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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Houle

Echoes, Resonance, Osmosis - On visiting the homes of my literary muses

Recently, in researching the book I'm working on, I had the remarkable good fortune of being able to visit the former homes of my two principal muses: French Revolution era writer and thinker Germaine de Staël's family chateau in Coppet, in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland, and celebrated Italian improvisatrice Corilla Olimpica's palazzo in Florence, Italy's Tuscan capital. Both homes have been beautifully preserved. In a time when few women owned property (while often being expected to serve as domestic angels in homes owned by their husbands) these two households were headed by women. This is where they reigned. While Corilla did not own her palazzo, it was granted to her by a benefactor based on her improvisational abilities, and she housed numerous family members and friends inside her walls.

Reflecting on the need for safe creative spaces and sanctuary, as well as the privilege and power of simply having space - let alone grand, elaborate space - was instructive as I considered the careers of both women, and how they used their homes to foster the careers and creativity of others.

Entryway to the Chateau Coppet

The Chateau Coppet is now a sort-of museum, open to the public and for guided tours. The chateau does a wonderful job of displaying objects, art, and literature that capture the Mme De Staël's life and her astounding list of achievements, while also providing a treasure trove of information about her circle of family and friends.

Spending time here did more to advance my sense of De Staël as a person than two decades of reading her work. Here, I was able to see the rooms she walked while in exile, the spaces she filled with her brilliant coterie - and to gain a sense of how that space flowed. How one room connected to another. Upon entering the Chateau, you are greeted with a large statue of Jacques Necker, former Finance Minister to Louis XVI and De Staël's beloved father, the original owner of the Chateau. You feel her reverence for him and how his influence pervaded her work, even as she transcended both her parents. In her bedroom - her stunning and majestic bedroom - there is a portrait of her second, somewhat unofficial husband, Albert Jean Michel de Rocca, and it drives home the reality that De Staël never gave up on love, overcoming a loveless marriage to her first husband and tempestuous and passionate affairs with Comte Louis de Narbonne and Swiss philosopher Benjamin Constant (along with a few others). Overcoming - living through - enduring. And for all the import De Staël placed on love, the equally beautiful bedroom next to hers belonged to her friend Juliette Recamier, who had also been exiled from Paris by Napoleon. The import she placed on her friendships, on providing shelter and safe harbour becomes apparent. History owes her a deep debt, for the minds she gathered round her helped to bring an end to Napoleon's sway and ushered in new political philosophies. The artists, writers and revolutionaries she sheltered surely grew and were emboldened by time spent together at Coppet. I wished I could absorb the echoes of their talks. Even their most idle talks.

As I walked from room to room, I could feel the intensity, the passion, the depths of the lives lived and battles waged in that Chateau. I saw how much her family and friends meant to her, and the sanctuary she offered to those in exile - stunning, awe-inspiring sanctuary.

The chateau grounds include the Allée Coppet, a walkway lined with majestic maple trees and clear views of Lake Geneva. Over the years, I've read a lot of material about Mme De Staël. I forget just where, but somewhere, once, I read about a night when she despaired, a night she met with Benjamin Constant on these grounds, surrounded by these trees, and had a passionate discussion. . . I could feel it palpably. As I walked the Allée, looking up at the trees and out at the lake, in a landscape still blooming with early October purple tansy flowers, I understood how the view of Lake Geneva might invoke passions and longings that fueled the work of geniuses. That spirit is still alive at Coppet. Being there, drinking in that feeling, absorbing the gently rugged and vivifying beauty of the landscape, together with the fine décor and warm rooms of the Chateau, my historical imagination ignited and my inspiration, my ache to write this book, deepened.

I am incredibly grateful to the talented guide who led me through the Chateau, pointing out details I may otherwise have missed, and teaching me, once and for all, how to properly pronounce De Staël: It is de Stahl, Stalle, Stall. . . Nevermind that accented 'e.' It's nice to finally know this.

Just when I thought I couldn't be more inspired, the next part of my research trip brought an opportunity to spend two nights in Corilla's former palazzo, where she once famously entertained a young Mozart, and where he played for her. Her home is now a rental apartment in Florence, but the owner has taken great care to preserve much of it's history and character. After wrangling with my travel dates and making arrangements with the proprietor, I was able to book a stay. Being able to spend time here was something of a dream come true for me, and I often felt like I was walking through my own imagination come to life.

Spending time in those rooms, gazing at a reproduction of her portrait ( the original hangs in the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome), I was transported. The floors remain the same as those walked by Corilla and her circle in the late 18th century throughout much of the home. I walked those gorgeous floors in my bare feet, trying to soak up some of the history, some of the untold stories.

The owner of Corilla's palace, Mario, was an excellent host. He graciously provided me with more information about Corilla than I had ever been able to find in all my years of research. The most valuable book he lent me was a collection of Corilla's correspondence with her lifelong friend Giovanni Cristofano Amaduzzi. Reading fragments of her personal letters while sitting in the very rooms where she composed those letters created a sense of intimacy with Corilla that I have been trying to capture for years. So little research has been done about her, and so little is known, she remains a very mysterious figure. The nights I spent in her palazzo have helped me begin to penetrate that mystery. Mario told me a wonderful story about one of Mozart's visits to Florence. Corilla had written a sonnet for him, and somehow, he was leaving town before she had a chance to get the sonnet to him, so a messenger was sent, racing across the city, to deliver said sonnet to Mozart before his departure. Imagining such a poetic emergency, a young man running through the Vias of Florence with a sonnet to deliver - history comes alive. The vibrancy, the urgency of creative output and expression - it can be felt in the bones.

A bit of ceiling being restored

At present, only one floor of the palazzo is available for rent, but it is a multi-story building, and another level is currently being restored. Mario plans to create still more space dedicated to Corilla's memory, and is hard at work restoring the building's historical elements. It heartens me to know that such care is being taken to preserve her memory, when the site could so easily be modernized for pure commercialization - although, of course, Corilla's story, about which too little is still known, also makes for a fantastic draw. And the home is no less than stunning, while also, somehow, being cozy and comfortable. I'm not sure where else you can get such a thing. I never wanted to leave. I already dream of returning.

I spent one full evening in Corilla's palace working on my own writing, inspired by the very subjects she once improvised upon. To sit and write in her house, to add my echo to the myriad other echoes between those walls - it felt powerful. Much of what has been recorded about Corilla speaks to her having been a 'bad mother' who abandoned her son. The truth is we don't know what happened. There's a chance her son may have died young. There's a chance her no-good Napolitano husband may have made custody of her son impossible for her. We don't know. Quite yet. What we do know is that her sister and niece lived with her in this house, along with a large number of servants. We know that she doted on her niece and was very involved in her upbringing. This doesn't sound like the behaviour of a thoughtless, glory-seeking libertine to me. We also know that she was a very ambitious woman who insisted on being recognized as at the top of her field - for this she was criticized and lampooned.

Beautiful, original floor

Sitting there, writing in her house, I called upon my own creative powers, and thought long and hard about what I believe myself capable of achieving and why it matters. And who I can help, and offer shelter to, as I go. I thought about my role as an artist and a mother. The echoes in Corilla's house were loud. The floors were so warm and worn.

Goethe, a contemporary of De Staël's and someone with whom she corresponded at length, is often quoted as having said that "architecture is frozen music." This idea has also been attributed to other neo-classical thinkers and, apparently, among architecture aficionados (and students of Goethe, I presume) it has attained the status of a cliché, and its entire premise has been picked apart and rather mocked. This much I have gathered from a brief Google search about the quote's origin. Whether or not architecture and music actually share a common soul (both certainly require structure, math, engineering, composition - although no one dies from a discordant note), there is something in this idea that I needed to grapple with while spending time in the homes of these two illustrious women.

The former homes of many famous authors can be visited - as many famous artists and public figures of all stripes. Here they lived. Here they ate and paced and chatted and slept. Got sick. Dreamt. Lounged. Had sex. What is it about the homes of our idols that fascinate us so? Should I not have been content just to read their work? Why was I so called to see where they lived? I am still trying to explain it to myself, but there is something about being in the places where historical events have unfolded that calls forth the essence of those events within me. I imagine it must be so for others as well.

My time in these beautiful, storied homes was downright spellbinding. I remain entranced. Which is a very good thing, because I want to do them justice in my forthcoming book.

Grazie mille to Mario in Florence and to the staff at the Chateau Coppet.

My mind has been expanded. Thank you for all the work you do to preserve the legacies of these two important women.

Books shared by the host at Corilla's Palace

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