By Linda McK.Stewart
If you were sure that in your next life you would return as a horse, wouldn’t you do all you could, while you could, to improve the life of horses?
Of course you would. And, if you had unlimited spending privileges, well, so much the better. Which, in mid-century France was exactly the situation that attended the life of Louis-Henri de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, more casually known as Monsieur le Duc. Such is the story behind the architectural marvel known as the Grandes Ecuries or the Great Stables, completed in 1735 and situated on the grounds of the Chateau of Chantilly.
The architect, Jean Aubert, was a favorite of the entire far-flung royal family. As such he was assured a freehand…no niggling over cost overruns or other tiresome details that so often spoil the architect’s fun.
Certainly the word “stables” falls far short of conveying the splendor of the Grandes Ecuries. They’ve been called a temple, a cathedral, a palace. They are none of these, though they embody aspects of all three. Built in the neo-classical style of the 18th century, the stables, two-stories high, consist of the East and West wings of equal dimension, joined in the center by a magnificent, domed pavilion. There Monsieur le Duc gave lavish dinner parties with as many as 100 guests who dined by torchlight under the vast dome, more than 60 feet high, more suited to a cathedral than a stable.
No ordinary water trough served His Lordship’s horses. Instead, they drank from a sculpted work of art in which water cascaded down from one marble scallop shell to another, falling into a huge marble reservoir. Originally, the fountain was flanked by a majestic pair of larger-than-life stags of which, thanks to the French Revolution, only one remains.
The two long wings, the East and the West, at one time housed some 250 pampered steeds. One-half served as transport, the other half served Monsieur le Duc for hunting, a sport of which he was particularly fond. Some 100 hounds were kenneled in an adjoining complex.
Today the West wing is given over to a marvelous collection of carriages, coaches, sleighs, carts and other horse-drawn conveyances. Each has been splendidly restored, every bit of harness, every brass buckle polished to a fare-thee-well. Here also is an exhibit of the great variety of styles that attend horses in far-flung corners of the world. It’s a surefire favorite with groups of visiting school children who flock, wide-eyed, to pat the replicas of horses ridden by the Saharan nomad, the Mongolian herder, the cowboy of the Argentinian pampas or the shaggy ponies of the Arctic regions.
The East wing today is home to some 50 over-indulged steeds, luxuriating in roomy box stalls filled belly deep with sweet-smelling straw. Some are hunters that two or three times a week are ridden to hounds in the vast forests of Chantilly where the stag invariably outruns, outsmarts the pack. Others are used for equitation lesson or just for hacking along the miles of leafy bridle paths that crisscross the entire domaine of Chantilly.
The glamorous lifestyle enjoyed by Monsieur le Duc was brought to an abrupt end by the French Revolution. With the arrival of Napoleon, such lavish estates that had escaped the fury of the Revolution were ordered destroyed unless they were deemed useful to His Imperial Majesty’s military pursuits. As horses played an integral part in such pursuits, the Grandes Ecuries were spared the torch and/or the wrecking ball.
This past summer, the long awaited Musée du Cheval opened and was immediately hailed as a triumph in museum design. It is indeed what can be termed “user friendly,” as accessible to kids as to their more tedious elders. It consists of 17 small salons or viewing areas, opening off the East wing. Each display features a different phase of the horse down through the ages as it has related to humankind. We see the horse as it originated 45 million years ago as an odd-toed ungulate mammal, no larger than a rabbit, evolving to the wondrous hoofed Equus ferus caballus we know today. Man’s domestication of the horse probably began about 4000 B.C.
Salon by salon we’re reminded of all the ways since then that man has used his fellow-creature … in war, hunting, racing, hauling, plowing, transport, as inspiration in art and as a symbol of pure pleasure as in carousels the world over.
I had only a scant hour when I visited this small gem of a museum, one hour when I could easily have stayed for the whole day. So be warned: This is rich tourist territory. It’s not just the Grandes Ecuries to be toured, plus the attached museum; just over the rise are the splendid parterres gardens laid out by the famous Le Nôtre, the Chateau of Chantilly with its truly astounding art collection and the tidy, altogether pleasing hamlet of Chantilly.
Paris with all its seductive charms is only 25 miles away. But all that awaits you in Chantilly is surely not to be bypassed!