Five Ladies Feeling - Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter

Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)

Chapter 6. Five Ladies Feeling

All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses.


Tour companies offering Paris holidays often proposed “five nights” in the city, but they really meant five days. Attractions dwindle at night. Except for the Louvre, which stays open to 8.45 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays, most museums, parks, and galleries close when the sun goes down. Was there really no more stimulating way to spend an evening in Paris than an American movie, a four-course dinner on a bateau-mouche, or a stroll down the Champs-Élysées?

But the effectiveness of a guided tour depended on being able to point things out. How could that be done in darkness?

In his novel Cadillac Jack, detailing the adventures of an antique hunter, Larry McMurtry elucidates the key concept of collecting—everything has to be somewhere. As with finding Tiffany lamps or Revere silver, solving any problem is largely a question of waiting until the information reveals itself. Somewhere, in some corner of the city, Paris had the answer to my problem. I just had to let it in.

As it wasn’t part of my griffe, I didn’t often pass the Musée National du Moyen Age, the museum of the Middle Ages housed in the old abbey of Cluny on the corner of boulevard Saint-Germain and boulevard Saint-Michel. The Cluny demands more attention than I give it, but its lamenting saints and agonized Christs always leave me feeling morose. One can’t just slip in for a few moments as I often do with the Église Saint-Sulpice or the former chapel of Maria de’ Medici’s palace, these days the Musée de Luxembourg. Rather, the Cluny’s a place for wet Wednesdays in February, the architectural equivalent of those scratchy goat-hair shirts once worn by penitent monks. I wouldn’t have visited it on this occasion if they had not been digging up the sidewalk on boulevard Saint-Michel. Crossing to avoid the roadworks brought me up against the railings around it, and something clicked.

The doorman peered into my carrier, grimaced at the bunch of celery sticking out the top, but placed it behind his desk without asking why someone would choose, in the middle of the morning’s shopping, to browse a museum of medieval antiquity.

My visit was brief. I needed to look at only one room—the one displaying the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn.

These six hangings cover the walls of a circular room at the heart of the museum, kept in gloom to preserve their colors. This morning, the gallery was almost empty, so, rather than peering over the heads of coach parties from Yokohama or Capetown, I could approach them almost close enough to touch.

Woven around the time of Columbus, they ended up in the Château de Boussac in central France. Who made them and why are mysteries still unsolved. Supposedly a Prince Zizim, pretender to the Ottoman Empire and a prisoner in the château, commissioned them for his fiancée back in Constantinople. In the 1480s, Pierre d’Aubusson did capture Cem Sultan, half brother of Sultan Bayezid II, who paid well to keep him there. However there’s no record that Cem ever visited Boussac or ordered any tapestries.

They were rediscovered in the nineteenth century by novelist Georges Sand. She alerted fellow writer and amateur archaeologist Prosper Mérimée. Best known for writing the story on which Bizet based the opera Carmen, Mérimée, in one of those appointments one can’t imagine being made anywhere but France, was also inspector-general of ancient monuments. Horrified that visitors were snipping pieces as souvenirs, he campaigned to acquire them for the nation.

All six show a similar scene. On a deep red background strewn with blossoms, a woman in a robe, accompanied by her maid, dallies with a lion and a unicorn while rabbits, ferrets, and squirrels scamper among the grass and wildflowers. In the first of the series, the maid pumps the bellows of a portative organ as her mistress picks out a tune. In another, she offers her a box of candies, and in a third the lady toys with a wreath of flowers, one of which her pet monkey sniffs. The sixth tapestry incorporates the enigmatic text “À mon seul désir,” which might mean “To my sole desire” or “by my will alone,” or, at a stretch, “love desires only beauty of soul.”

When I emerged after just ten minutes, the guard rolled his eyes and handed back my groceries, assuming I’d just dropped in to use the toilet. In fact, I’d wanted to confirm something I’d read years before—that the tapestries were inspired by the five senses. The organ represents hearing, the candy relates to taste, the monkey’s flower signifies smell, and so on.

Why not base my night walks on the five senses? If they were sufficient for the master of the Lady and the Unicorn, they should be good enough for me.


The Lady and the Unicorn