Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Lever, Coucher, and More: A Day in the Life of a French King

Your eyes flutter open, sight still hazy with the fuzziness of sleep. At eight o’clock, the curtains around your bed--sequestered as it is in a gold balustrade alcove—are thrown open by your valet de chambre, the one man to have slept in the same room as you. Your childhood nurse bends gingerly down over you, placing a kiss upon your forehead as the chief physician and the chief surgeon look on. Your chamber pot is removed and the curtains are drawn. You wait.

At a quarter past the hour, the curtains are opened once more. Now the Grand Chamberlain is allowed entrée, bringing with him only those who has kowtowed the most exuberantly, curried the most favor—only those whom you have deemed worthy to experience the privilege of watching you rise. You are the King of France, and your lever (rising ceremony) continues.

From The Courtier’s Secret, Feb. 09:

Louis rose from his bed, taking a drink from the cup of sage tea at his bedside, then knelt to say some quick prayers, oblivious to the growing activity at the edges of his room.

Behind Mme. Hamelin, the morning’s procession began. Three doctors, including the King’s First Physician and his First Surgeon, entered, all three men elaborately dressed in their enveloping black robes, long wigs of white curls, and tall, peaked hats belonging only to those of their vocation. After a cursory examination by all three men, the parade of nobles began.

The First Entrance, led by the Princes of the Blood, was fairly short. With barely an open eye and no inhibitions whatsoever, Louis strode to the corner, lifted his nightshirt, and relieved himself in his chaise percée. Nowhere was the lack of privacy more evident.

The Kings of France lived under the constant eye of their people; even here in what should have been a person’s most private moment. The young and old men bowed to their sovereign as the Grand Chamberlain handed over the dressing gown, the one presented by the First Lord of the Bedchamber, to the King. With dressing gown in place, Louis gracefully pulled on his own hose, only to have a couple of high dignitaries kneel and fasten his bejeweled garters for him. They stood, signaling the Second Entrance to begin.

Today Jules de Bourbon, the son of the Prince de Condé, led this larger group of courtiers, traditionally preceded by the First Nobleman of the Realm, the highest–ranking man in attendance each day. Not far behind him, Henri entered the room. A few steps behind him, Gaston du Bois fumed, spying the young man entering before him. Gaston recognized him from the soirée the night before, but his appearance here this morning, and so far at the front of the procession, made Gaston wonder about the true identity of this young cavalier.

The Duc de Beauvilliers presented the King with his shirt, then the First Lord of the Bedchamber attached the right cuff while the First Lord of the Wardrobe attached the left.

The Third Entrance began to make their way in, line after line of barons and peers, bowing and scraping and bumping one another in their thirst to be in front and perhaps be the one bestowed with the honor of handing the King his waistcoat. The Fourth Entrance, including the Secretaries of State, quickly followed these men. Louvois strode before Colbert, though the older man retained seniority by greater rank as well as age. The Secretary of Finances moved much slower these days; he appeared wan, the skin on his round face pale and sagging around his deeply dimpled chin.

Any visiting ambassadors filled the Fifth Entrance, while the Sixth was by far the most colorful, made up of red cardinals and purple bishops. All the day’s lever participants were now in the room, close to one hundred men, and the final touches were put to the King’s outfit. The Master of the Wardrobe fastened the King’s jabot, then the Lord of the Neckcloths adjusted it.

Completely dressed, Louis bowed to the vast assembly before him, noticing every face, making a mental note of those whose faces he failed to see.

A King’s coucher—his daily retirement—is but the reverse of the lever, though it allowed women to pass by the king and bid him a good night as well.

Louis XIV was the master of the lever and coucher, understanding better than any sovereign that came before, the power in bestowing such privileges, using such leverage to his benefit. Deeply affected by the Fronde (an uprising of nobles traumatizing his early childhood), Louis plied every tool—every form of manipulation and coercion—to keep his court under his control. Previous kings were not so stringent; many used the occasions to fatten their purse, allowing nobles to purchase their place at such ceremonies. While others, such as François I (the featured king in my next work, To Serve a King, releasing Feb. ’11), desired only for his dearest friends—even those whom he raised to nobility—to share such intimate moments.

Meal times were no exception for Louis XIV and other French kings and were done with great pomp and circumstance. At one o’clock each afternoon, and the men of the court looked on, the king was served an enormous meal at an equally large table in his bedchamber. Typical fare included soups, pheasant, some other fowl such as duck or chicken, along with mutton, ham, boiled eggs, salads and finished with pastries and fruits. Ironically, the meal was titled le petit couvert, the little service.

Le grand couvert was served at ten o’clock in the evening. Taking place in the king’s antechamber with his family members around him, the meal lasted close to an hour, was served by fifteen officers, and was offered au public—a sign of authority dating back to the Middle Ages. Guards were required to regulate the flow of traffic through the room as commoners, merchants, and peasants filed by to glimpse the king at table, bowing quickly before him in complete silence, for the king would not be distracted from his food. Louis used the occasion to, yet again, put his nobles in place—allowing only a handful to sit during the lengthy meal—and to display his great magnanimity.

Subsequent kings and queens, especially those descended from the great Sun King, did not find the control nearly as tantalizing; many did, in fact, resent the intrusion on their privacy that extended to the marriage bed and the moment of child birth. For some, the ostentatious lifestyle revealed in these private moments would prove to be their downfall.

Louise de Savoy, François I’s mother, will be the topic of next month’s post, a woman who fought against male authority to keep guardianship not only of her own children, but those of her husband’s mistress.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Case of the Two Clerics

Though the Case of the Two Clerics, as depicted in The Secret of the Glass, could be viewed as a vehicle for derogatory insinuation against certain religions and the actions of its clerics, it is in fact part of Venetian history.

Also referred to in some historic texts as the Interdict battle, the conflict between the Venetian government (La Serenissima) and the Holy See (the governing body of the Catholic religion as led by the Pope) ignited over the legal jurisdiction of two clerics: Scipio Saraceni and Marcantonio Brandolin.

Scipio Saraceni, a canon of Vincenza, had been denounced to the Council of Ten, the law enforcement agency of the Venetian government (similar to a modern day Attorney General) for persistent abuse and mistreatment of his own niece. Saraceni, upon learning of the charges leveled against him, publicly slandered the teenaged woman, further abused her, and plastered filth on her front door. Marcantonio Brandolin, also known as Brandolino Valmarino, a native of Forli and an abbot of Narvesa, faced many charges--those of murder, fraud, rape and every kind of violence against his dependants. Both men had been tried and convicted in the Venetian civil court of crime, rapine, and homicide. And though they were clerics, La Serenissima had not notified the Vatican of the charges, the trial, or its outcome.

Pope Paul V (born as Camillo Borghese, 1550 Rome, named Pope in 1605), a staunch proponent of ecclesiastical immunities, was outraged when he eventually discovered the treatment of his disciples and immediately set about to bring them under his jurisdiction. The Venetian government of the time, as led by Doge Donato with the guidance of Fra Paolo Sarpi, knew without doubt that were they to turn these criminals over to the Vatican, the criminals would be released from all punishments, sequestered away, to be forgotten in some opulent exile. La Serenissima refused to allow it, no matter the consequence.

The Holy See warned La Serenissima: comply or face banishment. Venice refused once more. The Pope called their actions heresy, a dangerous word in an age of Inquisition, and the Vatican issued Venice twenty-four days to release their prisoners or face excommunication by Interdict. The Doge and Venice needed but a few of those days. They tightened security on the prisoners, and cast the Papal Nuncio—the Vatican’s ambassador to Venice—from their shores. They further responded with their own edict, warning the clergy of the land: if they refused to worship—if they upheld a portion of the Interdict as issued by the Vatican—they would hang. In fighting a powerful foe, they took up an equally sharp sword.

The underlying issue at the heart of the Case of the Two Clerics, that which was to reverberate for centuries, is found in the slant of the Venetian argument, to separate religious issues from those of government…the separation of church and state.

The Pope and Venice agreed to accept French mediation, though many found it a strange decision by the Pope. King Henri of France (1553-1610) had converted to Catholicism to accept the crown, but he had been a Huguenot, had issued the Edict of Nantes, which provided religious freedom to the Protestants, and had already wrestled with the Pope on such matters. It was of little surprise to anyone when Henri’s decision fell in favor of Venice and lifted all Interdicts.

As factually depicted in The Secret of the Glass, Pope Paul V was determined to seek revenge on Venice, the clergy who defied his edict, and especially the one he believed was the cause for his humiliation, Fra Paolo Sarpi. The attack on Sarpi took place in life as it did in the book, and though it was never proved irrefutably, there was overwhelming evidence that the order for the attack came from the Holy See.

Yes, the Case of the Two Clerics is a true story; yes, it does mirror atrocities perpetrated in our own time. But what should be astounding is not that such events so closely parallel each other, though they may be separated by centuries, but that they still happen.

(Portraits-from top to bottom--Doge Leonardo Donato, Pope Paul V, Fra Paolo Sarpi)

Next month, the origin and history of the eating and sleeping habits of French royalty…the lever, coucher, and more.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Galileo and the Caves of Costozza

Scientist Galileo Galilei has charmed readers of The Secret of the Glass, my latest release from Kensington Books, as decidedly as he charmed me during my research. I am often asked about his illness and the manner in which he contracted it. And though every school child around the world studies the scientist and mathematician who perfected the telescope, little of the man is revealed.

Through his own recollections, I recount, in a very short but important chapter, an event in Galileo’s life in 1603 that resulted in his contracting a chronic illness, one that will ‘plague him for the remainder of his life.’ It is about this incident that so many ask…is it true?

In Galileo at Work: His Scientific Biography (University of Chicago Press, 1978), author Stillman Drake quotes letters from one of Galileo’s most devoted students, Vicenzo Viviani, which describe the incident:

“He was troubled up to the end of his life, by severe pains and twinges that molested him bitterly at changes of weather, in various parts of his body. These originated in him by his having been in the company of two noble friends of his, in the burning heat of one summer at a villa in the countryside of Padua, where they went to rest in a very cold room to escape the most uncomfortable hours of the day. When all were asleep, a servant thoughtlessly opened a vent through which, for pleasure, there used to be released a perpetual artificial wind generated by the motions and the fall of water nearby.”

The letter goes on to relate that all three men awoke with “torpor and chills, headaches and various disorders.” Within days, one of Galileo’s company had died; within months, the other. Though he survived, Galileo contracted an illness that many modern-day scientists and doctors equate with rheumatoid arthritis or other forms of auto-immune disease.

Author Michale Sharatt, in his book Galileo: Decisive Innovator (Cambridge University Press, 1996), mentions that it was in 1603 that Galileo “contracted the rheumatic illness that was to disrupt the rest of his life with incapacitating seizures.”

The event was further confirmed for me by this passage in Painting the Heavens: Art and Science in the Age of Galileo by Eileen Reeves (Princeton University Press, 1997): “It is possible, in fact, that the great interest shown by members of Sarpi’s circle in the underground caves of nearby Costozza—where subterranean waters, a continual damp wind, and regrettably the occasional fusion of noxious gases cooled a splendid villa—is related to such conjectures, for the site was visited without incident by Peiresc in the spring of 1602, and, rather disastrously, by Galileo in the summer of the following year.”

In other works, it was suggested that the men were told of the vent and were warned not to spend too much time in the room with it opened. Having found this a much more dramatic postulation, it was the version I chose to include in my book.

There is an abundance of suppositions as to the true nature of what Galileo and his companions were exposed to, that the ‘noxious gases’ ranged from carbon monoxide to radon and that the nature of his infirmity was auto-immune. The revelation of this history, that which made the mention of the scientist’s poor health a necessity in my work (and what bonded me to him), is my own similar illness. Since a bout of Lyme Disease, left undiagnosed for two and a half years, I too suffer from a chronic auto-immune disease. Galileo’s accomplishments, in spite of his ailment (or because of it, as I hypothesize in The Secret of the Glass) inspire me to keep working, regardless of my physical condition.

So often writers find parallels with their own lives and with current events that they are compelled to include certain facts in their work. Up next, The Case of the Two Clerics.

To celebrate the launch of my blog, I’m hosting a contest at my website. Stop by and enter to win an autographed copy of The Secret of the Glass and a pair of Murano glass earrings.