Monday, June 11, 2018

The real house of Montaigne

12 Rue du Maréchal Joffre, Bordeaux, France: The real house of Montaigne?

When I was in Bordeaux, France, recently, of course, I wanted to see the places where the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne had lived and worked. It’s true that his actual house was his castle, 70 km east of Bordeaux, and his main income came from managing his lands. But before he inherited the estate, when his father died, he had been a councillor in the Parliament (court) of Bordeaux. Later he was mayor of the town for a few years. Also outside these periods he came there often. Therefore, as so many lords in the region around Bordeaux, he had also a house in the city. Happily I found a walk on the Internet along the mayor places in Montaigne’s life in Bordeaux.
My walk starts on the Quinconces Square. The square is from the 19th century, but on one side there is a big statue of Montaigne as mayor with his ceremonial cloak. On the opposite side of the square there is a statue of Montesquieu, another great inhabitant of Bordeaux. Then I walk along the River Garonne, till I reach the Cailhau Gate. I pass through it, as Montaigne must often have done in his days as a councillor, and I reach the Palace Square. Once it was in the front of the Ombrière Palace. This palace had been built in the tenth century. In the 16th century it was used by the parliament, but in the 19th century it had been demolished. Not any trace has been left of it. Montaigne worked there for about ten years, till he had enough of it and retired to his castle. He met there his friend Étienne de La Boétie, to whom he devoted his essay on friendship.
From the square I walk to the Mirail Street and then to the Rousselle Street. Now it becomes really interesting, for I wanted to see not only in what kind of environment Montaigne had lived but exactly in which house he had done. And it is in 28 Mirail Street or otherwise in 23-25 Rousselle Street that many Montaigne investigators think that he had his house. It’s true that he had several properties in Bordeaux, but we know also that there was only one house in the town that was his “real house”. But alas, though the Montaigne specialists still disagree, most of them now think that 28 Mirail Street was owned by one of his brothers. However, it is sure that our philosopher must have lived in the Rousselle Street. The premises there were owned by his father. Where else would Montaigne have lived when he went to school in Bordeaux? Also later as an adult he must have come there often. But again, most Montaigne specialists agree that it was not his real house.
I continue my walk and pass the oldest house of Bordeaux. Nearby is a house once owned by the in-laws of La Boétie. I pass the Big Bell Tower and to the right of it I see the former town hall where Montaigne worked as mayor for four years. And in front of me I see the lycée, the grammar school that he visited as a young student. It was one of the best lycées in France and there he came into touch with the classical authors, which had such a big influence on his thinking. But do I really see the lycée? Yes, but only in my imagination, for nowadays the site is occupied by a modern multi-storey car park. Then again I come at a place where Montaigne certainly his lived for some time, next to the St Paul St. François-Xavier church: the official residence of the mayor. Also very interesting, indeed, and Montaigne must have stayed there often. However, it’s not his real house, for the official residence of a mayor is only his house as long as he is in office.
My walk ends in the Aquitaine Museum of history. I can advise you to visit it, for it describes and shows the regional history till far back in the past, when Neanderthals were still roaming around on the banks of the Garonne. But I am not there for learning about the region’s past but for seeing Montaigne’s cenotaph. After his death, Montaigne was interred in the Les Feuillants Convent and his wife had had made a beautifully decorated stone coffin for him. The monastery was demolished in 1880 and now you find there the Aquitaine Museum with a special room for Montaigne’s now empty tomb. It’s a worthy end of a walk devoted to Montaigne, and I stay quite long in the room, thinking about the man and his work.
Nevertheless, I leave the museum with a little feeling of dissatisfaction, for where was Montaigne’s residence? None of the houses on my walk where Montaigne had lived apparently was his real house. So I take my smartphone and google for “the real house of Montaigne”. Indeed, I find a website with this name, and it tells me that if there is one house that deserves the title House of Montaigne more than any other one, it is 12 Maréchal-Joffre Street. Why? Because it agrees with some descriptions made about 1800 by some who consider it as the “vraie maison de Montaigne”, as Montaigne’s real house. So I walk to the Maréchal-Joffre Street and stop in front of number 12. The house is in bad condition. Some parts of the original house have been demolished, like the gate and a little tower. Vaguely I can see a few interesting details like a griffin and a blazon. Was this the real house of Montaigne?

Montaigne’s cenotaph:

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