The Châteaux of France: Some Pros and Cons

One of the foremost art critics in France, RAYMOND COGJNIAT is principal inspector for the Beaux-Arts and writes regularly for FIGABO. He has written books on Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cézanne.

A French expression that the English stole from us years ago defines mirages as “castles in Spain,” no doubt by way of contrast to those in France, which are a very tangible reality. In France there are literally thousands of chateaux; they are so multitudinous that no one knows what to do with them, so diverse in style that no one knows how to classify them, and in such a state of disrepair that no one knows how to preserve them.

Almost every village has at least one château and often several. If for some reason it has none, the title of château is conferred on the lordliest house in the neighborhood, for it is imperative that the milker, the baker, the butcher be able to say to their clients with a detached, superior air: “This is for the château.”

The château is an indispensable element in the social life of France.

It is watched over with respectful jealousy by the villagers, and these sentiments in turn make those inhabiting it proud. Usually it is the château which marks its occupants, and not they who stamp their character upon it. You take possession of the château as a bourgeois of more or less important means; once installed, you become a chatelain or chatelaine. If you give up the chateau, you become a simple bourgeois again.

The châteaux of France, then, occupy a very important place in our society; they pose numerous problems and engross the attentions of many people.

Now let us begin by listing the people who are interested in châteaux. First of all, there are those who want to do away with them. Three centuries ago Richelieu managed to demolish quite a few. Most of them were medieval fortresses, for the Renaissance châteaux didn’t annoy him much and those of the eighteenth century had not yet been built.

After Richelieu the French nobility went on tearing down the châteaux in order to replace them with newer ones. Then the Revolution burned a good many just for the fun of it. In the nineteenth century, contractors and entrepreneurs of public works dismantled quite a number in order to use their stones for constructing roads and apartment buildings. Then industry replaced a lot of them with factories and workers’ settlements. The city planners are now the chief hope left for achieving a total destruction, under the sound pretext of slum clearance.

Such, then, are the principal categories of people who have been, are, or will be interested in having châteaux disappear. There are also those who are interested in preserving what is left of them. These can be classified into eight categories:

1.Rich people, who like to acquire noble mansions and become chatelains They put in central heating and bathtubs; sell the old wainscoting, which is then wedged into modern houses; dismantle the huge stone fireplaces, which are eventually installed in peasant cottages bought for weekend jaunts.

2. Poor people, for whose benefit the château is transformed into an old-age home or sanatorium. The people themselves are lodged in the attics, because the apartments of state, where these poor souls would feel utterly out of place, are reserved for the administration.

3. Tourists, the flood of whom is regularly nourished by Gargantuan super-buses. These tourists drag themselves dismally from one room to the next, surreptitiously perching on shaky chairs, which now and then collapse. They paw the painting on decorated doors to see if it still holds up under the spotting of anonymous fingers like their own. Now and then they succeed in inscribing a name or a date, or even manage to tear off a piece of molding to keep as a souvenir of this faded beauty.

4. Army general staffs on maneuvers, who naturally prefer chateaux to field tents and who rejoice at their own ingenuity every time they cut through the beautiful woodwork to install a telephone line or enthrone a typewriter on a Louis XVI commode.

5. Antique dealers, who come to the aid of penniless proprietors by lending them pieces of furniture or objects of recent authenticity which visiting guests might be more tempted to buy here than in city antique shops.

6. The personnel of the Monuments Historiques Commission, who replace worn-out stones one after another, but not all at once (for then it would look like a brand new chateau), and who, no matter what they do, are targets of general vituperation. This, however, is part of their function, and it provides journalists with first-rate polemical material.

7. Lovers of the past, who want to preserve everything because everything antedating 1850 or 1800 is ipso facto beautiful and must be saved for the people, who couldn’t care less.

8. Enemies of the government. There are two approaches to the problems posed by the chateaux: one in favor of their conservation, the other opposed to it. The second of these seems, at first sight, the easier alternative to adopt. It requires no initiative. You just let time and the châteaux-phobes take care of things. But the ease of this solution is really illusory, for very soon those who were thought to be the foes of chateaux will cross over into the camp of their defenders, since they will have lost the raison d’être of their protestations; for what interests the chateaux-phobes is not the chateaux themselves, but the chance they provide for grumbling.

Besides, a château isn’t something which disappears overnight. It wears out, runs down, empties itself, and gradually crumbles into a ruin; but a ruin which still goes on living a more or less pathetic life, which cries out for succor, and which becomes an ever more vehement witness to its plight. The more anguished its cries, the more partisans flock to its rescue. To rob it of its power, it must be destroyed completely, and not one stone must be left standing on another, so that men forget it ever existed. Even then, this may not suffice. And then, if chateaux were to disappear completely, what substitute could be offered to châteaux-lovers, tourists, and army staffs, to say nothing of their enemies? Others would have to be built.

So it seems easier to conserve those which exist. But here we run into a major financial problem. Over the centuries each up-andcoming French family has built a château without always taking the precaution to remove those built in earlier centuries. We thus find ourselves in possession of more chateaux than there are rich families capable of maintaining them. To make things worse, the wealthy, not wishing to appear unprogressive, continue to build sumptuous modern dwellings, so that they can have them photographed and publicized in illustrated magazines.

The impoverished old families thus have to get along as best they can with patchwork repairs intended to keep the rain from pouring in through the roof, the windows from flying open at the first sigh of the wind, and the chimneys from toppling on innocent strollers. Weighed down by these financial burdens, they appeal to the state, which is duty bound to conserve the national heritage but which is allotted such a puny budget for doing so that it distributes its dole only to classified monuments it thinks worth while maintaining.

When the state classifies a monument, it undertakes to cover an important part of the costs of reparation and even of upkeep. The state, however, demands — with a certain logic — that all repairs be made under its control, in order to keep fake reconstructions, lapses of taste, or technical blunders from marring the authentic character of an ancient mansion. This requires specialists, and the work of the specialists costs far more than the labor of the local contractor or mason. The percentage the owner has to cover out of his own pocket thus often exceeds what he would have had to pay without any state aid at all.

But suppose now that our chateau is saved, classified, restored, admired, gleaming new in its ancient glory! It takes its solemn place in the textbooks, in the Michelin guide, in collections of post cards. But what are we going to do with it? We already have enough museums.

There remains one final solution, though I am not sure whether it should be classed in the department of destruction or in that of conservation. This is the purchase of châteaux by American millionaires, who dismantle them stone by stone, ship them to the United States, and then respectfully remount them, homesick and solitary though they are, far from their native land. When one visits the New York Cloisters, one cannot help experiencing a certain malaise before this renascence of emigrated stones and the tender respect they are surrounded with. Doubtless they arc better off; they are more alive there than they would be, left to languish in an indifferent environment. They are not dead, and yet they are a little drowsy, like exiles timidly reunited to evoke their common past in silence. This disconcerting existence is still preferable to death, but it is no longer the story of the châteaux of France.