It’s time to raise a glass to Paris’s original salonniere, Madame de Rambouillet, a great dame who was hosting fêtes in France with thinkers, artists, and writers long before it was en vogue to do so. Among her regular guests were Pierre Corneille, Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, Antoine Godot, François Maynard, and Madame de Sévigné. Vraiment, it was this trailblazing lady who launched the great literary salons of Paris. Do join me as I recount the story of her fête-fabulous life.
Born Catherine de Vivonne in 1588 to a noble family, our gal was married off at the tender age of 12 to Charles d’Angennes, the son of Jean d’Angennes, seigneur of the Rambouillet manor and governor of Dauphiné. Catherine, now Madame de Rambouillet, moved with her hubby to Paris and settled into the posh Hôtel Pisani, which was later dubbed the Hôtel de Rambouillet.
Chambre Bleue at the Hôtel de Rambouillet
As a young bride, Catherine was the victim of catty gossip that claimed that she was too clumsy and naive to be an elegant match for her blue-blooded husband. No shrinking violet, she responded by studying the classics in secret, later emerging with a reputation among those in French literary circles as quite refined and learned. As a result of her intellectual pursuits, Catherine grew weary of the shallow gossip that defined the social gatherings of the day. In 1620, she created her own regular get-togethers (the first Parisian salon!), at which she cultivated refined manners, the arts, and platonic ideals. The writer Jean Regnault de Segrais would later write that she “corrected the wicked customs that went before her” and “taught politesse to all those of her time who visited her.”
Known as Chambre Bleue (the blue room) for the room’s defining hue, Madame’s salon was attended by the greatest writers, thinkers, and aristocrats of the day and is considered to be the birthplace of 17th-century French literature.
Pierre Corneille, the renowned 17th-century French dramatist, was a Chambre Bleue habitué
As a hostess, the beautiful Marquise de Rambouillet displayed genuine kindness, wit, and a down-to-earth demeanor. She received princes and literary men with equal regard. She also knew the value of ice-breakers to encourage guests from different areas of life to chat with one another, so she filled Chambre Bleue with curiosities, choice works of art, and other one-of-a-kind conversation pieces.
Beyond assembling fascinating groups and facilitating stimulating social interaction, Marquise de Rambouillet had a signature hostess trait: she found great joy in surprising her guests. At one point, she had a secret room built just off Chambre Bleue. One evening, in front of a crowd of guests, she pulled back a large tapestry to reveal, not a wall as expected, but a lushly decorated chamber featuring a lovely woman reclining in the style of a Muse.
Hôtel de Rambouillet today
Like most fabulous party hosts, Marquise de Rambouillet had a great eye for design, which led her to restore the Hôtel de Rambouillet to suit social gatherings. For example, she moved the grand staircase from the center of the room to the side to create more usable space. She also divided the Hôtel de Rambouillet into a series of small rooms so that guests could wander and find privacy for intimate conversations. It is said that the architects who designed the Luxembourg Palace studied and were influenced by her unique arrangements.
Madame de Rambouillet died on December 27, 1665, leaving behind a legacy of intellectual curiosity, wit, and grace that set the tone for centuries of salons to come. Bravo, Madame!
To read more about the great salonnieres in history, click here. For a list of America’s 100 best modern-day salonnieres click here, and for tips and ideas from today’s most skilled party hosts, click here.