Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Paris 1730

It was a week before my uncle Adraste and I took a calèche to rue Mauconseil and the Comédie Italienne. The hôtel Bourgogne was already the oldest theatre in all of France, the first built after the Romans abandoned their circuses in Gaul. In 1730 it was nearly two hundred years old and hidden within a labyrinth of noxious, winding streets bordered by leaning houses and shops that would burn like kindling around a heretic if fire ever broke out. My uncle shook his head whenever we passed one of the old medieval buildings that still stood here and there, its timbers blackened with rot and age. 

I later learned the hôtel Bourgogne had been the ancient stone stronghold of the Jean-sans-peur, Duke of Burgundy, who launched the Hundred Years War by openly plotting the death of his cousin and rival Louis, the Duke of Orleans, the brother of King Charles VI. War between the rivals ravaged Paris until the Lords of France forced them to meet and reconcile their differences. The Duke of Berry, their uncle, had them swear bon amour et fraternité before the King and the entire court, and they shared the host from the hand of a priest at a mass celebrated expressly for them. Three days later Louis was assassinated as he left the hôtel of the Queen Isabel of Bavaria, cut to pieces, and his servant murdered as well. Jean-sans-peur was not suspected, given the sanctified oaths that had been sworn, but he boasted of committing the crime a few days later. He was later assassinated in turn in the presence of the Dauphin, ridding the realm of an ambitious and dangerous man, and it is said his ghost still haunted the stairway in the surviving tower that overshadowed the theatre. The theatre itself was built in 1548 as the city's only permanent stage and once accommodated sixteen hundred very compressed visitors. It was shared with the Comédie Française, who quit it a shambles for the hôtel Guénégaud.

When Monsieur Biancolelli's troupe of comedians assumed sole ownership of the Hôtel, it was in a desperate state, and nearly a hundred thousand livres were spent on its restoration. They had played for many years in the Fairs and marketplaces, growing so popular that they threatened the Comédie-Française, and their fathers had been expelled from Paris in the previous century for lampooning Madame de Maintenon. Their return to Paris in 1716 under the patronage of the Duke of Orange offered some protection, and when that noble prince died, they obtained a patent of the King himself, which they proudly carved in black marble set upon the front door of the theatre under the royal coat of arms. 

Monsieur Biancolelli was waiting for us at the door and I ran to throw my arms around him. But he gently released himself and whispered with a sly smile, "You must not make my Marie-Thérèse jealous." He then led us inside the dark, rickety timber building that groaned and creaked in protest to the exuberant youth that the Italians put in every step.

1 comment:

HeadBurro Antfarm said...

oooo, gorgeous! And so mysterious!