One of my greatest pleasures over the years has been to explore some of the lesser-known corners of France, so I thought I might share with the readers of Powell's a description of a little town there that has lingered in my memory.
In a remote part of northern Burgundy near Chablis lies the town of Châtillon-sur-Seine. It's a lovely, sleepy place with stone bridges over the river that winds through it, in which weeds flow like long green ribbons beneath the surface.
Among the fine 16th- and 17th-century stone buildings is one that houses a museum, and in that museum is a display of artifacts from one of the most remarkable burials of pre-Christian Europe, known as the trésor de Vix.
In 1952, an archaeologist named Joffroy, who worked for the municipality, had been fossicking around a steep hill with a table-like top outside the town for years. He'd discovered thousands of shards of pottery, some of it Hellenic, and a number of bronze clasps from about 500 BC to 300 AD. Joffroy and his fellow enthusiasts would also hunt for mushrooms and snails there, or take a gun to hunt rabbits.
One late winter day, they decided to make a trial excavation in a place where there was a pile of rocks that weren't local. After not very much digging, they discovered a great bronze handle poking up from the soil, in the shape of a leering Medusa, with hissing serpents at each shoulder. Its styling and details were in the manner of the pinnacle of the Greek bronze-maker's art, from 6 to 500 BC.
What they'd come across was a collapsed tomb. It had been made of timber below ground, roofed, then covered with stones. Very carefully, they began to dig, unearthing scores of treasures and a tale long forgotten.
The tomb was that of a Gaulish princess who'd died about age 30, around 525 BC — about 2,500 years ago. Her body had been laid on the chariot she'd ridden, which was ornamented with gold. On her head was the ceremonial gold diadem she'd worn, a massive object roughly horse-shoe in shape, with great decorated orbs surmounted by winged griffons. It weighs more than a pound, and possibly formed the frontpiece of a headdress made of dyed and gilt leather.
A large array of other jewelry was also buried with her, items that she'd worn on her arms, neck, and ears. But her trip to the afterlife was also provided with an object that must've been of near mystical importance to her people — a stupendous bronze wine krater more than five feet high. No finer krater from the Greek classical period is known. Its handles are the leering Medusas that Joffroy and his friends first saw: the Medusas tongues sticking out, their eyes goggling. Around its rim is a relief scene of soldiers, naked hoplites, and horse-drawn chariots going off to war. Its lid is crowned by an archaic figure of a robed Sybil, her gaze directed at an unknowable distance in calm mystery.
This Gaulish princess was also sent off with a trove of bronze jars, ewers, and cups, some Greek ceramics depicting warriors in combat with Amazons, a whole arsenal of weapons, and a great silver wine vessel. Wide and shallow, more a concave mirror than a drinking bowl, it's an object for a priestess, a seer's bowl.
After first being utterly agape at seeing the trésor de Vix, I was astonished that these objects had been allowed to stay in that small town instead of being taken to Paris. The Louvre is like a great maw that has swallowed up much of the treasures of France, not to mention quite a few from other lands. I sometimes think that Napoleon must've had an entire tactical force just to load up art and monuments, to send them by groaning wagons back to Paris.
But somehow that Gaulish princess's tributes had remained there. My mind raced as my husband picked me up so that I could see the top of the bronze krater. What sort of person had she been, to be buried with such big juju?
It seems she controlled the point on the trade route where the tin dug from the hills of Cornwall, the tin the Greeks needed to make their bronze, could no longer go by boat. The tin had traveled across the Channel, then on the Seine to Châtillon, where the source of the river rises from a limestone cavern. From there the tin was taken by cart, probably over the Alps, then south.
I imagine her as a great leader, strong and just and brave. That she must've been the first person, in that wild, crude part of Gaul, to see the wider implications of trade. Perhaps she'd invented, or learned from the more sophisticated Greeks, the concept of middleman. Certainly the Greeks had not sent her such tributes just because she was some lady savage from the lands to the north who happened to make a few beads for toll fees on tin. Instead, I think that she'd forced organization and commerce on her region, and so successfully that on her death her people had taken all the symbols of her power and sealed them up in the earth with her.
One of the most tenacious facets of the French psyche is a reverence for the terroir, the soil. The French have a deep affinity with the soil, a longing they call nostalgie de bou, or "ache for the mud." So that when their Gaulish forebears dug a chamber in the earth to bury that princess, they were not greedy, did not hold anything back, in the belief that this would please the gods, the forces of the earth and air and water, and that, by doing so, these forces would then show the people favor; that the Princess of Vix and her treasures would enrich the soil forever.
Perhaps some of that atavistic, and quite logical, thinking may have played a part in the extraordinary fact that the trésor de Vix can only be seen in its home. And it matters to me, somehow, that this princess still lies in state among her hills and forests, still surrounded by her emblems of esteem.
Anyone now fired up to visit Châtillon-sur-Seine might be interested in two other remarkable sites quite nearby. The first is the actual Elysian Fields, the Champs Elysées, where Vercingetorix, the leader of the Gauls, made his final stand in the spring of 52 BC. Now an Arcadian landscape of woods and green hectares, Vercingetorix and his troops were caught in a desperate siege there, in which the Roman legions proved their terrible, logical might. Vercingetorix was captured and taken to Rome, where he was imprisoned, then executed as the showpiece of a triumph in honor of Julius Caesar. He died hearing the jeers of all Rome in his ears; a bearded, wild-haired Gaul of 26. But the name of the place where he'd been captured, where his dreams of glory had been fought to the death, became a symbol of the idea of the vanquished hero, a legend of all those who fought to save their land from the invader.
The other site is the château de Bussy-Rabutin. The Count Bussy-Rabutin was a bit of a card who liked to write verse. A courtier to his majesty King Louis XIV, he didn't think all that highly of the Sun King. He wrote in hexameter, poking fun at the majesty's peccadilloes. He was also silly enough to have his verses printed, albeit anonymously. Everyone at court laughed their asses off on reading it, but the Count may have had too much wine one night, and the name of the author leaked out. He was sentenced to the Bastille for his witticisms and spent six years there, then was given the worst sentence that an ambitious young Frenchman could get — to spend the rest of his life in exile on his family estate in Burgundy.
His exile was clearly bitter. He spent the endless years of tedium there in having his small, lovely chateau decorated top to bottom with paintings depicting his glories at court, many with epigrammatical text. And since no Tintoretto or Rubens was working in that remote pocket of Burgundy, he had to make do with jobbing painters, cheap hacks, and daubers. The results are paintings and frescoes in the naïve style, but clearly done with strict instructions to put the Count, remarkably handsome and virile, in scenes that tell tales of his godlike splendor.
His bedroom is especially poignant in its mixture of vainglory and woe. The great bed sits in the middle, draped in scarlet silk. On every wall around it are portraits of the women he'd loved, all of whom he claimed had been his mistress. Twenty-five lovely cupid mouths smiled down at him as he lay on that bed. Fifty eyes flirted or looked demure; a sea of women's faces powdered an unearthly white, crowned by wigs, and framed with jewels that said that they were very great ladies indeed.
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Marjorie Kernan, a former painter, owns an antiques shop on the coast of Maine. This is her first novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Marjorie Kernan is the author of The Ballad of West Tenth Street: A Novel (P.S.)