Chambre Bleue. Birthplace of Salon Culture
Catherine de Vivonne, The Marquise de Rambouillet
The 17th century was the era of the French Academy (1635), publication of the French language by Claude Favre de Vaugelas (1647), Antoine Furetière’s Universal Dictionary (1690) and the first edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie. It was also a time of smouldering resentments, grudges, warfare and intrigue, where the tone set by the Louvre was one of disorder, immorality, and conspiracies.
This was the milieu in which Catherine de Vivonne, the Italian grand-niece of Pope Leo X, and a cousin of Marie de Médici the queen of France, found herself when she married—at age 12—Charles d’Angennes vidame of Le Mans, and later the Marquis of Rambouillet.
Despite her entitlement to participate in royal court-life The Marquise found the coarseness and intrigue that reigned in the French court little to her taste, and after the birth of her eldest daughter, Julie d’Angennes in 1607 began to retreat from it. By 1610, when Henri III was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic and succeeded by his young son Louis XIII, she had ceased to attend entirely.
After restoring the old Hôtel Pisani, located on the rue Saint-Thomas-du-Louvre, in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, [since demolished] and redesigning it in the Italian style—which The Marquise de Rambouillet had personally planned the new layout and airy and unified interiors herself— she began to entertain at the renamed Hôtel de Rambouillet1 creating what would become a prototype for gatherings and socialisation by polite society for the next four decades and leave a startling legacy behind her.
From 1612 the Marquise entertained at the newly renamed Hôtel de Rambouillet and created what would become a prototype for gatherings and socialisation by ‘polite society’.
Part nostalgia and part exemplar of ideal behaviour the gatherings of Madame de Rambouillet cultivated a principle of men and women pursuing together investigations into and conversations about literature, music, dance, theatre, art and discourse by choice.
The word salon, now used to describe these gatherings, was not commonly used in France until the end of the 18th century. There was no word in 17th century France for the space or concept of the salon, rather terms like cercle, assemble, societee or compagnie were used.
In Italian the word salone refers to a hall in where monarchs received their ambassadors. This was precisely the spirit in which Mme de Rambouillet entertained in her ‘Salone’ inside the Hôtel de Rambouillet. Her ‘Salon’ had walls of panelled in blue velvet, framed in gold and silver, blue upholstery, and a clear blue sky painted on the ceiling; a bold statement at a time when red-and-tan was considered the only acceptable colour scheme for interiors. Mme de Rambouillet’s Chambre Blueu—Blue Room—became a sensation in French society for she provided an entirely new and unorthodox experience in terms of her hospitality, curation of guests and a space where conversation was everything.
Mme de Rambouillet had created an innovative and new zone for socialisation, positioned halfway between the courts of the King and Queen and the Church for what was in effect a small group of privileged people united by a secular, appreciation of ethics and aesthetics, and by doing so sowed the seeds for a revolution of thought and manners that was to affect the course of French society.
Unlike Italy and Greece, France didn’t have institutional forums for its citizens to express their opinions. ‘Salons’ became a space for intellectual and political debate and public opinion shaping.
Poets, writers, linguists of the 16th century attended including François de Malherbe, the first members of the nascent French Academy: Vincent Voiture, Jean Chapelain, Antoine Godeau, Claude Favre de Vaugelas and Tallemant des Réaux, who wrote about his contemporaries in short biographies known as Historiettes. The writer Jean Regnault de Segrais would later write that Mme de Rambouillet “corrected the wicked customs that went before her” and she “taught politesse to all those of her time who visited her.”
The values of clarity, measure, elegance, and regard for the self-respect of others were nourished by literature which with time opened the way for history, philosophy and scientific reflection setting the precedent for generations of women to assume roles of social leadership what later became to be known as the salon.
According to Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux the writer of ‘entertaining and informative Historiettes friends called her ” La Grande Marquise ” Inside the Blue Room “ we talked, we did readings, we played comedy, we sang and we listened to music. We played board games, we indulged in small literary improvisations. There were rondeaux (a form of poetry), enigmas […].”
Within mere decades, Mme de Rambouillet’s stance against coarseness and factionalism had established itself as an alternative way with many of the women who attended the salons at Hôtel Rambouillet such as; Marie-Madeleine de La Fayette, Corneille, Marie de Sévigné, the Duchesse de Longueville, Madeleine de Scudéry, and the Duchesse de Montpensier, going on to found their own salons.
Salons were not receptions, rather select people were brought together to discuss a common topic skillfully directed by the hostess or salonnière, as they came to be known, who directed the flow of conversation.
These women salonnières rose to positions of power and influence due to their agency of approval, determining which books were read, plays were attended, and art purchased. Salonnières often found funding for their protégés, some of whom they supported entire lifetimes. Their extensive networks were essential to success, and few philosophes, writers, or artists achieved success without their assistance. Their influence was also felt in the creation of cultural institutions like the Academies, the Comédie Française, government pension lists, and the administration of the book trade.
The climate cultivated during the era of the 17th and 18th century salons gave rise to modern concepts such as individual liberty, equality, and democracy.
These women were not without their detractors indeed The Ridiculous Précieuses (The Affected Ladies) a one-act satire by Molière was levelled at the women and the ‘precious’ affectations at the numerous and less rigourous salons that had sprung up in imitation of the Blue Room.
The Hotel de Rambouillet continued open till the death of its mistress, on the 2nd of December 1665.
1Interestingly Hôtel de Rambouillet with its tall windows and wide doors, one bright room opening onto the next encouraging circulation and conversation the renamed Hôtel de Rambouillet would be referenced by generations of Baroque architects, including Louis Le Vau, who built Vaux-le-Vicomte for Fouquet and rebuilt Versailles for Louis XIV.
Image attribution: Painting considered to be Catherine de Vivonne, The Marquise de Rambouillet by unknown artist.