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A monument to an adventurer’s fantasies 29 novembre 2012

Posted by Acturca in Art-Culture, Books / Livres, France, History / Histoire, Istanbul, Turkey / Turquie.
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International Herald Tribune, Thursday, November 29, 2012

By Susanne Fowler, Rochefort (France)

The French government shores up a novelist’s Ottoman celebration.

On a nearly deserted side street in this city in western France, a multimillion-euro project is under way to restore the home of a flamboyant naval officer and novelist who decorated his fantasy home with items he collected during his travels to Asia and the Middle East.

The family home of Julien Viaud, who wrote under the name Pierre Loti, has been a French national monument since 1991 and a museum since 1973. But time and termites had taken such a toll on the exotic lair that no more than 10 visitors at a time were allowed inside an eye-popping second-floor « mosque » that was close to collapsing because of six tons of tile and marble from Syria and Turkey.

Now, in a French government-backed project expected to cost as much as €10 million, or $13 million, the home and its contents – including textiles and tombstones – will be cleaned and repaired and the museum itself expanded to include a visitor’s center across the street. Selected items will be sent to other museums, including the Museum of Art and History in Rochefort and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, during the lengthy renovation.

The Rochefort museum is featuring an exhibit through Dec. 31 on Mr. Loti’s passion for design, including pictures of « lost » or dismantled areas of the house, like his Japanese pagoda room.

This will be followed in April by an exhibit of his travel photographs to places like Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, India, Burma and Chinain conjunction with the editors of the new book « Pierre Loti, Photographer, » by the Loti scholars Bruno Vercier and D’Alain Quella-Velléger.

« Our aim is to not deprive people of Loti, » Claude Stefani, curator of Rochefort municipal museums, said during an interview by telephone. « Loti should exist, even if his house is closed. »

That house included, among other things, a plush red salon with an oil painting of Mr. Loti as an Ottoman warrior; a more traditionally French blue room with a carpet given to him by the Turkish government for his behind-the-scenes diplomacy after World War I; a Chinese room; a Turkish salon; an Arab room; and a Renaissance room with an asymmetrical stone staircase and chandeliers galore. Only in his bedroom did the style revert to something more monastic in nature, with white walls and a narrow metal bed, more in line with his austere Protestant upbringing.

His writings often dwelt on themes of love and death. His first novel, « The Marriage of Loti, » sprang from time he spent in Tahiti. Another, « Madame Chrysanthemum, » is said to have inspired the opera « Madama Butterfly. »

Mr. Loti’s personal life, including his relationship with his wife, Blanche, was as complicated as his plot lines.

« He was better at everything but being a good husband – he was really a nasty husband, » Mr. Stefani said. « He had a mistress from the Basque country and asked her to live in a house at the back of his. He also had some relationships with men. So for the wife, this was really difficult to accept. She eventually was fed up and went to her family’s property, where she died. »

Mr. Loti « was very strange in appearance, » Mr. Stefani said, « wearing makeup and high heels and a wee bit effeminate. In the late 19th century, the critics in Paris were very, very nasty. »

And his taste in decorating was bizarre for the times. « He did unimaginable things, » Mr. Stefani said. « The house of Loti is like a theater, a theater he built for himself. »

That « theater » was where he would stage grand parties, always with a theme – like China or the Middle Ages – always with guests in costumes dressed as Arab sheiks or Chinese emperors and their concubines. In bourgeois France, he was a respected international diplomat who also happened to be an acrobat who liked to play dress up.

The renovation’s exact timetable is the « million-dollar question, » Mr. Stefani said. « Even we don’t know. It could be somewhere between 5 and 10 years. This is a very complicated challenge. »

The project is at its beginnings, without even architectural renderings of what the result might be. And there are plenty of bugs to be gotten rid of, he said, including « moths in the fabrics, termites in the wood. »

There are thousands of items to be cared for: Mr. Loti, who died in 1923, « was a compulsive collector, » Mr. Stefani said, and the house is full of ceramics, textiles, sculptures, Ottoman furnishings and period costumes.

Mr. Loti had an eye for exotic décor, but he was a novice when it came to building, working without the advice of an architect, placing his mosque on the top floor of a house in a town that had been built on a swamp.

« With its columns of marble, a fountain in marble, the floors; all this weight is pushing on rest of the house, » Mr. Stefani said. « If you add the number of visitors per year – 40,000 – all these elements make the house into an old lady who needs restoration. »

While hardly a household name in many cultures, Mr. Loti has had a place of honor in Turkey and areas of the Middle East. « He had been sent to Constantinople while in the military, » Mr. Stefani said. « There he fell in love with Turkey and the Turks and was recognized by the government as someone who could understand the Ottoman Empire and be a friend. »

In the first World War, Turkey was allied with Germany, which put Mr. Loti in a delicate position: « It was difficult at the time because he was French and yet he couldn’t accept Turkey as an enemy, » Mr. Stefani said. « During his lifetime, he was criticized for being a friend of the Turks: That’s why he is venerated in Turkey, even today. »

His Istanbul period also provided the setting for his 1879 novel « Aziyadé, » published as a fictionalized account of his own forbidden affair with a woman in the Ottoman harem. (Some posit that the book is about his love for Turkey, or even about an affair with a male servant.) A cafe in the conservative Eyup district with a view of the Golden Horn still bears his name, despite repeated efforts by politicians in the governing Islamist party to change it.

The « mosque, » with a turquoise-tiled mihrab that does not, in fact, point toward Mecca, is not really a mosque, Mr. Stefani explained, but more of a playroom for the Loti entourage.

« From time to time he would ask a friend to dress in Arabian clothing and play the imam like a piece of theater, » Mr. Stefani said. « He was not mocking Islam at all: He was very respectful of Islam, but he wanted to keep the memory of everywhere he had traveled. He thought about converting to Islam, but didn’t. »

The room features an 18th-century cedar ceiling that was removed from a palace in Aleppo, seemingly all the more valuable now that the city has been bombed in the violence gripping Syria.

There are marble columns and arches, plus low banquettes with intricately embroidered silk pillows where Mr. Loti and his friends would lounge, smoke water pipes and breathe in the scent from perfumed oil lamps.

But perhaps the most important item in the room is an Ottoman tombstone, said to be the stele from the grave of Aziyadé herself, spirited away from a cemetery on the grounds of Topkapi Palace.

« Some say that it’s fake, » Mr. Stefani conceded, « but some historians say Loti had a copy made, and put the copy in the cemetery. »

And despite on Turkey’s increasingly vocal efforts to reclaim its treasures from museums around the globe, Ankara has not asked for the Aziyade stele to be returned.

« The situation between France and Turkey is quite complicated now, » Mr. Stefani said. « We’d like to show the house, and we have had an exchange of mayors, but it’s too early to say if we can do more. »

Mr. Loti also still fascinates in France, sharing a distinction with Victor Hugo, the celebrated French author of « Les Misérables, » as the only French writers to be given state funerals, according to the Loti biographer Lesley Blanch.

That is one reason why the state is willing to spend as much as €10 million to rescue the monument to its bohemian naval hero. « There is a lot of interesting stuff about this guy, » Mr. Stefani said, « and we want to go beyond just the house to explain the exotic Loti, the political Loti, the jet set Loti, his music, his writing. »

Rescuing the house, said Mr. Stefani, is akin to saving the memory of Loti himself: « Loti was a writer, but the second big work of his life was this house. It is Loti himself. »


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