Tuesday 30 December 2008

Recollections d'Enfance

If you are reading along with my childhood recollections, you may have missed earlier posts from the same period in time. I note them below as much for my own as for my readers' convenience. I have no head for chronology, and in any case these evenements took place in ages past to gentle people long since returned to dust, so you may read them in any order that may please you. One day perhaps I shall attempt to order them into a narrative. For now you may explore them as they occur to me, in fits.

  • Kitai, in which I first discovered the mysteries of China in my Uncle Adraste's bookshop.
  • At the Monastery, from a period shortly after I fled my marriage.
  • A l'Italienne, a lamentably brief introduction to my acting friends.
  • A letter, that may serve as preface to my odd life.

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.

Friday 5 December 2008

In memory of absent friends

When I was eight, my uncle Adraste brought home an amusing friend whose scenarios were being typeset chez Briasson. He was Monsieur Biancolelli, known throughout Paris as Dominique, the famous Trivelino of La Comedie Italienne that played in the Hotel Bourgogne. I was enchanted by his round, honest face and his enormous, gentle eyes that looked upon me with sympathy and fondness, for my uncle had no doubt told him my own sad history. We dined simply at home and M. Biancolelli told my uncle jokes all the way through, his mouth full of bread and wine, with the base parts in Italian so I would not understand.

"It's rude to speak in a strange language," I complained crossly.

"Diabolo! You mean to tell me you do not understand Italian, little princess? How can that be?" He gestured to me and with my uncle's permission I went over to his side of the table. "Why, it is the most beautiful language in all of the world, especially when spoken by a young lady such as yourself. You know, my Marie-Therese is the same age as you. She speaks a beautiful Italian. Her mother and I are worried that she hears too little French at home, and her only companion at the Theatre is a little boy with abominable manners." He bent down and cupped his hand over his mouth as if he had a secret to share though he spoke loud enough for my uncle to hear. "You know, princess, if you insisted, your uncle might permit you to pay us a visit. He would refuse at first, for he thinks us all vagabonds and braggarts, but if you stamp your foot like this..." He stood up, crossed his arms and stamped, exactly as I used to do when I was six.

My uncle laughed and said, "Look, now you are already ruining the child! Yolande, naturally you may visit the Biancolelli's, but only if you don't listen to this madman who never grew up!"

At my uncle's words, Monsieur Biancolelli appeared to deflate before my eyes and hung his hands limply, swaying every so slightly on bent knees, ever so much like a marionette on strings. "You wound me, Seignor Osborno, you cut my strings!" And his hands dropped and he collapsed on the floor, his head lolling on his chest. I leaped back in horror, but his head rose and he gave me a quick wink before he let it drop again. "What shall we do with the poor puppet?" came a falsetto voice from the heap that was my uncle's friend. "He must grow up and go to school" came another voice from the same place. "He must learn proper French and arithmetics and law and become a dottore at the university." "No, I'll run away first!" Then M. Biancolelli leaped to his feet and dashed out of the room.

I clapped my hands with delight to see an adult pretending to be a puppet all for my benefit. I turned to my uncle, who never stopped laughing throughout the entire pantomime, holding his sides and shaking his head. "Please may I learn Italian?"

"Yes, yes, but first go out and call Monsieur back to the table, or he may run clear across Paris!"

I pounded down the stairs as fast as I could. Monsieur Biancolelli was seated on the sidewalk a little way down the street, talking in Italian to a horse, who seemed to listen with much interest. I took his hand and pulled him back to our door, where he effortlessly hoisted me onto his shoulders and bounced me back up the stairs. I believe I held his hand for the rest of his visit.