Thursday, September 3, 2015

Fit for a king?

Ghent, Belgium

Touring a Count's house in Ghent, Belgium
Touring the Count's house
For an eccentric like me, the backstage lives of footnote characters is the best part of history. Their stories can offer a roundabout peek into color main players either lack or do their best to hide. So, though I respect the perfection and importance of the van Eyck brother's masterpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which was at the top of our must see list here in Ghent, visiting the home of Count d'Hane de Steeuhuysein was more of an adventure. According to our guide, here's the deal.....

In 1815, when Napoleon re-conquered Paris, Louis XVIII fled for his life. Of course, he wanted to go to buzzy London but he owed too much money there so he went to Ghent and stayed with the Count instead. The house was not exactly fit for a king but definitely better than what Napoleon had in mind for him. The entrance was covered and included a marble stairs mounting to a large reception hall leading to a sweeping staircase. And, of course, there was a music room, a ballroom with angels peeking down from the clouds and the Count immediately put his servants at the King’s disposal.

French Kind Henry VIII's chair - Ghent, Belgim
Louis's chair in Ghent
Now Louis XVIII was very fat so using the stairs was out of the question. He took over the downstairs and the Count, his wife and their three children stayed upstairs. They were, basically, hostages of the king. Lucky for everyone, it only took the Duke of Wellington one hundred days to kick Napoleon back out of Paris after which the King made a hasty return. For his service and hospitality, the Count anticipated a generous reward … a better title, money, perhaps both, maybe more. Instead Louie sent him some plates and bowls. Nothing more. They are still there in the house, on display in a glass case… a few big, mostly white plates and bowls. They look like something you might see on sale in a charity shop.

Our guide at
the Count's house
Another detail I found interesting was that, while there, the King took his meals in a room facing the street and the giant windows were thrown open so the town people could stand outside and watch him eat. They did not come because they loved him. The people of Ghent did not want a French king but they did come to watch him eat. I can't blame them. Who would pass on the chance to watch a king eat? Did he wear white gloves and a plumed hat? Did he savor tiny bits of food from the tip of a silver fork or did he slurp and burp his way through a greasy feast? The guide didn’t say but I am intrigued by the image of the king gorging himself by candlelight as a crowd stares in at him from the dark street.

Our guide also explained an intriguing detail about the absurd, billowing, multi-layered, tightly corseted clothing women wore in those days. When dressed in this manner, a woman's personal servant was near at hand, prepared to slip a portable toilet under her dress because pulling up all those layers and layers of cloth, hoops and petticoats and sitting down on a regular toilet was an impossible task. Even at night, her servant was nearby. We saw where they both slept, the maidservant tucked in a cubbyhole above her mistress’s bed. Seems that privacy, as we know it, was unheard of.

Flaky angels
Of course everyone from that time is long dead and, over the centuries, the house itself fell into disrepair. Walls were added dividing it into separate addresses and even the grand staircase was moved forward to fit into a smaller apartment. One of the rooms along the street was turned into a pharmacy and the angels in the ballroom began flaking paint on the floor below. However, in recent years the city of Ghent bought and revived the old place. Divider walls were knocked out and rooms restored to their original shape and size. The stairs were returned to their original position and the entrance to the pharmacy was replaced by windows duplicating those through which people used to watch the king take his meals. The angels in the ballroom are still flaky but that's angels isn't it? Always delicate and unruly.

We're now in Amsterdam for the next two weeks.

2 comments:

Roy said...

I hate when angels flake off. But I've always had a soft spot for them. I kept mine busy for the first part of my life, so I guess if they want to flake, I can hardly judge.

asha said...

Right. Me too.