In September 2014, I had the good fortune of visiting several eighteenth-century hôtels particuliers (townhouses built by the wealthy elites) in the Saint-Germain district of Paris during the Journées du Patrimoine. One weekend of the year, many of the national and municipal buildings around France open up to the public as an effort to instill a sense of appreciation for French national heritage. Hôtel de Noirmoutier, located at 138 rue de Grenelle in the 7th arrondissement, is one of the buildings I visited that weekend.
Built in 1724 for Antoine de la Tremouille, duc de Noirmoutier, by the architect of the king, Jean Courtonne (who also built hôtel de Matignon, now the residence for the French prime minister), hôtel de Noirmoutier was purchased by Elisabeth Alexandrine de Bourbon-Condé (aka Mademoiselle de Sens) when its original proprietor died. Mademoiselle de Sens, a princess of the blood, expanded and redecorated much of the hôtel. Now it serves as the residence for the prefect of Île-de-France (with whom I shook hands without knowing who he was..).
Part of Mademoiselle de Sens’ redecoration project was the installation of wooden panels (called boiseries) in the grande salle à manger (grand dining room) with carved reliefs depicting the fables of Jean de la Fontaine and several animals.
Encased in this elaborate rocaille arabesque of fantastical creatures, shells, tendrils, and flowers is a scene from La Fontaine’s story “Le Coq et le Renard” (“The Cock and the Fox”). Here’s the English translation for the story:
A Cock of shining talents, high in feather,
Close to a barn sate perch’d upon a tree;
His ladies, scratching lovingly together
In a yard near,
Rang’d void of fear,
From rivalship and jealous fancies free.
The prudent Bird, lest any foe should scare ’em,
Here watch’d as sentinel, to guard his harem.
A Fox of wily head and stomach keen
Cautious approach’d the ground, to reconnoitre:
As soon as he gay Chanticleer had seen,
“I bring great news,
‘Twill joy diffuse
To all around,” cried the insidious traitor.
“Neighbor, these tidings will delight your mind;
‘Twixt all the animals a peace is sign’d.
“Now from your perch without delay descend,
Let bonfires blaze, fill’d be the festive jug–
How sweet to live in amity, dear friend!–
I love your race!
Quick let’s embrace,
I long to share a close fraternal hug!”
“Friend,” says the Cock, “your tidings are delicious,
With glee I hail a morning so auspicious!
“As brought by you the news is still more welcome;
And see!–two Greyhounds here are swiftly running–
They too, I dare believe, the news to tell come,
So fast they’re racing!–
All four embracing,
This partie quarrée there will be some fun in.
The Peace establish’d we poor fowls shall thrive all;
To join you, I but wait the dogs’ arrival.”
“Good bye,” said Renard; “I’ve a length of way–
Full fifty miles to gallop ere ’tis night–
Carousals we will have some other day.–
This shortly said,
The caitiff fled
To gain in time a neighbouring rocky height.
His speed betray’d his ill-dissembled fear,
Whilst loudly chuckled cunning Chanticleer.
Some deep folks think than cheating nothing’s sweeter
‘Tis surely doubly sweet to cheat the cheater!
(translation from Fables from La Fontaine, in English Verse, by John Matthews, 1820)
The cunning Chanticleer ftw.
These stories based on Aesop’s fables were immensely popular and widely read in the eighteenth century.
Surrounded by images of these humorous and moralizing stories, Mademoiselle de Sens and her guests must have enjoyed many meals with spirited conversations.