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Discovering Treasures of Chateau de Barbentane

May 21, 1989|FRED HIFT | Hift is a free-lance writer and broadcaster living in New York City.

AVIGNON, France — Had it not been getting dark and had my wife and I not needed a place to stay, we would probably have missed the Chateau de Barbentane.

We were exploring the Avignon area by car and stumbled upon Castel Mouisson, a memorable little hotel. It's about 11 miles from Avignon on the outskirts of the Provencal town of Barbentane, which sits against the Montagnette hills.

The next morning, touring Barbentane on foot, we followed a sign down a narrow road from the main street and discovered Chateau de Barbentane, a 17th-Century mansion still occupied by the Marquis and Marquise of Barbentane and filled with a collection of Louis XIV and early Provencal furniture.

The Chateau de Barbentane miraculously escaped destruction during the French Revolution. Its owner at that time played the right kind of politics so that when the mob arrived from Avignon, the citizens of Barbentane kept them from plundering the building.

Italianate(cq) Gardens

The exterior, surrounded by lovely gardens in the Italian style, is simple, with the appropriate baroque touches befitting its construction in the early 16th Century and reconstruction in 1654.

In the 1740s, Pierre Thibault, the papal architect and a student of Pierre Mignard, redesigned the interior, taking out the baroque staircase and replacing it with a sweeping and graceful iron one, each part of the grill worked by hand.

Later, Pierre-Balthazar de Puget de Barbentane, the king's ambassador to Tuscany between 1766 and 1784, had the remarkable floors installed, along with many of the furnishings.

The ambassador brought tons of marble from Carrara--by ship to Marseilles, by barge up the Rhone and from there by lumbering wagon to Barbentane. Combining it with the glowing Provencal stone, he made his chateau into a delightful and fascinating home, combining the best the 17th and 18th centuries had to offer.

Time Stands Still

Shiny black-and-white marble floors evoke the designs of Siena. The ceilings, although flat, trick the eye into believing they are arched. Then there are the superb Aubusson tapestries, the charming wallpaper and graceful furniture. At Barbentane, time seems to have stood still.

In the entrance hall, dominated by a door still hung with the original velvet draperies, a very rare Louis XV Bergere chair, covered with gray silk, stands out alongside a little painted rocking horse and a huge tapestry. That chair with its curved, high back is so unusual that it has been designated a national treasure.

There are two sturdy 17th-Century Dutch naval coffers featuring false-front locks and a hidden lock on the green top. A guide showed us the hidden compartment inside.

A dainty Cardinal desk holds a glass-covered candlestick with an ingenious device for lifting out the candle.

Upstairs, one salon follows another, each exquisitely furnished and decorated with elaborate gilded stucco.

Circulating Servants

Little doors that blend into the walls hide entrances to staircases that allowed the army of servants to circulate throughout the house unseen and unheard.

There are a variety of original mirrors and, in the Salon de Vestibule, marble statues from Italy. Several of the mirrors are decorated with little heads bearing Indian features, a bow to the Mayan culture that was just becoming known.

The grand salon is dominated by a marble fountain, a sparkling baccarat Venetian chandelier and two asymmetrical sofas covered in a green-and-rose design that had originally been made for the entrance hall.

Little chairs, painted black allegedly to escape Louis XVI's tax on gilded furniture, provide a counterpoint to their Aubusson needlework covering telling the fables of Fontaine. The embroidery on these as well as on other chairs is in impeccable condition. Some of the designs are startlingly modern.

The library has a rare example of the type of chair called fumeuse , which allowed a man to smoke while straddling it, resting his arms on a molded piece of wood on the back. Paintings of the Barbentane family decorate the walls.

Chinese Porcelain

A chest of inlaid wood features birds that reflect in a mirror and seem to be flying. Much handsome silver and Chinese porcelain decorates the table in the dining room.

At the top of the stairs, the bedroom of La Comtesse de Vauban sparkles with red and green wallpaper that retains the freshness of the original colors. It was hand-painted and had been painstakingly put on the wall in small squares.

The room is dominated by a huge armoire de marriage with 50 drawers, and a canopied bed that seems extraordinarily short.

Women of that period tended to sleep in a half-sitting position so not to disturb their elaborate coiffure. They also avoided lying flat because that was considered the death position.

Barbentane has 20 rooms, including a little chapel, that are all different.

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