Salons are often looked upon as a French institution when in fact Italians brought salons to France. However, although the salon was imported, it became a French institution and it never fully disappeared.
Born in Rome to Jean de Vivonne (marquis of Pisani [1530-1599]) and Giulia Savelli, Madame de Rambouillet (1588-1665) opened the first famous seventeenth-century French salon. Salons were a gathering of persons, aristocrats of all ranks, cardinals, and l’honnête homme. They were, for the most part, well-educated men and women and shared an interest in literature, philosophy and music. However, l’incomparable Arthénice, an anagram of Catherine, who married Charles d’Angennes, marquis de Rambouillet (1577–1652) also turned the salon into a room.
Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet, lived in a private house, l’Hôtel de Rambouillet, rue Saint-Honoré, but l’Hôtel moved to rue Saint-Thomas-du-Louvre in 1618. She received her distinguished guests in a blue room: la chambre bleue d’Arthénice. She sat in bed and the guests gathered in a ruelle, a side of the bed. Beds were not as they are today. They were canopy beds featuring sumptuous drapes that were drawn closed at night, especially on wintry days.
Salons are remembered as places that did not admit anything crude. Only the purest French could be spoken in a salon and one’s manners had to be refined. A male guest was, at the very least, an honnête homme French galanterie goes back to courtly love, but reached a summit in seventeenth-century French salons.
But later in the seventeenth-century, they were rooms where people made believe they were not what they seemed. The salonniers and salonnières, gave themselves new names and, at one point, the aficionados of salons were so influenced by Guarini’s Il Pastor fido, a pastoral set in Arcadia and published in Venice in 1590, and later, by Honoré d’Urfée’s L’Astrée (1607-1627), that they played shepherds and shepherdessess. Fantasy took over.
As well, salons are one of the birthplaces of feminism. Medieval courtly love was revived and revised to emerge as a movement called Préciosité. Women looked upon themselves as precious, hence the noun préciosité and, in some cases, kept suitors waiting for for several years. The Duc de Montausier (1610–1690), courted Julie d’Angennes (1607-1671), Madame de Rambouillet’s daughter, from 1631 until 1645, before she consented to marry him.
Out of this courtship, a book emerged, entitled La Guirlande de Julie. It was given as a present to Julie in 1641 and contained sixty-two madrigals (poems not songs), each featuring a flower. Montausier wrote sixteen of the madrigals, but the preparation of the book was a bit of a contest disguised as a game. Among the authors are Racan, Tallemant des Réaux and others. The challenge consisted in finding the best pointe or conceit, a clever and witty way of saying “little nothings.”© Micheline Walker 2 October 2011