A touch of France: “Call back yesterday, bid time return” Rochefort, the town where the past comes alive

Isabelle SPAAK
(e-mail: isabelle.spaak@wanadoo.fr)

“Call back yesterday, bid time return”

Rochefort, the town where the past comes alive
I . Spaak, France

Rochefort, built on a bend of the river Charente close to its estuary, owes its fame to Louis XIV who in 1666 made it into France’s greatest and largest military and maritime arsenal. The sea port of Rochefort has the richest heritage of naval architecture in France, epitomized by an extraordinary limestone rope factory almost 400 meters long. It was also the site of the prestigious Rochefort School of Surgery founded in 1722 (see companion article by Dr Christian Régnier). One of Rochefort’s most famous scions was undoubtedly Julien Viaud, (1850-1923), who enjoyed a long and distinguished career as an officer in the French navy. Better known by his pen name Pierre Loti, his literary career was crowned in 1891 by his election at the Académie Française. Most intriguing was Loti’s abiding passion for the house in which he was born and which bore the impress of his wanderings over the years, like shifting scenery on a theater stage. Loti refurbished his home as the muse took him, in harmony with his peregrinations around the globe, while leaving no outward sign of the transformations taking place within. Now a museum, the house tells the tale of his voyages, of his nostalgia, his wont to hark back to times long past. Loti was a likeness of his birthplace, the town of Rochefort: quiet, low-key, yet possessed of a steely determination, an eagerness to rise to a challenge. In recent times, following the abandonment of the dockyard in the early 20th century, of the Naval School of Medicine in 1964, and the closure of the hospital attached to it in 1983, Rochefort has resembled a sleeping beauty. Yet something is stirring. Craftsmen and journeymen are working on a technical and historical challenge—the recreation of an 18th-century shipyard and the building of a replica of the Hermione, the sixty-five-meter frigate aboard which the Marquis de La Fayette crossed the Atlantic to join George Washington in the American Revolutionary War.

Medicographia. 2012;34:469-476 (see French abstract on page 476)

With a stroke of his pen in 1665, King Louis XIV changed forever the destiny of a sleepy little town on the right bank of the Charente River, a few kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean. On the advice of his chief naval administrator Colbert du Terron, the king chose Rochefort in southwestern France as the site for a new shipyard able to vie with the ports of Holland and England.

Each newcomer was allotted 200 m2 of land on which to build his house, and by the end of the 17th century the first wooden huts for the dockyard workers had been replaced by stone residential quarters for naval officers, and by military buildings. A vast rope factory was erected, the longest building in Europe at the time, and naval construction proceeded apace, with 49 ships built between 1688 and 1692, and about 350 by 1710.

View of the Sea Port of Rochefort, by Joseph Vernet. 1762, oil on canvas. Paris, Musée de la Marine.

© RMN-Grand Palais/All rights reserved.

A shipyard rises from the wetlands

When the Sun King, Louis XIV, took possession of Rochefort in 1666, it was a rural parish of some four hundred communicants. In his recommendation to the king, Colbert du Terron called attention to the safety of the harbor protected by the natural barrier that is the Ile d’Oléron, the ease with which the site could be defended, the depth of the Charente, the natural barrier to a land-based attack offered by surrounding marshland, and the richness of the hinterland and its forest, which would be a ready source of timber for shipbuilding.

As a bulwark of sorts against the Protestant town of La Rochelle a mere thirty kilometers away, the king seized the opportunity to impose a Catholic stronghold, and to build the naval dockyard that France so sorely lacked.

By the time Louis XIV died in 1715, the dockyard had built, armed, and repaired dozens of ships, the town had 12 to 15 000 inhabitants, and the countryside had been transformed. These profound changes were not achieved effortlessly. The naval dockyard arose at great cost from wetlands liable to flooding and better suited to grazing livestock, the town constantly suffered from a lack of drinking water and from the disease- breeding unwholesomeness and “bad air” of the neighboring swamplands. No one built a decent parish church, the countryside was stripped of its forest and blighted by the construction of a suburb, and the locals swapped tilling for work at the naval shipyard.

Sixty thousand ropes a month

The dockyard’s production was exceptional, thanks to refits in stone-lined dry docks on the banks of the Charente and Rochefort’s main monument, its remarkable 374-meter-long Royal Rope Factory (Corderie Royale), which produced cable lengths of two hundred meters. Begun in 1666 and completed in 1699, the rope factory is in itself a page of history.

The 374-meter long Royal Rope Factory (Corderie Royale) in Rochefort, completed in 1669.

© Bruno Barbier/Photononstop.

How was such a structure raised on the vast meadowland prone to flooding alongside the river? The soil was too loose for the traditional building techniques of the area, in which foundations were not dug but placed directly on the grassland. The architect François Blondel (1618-1686) raised the edifice slightly on a sort of raft, a gigantic supporting grid fashioned from oak beams. Some lying flat, others vertical under the main walls, these wooden piles support the whole length of the two magnificent galleries built one above the other, the lower for producing strands of fibers and the upper for spinning. Resplendent before a huge lawn, the palace-like frontage is reminiscent of Versailles, with its finely worked limestone from the quarries at Crazannes, its whiteness set against the orange tiles and gray slates of the two-tiered roof. The walls are pierced on the first floor and on the second, with its sloping roof and dormer windows surmounted by semicircular pediments, to air the building and thus better preserve the hemp used in rope making. Its elegant architecture, like a “long hull of beige stone” in the words of writer Erik Orsenna, has contributed to its fame. The rope factory also had four warehouses for the hemp used to make ropes, two others to keep the ropes, two more for barrels of tar, and a last one for cutting, along with a gigantic cast iron boiler. Considered the most efficient in the kingdom, the Rochefort rope factory produced up to sixty thousand pieces of rope a month.

Rope-making cording machine
at the Royal Rope Factory in

© Walter Bibikow/JAI/Corbis.

Then came the 19th century with its larger vessels and steam ships and steel cables signaling the decline of the shipyard and its rope factory, which was closed in 1927 and set alight by the Germans in 1944. A twenty-year hiatus followed before Admiral Maurice Dupont, Naval Commander at Rochefort, undertook to restore the partially destroyed buildings. By 1988 the work was done, and the opening of a museum complex of over 300 square meters devoted to the history of the naval dockyard marked Rochefort’s first step in reclaiming its maritime past.

Out- and homeward bound: pain and yearning

Time: half an hour before the stroke of midnight on the 14th of January 1850. Place: 141 rue Saint Pierre, Rochefort-sur-Mer, on the Atlantic coast of France. Julien Viaud, now better known by his pseudonym Pierre Loti, was born in a nondescript house with a freestone façade alongside others of similar ilk. Three windows on each floor, molded cornices under the second and third floors, cream colored wooden shutters. Located behind the city walls, the house stands on one of the main ruler-straight roads of the “new town” built in the 17th century in a checkerboard pattern. In exploring the town with his father Théodore, the author of a two-volume history of Rochefort, the young Julien Viaud heard tales of its past and learned to observe his surroundings and to capture the atmosphere of a place in the minutest detail. Skills he later put to good use in his travel writings.

Pierre Loti in his uniform of
the Académie Française.

Collection Maison de Pierre Loti © Ville de Rochefort.

The unrevealing façade of the House of Pierre Loti behind which
are “a mosaic of civilizations, dramatized decors, baroque fantasies.”

Photographie Maison de Pierre Loti © Ville de Rochefort.

Curious fellow this naval officer, baptized Loti after the name of a sweet-smelling red flower “at the age of twenty-two years and eleven days,” by a Tahitian girl he fell for during a stay in Polynesia. During and after a long and distinguished career as an officer in the French navy, Loti wrote highly personal books steeped in exoticism, accounts of his loves and adventures at the four corners of the world, in a literary career crowned in 1891 by his election as one of the forty so-called “immortals,” or members of the Académie Française, winning a head-to-head contest with Émile Zola (who in 19 attempts never achieved “immortality”).

Frail and solitary, Loti was torn between his passion for foreign lands and the comfort of the familiar, of childhood memories of home life, of halcyon days. His was a lifelong struggle between the pain of leaving and the ardent desire to venture forth. Imbued with exoticism, the writer−traveler drifted ever further afield, yet dreamed of but one thing: home, the haven of the house where he was born in Rochefort. “A very modest provincial house where Huguenot austerity was felt,” a peaceful atmosphere, a muffled interior, where there was “no unruliness, we chatted, sowed, wrote, prayed. Free of distractions from the outside world, we were self-sufficient. Affection was shared like bread…,” wrote Loti in 1890 in Le Roman d’un Enfant, an autobiographical account of his childhood, which greatly influenced Marcel Proust.

The Turkish room (above). The Renaissance room (below). House of Pierre Loti.

Photographie Maison de Pierre Loti ©Ville de Rochefort.

Bordering on fetishism, this passion for things past, for a sort of stasis, paradoxically fueled his obsessive need to transform his home. Returning from his travels, Loti converted his abode, expanded in 1895 by the acquisition of the adjoining terrace house, into a sort of museum of faraway places. It became a mosaic of civilizations, dramatized decors, baroque fantasies, a literary phenomenon. Between oriental bazaar and flights of fancy, Loti transmogrified, converted, anchored his excesses, fixed his travels in amber. Memories of family and of departed loved ones—his grandmother Berthe, his mother Nadine, his elder brother Gustave (a naval surgeon who died at age 29 off the coast of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known)— haunted his home, as it mutated into settings of the Far East on the first floor, orientalism on the second, eclectic historicism, while the house’s frontage remained untouched, such that should his grandfather one day return to the land of the living he would recognize his “ancient abode.”

An anatomy of restlessness

Among the trunks and chests, the closets filled with piously preserved relics, quirkiness reigned in the image of Loti: withdrawn, yet unbridled and flaunty. In an everlasting fight against the ravages of time, his obsession, Loti used greasepaint, rouged his cheeks and colored his lips, heightened his stature by a few centimeters with a device inside his socks, dressed as a pasha, a Chinese, a medieval lord, an acrobat, in unison with the metamorphoses of his house. “One must defend oneself against old age,” he wrote to justify his primping, “one has no right to become an object of disgust.”

Loti converted his grandmother’s former bedroom into a Turkish living room where Moorish influence dominated. Inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, two columns support a poly-lobed arch suggestive of the gallery of the Court of the Lions as reinterpreted by Loti through his instructions to local plasterers. The whole forms a skillful blend of predominantly blue ceramics, with marbles, textiles, and hangings. Once there was a Chinese pagoda, little of which remains, described by Loti’s private secretary as being of “unrivaled magnificence with its yellow gold, red gold, bright or soft golden tints… a dizzying array of colors flaming in air heavy with musk and sandalwood.” Three altars, tiered seating, golden thrones amidst a jumble of religious symbols presided over by “an ancient god with six arms and five eyes, gesticulating, sniggering, ferocious.” The Empire chamber and its ceiling studded with stucco bees, his childhood bedroom transformed into a peasant room with rustic fittings, a tomb-like chamber of Egyptian mummies at the end of a dark corridor—women, a child, cats, a small painted wood sarcophagus. And even a mosque. Not forgetting the Renaissance room for which Loti added a floor to the house, lending to the space the majesty of a mansion, a precious tapestry from the Gobelins Manufactory, amonumental chimney, stained glass windows, armor, and three stone lions atop columns. All of which contrasts starkly with the abnegation and frugality of Loti’s monastic bedchamber.

Pierre Loti’s « monastic-like » bedroom. House of Pierre Loti.

Photographie Maison de Pierre Loti © Ville de Rochefort.

Old Cathay comes to Rochefort

Fanfares of olifants and horns rang out. Disguised as Louis XI (1423-1483), his wife Blanche as the queen consort Charlotte of Savoy, My Lord Pierre Loti advanced, hooded falcon on his right fist, left hand in his lady’s. Behind the couple, a retinue formed and proceeded to the Gothic dining room. Dressed in duns and browns, “as befits people who have spent four hundred years in their clothes” advised the invitation written in old French, the guests crossed the Japanese salon and ceremoniously took to the stairs.

Despite appearances, this scene did not unfold “in the year of grace M*CCCC*L*XX under the reign of our good King Louis the Eleventh,” as intimated by the invitation card, but on the 12th of April 1888 at the unforgettable medieval banquet hosted by Loti in his home in Rochefort. Pitchers on the tables, goblets, bowls, flaming torches, pageboys “who stood waiting motionless”, and valets in livery to serve the interminable thirteen-course dinner. A succession of soups, sea and freshwater fish, roast venison, squirrel, and hedgehog, desserts, tarts, wines, barley beer, mead, candied fruits, spices, and the showpiece, a roasted peacock, served in its feathers, borne on a golden platter by two equerries, accompanied by torchbearers and bagpipers, and ceremoniously presented to each lady in turn before being given up to an equerry’s carving knife. The whole meticulously staged by Loti with interludes between courses: jugglers, sorceresses, pilgrims returning from Jerusalem, yellow- and green-clad jesters leaping through a trap door to dance a saraband, a chained Saracen prisoner brought to the feet of the master of the house, a minstrel, table games, dice, chess, merrymaking till dawn when “the cruel meanness of the 19th century returned to crush the poetic and the beautiful, the noble 15th century roused for one night from its eternal slumber.”

Pierre Loti in Chinese costume.

Private collection © Archives Charmet.

As Loti wrote of the gargantuan feast of 1888 in his Journal Intime: “I had an unadulterated vision of the Middle Ages at two brief moments: on arrival, when I was the first to enter the room bathed in red light from the torches held by longhaired valets, and again on the arrival of the peacock, preceded by bagpipes and the mounted servant.”

Other memorable events followed—a water sprite party and a celebration of country life—until the last great staging in 1901, when Old Cathay came to Rochefort, and two hundred guests in Chinese garb and trappings strolled between the port or railway station and the house, past the mild-mannered townsfolk of Rochefort gaping in awe.

Hermione and the Marquis de la Fayette

On August 4th, 1808, Emperor Napoléon came to Rochefort, on his return from a visit to Bayonne on the Atlantic coast, accompanied by Joséphine and his staff. Ships of the line lay at anchor in the harbor of the nearby Island of Aix. The Emperor’s second and last visit, in July 1815, was a less joyful affair. Recently defeated at Waterloo, Napoleon spent his last days on French soil on the Island of Aix before his journey into exile on Saint Helena.

Rochefort experienced a joyful episode in 1966, when Jacques Demy fell in love with the townscape and had it repainted—walls white, shutters blue, pink, or yellow—as a backdrop for his film Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort), which played to full houses around the world. In 1997 a group of enthusiasts and French author and Academician Erik Orsenna, the founding president, formed a nonprofit organization (Hermione–La Fayette) dedicated to reconstructing the dockyards of yore and building a replica of the Hermione, the legendary frigate aboard which the 23-year-old Marquis de La Fayette set sail in 1780 to join forces with George Washington in fighting the English crown and winning independence for America.

The Marquis de La Fayette, by Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1788.
Oil on canvas 900×710 cm.

© RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles)/Gérard Blot.

Reconstruction of the frigate « Hermione » on which General La Fayette sailed to the United States during the American Revolutionary

© Christophe Boisvieux/Corbis.

Launching ceremony of the replica of the Hermione, on July 6, 2012 in Rochefort.
Pulled by two tugboats, the hull of the frigate, with no mats, sails, or rigging, sailed
several hours on the Charente river before anchoring in front of the former Royal Rope
Factory where it will be completed in preparation of the transatlantic crossing scheduled
in 2015.

© Xavier Leoty/AFP.

Traditional methods are being used in a sort of immense in situ laboratory, which has already attracted 3.4 million visitors. A few figures will suffice to illustrate the scope of this project: a hundred or so people working onsite daily, 400 000 pieces of wood and metal, 2000 oaks selected from French forests, 1000 pulleys, 1 tonne of tow for caulking, 24 km of ropes, 2200 square meters of sail, three masts, the tallest of which will rise 54 meters above the keel, 26 cannons for 12- pound cannonballs on the gun deck, and 8 cannons on the forecastle—nonfunctional of course and lightened for safety reasons. What would Pierre Loti have thought of today’s Hermione? Of this three-masted, 65- meter, 1166-tonne frigate with a petrol blue hull embellished with gold? Faithfully reconstructed step by step since July 4th, 1997 using the original plans, the Hermione will in all regards be true to the original when it takes to sea in 2015 to retrace La Fayette’s voyage to Boston, with, it is true, some concessions to modernity in the shape of a small motor system and a few computerized navigational aids, manned by a crew of 80, compared with the 316 seamen needed in the 18th century.

The Hermione at one end of the rope factory in one of the dry docks on the banks of the Charente River, together with the visitor center, attracts over 250 000 visitors a year, and guided visits fund a good part of the work, which visitors can watch from a system of catwalks.

More than a reminder of the glorious maritime history of France and of the bonds of friendship between France and America in the early days of the War of Independence, the Hermione is above all the fruit of an incredible technical challenge. Work on the vessel is overseen by the historical committee, which ensures the authenticity of the building methods, adapted to meet current seaworthiness regulations. From engineering to carpentry, from the weaving of the linen sails to the manufacture of the rigging, traditional know-how is being used to recreate the vessel and its three decks, 2200 square meters of sail, oak hull 70 cm thick in parts (plating, ribbing, lining), unimaginable today but vital for repelling 18thcentury cannonballs. La Fayette’s original Hermione was built in less than a year, while today’s replica, it is true, only emerged from its dry dock in the summer of 2012, some fifteen years after the first hammer blow was struck. The first voyage—to the Island of Aix—is planned for 2013, and the final touches will be made at sea in 2014 before the transatlantic crossing.

What would Loti have said? Remembering his staging of events designed to create and sustain the illusion of time travel, to suspend time, we can wager that he would have been the first to rejoice in this epic return to the 18th century. To an age unhurried, to a past when the dance to the music of time was more sedate. In Rochefort as else-where. _

Fan with Polynesian scene painted by Pierre Loti
for Madame Alice Louis-Barthou, in 1910.

Private collection © Archives Charmet.