Wednesday, 05/25/2011, Afternoon, Paris.
I arrived at the Louvre and went straight to the information desk to ask where the Eleanor Vase was. I wasn't going to fool around trying to find it and wind up looking at some other ancient relic or medieval craftsmanship and waste my precious time. I had a mission and I wanted to get in and out with minimal people interaction. I needed all my energy for the Eleanor of Aquitaine experience.
I asked the gentleman at the desk where Eleanor of Aquitaine's vase was. "What?" he said looking completely bewildered, and then mumbled something to his compatriot. I pronounced it as the English do. Was that not also how the French pronounce it? I knew that in French, Eleanor was “Alienor,” but I hadn't thought to find out how to pronounce “Aquitaine.” And being a self-centered American, I assumed even the French would know her by her English name. These assumptions suddenly seemed like a major failure on my part.
I rattled off a few more names: Henry the Second, her husband. Richard the Lionheart and King John, her sons. "Ah!" he said. "Ah! Alienor d'Aquitaine!" He pronounced the last part "ock-i-tane." OK. Let me write that down.
He pointed me to the Objets d'Art hall of the Richelieu arm of the museum. He even circled the exact case on the diagram that held the vase. Perfect. "Merci," I said and headed upstairs to the first floor (in Europe, as you may know, the street level is usually floor 0; the next floor up is the main floor).
I walked in.
I am now here, seeing the Eleanor Vase -- beautiful. She is just sitting there sharing a case with three other pieces as if they were of equivalent antiquity: A porcelain-like vase with platinum "wings." (Like that will impress me.) And an ornate silver tea pot like a press pot. (How pedestrian!)
A small charm hangs off the neck of the Eleanor vase. The gilded silver filigree and metal work are at odds with the simple honeycomb pattern of the crystal vase. The naked glass vase was the original gift given to Eleanor's grandfather, Duke William IX of Aquitaine, by the Berber ruler of Saragossa, a city state now in the Spanish region of Aragon, for helping defend the city from a new Berber invasion. On their wedding day in 1137 Eleanor gifted King Louis VII of France the samesimple crystal vase . The metalwork was added by Abott Sugar after Louis gave him the vase and he added it to his collection at St. Denis about 15 years later.
The back side of the vase has been smashed and sheared off, creating a new irregular glacial face. A small fissure appears at the top of the glass, like the tip of the iceberg, but it does not go completely through the material. The stones and jewels on the outside of the base are lovely -- amethyst, coral -- all about 1/4 inch by 1/2 inch. Then a pair of tiny pearls set in gold filigree stand one on top of the other. The writing at the bottom is square and Roman, some letters larger than others. And there is a flower pattern similar to the Fleur-de-lis.
One of the jewels is missing on the back side -- the same side of the crystal vase that is sheared off and glacial-looking -- the rest appear to be in place. This is where the vase must have hit the floor in the 18th century, damaging it for the first time. It seems someone lined up the damage to the vase to appear at the back, away from the viewer's first sighting. Around the space where the jewel had been is a pattern like a fine gilded rope woven around the shape of the missing jewel.
In the metal sleeve covering the neck there is a ring of stones. Above this is a space filled with ovals -- four of them, each with four Fleur-de-lis painted in gold over a blue stone in the center of the oval -- possibly lapis lazuli -- above this series of ovals is a circlet of small semi-precious stones & pearls.
Gorgeous. The vase shape itself is almost completely symmetrical. Incredible. The top of the vase – what I can see from under the metal collar, comes down at almost vertical, then rolls out into a curved arc, then curves back in smoothly into the base. The divots in the crystal—made by a master craftsman—are almost completely even. They meander up on just one side.
The inside of the metal at the lip of the neck shows the tiny indentations left by the hammer used to mold it. It reflects back the light in the case in blues and burnt orange and bronze and black.
Upon closer inspection, I find an additional mark like a backwards Zorro “Z” slash on the front of the vase. It doesn't appear to be a fissure in the crystal. If it is, someone did a tremendous mending job. Although they should have taken better care of this precious artifact in the first place. It is all we have left from the life of Eleanor.
The card reads, “Cristal. Iran(?) Unknown Origin.”
As I stare at the vase and scribble notes, it occurs to me to imagine what my novel's main character, Aihne, saw when she looked at this same vase in the fictional future of the story. There must be an odd mark at the base of the original crystal, almost invisible and obscured by the metal base. A thread that was not a crack. A groove that only Aihne's expert eyes could make out. No one else had noticed. And the kicker was that there was a matching groove on the other side! She is the first to discover that the vase in the story is an imposter and points it out to the guard. What did it mean? Aihne's purpose on traveling to the 12th century is to find out!
I am glad the vase I saw was the real deal.
A version of this blog entry appeared on electricrider.net on June 5, 2011.