Out Of The Archive: A Favourite Piece Of Historical Sleuthing

100_1225 - palace massena

The family who lived in the Palais de Masena

Believe me, the family gathering depicted in these two murals has more tales to tell than most. They could be the very depiction of Tolstoy’s famous opening to the tragic novel Anna Karenina: (And I paraphrase) all happy families look alike, but the unhappy ones are unhappy in their own inimitable way.

The original post Nice Family? En famille at the Massena Palace continues HERE


So what spurred me to discover more about these set-piece murals wherein members of an elite Nice family gaze at one another across a palace staircase? Silly question really. It was the mysteries that cropped up – once I paid them closer attention.

For instance why has the blue-bloused woman of the second mural adopted such a vulgarly aggressive stance when the keys hanging from her waist suggest she is mistress of the house, the chatelaine? And who is the droopy waif leaning on her shoulder?And why are so many people lurking, or peering between marble columns. And who is the lovely woman with the macaws and exotic tapestry; is the blue-bloused woman’s look of contempt from across the stairwell meant for her? But most of all, one has to wonder why this family would commission well known French artist François Flameng to show them in this way? Was he having a joke at their considerable expense?

The proposed explanations are in the original post so I won’t repeat them here. But I will tell you that the family members are all descended through intermarriage from three ordinary men, plain soldiers, Masséna, Murat and Ney who through courageous acts rose to prominence in Bonaparte’s army, were appointed Marshals of Empire and thereafter acquired all manner of riches and other grandiose titles.

But the reason this archive post is one is one of my favourites is because the sleuthing involved was so fascinating. I was astonished at how much could be gleaned from a few hours trawling the internet. It seemed like magic – lead after lead revealing a few more snippets about a world distant from me in time and space. And I thought then – this is the world wide web at its best; this is what its creator intended: to share knowledge and information; to open minds and eyes; to enthrall, educate and entertain in positive ways. It could still be like that, couldn’t it…I mean without the hate and fakery?

July Squares #19

42 thoughts on “Out Of The Archive: A Favourite Piece Of Historical Sleuthing

      1. Ah … the English summer!
        For us, it is the onset of our windy period – which has nothing to do with consuming lots of vegetables either – very dry with no chance of rain up here in Jhb.
        Wall to wall blue skies.
        Ideal baking weather!

      2. Just read they are suffering a fearful drought further north in Zim. We’ve not had much rain till yesterday, so we shouldn’t complain. But a strange wind with a very frigid edge to it keeps cropping up. Not at all English, so who knows where that’s coming from. Probably blowing off the melting Arctic, whose ice won’t be with us much longer I read today. Meanwhile save-the-planet activists are being labelled anarchists and revolutionaries and all round personnae non gratae – just in case they threaten the comforts of the bonkers-smug people who rule us.

  1. Yes it could indeed Tish! There is so much knowledge and connectivity to be had on the internet. If I might share a recent example I happened to be on Facebook one evening on a travel blogging group page. One of the members who works in palliative care asked if anyone knew how to remove a person from a photo. One of his patients had only one photo of her Mom and it included her Stepfather who she wanted gone from the image. Within 45 minutes we had the photo, Dave had worked his editing magic and the photo was in the hands of the woman the following morning. Apparently she was so overjoyed at receiving it her tears flowed steadily. I don’t share the story to say he did something great because it only took a few minutes of his time as he has the skill. I share it as an example of how much good the internet can do when used in the right way.

    1. Sue, that’s such a good example of a making-someone-happy moment that would otherwise be impossible for them. But also good on Dave for some nifty editing.

      1. Yep. That is pretty wondrous. Also just been watching archive film clips of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 safari in Kenya on YouTube – I mean who would imagine that was likely from a bedroom in Shropshire in 2019.

  2. This has been absolutely fascinating!! Two paintings that, quite frankly I’d likely give only a passing glance to, suddenly came to life in full drama and intrigue.

    As you have said, sometimes the wonder of the internet gets lost in all the dross that fills it. This is a part of that magic – interacting effortlessly with others around the world while having access to a bounty of information literally at our fingertips.

  3. Great detective work! I still find the Internet a wondrous place. It is helping me do something I love and, as a bonus, discovering a bunch of wonderful talented people out there I would not have otherwise known about. I am shocked by some of the stuff I see – not just the puerile stuff that Trump and others put out, but unfettered hatred and intolerance. But I still think the goodies outnumber the baddies.

  4. I like where you went with this post, Tish. There’s so much good and useful about the internet but so much bad and even evil. I guess it’s much like life has been for all time except faster.


    1. Yes, more and faster, and more of us ‘knowing’ and exchanging what we ‘know’. Just thinking how life would be during my growing up. Back then if you lived in a village you’d hardly ‘know’ anything except what was in your and your neighbours’ back yards 🙂

  5. With a little more time, yes 🙂 🙂 It gobbles up too much of my day but I can’t resist taking a peak, now you’ve mentioned it. 🙂 Happy weekend, hon!

  6. This is indeed a creepy painting and with your amazing storytelling it has made me even more fascinated to find out more. Yes why indeed did they commission a painting that makes them all look so creepy and stalkerish? I love that quote from the start of your post about families, so true. The family themselves would be good to have in a novel as characters I think.

    1. Am happy this struck a few chords with you, Athena. And it’s been crossing my mind that there’s a story here. The images in the mural make me think of Proust, and how he wrote ‘In search of things past’, in bed at night. There are all sorts of weird resonances here.

      1. Yes I know what you mean with Proust….same era right? Reading those volumes of his I could imagine them wearing these vintage clothes. He had an obsession with his mother too and was very hermit-like and physically weak and bedridden if I remember correctly, what other resonances do you mean? I think you could write an amazing story on this Tish. I love when art does this! its like a muse

      2. Just thinking of all the troubled slightly shady characters in Volume 1 which is as far as I got with ‘A la recherche’. And you’re right about Proust too – he was an odd fish. And then there’s all that fin de siecle sense – ends of eras, the war that came next and truly changed things.

  7. Tish, The cyberspace between us seems to have rejected my appreciation y’day of your sleuthery which I enjoyed very much. And agree with you on the benefits of the internet despite….

    I was struck by the prominence of the women in this mural. Rosa, her probable sister and the two macaws are the only sentient beings not looking at us. I take it that this is the phenomenon whereby women are paraded as stand-ins and symbols of the success and stability of a family, a kin group. The four of them can take us for granted because they are our focus and they know it.!

    Here this seems to be further highlighted by the banishment of the men to semi-hiding behind pillars.
    And further highlighted by the central position of the two macaws who are themselves symbols of the women’s finery and of their central role in the life of this extended clan.

    All of which is so interesting given that these are descendants of three prominent men of war. In three generations, the clan had become so stable and successful, that women are on display. Not that this should be taken out of context: women could not vote in France until the 1950’s, as you know; and even today, French women are encumbered by customary norms which constrain many of them.

    Which led me to thinking about the well-known role of war not only in upturning norms and hastening social changes but also for producing leaders. Real ones with ambition and courage and imagination from whichever class. N’importe….

    We don’t want war.

    But look where we are. What mechanisms can we develop to reduce the possibility of the emergence – now continuation – of the lunatic, self-aggrandisers who, risking nothing of themselves, taking advantage of our long peacetimes, and of their inherited cultural and money capital, are seizing by lies and trickery the machinery of our electoral systems to obtain power.

    And then to play at leadership, and leading us into walls?

    Of course, I remembered also those societies whose women, always on a war footing, do not attain to the safety and comfort and individual and familial resolution of this instructive – your instruction – and lovely mural.

    So interesting your adventure here, Tish. Thanks for it! Sarah

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah, for such a thoughtful appraisal of the murals. You’ve given me much food for thought. So I need to go away and have a good think. Txx

  8. There seem to be carnations draped on a rug over the balcony. Their position, Tish: odd and so one wonders which of the several symbolic meanings of the flower is being suggested.

    There are lemon trees on both sides of this grouping. Painted roses high up.

    Which, of course, ups my pressure just a little because the whole vast business of symbols – except for a few remaining – seem to have left our modern world along with rituals etc. That may be more true of the American way of being and of rushing around and about than yours…I’m not sure.

    So interesting, Tish. Sarah

    1. I need to go and do more looking (as well as thinking). That’s v. interesting about the symbols. I also need to look into Francois Flameng. His war paintings are such chasmic leap away from these ‘society’ pieces. On the other hand, one suspects he is telling some covert story here. And so your comment is apt. We have forgotten how to read them. Certainly in the UK our use of symbols has devolved to internet ‘icons’. Even the word has been devalued.

  9. One last thought for your consideration, Tish; but I could not get even faint affirmation from the net for this….There was not sufficient information about this.

    I am wondering if the fact that the two sisters are not only central to the composition but that both are looking forward to the right (not left) and Rose bending forward is not, perhaps, a depiction of the wealth these two were bringing to the extended clan by reason of their own wealth.

    This, of course, is a variant of the idea that women are used to display status. But here as the source of the money coming in as opposed to simply a passive display of current affluence.

    It is probably our extended heat wave which has made my mind febrile, Tish! You will be glad to know with us that this heat is over in a few hours……….Sarah

    1. This another interesting interpretation, Sarah. Certainly I have a sense of Rose looking to the future, or presenting for Flameng some hope that, through her, the family will take a turn for the better, morally and kindly. To me she seems the most ‘alive’ of all them, and as if she has broader horizons in mind. You’ve certainly made me ponder. As to heatwaves, we appear to be brewing up for one tomorrow, so better get all my thinking done today 🙂

  10. without the hate and fakery…
    such a clever line that also tied into the art and what was and was not portrayed –
    going to read the original now
    and this was a great idea for a july blue square post! that mural fit so well – also – it is so important to sometimes reblog posts because a new set of bloggers might be interested –

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