Friday, February 26, 2010

Vive Nantes!

Huzzah! Hoorah! and three cheers for Nantes! a great city - a marvelous city - a city that has reinvented itself many, many times and has the history, pluck and acumen to prove it! The historical capital of Brittany (it was put into its own, separate department in the 1960s), it still pulls and projects the independence of the medieval dukedom that resisted French absorption/domination for so long. But there's be time for that, first: THE MACHINES! Here we are, some of us, in front of the famed Elephant, the star of the Machines. Most unfortunately, she (as our kids decided) was not taking any walks either Thursday or Friday due to high winds (it's 40' tall, so I must say that I appreciate the safety consideration!). They had her move her legs and spray out some steam, and that was enough to get the crowds cheering. Riding the Elephant will be our main motivation for returning - and return we will! In the meantime, we made some new friends:

The squid seems to be checking Iris out pretty thoroughly. Yikes! He and the other fantastic creatures on display (in what used to be a shipyards, but the shipyards around here closed down in the late 1980s - see what I mean by reinvention? The Machines are an enormous draw (260,000 visitors last year alone!) for the region) will all make up a three-storey carousel, with each storey being a different level of the ocean. I have a feeling this fellow will be pretty far down in the depths, yes?

What about this guy? YIKES! Twice as scary with Mac's sepia-tone effect!

After the Machines, we started riding the tram (Iris looooves public transportation) and getting to know the city just a little bit. One of our goals was the famous Passage Pommeraye, famous for itself (it's a 19th century passage between two streets that houses gorgeous shops - a kind of Cathedral of the People), and for being in Jacques Demy's wonderful film Lola which Mac and I saw last year, and loved and were haunted by (Demy is really odd, but always gets you right in the heart in the end, see Les Parapluies de Cherbourg to see what I mean) (actually, watch this 4-minute scene that starts at 4:15 and goes until minute 8:00 in this clip from Lola - after all the freneticism of the far that slow motion with that Bach towards the end makes no sense, but Mac and I must have replayed that look of pure joy and triumph the young girl gives the sailor as they're running a dozen times when we first saw it).

I should have more pictures here (the mussels feast (well, Mac had duck, but was just as happy!) that we had in the medieval quarter du Bouffay where our cozy hotel was; the glorious sun the next day; the excellent entrance into the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, over a drawbridge and an actual filled in moat),but I want to zero in on two really amazing rooms/images in this fine museum of the history of Nantes housed in the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany (which has been through a great deal and has very little of it (furnishings, etc.) that says castle - instead the space has been beautifully redone to house this fantastic walk through 32 rooms that take you through Nantes' history from the Middle Ages to the Modern Day - as Iris asked "Why do so many people turn their castles into museum?" !!!). OK - so, image number one: these are prints, drawings, and account books from the slave trade that Nantes was a main hub for. There is a model of a slave ship here that reveals conditions for the slaves; there is a huge maquette of a sugar plantation (one of the big demands for slave labor); and then there are all of these bills of sales. As even the guide books will tell you, profit margins were often 200% - it was lucrative, meticulously recorded, and is now incredible on display. As our students Hallie and Matt (currently studying in Paris) astutely noted, there is no museum of the French Colonial experience and that this slave trade, in some ways, is an even more ominous page of history, makes the detailed attention paid to it that much more impressive. It's still hard to make sense of it all: buildings were often decorated with the majestic faces of Africans in full headdress, a romanticization (is that what it is?) of the very people sold as slaves. There's a really smart piece of museum trajectory timing in that you go through the slave trade room first, and then you go through the lifestyle of the rich merchant room - you get a keen and vivid sense of where the labor for such wealth came from.

These two gentlemen are amazing, aren't they? The Chinese merchant and the French merchant, both prow figures for commercial ships. Nantes' internationalism is far reaching - there's this sense of not just going out, but returning, and with marketable goods. There's orientalism here, yes, but the commerce, and the iconography of the commerce (look at that French merchant prow figure!) grounds it all in these pragmatics of business. It's a really interesting effect. The kids loved these guys. The room devoted to the Lu cookies (first known for their Petit Beurre cookies, but now universally loved for their Petits Ecoliers) was the site of much ecstasy.

We picnicked on benches near the moat of the castle and then just decided to see how far we could go in the afternoon. The kids blew us away: first, we went to the Museum of Natural History and they spent a surprising amount of time in the rock and mineral section - well, nothing surprising if you consider geodes like this one (I love that Iris applied a magnifying glass to it), and of course, I have a great colleague who has shown me the beauty and wonder of rocks. I just let them guide me around and we looked at all sorts of cool formations, and then an entire paleolithic sections (fossils, giant spider fossils, all sorts of things). Oliver was even taken by the "samples of wood" collection that lined the stairs going to the second floor!

Oliver's been talking a great deal about boars of late (I think that there's an Asterix connection there!), and so was thrilled to see this fine specimen all stuffed and ready to go. The second floor was astounding: clearly many of the specimens there were from the 19th century (I guess that I've spent my fair share of time in museums that have old wonder cabinet displays to recognize different periods of taxidermic fashions!), but they've been very well preserved, and now the entire population is housed in new cases with gorgeous lighting. The animals are aligned by scientific type (don't know about genus and species, but humans were definitely with apes) and all march in this great parade around the entire room: the kids found a platypus, a giant anteater, a snake skeleton, various and sundry deer creatures, a camel skeleton (no humps!), penguins, a sucker fish (ew!), eels, a hippopotamus skull (very impressive), a tufted pelican, and more and more and... enormous whale skeleton! Mac took this wonderful shot despite having his usual afternoon adornment, a sleeping 35-pound Eleanor, on his shoulder. Most impressive (the whale and Mac!)

"This museum is worth its weight in gold!" said Oliver about the Musée Dobrée - we only saw the medieval stuff (hmmm) and did not get to the archaeology museum that is associated with this one (next time!). The medieval collection is wonderful quirky and fantastic - as I understand it (we were going somewhat quickly as our Nantes 24-hour Pass was about to run out and we still wanted to catch a tram - also included in the Pass), the museum houses Dobrée's collection, so it has that delicious challenge of following a collector's interests and tastes. This entire room devoted to medieval weaponry (check out the crossbow behind Oliver) was another man's collection, but the room showed his home when it was all bedecked with his bellicose beauties - swords, helmets, shields, maces and spears (oh my!). There were many terrific objects here:

The reliquary for the heart of Anne of Brittany - brave and true and Breton proud to the very end! It was quite incredible to be in this city so marked by her presence - many, many images in the history of Nantes museum that show her as protectress of all Bretons well into the 19th century.

Phyllis taking a ride on Aristotle - there's a shinier one in the Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but I love this one: the great philosopher (who counseled his charge, Alexander the Great, to shun women only to be brought literally to his knees by none other than Alexander's girlfriend, Phyllis, who had overheard the philosopher's foolish advice) is even more animal-like than usual, his hands turning into the front paws of whatever poor beast of burden he's become. Great tale!

And this wonderful ass of a bespectacled teacher tormenting a poor student over a book which...

...completely cracked Oliver up.

It's getting late, so I won't go on here as much as I would like, but suffice it to say that the allegorical statue of Prudence at the head of Marguerite de Foix (Anne of Brittany's mother) on the incredible monument that Anne had built for her parents, blew my mind. Here he/she is, an old man looking back and a young woman looking forward (Prudence looks to both the past and the future before deciding on her course of action). Lots of great iconographic details (she's holding a compass with which to take the measure of things) and more - this will definitely figure in some of the work I'm doing on Prudence, as Anne de Bretagne had the monument built between 152-07 and Louise de Savoie had herself represented as Prudence in 1509 - incredibly contemporary figures, and I'd like to argue that Louise is referencing this monument in her own image (the iconography of the compass is unusual, not unique, but unusual enough that Louise using it in her own image is worthy of note). The kids were my heroes at this point - it was approaching 5 p.m. and boy had we had a long day, but they sat on a bench and talked while I snapped away. Of course, they were in this grand Flamboyant cathedral of Nantes - thank you, dear friend Althea, for pointing out the absurdity of that academic term - oy!

All this to say that we love Nantes and can't wait to go back and explore more. Jules Verne was squeezed out this time around, but dear Mac vows to finish 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and return triumphantly. Vive Nantes!

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