A Little Tour In France/Chapter XV
If I spent two nights at Nantes, it was for reasons of convenience rather than of sentiment; though, indeed, I spent them in a big circular room which had a stately, lofty, last-century look, - a look that consoled me a little for the whole place being dirty. The high, old-fashioned, inn (it had a huge, windy portecochere, and you climbed a vast black stone staircase to get to your room) looked out on a dull square, surrounded with other tall houses, and occupied on one side by the theatre, a pompous building, decorated with columns and statues of the muses. Nantes belongs to the class of towns which are always spoken of as "fine," and its position near the mouth of the Loire gives it, I believe, much commercial movement. It is a spacious, rather regular city, looking, in the parts that I traversed, neither very fresh nor very venerable. It derives its principal character from the handsome quays on the Loire, which are overhung with tall eighteenth-century houses (very numerous, too, in the other streets), - houses, with big entresols marked by arched windows, classic pediments, balconyrails of fine old iron-work. These features exist in still better form at Bordeaux; but, putting Bordeaux aside, Nantes is quite architectural. The view up and down the quays has the cool, neutral tone of color that one finds so often in French water-side places, the bright grayness which is the tone of French landscape art. The whole city has rather a grand, or at least an eminently well-established air. During a day passed in it of course I had time to go to the Musee; the more so that I have a weakness for provincial museums, - a sentiment that depends but little on the quality of the collection. The pictures may be bad, but the place is often curious; and, indeed, from bad pictures, in certain moods of the mind, there is a degree of entertainment to be derived. If they are tolerably old they are often touching; but they must have a relative antiquity, for I confess I can do nothing with works of art of which the badness is of receat origin. The cool, still, empty chambers in which indifferent collections are apt to be preserved, the red brick tiles, the diffused light, the musty odor, the mementos around you of dead fashions, the snuffy custodian in a black skull cap, who pulls aside a faded curtain to show you the lustreless gem of the museum, - these things have a mild historical quality, and the sallow canvases after all illustrate something. Many of those in the museum of Nantes illustrate the taste of a successful warrior; having been bequeathed to the city by Napoleon's marshal, Clarke (created Duc de Feltre). In addition to these there is the usual number of specimens of the contemporary French school, culled from the annual Salons and presented to the museum by the State. Wherever the traveller goes, in France, he is reminded of this very honorable practice, - the purchase by the Government of a certain number of "pictures of the year," which are presently distributed in the provinces. Governments succeed each other and bid for success by different devices; but the "patronage of art" is a plank, as we should say here, in every platform. The works of art are often ill-selected, - there is an official taste which you immediately recognize, - but the custom is essentially liberal, and a government which should neglect it would be felt to be painfully common. The only thing in this particular Musee that I remember is a fine portrait of a woman, by Ingres, - very flat and Chinese, but with an interest of line and a great deal of style.
There is a castle at Nantes which resembles in some degree that of Angers, but has, without, much less of the impressiveness of great size, and, within, much more interest of detail. The court contains the remains of a very fine piece of late Gothic, a tall elegant building of the sixteenth century. The chateau is naturally not wanting in history. It was the residence of the old Dukes of Brittany, and was brought, with the rest of the province, by the Duchess Anne, the last representative of that race, as her dowry, to Charles VIII. I read in the excellent hand-book of M. Joanne that it has been visited by almost every one of the kings of France, from Louis XI. downward; and also that it has served as a place of sojourn less voluntary on the part of various other distinguished persons, from the horrible Merechal de Retz, who in the fifteenth century was executed at Nantes for the murder of a couple of hundred young children, sacrificed in abominable rites, to the ardent Duchess of Berry, mother of the Count of Chambord, who was confined there for a few hours in 1832, just after her arrest in a neighboring house. I looked at the house in question - you may see it from the platform in front of the chateau - and tried to figure to myself that embarrassing scene. The duchess, after having unsuccessfully raised the standard of revolt (for the exiled Bourbons), in the legitimist Bretagne, and being "wanted," as the phrase is, by the police of Louis Philippe, had hidden herself in a small but loyal house at Nantes, where, at the end of five months of seclusion, she was betrayed, for gold, to the austere M. Guizot, by one of her servants, an Alsatian Jew named Deutz. For many hours before her capture she had been compressed into an interstice behind a fireplace, and by the time she was drawn forth into the light she had been ominously scorched. The man who showed me the castle indicated also another historic spot, a house with little tourelles, on the Quai de la Fosse, in which Henry IV. is said to have signed the Edict of Nantes. I am, however, not in a position to answer for this pedigree.
There is another point in the history of the fine old houses which command the Loire, of which, I suppose, one may be tolerably sure; that is, their having, placid as they stand there to-day, looked down on the horrors of the Terror of 1793, the bloody reign of the monster Carrier and his infamous noyades. The most hideous episode of the Revolution was enacted at Nantes, where hundreds of men and women, tied together in couples, were set afloat upon rafts and sunk to the bottom of the Loire. The tall eighteenth-century house, full of the air noble, in France always reminds me of those dreadful years, - of the street-scenes of the Revolution. Superficially, the association is incongruous, for nothing could be more formal and decorous than the patent expression of these eligible residences. But whenever I have a vision of prisoners bound on tumbrels that jolt slowly to the scaffold, of heads carried on pikes, of groups of heated citoyennes shaking their fists at closed coach-windows, I see in the background the well-ordered features of the architecture of the period, - the clear gray stone, the high pilasters, the arching lines of the entresol, the classic pediment, the slate-covered attic. There is not much architecture at Nantes except the domestic. The cathedral, with a rough west front and stunted towers, makes no impression as you approach it. It is true that it does its best to recover its reputation as soon as you have passed the threshold. Begun in 1434 and finished about the end of the fifteenth century, as I discover in Murray, it has a magnificent nave, not of great length, but of extraordinary height and lightness. On the other hand, it has no choir whatever. There is much entertainment in France in seeing what a cathedral will take upon itself to possess or to lack; for it is only the smaller number that have the full complement of features. Some have a very fine nave and no choir; others a very fine choir and no nave. Some have a rich outside and nothing within; others a very blank face and a very glowing heart. There are a hundred possibilities of poverty and wealth, and they make the most unexpected combinations.
The great treasure of Nantes is the two noble sepulchral monuments which occupy either transept, and one of which has (in its nobleness) the rare distinction of being a production of our own time. On the south side stands the tomb of Francis II., the last of the Dukes of Brittany, and of his second wife, Margaret of Foix, erected in 1507 by their daughter Anne, whom we have encountered already at the Chateau de Nantes, where she was born; at Langeais, where she married her first husband; at Amboise, where she lost him; at Blois, where she married her second, the "good" Louis XII., who divorced an impeccable spouse to make room for her, and where she herself died. Transferred to the cathedral from a demolished convent, this monument, the masterpiece of Michel Colomb, author of the charming tomb of the children of Charles VIII. and the aforesaid Anne, which we admired at Saint Gatien of Tours, is one of the most brilliant works of the French Renaissance. It has a splendid effect, and is in perfect preservation. A great table of black marble supports the reclining figures of the duke and duchess, who lie there peacefully and majestically, in their robes and crowns, with their heads each on a cushion, the pair of which are supported, from behind, by three, charming little kneeling angels; at the foot of the quiet couple are a lion and a greyhound, with heraldic devices. At each of the angles of the table is a large figure in white marble of a woman elaborately dressed, with a symbolic meaning, and these figures, with their contemporary faces and clothes, which give them the air of realistic portraits, are truthful and living, if not remarkably beautiful. Round the sides of the tomb are small images of the apostles. There is a kind of masculine completeness in the work, and a certain robustness of taste.
In nothing were the sculptors of the Renaissance more fortunate than in being in advance of us with their tombs: they have left us noting to say in regard to the great final contrast, - the contrast between the immobility of death and the trappings and honors that survive. They expressed in every way in which it was possible to express it the solemnity, of their conviction that the Marble image was a part of the personal greatness of the defunct, and the protection, the redemption, of his memory. A modern tomb, in comparison, is a sceptical affair; it insists too little on the honors. I say this in the face of the fact that one has only to step across the cathedral of Nantes to stand in the presence of one of the purest and most touching of modern tombs. Catholic Brittany has erected in the opposite transept a monument to one of the most devoted of her sons, General de Lamoriciere, the defender of the Pope, the vanquished of Castelfidardo. This noble work, from the hand of Paul Dubois, one of the most interesting of that new generation of sculptors who have revived in France an art of which our overdressed century had begun to despair, has every merit but the absence of a certain prime feeling. It is the echo of an earlier tune, - an echo with a beautiful cadence. Under a Renaissance canopy of white marble, elaborately worked with arabesques and cherubs, in a relief so low that it gives the work a certain look of being softened and worn by time, lies the body of the Breton soldier, with, a crucifix clasped to his breast and a shroud thrown over his body. At each of the angles sits a figure in bronze, the two best of which, representing Charity and Military Courage, had given me extraordinary pleasure when they were exhibited (in the clay) in the Salon of 1876. They are admirably cast, and they have a certain greatness: the one, a serene, robust young mother, beautiful in line and attitude; the other, a lean and vigilant young man, in a helmet that overshadows his serious eyes, resting an outstretched arm, an admirable military member, upon the hilt of a sword. These figures contain abundant assurance that M. Paul Dubois has been attentive to Michael Angelo, whom we have all heard called a splendid example but a bad model. The visor-shadowed face of his warrior is more or less a reminiscence of the figure on the tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici at Florence; but it is doubtless none the worse for that. The interest of the work of Paul Dubois is its peculiar seriousness, a kind of moral good faith which is not the commonest feature of French art, and which, united as it is in this case with exceeding knowledge and a remarkable sense of form, produces an impression, of deep refinement. The whole monument is a proof of exquisitely careful study; but I am not sure that this impression on the part of the spectator is altogether a happy one. It explains much of its great beauty, and it also explains, perhaps, a little of a certain weakness. That word, however, is scarcely in place; I only mean that M. Dubois has made a visible effort, which has been most fruitful. Simplicity is not always strength, and our complicated modern genius contains treasures of intention. This fathomless modern element is an immense charm on the part of M. Paul Dubois. I am lost in admiration of the deep aesthetic experience, the enlightenment of taste, revealed by such work. After that, I only hope that Giuseppe Garibaldi may have a monument as fair.