Memoires of Madame Vigee Lebrun - chapter 6

The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun – Chapter 6: Turin and Vienna

Meanwhile, it being my desire to see France again, I reached Turin with this end in view. The two aunts of Louis XVI. had been kind enough to give me letters to Clotilda, Queen of Sardinia, their niece. They sent word that they very much wished to have a portrait done by me, and consequently, as soon as I was settled, I presented myself before Her Majesty. She received me very well after reading the letters of Princess Adelaide and Princess Victoria. She told me that she regretted having to refuse her aunts, but that, having renounced the world altogether, she must decline being painted. What I saw indeed seemed quite in accord with her statement and her resolve. The Queen of Sardinia had her hair cut short and wore on her head a little cap, which, like the rest of her garb, was the simplest conceivable. Her leanness struck me particularly, as I had seen her when she was very young, before her marriage, when her stoutness was so pronounced that she was called “Fat Milady” in France. Be it that this change was caused by too austere religious practices, or by the sufferings which the misfortunes of her family had made her undergo, the fact was that she had altered beyond recognition. The King joined her in the room where she received me. He was likewise so pale and thin that it was painful to look at them together.

I lost no time in going to see Madame, the wife of Louis XVIII. She not only accorded me a warm welcome, but arranged picturesque drives for me in the neighbourhood of Turin, which I took with her lady-in-waiting, Mme. de Gourbillon, and her son. Said surroundings are very beautiful, but our first expedition was not very auspicious. We set out in the heat of the day to visit a monastery situated high up on a mountain. As the mountain was very steep, we were obliged to get out of the carriage when we had gone half way and then climb on foot. I remember passing a spring of the clearest water, whose drops sparkled like diamonds, and which peasants declared to be a cure for sundry diseases. After climbing so long that we were exhausted, we at length arrived at the monastery dying with heat and hunger. The table was already laid for the monks and for travellers, which filled us with joy, since it may be imagined how impatient we were for dinner. As there was some delay, we thought that something special was being done for us, seeing that Madame had recommended us to the monks in a letter she had given us addressed to them. At last a dish of frogs’ breasts was served, which I took for a chicken stew. But as soon as I tasted it I found it impossible to eat another morsel, hungry as I was. Then three other dishes were brought on, boiled, fried and grilled, and I set great hopes on each in turn. Alas! they were only frogs again! So we ate nothing but dry bread, and drank water, these monks never drinking nor offering wine. My heart’s desire was then an omelet – but there were no eggs in the house.

After my visit to the monastery I met Porporati, who wanted me to live with him. He proposed occupying a farm he owned two miles from Turin, where he had some plain but comfortable rooms. I gladly accepted this offer, as I hated living in town, and at once went to establish myself with my daughter and her governess in this retreat. The farm stood in the open country, surrounded with fields, and little streams edged by trees high enough to form delightful bowers. From morning till night I took rapturous walks in these enchanting solitudes. My child enjoyed the pure air as much as I did the quiet, peaceful life that we led. Alas! it was in this peaceful place, while I was in such a happy state of mind, that I was struck a most cruel blow. The cart which brought our letters having come one evening, the carter handed me one from my friend M. de Rivière, my sister-in-law’s brother, who apprised me of the dreadful events of the 10th of August and supplied me with some horrible details. I was quite overcome, and made up my mind to go back to Turin immediately.

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