The first times I saw Mélanie I must confess I did not pay much attention to her. In my defense I must say that I was in a bit of a rush and that in that very room was Francis, yes, the Saint Francis, done by my old friend Vicente Carducho. Nearby was Aesop, no, not Velazquez’s Aesop, but a version by my old Boston buddy John Singer Sargent, even Picasso was there. Ok it was a silly dish with a Centaur, which he probably whipped up between a swim at the beach and lunch at Vallauris, but still. But what really captivated me was my granddad’s old paisan Francisco, yes Francisco de Goya, he was upstairs in a couple of his Caprichos prints. Imagine finding Goya in a village in the middle of North Carolina, my mind was blown and I fell in love with Chapel Hill and with the Ackland Museum. My story with Mélanie came later.
Mélanie and I were formally introduced by a common acquaintance, a curator in the museum, in the Winter of 2013. After that I quickly grew to like her. We started seeing each other every Sunday. I would go to mass, then I would grab a coffee at the Carolina Inn and do some reading, and then I would go see her for a while. That was over two and a half years ago and we are still going strong. Our secret? when I am not reading to her, I monopolize the conversation.
After visiting Melanie just about every Sunday for the last few years – except during summer, I can tell you a few things about her: She is French, if you must know, from the South of France, Provence. She is a Marquise, so less than a duchess or a princess, but more than a countess or a baroness. This means that she is not the first French noblewoman I fall in love with, but that is a different story and it was a long time ago. At any rate, she is 30, she has been 30 since I met her, in fact, she has been thirty since 1789 when she was painted. Not a single wrinkle, that’s French beauty for you. Yes she is rich, check out that dress, that is heavy silk, with a stoat or ermine trim! She is artistic. Can’t you see her blue drawing paper? Where do you think the word blueprints comes from? Yes she loves to write, see the stylus in her hand? although the artist forgot to paint in an inkwell or bottle, or was he trying to tell us something? Hmmm. She is religious, her sash and medal means she belongs to a religious order, you know, for the nobility. She is wise, see the statue of Athena, or is it Minerva? never mind. Some people say she is married, but I don’t see no ring – and wedding rings have been around since the ancient Egyptians and Celts – go listen to Beyoncé.
Her full name is Mélanie de Forbin-Gardanne, Marquise de Villeneuve-Flayosc. Some call her Madame, maybe because she is nobility, but to that I say read the previous paragraph. Being noble and rich goes hand in hand with being a bit of a celebrity, even if she does not like it one bit. So besides the gossip that goes with being 18th C French nobility, and the painting, and being a “Grand Lady”, writer Allan Gurganus wrote a bit of a story about her, which, by the way is totally ficticious!!!
But enough of this superficial silly talk. Mélanie has a heart of gold. She was extremely well educated, she loves the arts and culture, and philosophy. Therein lies the problem. The Estates-General has just met in Versailles, ending up in a tennis court after Louis XVI kicked them out of the Grands Salles, where they were meeting. Heads are about to roll, many heads, literally. If you look closely, Mélanie has a longing in her gaze, her eyes are almost watery. She could care less about the painting and the painter, and the dress and the furniture. She has read Kant and Hobbes and Locke and Voltaire. She knows we can have a better world, but these Enlightenment thinkers full of Reason are forgetting a small detail: love. My Mélanie knows we can, and should, have a better world with everything that entails. When I go see her on Sundays she tells me all this, just with her eyes.
I can’t wait for next Sunday to go see Mélanie.
Madame de Villeneuve-Flayosc
Reading to Mélanie