Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet

Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet (1588–December 2, 1665), better known simply as Madame de Rambouillet, was a society hostess and a major figure in the literary history of France.


She was the daughter and heiress of Jean de Vivonne, marquis of Pisani, and her mother Giulia was of the noble Roman family of Savelli. She was married at the age of twelve to Charles d'Angennes, vicomte of Le Mans, and afterwards marquis of Rambouillet. The young marquise found the coarseness and intrigue of the French court little to her taste, and after the birth of her eldest daughter, Julie d'Angennes, in 1607, she began to gather round her the circle afterwards so famous. She established herself at the Hôtel Pisani, called later the Hôtel de Rambouillet, the site of which is close to the Grands Magasins du Louvre.

Mme de Rambouillet arranged her house for the purpose of receiving her visitors, and devised suites of small rooms where they could move around and find more privacy than in the large reception rooms of an ordinary house. The Hôtel was rebuilt on these lines in 1618. It maintained its importance as a social and literary centre until 1650. Almost all major contemporary personages in French society and French literature frequented it, especially during the second quarter of the century, when it was at the height of its reputation. There is abundant testimony to Mme de Rambouillet's beauty, though no portrait of her survives.

Her success as a hostess has many explanations. Her natural abilities had been carefully trained, but were not extraordinary. Many people were, however, like herself, disgusted with the intrigues at court, and found the comparative austerity of the Hôtel de Rambouillet a welcome change. The marquise had a genuine kindness and a lack of prejudice that enabled her to entertain princes and princesses of the blood royal and literary men with the same grace, whilst among her intimate friends was the beautiful Angélique Paulet. The respect paid to ability in the salon effected a great advancement in the position of French men of letters. Moreover, the almost uniform excellence of the memoirs and letters of 17th century Frenchmen and Frenchwomen may be traced largely to the development of conversation as a fine art at the Hôtel Rambouillet, and the consequent establishment of a standard of clear and adequate expression. Mme de Rambouillet was known as the "incomparable Arthénice," the name being an anagram for Catherine, devised by François de Malherbe and Honorat de Bueil, seigneur de Racan.

Among the more noteworthy incidents in the story of the Hôtel are the sonnet war between the Uranistes and the Jobistes--partisans of two famous sonnets by Vincent Voiture and Isaac de Benserade--and the composition by all the famous poets of the day of the Guirlande de Julie, a collection of poems on different flowers, addressed in 1641 to Julie d'Angennes, afterwards duchesse de Montausier. Julie herself was responsible for a good deal of the preciosity for which the Hôtel was later ridiculed. Charles de Sainte Maure, who become in 1664 duc de Montausier, had been wooing her for seven years when he conceived the idea of the famous garland, and she kept him waiting for four years more.

The Précieuses, who are usually associated with Molière's avowed caricatures and with the extravagances of Mlle de Scudéry, but whose name, it must be remembered, Madame de Sévigné herself was proud to bear--insisted on a ceremonious gallantry from their suitors and friends, though it seems from the account given by Tallemant des Réaux that mild practical jokes took place at the Hôtel de Rambouillet. They especially favoured an elaborate and quintessenced kind of colloquial and literary expression, imitated from Giambattista Marini and Luís de Góngora y Argote, and then fashionable throughout Europe.

The immortal Précieuses ridicules of Molière was no doubt directly levelled not at the Hôtel de Rambouillet itself, but at the numerous coteries which in the course of years had sprung up in imitation of it. The satire affected the originators as well as the imitators, the former more closely perhaps than they perceived. The Hôtel de Rambouillet remained open till the death of its mistress, but the troubles of the Fronde diminished its influence.

The chief original authorities respecting Madame de Rambouillet and her set are Tallemant des Réaux in his Historiettes, and Antoine Baudeau de Somaize in his Grand Dictionnaire des Précieuses (1660).


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