Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Chateau de Chamerolles - Perfume Museum

On a cold and gloomy Saturday we piled into a bus and travelled south to the Chateau de Chamerolles. These days it's a perfume museum but it has had a chequered history.

It was built at the dawn of the Renaissance period by Lancelot I du Lac (yes, Lancelot of the Lake) who served under Francois I king of France (while Henry VIII was king of England). It stayed in the du Lac family until the end of the 17th century. The family were Protestants but managed to hide the fact when necessary and also their protestant artifacts. By 1987 the city of Paris ceded the chateau to the Loiret d├ępartement. After five years of intense renovation the chateau opened to the public in 1992.

The guided tour is interesting for its information on the daily lives of notables during the 16th - 19th centuries. I hadn't realised that at one time it was normal for everyone to bath every day until it was outlawed by the church and the medical fraternity.

During the 16th century wooden baths were used and rooms were perfumed with aromatic plants hanging from the beams. Sheets were often put in the barrels to protect the skin from wooden splinters and/or shirts were worn for the same reason.

In the 17th century there developed a strong taste for perfumes with an almost overpowering scent. We sniffed civet, undiluted. No one wanted to keep their paper samples; it was so strong and unpleasant but in those days strong scents were needed to mask the bad odours emitted by dubious hygiene. Braziers burnt rosemary or juniper berries to clear the foul air.

Doctors had judged that washing was dangerous as it opened the pores so that illness could enter the body. Both Catholic and Protestant preachers denounced the pleasures of the bath so the 'dry' bath, consisting of rubbing parts of the body likely to be visible (very little of that in those days) with squares of linen soaked inperfume mixtures, was used. This of course only applied to the wealthy.

The bath returned in the 18th century and perfume  gained a more social role. Subtlety was introduced. A copper bath was used and the bath was covered in a sheet to protect the skin from the hot metal and to filter the bath water, which was often used by many people, even as a social activity rather than private. These baths were often modular and one could read and write and eat while having a bath, which might take more than two hours. It was a sign of prestige and luxury.

The perfume area was less interesting for me having already visited the Fragonard Museum in Grasse, twice. The Chamerolles perfume museum has a display of bottles and items that were routinely perfumed in former centuries, such as book covers, gloves and bags. The industrial or artisanal processes were not mentioned or explained. The display concentrates more on the design and marketing of perfume though you can see a perfume organ from the 19th century with its old bottles arranged in rows or 'notes'.

One item that was intriguing was the perfume  fountain (see left) often to be found in well-to-do stores in Paris which dispensed drops of perfume (probably eau de toilette) for shoppers to sample. Certainly the beginning of modern marketing with more elegance than we see today.

The display includes many cabinets of posh perfume bottles as well as a reconstruction of two shop windows of the time (from the Lancel shop on the Avenue de l'Opera). The atomiser was created in the 19th century (1859) for medical uses, then used in horticulture and agriculture, before being adapted by perfumers around 1870.

The 20th century section features Coty and a large collection of design drawings of bottles and labels. It's not that well lit so I had trouble reading anything. We were warned we might get attacked by fleas (very disconcerting) as the pest destructors couldn't always erradicate every one from the old timbers, but we weren't bothered at all and no one suffered any 'attack'.

There's a renaissance garden which must be splendid in summer. Unfortunately the weather was too cold to spend time outside wandering about. If you would like more information in English visit their website. They are well set up for tourists with ample parking, toilets and a well organised shop .
Castle of Chamerolles
45170 Chilleurs-aux-Bois, France


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