing project and allowed the elegant buildings to be subdivided into residences for the wealthy. Later in the century, an equestrian statue of Louis XIII was erected in the center of the square.

This statue remained in place for 150 years, until it was destroyed during the Revolution--along with the square's royalist name. The new moniker, Place des Vosges, commemorated the first district that raised a volunteer army to repel the Prussian invasion. Fifteen years after the restoration of the monarchy in 1814, a new statue of Louis XIII--the one presently gracing the square--was installed.

photo: Mbzt
Place Royale was built on the site of the Hôtel des Tournelles, a royal residence dating back to the fourteenth century. The residence comprised a collection of buildings and pleasure gardens spread over a twenty acre estate. François I's mother, Louise de Savoie, had lived there, and his mistress Anne de Pisseleu d'Heilly later used it as her Parisian residence. Henri II, François's son and heir, held his coronation there in 1547 and granted its use to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. It was at the Hôtel des Tournelles in 1559 that Henri II died after a horrific jousting accident. His widow, Catherine de Médici, had the buildings demolished several years after his death. The space was used as a military training ground for many years until Henri IV dedicated it to his innovative project.

Hotel des Tournelles and surrounding area around 1550. Published map of Paris.
[The information about Place Royale's commercial origins comes from Alex Karmel's delightful book,  A Corner in the Marais: Memoir of a Paris Neighborhood (1998).]

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Where's the Love? Blog Hop

Love is in the air--and on the pages. Heather Webb of Between the Sheets is hosting a Valentine's Day blog hop. Follow the trail and read love scenes from participants' novels. Here's a contribution from my work-in-progress:

They walked a bit in silence, the unlit windows of the near-empty château withholding both succor and judgment. Their footsteps echoed on the cobbles, rousting pigeons from the eaves and sending mice scurrying to the safety of shadows. Far off, an owl hooted, hungered by the croaking of the pond’s countless frogs. The sweetness of the honeyed wine lingered on Catherine’s tongue, stilling each feeble tremor of caution. When the duke changed direction and led her into the cour de la fontaine, she did not resist.
They stood at the railing and gazed out upon the lake. The moonlight lay like early frost upon the rippled surface. The reedy bank below them exhaled a rich breath of damp earth, while above them the stars winked in complicity.
“A gift from heaven,” Orléans murmured. 
The view, the moment, the day? “Indeed it is, my lord.”
He cocked a brow. “I don’t supposed you’d call me Charles?”
She shook her head. “I dare not presume.” 
Disappointment flashed in his eyes, only to be doused by her murmured disclaimer. “Not aloud, that is.”
He tipped her chin, raising her gaze to meet his. “Then I shall have to imagine the whisperings of your heart.”
"They cannot be difficult to discern.”
He bent then and kissed her, his breath sweeter than the sugared plums, his lips softer than the velvet sleeve beneath her hand. Though they were of one age, she knew nothing of love. Breathless with delight, she closed her eyes and surrendered to the wonder of his exploration.

Comments and critique welcome. In fact, commenters will be entered into Heather's drawing for FREE CHOCOLATE! Be sure to visit Heather's blog and follow the links to other scenes. Spread the love!
Happy Valentine's Day!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review: SHADOW ON THE CROWN by Patricia Bracewell

I read an advanced copy of Patricia Bracewell's SHADOW ON THE CROWN (Viking) several months ago and loved it so much I included it in my Best Reads of 2012. I'm happy to say I appreciated it even more upon second reading! Here is my review.

Women, even queens, figure little in the annals of the past, and often it takes a novelist to rescue them from the shadows. Emma of Normandy may have commissioned a book about her life in 1040, but that account ignores her fifteen-year marriage to Athelred II, the king who brought her to England's shores. In SHADOW ON THE CROWN, the first volume of a proposed trilogy about Emma, Patricia Bracewell rectifies this omission with consummate skill, imagining Emma's first marriage with a verve and flair that assure the queen a lasting escape from obscurity.

In AD 1002, Athelred takes foreign-born Emma to wife in order to forge an alliance with her brother Richard, duke of Normandy, against the Danish Vikings, whose raids pose a perpetual threat to England's prosperity. In a moment of pique against his council, Athelred accepts Richard's stipulation that Emma be crowned queen and not simply consort, thereby giving any son of hers precedence over the seven sons of his uncrowned first wife. Emma quickly learns that she will secure her position only by producing a son, a task that proves increasingly difficult once the king, regretting his hasty decision, shuns her bed for that of her English rival. 

Far from home with few retainers, Emma finds herself mistrusted by the English nobles, resented by Athelred's first family, taunted by the woman who hopes to unseat her, and spurned by the king who fears granting her any further power over him. Strengthened by her mother's admonition to show no fear, Emma weathers these struggles with admirable fortitude and grace. Yet Emma's mother never taught her how to steel her heart against love, and the unbidden passion that arises between Emma and a member of the King's household threatens to destroy everything she has struggled to build. When the Danes attack England through the treachery of the King's enemies, Emma becomes both target and scapegoat and must scrabble to retain her throne and her heart.

Bracewell constructs her story around the sequence of events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, filling in the gaps with vividly imagined, historically plausible conjecture. The story unfolds from the viewpoints of four well-developed, psychologically convincing characters: weary King Athelred, mistrustful of all, haunted to the brink of madness by the specter of his murdered half-brother; Emma, courageous and compassionate, navigating the dangers of a foreign court armed with nothing but her own inner strength; impetuous Athelstan, Athelred's eldest son, who yearns for his father's approval even as he seeks to distance himself from his disastrous policies; and Elgiva, vain and self-centered, ever scheming to snare a king and escape the abusive domination of her father and brother. The point-of-view shifts fluidly yet cleanly between these four characters, often several times within a single chapter, providing a kaleidoscopic and thoroughly engaging view of events and emphasizing the interconnectedness of personal and political aims. 

Enabled by her meticulous research, Bracewell recreates the stark beauty and pervasive brutality of the Anglo-Saxon world. She respects the realities of the era, not the sensibilities of the modern reader. Emma's England is a pagan place, where official Christianity has yet to discredit sway of seers and ease the grip of prophecy. It is a savage place, where kings slay innocents to protect their interests and invaders pillage and rape and kill without qualm. It is a masculine place, where men exploit women for their beauty or their wombs and trade them like pawns on the chessboard of dynasties. Yet it is also a place where love and loyalty and honor flourish, a place where, despite all the obstacles arrayed against her, a determined woman like Emma can use her gifts of mind and body and spirit to carve a name for herself and a future for her children. It was, in sum, a fascinating world I was loathe to quit and to which I look forward to returning. Bracewell's enthusiasm for Emma and her world shines through every beautifully wrought sentence of this masterful debut.

A few weeks ago, Patricia answered questions about her research and journey to publication in this insightful interview. You can learn more about the author at her website; be sure to check out her blog. You can find SHADOW ON THE CROWN at major booksellers and independent bookstores, or order online from your preferred vendor.