10 Jul 2017

Melania Trumps Fashion

Ladies and gents, when was the last time we took such an interest in a First Lady's attire? Jackie Kennedy set a fashion precedent back in her day for sure but her successors did not follow suit, either by choice or disregard to becoming a style ambassador. Fashion became irrelevant, it faded into backgrounds of tame wallflowers and obligatory tea parties, sugared out and watered down in a self-imposed protocole of blandness and drabness, epitomised by a middle-aged dress attitude and safe colours of creams, magnolias and other sickly pastels worn conservatively in designs unchanged and unchallenged, the sort that typifies English royalty of a certain age.

Dress by Hervé Pierre and coat by Bottega Veneta, Hamburg City Hall, Germany

I mean, who could have gushed over Barbara Bush's granny-like attire, or even Nancy Reagan's, one blue rinse and two carat diamonds up from your grandma's Sunday best. I will not even talk about Laura Bush because we are then in garden society board meeting territory. And I doubt Michelle Obama ever transited from her office job to FLOTUS* in all honesty.

Scuba-knit découpage dress by Delpozo, Copernicus Science Center, Warsaw, Poland

Now a soft revolution is taking place in the closets. Melania is a fashion ambassador that fashion designer dreams are made of. Apart from the likes of Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford and Zac Posen who adamantly chose to shun her at their peril. Beware because wherever Melania goes, the garments she wore that day sell out like hot cakes! A boon for designers like Dolce & Gabbana who are making sure the world knows how proud they are to dress the First Lady who to them personifies the #DGWoman par excellence!

Dolce & Gabbana floral coat, G7 First Ladies visit, Catania, Italy

Aside from certain high-ticket accessories (her ethical fashion faux-pas Hermès crocodile-skin Birkin handbag and her $51,500 D&G floral coat), Melania's dress attire generally does not exceed the $2,100-$3,000 bracket, a snip by billionaire standards - and only a little extravagant by middle-class standards: either mummy gets her designer dress or the family takes a two-week vacation in the sun.

FL Melania in a $51,500 Dolce & Gabbana coat. The price tag will trigger liberals, but -- too bad! The Trump family epitomizes the American Dream.” - TrumpAdmin.daily.updates

Scuba-knit découpage dress by Delpozo, Warsaw, Poland

Talking of crocodile skin, every Melania fan who supports her style but refuses to compromise on their animal advocacy values at the same time, dreams that Melania will one day soon enough add another feather of compassion in her cap by wearing fur and animal skin no more. Well, fret not because Pamela Anderson took up the challenge earlier this year by sending Melania a fur-free coat from ethical faux-fur Russian company Only Me that did not go unnoticed. Melania pledged to ditch the fur, while this could be the start of a beautiful friendship for those two ladies, you never know!

“Amid all the mania at the inauguration, you looked stunning in an outfit by Ralph Lauren—one of many fur-free designers.  I am so happy that you chose not to wear fur! As first lady, you will help set style trends, and by remaining compassionate with your choices, you will warm the hearts of many.” - Pamela Anderson in a letter to Melania Trump

We never expected a lady like Melania to fade away in a background of magnolia wallflowers. She has the demure elegance, the grace, the poise, the features, the shape, the beauty all rolled into divine proportions to carry off much more than her predecessors' safe shades and patterns. She knows how to hold herself, carry herself and project a statement of sensibility and confidence. So far as the FLOTUS, she has worn items by couture houses as diverse as Ralph Lauren (on inauguration day) and Hervé Pierre (on inauguration night), Dolce & Gabbana, Emilio Pucci, Delpozo, Diane Von Furstenberg, Michael Kors, Bottega Veneta, and high-heel footwear maestros Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin. Rest assured that the list will have reached stellar heights by the end of the Trump presidency.

Floral-print crêpe gown by Emilio Pucci, The White House, Washington DC

On an interview last year with Harper's Bazaar, Melania was asked which First Lady she admired most and found most inspirational in terms of style and was prompted with the names of Jackie and Nancy. She brushed those away in a snip and replied emphatically that her fellow fashion model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (former French First Lady) was her inspiration. What a statement! Why fade away between the teapot and the Bourbon biscuit when you can carry on being what you were made famous for: an attractive, confident, head-turning fashion icon!

First Lady Melania Trump, wearing a Dolce & Gabbana outfit, official White House portrait

Yet Melania goes beyond the superficiality of fashion. She carefully chooses her dresses to bring a message, like her Delpozo scuba-knit dress she wore on her visit to Poland and whose pop art colours carry a strong nationalistic message (they reflect the colours worn by the Polish military). Prior to her husband being elected, she also wore a vibrant pink Gucci pussy-bow blouse at the second presidential TV debates, following her husband's notorious 'Grab them by the pussy' line. If this was not her tongue-in-cheek way of diffusing a hyped-up situation, I wonder what was.

Gucci pussy-bow blouse, second presidential TV debates (October 2016)

Melania is proving that a former fashion model is not a clothes horse. She has come a long way since inauguration day where her reserve, nervousness and slight reticence at times were palpable, especially under the magnified anti-Trump media scrutiny. Melania is blossoming out right before our very eyes as a First Lady who has managed to incorporate her love of fashion into her political agenda. She is a Trump powerhouse all to herself and will be remembered in her own right by bringing more than just fashion personality (back) into the political arena.

Sharp and crisp on her way to Bedminster NJ! 

We can thank Melania for the fact that she is putting feminity back into both the fashion and political agendas. She makes a woman proud to be a woman once again. She shows us that you can be in your mid-forties and still be and look relevant, dapper and (so be said) a smouldering sex bomb. And with that, Melania slaps feminism in the face: no you shouldn't be sloppy in looks and attitudes in order to prove yourself to the world. Feminity is to be celebrated and embraced, not diminished and ridiculed!

She's a woman, a mother, a wife and a lady too! (pict source)

You watch my words: by empowering women through their reaffirmed graceful feminity and the values she stands for, Melania will come to be remembered as the best FLOTUS ever. The irony of it all is that she wasn't even born in the US and yet she incarnates American values more than her predecessors, some of whom harboured a strong anti-American stance (anti-prosperity, anti-ambition). Overall Melania is proving that being of foreign origin and having an accent should not prevent you from rising to the top - with grace. When it comes to the improbable marriage of politics and fashion, you seek a complimentarity of style between the two and Melania struck the balance effortlessly.  

I might not be American and not approve each and every one of her fashion choices but Melania sure is my First Lady.


*FLOTUS = First Lady Of The United States

21 Jun 2017

Stones that Rock Your Heart

There is something so satisfiying about old jewellery: it has a story to tell. It is then up to us as to whether we want that story to be part of our lives and at the same time to give it a new lease of life with the history we are set to write. As Roby and I were getting engaged, I was adamant my engagement ring would not be brand new, and that it would serendipitously cross our paths, show up to us without us looking for it. Vintage was my only prerogative and I was trusting the fact that items of a certain age come with underlying design quality and originality.

A ring named desire...

Roby and I were in Paris, and we had already come across a couple of jewellery shops but none had any vintage pieces. Then one day we walked into a posh antiques shop a breath away from Ile de la Cité and the lady there referred us to a friend of hers with an aristocratic name who sells vintage pieces. But then again I just wasn't feeling it, so we didn't pursue it.

... bearing a sapphire with deep mysterious blues that will never dull its shine!

The following day, as we were running some errands down the Boulevard de Magenta, I screeched to a halt outside an unassuming small boutique that looked like it had been stood there for decades but probably had seen better days way back. A quick casual browse through the shop-window and there it was: the ring that was to become mine!

I liked the fact the Marquise ring was white gold, and that its centre stone, a sapphire, was a moody blue: it was cloudy and had a lot of hues going on underneath the surface. Its ultramarine hues reminded me of the sky reflected in a choppy sea: a troubled, intriguing stone you can just lose yourself into! This has to be one of those sought-after, one-of-a-kind, Color-Change Sapphires.

Edwardian Antique Aquamarine Rose Diamond Ring, via Romanov Russia

The jeweller did not have much information on the ring, except that he played the old snake oil salesman trick of: "if it's not sold this week, I will have it sent out to a colleague in London for him to sell it for me." He was unable to provide a definite manufacture date, yet acquiesced when I ventured 1930s/ 1940s. I am no expert though and on closer inspection and with a little further research under my belt, I was enclined to believe the ring to be actually older, as in Edwardian (see above). But then I came across a Marquise Ring from c.1940 and it bears a close ressemblance to my own. Judge for yourself:

Marquise-Shaped Emerald Ring, c.1940, via Isadoras Antique Jewelry

If diamonds are a girl's best friends, sapphires have to her best assets! Find out more about sapphires: The Natural Sapphire Company teaches us about natural, unadulterated sapphires and The Knot tells us more about sapphire engagement rings.

Sources: (1-2) Sapphire Marquise-Shaped Ring, c.1930s, mounted on a white gold band (brand new), and purchased from a small jeweller's on the Boulevard de Magenta, Paris, France. Photography by Mirabelle Design Inspiration. (3) Edwardian Antique Aquamarine Rose Diamond Ring, via Romanov Russia. (4) Marquise-Shaped Emerald Ring, c.1940, via Isadoras Antique Jewelry.

26 May 2017

Frills and Thrills

In her day job, New York Times fashion writer Charlotte di Carcaci ravishes her readers with fashion that goes beyond skindeep - with a researched historical bias. In her leisure, she ravishes her Instagram followers with a delightful riot of frills and thrills of the painted portraiture kind, captured in cropped detail.

'Portrait of Lady Hillingdon', oil on canvas by Sir Frank Dicksee (1905)

Plunging necklines sparkling with bevelled jewels, captivating bosoms hemmed in intricate lacey patterns, fine and delicate shoulders draped in shimmering brocade, virginal waists corseted in acreages of soft ribbon, puffed up sleeves made out of silk, powdered-up diaphanous skin and cascading curled-up locks as canvasses to seamstresses, gold-threaded embroidery turned to an art form, shimmering vaporous fabrics floating about like peony blossoms... And all artistically immortalised by talented painters.

'L'Innocence', by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (circa 1893)

All in all, this is a tale of aristocracy and fine living, old European money that watches its Ps and Qs... on canvas. It almost makes us yearn for the good old days until we remember the privileged lifestyle was essentially out of reach for those outside the tight circles. Unfortunately the portraits are left uncredited by the curator for the most part but we guess that Madame de Pompadour, Pauline Borghese and portraits by Jean-Honoré Fragonard might hide in some of them.

Uncredited (timewise the empire dress hints at early 1800s)
'Young Lady with a Small Dog', by Vittorio Matteo Corcos (circa 1895)

In any case, the carefully-curated catwalk is of a high calibre and depicts how fashion in those days was at least as extravagant and opulent as it can be today. It is also a playful, instructive, delicious and visual-pleasing way of (re-)acquainting oneself with museum treasures of bygone times, all in the noble name of art and fashion. An ode to elegance, to feminity, that is a delight for the eyes!


Sources: (1-8) Charlotte di Carcaci Instagram. If you are able to credit any of the above (uncredited) portraits, please do so in the comments, this would  be so appreciated! (9) 'The Souvenir' by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, via The Athenaeum.

'Queen Charlotte', oil on canvas by Thomas Gainsborough (circa 1781)

Mirabelle's suggestions - we'll leave the image cropping to Charlotte:

'The Souvenir', oil on canvas by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1776-1778)
'Ianthe', oil on canvas by John William Godward (1889)

18 May 2017

Investment Pieces for the Home

I have finally been able to make some space in my place! Thus last week, the storage company brought all my belongings (furniture, kitchenware, electricals, books, tools, clothes and shoes) that had been locked away in storage for over seven years (you read this right, 7 years!) after I moved from the UK to Corsica. At that point, it was a matter for me of rediscovering what was hidden in those boxes because I could not exactly remember what I owned... Talk about the little girl in the treasure trove moment! Yet this made me realise how important it is to keep belongings to a minimum and focus on quality rather than the flat-pack self-assembly combo that is no statement for durability, especially after just one house move.

Flora Pendants by Rothschild & Bickers

Nip clutter in the bud and don't let it build up and control you. In my case, I have never been keen on ornaments but was still surprised to find out I still own way too many of those; they end up being begrudgingly cumbersome as space occupiers and dust collectors - not a good prospect when you live in an already-cluttered house and in the path of the dusty, desert-borne sirocco winds!

A cluster of Flora Pendants in Jade at Motel One München-Sendlinger Tor

I decided years ago that life is too short to be cumbersome and too precious to be cheap. Sometimes you need to carefully splurge on a select few investment pieces that will accompany you down the journey of life and beyond, passed down to the next generation. Quality pieces that do not necessarily shout out hefty price tag, antique heirlooms and vintage memorabilia but that spell out design, elegance, timelessness per se, and a certain uniqueness, in that 'upper' high street parable.

Twinkle, twinkle little light...

First for the cheerful and edible stuff (7 years later, I betcha!), I have happily found a box of designer coffee, upmarket English tea, and fancy sugar cubes neatly packed up. Those will come in handy, and needless to say sprinkle tea-time with a generous spoonful of English nostalgia.

Standing Pendants by Rothschild & Bickers

I'm still not done with my treasure finds, yet I have unwrapped some of what I consider my investment pieces (two of which were cheap as in even a cash-stranded student could afford those!):
  • a Mexican bedframe in repurposed vintage pine and custom-painted (bought from John Lewis before the retail store started losing its edge to the mainstream)
  • a pair of reproduction cast-iron book-ends (cast in original Victorian moulds, and purchased in Ironbridge, Shropshire, a good 20 years ago)
  • a French rococo gilded crystal chandelier, circa 1910 (a bit of a fancy purchase in relation to my budget at the time, from a specialist antiques shop on the Hale end of Altrincham, Cheshire) - yeah the posh end of town...
  • an original copy of Salome by Oscar Wilde, which I randomly came across in some charity shop in Didsbury Village, Manchester (cost me a fiver and at the time was already worth at least £80).

Steel Standing Pendants

Not all my finds were happy finds. I cringed at some of the clothing I had forgotten about (which will be heading the charity shop way soon enough!). I despaired about knick-knacks (presents from friends and family), books (Marketing for Dummies and Photoshop for Beginners type of books that shall not grace any shelves and thus remain tightly packed in boxes until disposed of via eBay).

Opulent Optic Pendants

Source: If you are seeking bespoke investment pieces rooted in European manufacturing, traditional handblown glass craftsmanship, and period-inspired pieces revisited through a resolutely clean and modern twist, Rothschild & Bickers is your port of call. The small English company has made it its speciality to turn the mod-con of lighting into an object of desire that will sit at home in antiques-furnished abodes, stately homes, modern environments... and retail outlets alike. Rothschild & Bickers lights will stand the test of time and fads and still spell out a statement steeped in history with a forward-thinking standpoint. No shadow of a doubt about this. My favourite pieces include the (1) Flora Pendants range, retailing at £370 (small) and £440 (large), and (4) the Standing Pendants range, retailing at £520. (2-3) The Flora range blossoms at Motel One München-Sendlinger Tor, Munich, Germany. (5) Bespoke Steel Standing Pendants, photography via Rothschild & Bickers' Instagram account. (6) The Opulent Optic range retails at £370. (7) The Vintage Light (see below picture, to the right) is a styled reinvention of the fringed mid-century affair found in your nan's sitting room and the jumble shop down the road... Attention please! No tired mustard velvet and no dusty chintz here: colours are sharp, the glass dome may be wiped clean with a damp sponge, and the light comes with a wispy fringe of your choice! Make mine the Satinwood Gold. The Vintage Light retails at £440. (8) Talk about customising that investment piece: over 90 flex types available! Photography via Rothschild & Bickers' Instagram account.

A fringe to frame that face
Flexes of your choosing

Investment Pieces for the Home is to become a regular Mirabelle feature. We'll review objects of desire that are set to last the distance and become heirloom pieces in their own right. God forbid, those items you might even profit from, should times get dire and your household require an instant cash injection. Further inspiration from Mirabelle's Pinterest board, Interior Design Delight.

5 May 2017

Humbled by Hubble

Whenever you feel confined, restricted, by the paradigm of modern life, the Deep State and the fake news and the rigged financial system and the pettiness of politics and the media circus, when all of this gets to you... Look up the sky and reach for the stars!

Orion Nebula
Hubble Captures Wide View of Supernova 1987A

Unlimited, free-flowing, unbiased, space transcends imagination. Gases, dust clouds, fired-up rocks, molten matter, hazardous fluids and solid ice in movement, forming, expanding, fusing, travelling, spinning, clashing to breaking point, recomposing and splitting some more... A composition piece made up of velocity and timelessness and never-stunted evolution. A humbling sight, even from a safe distance - light years away - from the safety of the telescope or the computer screen, (relatively for now) sheltered as we stand from the brutal, hostile, unredeeming, all-consuming and seemingly unpredictable mass-scale action of titans devoid of our human proclivities of reason and emotion.

"Dust is a really critical part of how a galaxy works, how it forms stars" - Dr. Karin Sandstrom, University of California, San Diego

NGC 248 in the Small Magellanic Cloud
Bubble Nebula (NGC 7635)

Hubble Space Telescope and Cassini and countless other shuttles are on a scientific mission of discovery, with aha moments and wows of wonder guaranteed every step of the way! And more unanswered questions popping up too! The viewer and the observer get sucked into the mermaid-like eery and dangerous beauty of nebulae and cosmic clouds, faraway, unnamed galaxies sitting on the edge of time and space, defying human comprehension just by their stark, blank, matter-of-fact presence, while putting us firmly back in check. No, we humans are not at the (epi-)centre of the Universe. Merely an adjunct fluke form of intelligence oblivious to the wider macrocosm made up of stellar births and meltdowns, black holes and intergalactic chaos.

M101 (HST) Spiral Galaxy
Veil Nebula Supernova Remnant

Source: All photography via HubbleSite, laid out chronologically, with most recent first.  

(1) The Orion Nebula, credits: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team. No picture caption provided.

(2) Hubble Captures Wide View of Supernova 1987A, credits: NASA, ESA, R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation), and M. Mutchler and R. Avila (STScI). The picture caption reads: 'Supernova 1987A within the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring galaxy to our Milky Way. Distant stars serve as a backdrop for Supernova 1987A, located in the center of the image. The bright ring around the central region of the exploded star is composed of material ejected by the star about 20,000 years before its demise. Gaseous clouds surround the supernova. The clouds' red color represents the glow of hydrogen gas, which is fueling a firestorm of star birth.'

(3) NGC 248 in the Small Magellanic Cloud, credits: NASA, ESA, STScI, K. Sandstrom (University of California, San Diego), and the SMIDGE (Small Magellanic Cloud Investigation of Dust and Gas Evolution) team. The picture caption reads: 'two festive-looking nebulas, situated so as to appear as one. They reside in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy that is a satellite of our Milky Way galaxy. Intense radiation from the brilliant central stars is heating hydrogen in each of the nebulas, causing them to glow red. The nebulas, together, are called NGC 248. They were discovered in 1834 by the astronomer Sir John Herschel. NGC 248 is about 60 light-years long and 20 light-years wide. It is among a number of glowing hydrogen nebulas in the dwarf satellite galaxy, which is located approximately 200,000 light-years away in the southern constellation Tucana.'  

(4) Bubble Nebula (NGC 7635), credits: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). The picture caption reads: 'For the 26th birthday of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers are highlighting a Hubble image of an enormous bubble being blown into space by a super-hot, massive star. The Hubble image of the Bubble Nebula, or NGC 7635, was chosen to mark the 26th anniversary of the launch of Hubble into Earth orbit by the STS-31 space shuttle crew on April 24, 1990. "As Hubble makes its 26th revolution around our home star, the sun, we celebrate the event with a spectacular image of a dynamic and exciting interaction of a young star with its environment. The view of the Bubble Nebula, crafted from Wide Field Camera 3 images, reminds us that Hubble gives us a front-row seat to the awe-inspiring universe we live in," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington, D.C. The Bubble Nebula is 7 light-years across – about one-and-a-half times the distance from our sun to its nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri – and resides 7,100 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cassiopeia.'

(5) M101 (HST) Spiral Galaxy, credits:  NASA, ESA, K. Kuntz (JHU), F. Bresolin (University of Hawaii), J. Trauger (Jet Propulsion Lab), J. Mould (NOAO), Y.-H. Chu (University of Illinois, Urbana), Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope/J.-C. Cuillandre/Coelum, and G. Jacoby, B. Bohannan, and M. Hanna/NOAO/AURA/NSF. No picture caption provided.

(6) Veil Nebula Supernova Remnant, credits: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). The picture caption reads: 'NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has unveiled in stunning detail a small section of the expanding remains of a massive star that exploded about 8,000 years ago. Called the Veil Nebula, the debris is one of the best-known supernova remnants, deriving its name from its delicate, draped filamentary structures. The entire nebula is 110 light-years across, covering six full moons on the sky as seen from Earth, and resides about 2,100 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan.'

Westerlund 2: Detail 3
NGC 2174

(7) Westerlund 2: Detail 3 (pictured just above), credits: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), A. Nota (ESA/STScI), and the Westerlund 2 Science Team. The picture caption reads: The pillars in the star-forming region surrounding Westerlund 2, composed of dense gas, are a few light-years tall and point to the central cluster. They are thought to be incubators for new stars. Besides sculpting the gaseous terrain, intense radiation from the most brilliant of the cluster stars is creating a successive generation of baby stars. The bluish haze is an indicator of oxygen gas in the nebula.'

(8) NGC 2174 (picture just above), credits: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). The picture caption reads: 'In celebration of the 24th anniversary of the launch of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (on April 24, 1990) astronomers have taken an infrared-light portrait of a roiling region of starbirth located 6,400 light-years away. The Hubble mosaic unveils a collection of carved knots of gas and dust in a small portion of the Monkey Head Nebula (also known as NGC 2174 and Sharpless Sh2-252). The nebula is a star-forming region that hosts dusky dust clouds silhouetted against glowing gas.'

14 Apr 2017

Mechanical Animals

The art of Edouard Martinet celebrates the union between animal and metal, between the natural environment and the manufactured one, two worlds that ordinarily sit at odds next to each other. Yet in successfully bringing them together, Edouard demonstrates the loving nature of such an incongru relationship. His art brings two worlds apart together; and those opposites attract - and charmingly distract the viewers, with a little steampunk quirkiness for some of them.

The iron-clad animals neither have a heart of glass nor a mind of metal! They use a little poetic licence to soften the metal that inhabits them, give it soul and emotion, imbued with the fragility of life as it stands, a heartbeat away, a flutter away.

The French artist is equally inspired by nature's creatures as he is by parts from bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles from an era where elegance was fluent in design. Martinet is a visionary master magpie, who painstakingly collects and selects parts, restores them, upcycles them into a clever assemblage that mimics the natural world, the visual interpretation of a buoyant mind.

It wasn't long before the not-so-crazy professor had caught the eye of the talent chasers over at Colossal. When such thing happens, you know as an artist that you are striking gold out of the confidential into the mainstream, and the publicity will warrant a certain level of celebrity status and attract 'the bigger guns' - eventually.

Of note is the fact that these mechanical animals proudly wear badges of long-gone French brands prominently displayed, a delight of curves and cursives, appliqué embellished typefaces that resemble signatures. The creatures wear them like they would their heart, on their sleeves or on the collar, and this really is monsieur Martinet's craftsman's tradesmark. Brands like Koehler Escoffier, Monet & Goyon, Luxor, Lorette, Mobylette, Phares Besnard, brands that sing like the birds and bugs who wear them.

Source: (1-8) Photography via Edouard Martinet, except for (3) 'Sardine' (detail) and (5) 'Big Crapeau', both via Colossal.

28 Mar 2017

American Palazzo: Ornate Fragments of Faded Corsica

In the Cape area of Corsica where I reside are little architectural gems that stand tall and proud: Maisons d'Américains, plantation-style American palazzi built during the second half of the 19th century by Corsican Cape landowners who had emigrated to the Americas (specifically to Alabama, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela). Under the Real Cédula de Gracias, an immigration-based settlement Decree promulgated in 1815 by the Spanish Crown and aimed at keeping its New World territories pacified, trade incentives were offered alongside free land and fast-track settlement and naturalization process to eligible applicants. Corsican landowners like my ancestors took advantage of the Royal Decree of Graces to emigrate to the New World. Colonists set up sugar cane and coffee plantations, but some ventured into the lucrative gold mining industry. Dedication and hard graft rewarded them in the short space of one generation (25 years) with the proverbial fortune, the American Dream come true!

This maison d'Américains is our case-study house!

The Americans (as they would be referred to) returned to Corsica to flaunt their newly-acquired wealth and elevated status in society. They had opulent and prominent - slightly ostentatious - stone houses erected, in that nouveau riche style which redefined modern living expectations for the rest of the populace. Comfort by way of spacious room lay-out with tall ornate ceilings, long and wide corridors, sweeping stone staircases that resembled a sweep train dress, large windows flanked by wooden persiennes (louvred shutters) to filter in light and keep away the sun, and above all a refined, uncompromising neo-classical architecture with Toscan and Caribbean influences, that set new standards of living. It incorporated marble cladding, wall panelling, colonnades, rosaces, cornices, rotundas, porches, loggias and imposing balconies over 360° vistas. Not to mention the luxury of modern convenience: running water, cast-iron stoves, bathrooms, and a marked desire for further domestic innovations (electricity and telephone). There are approximately 140 maisons d'Américains in northern Corsica.

The villa palazzo in Erbalunga embodies the archetypal colonial retreat. (pict source)

The landscaped grounds of such properties featured belvederes, outbuildings (stables), dovecotes, gazebos, fountains, basins, panoramic terraces, urn planters, ornamental trees and shrubbery with a lush exotic inclination. In any way, the ornamental garden was a marked move away from the traditional Corsican working garden organised around efficiency (fruit and vegetables).

Palazzo Altieri a.k.a. Villa Henri, Bastia

Those fairytale manor houses were meant to recreate an enchanted colonial lifestyle. Yet the way these properties met their fate was a mixed bag after WWII, in disenchanted ways mostly, bar for the odd estate that had remained unspoilt by the vagaries of fashion fads, progress and changing fortunes, still bringing to this day delight to those fortunate enough to tread its threshold.

Château Stopielle, a bijou of a place, protected by two (Napoleonic?) eagles.

Yet the majority of maisons d'Américains have had the misfortune to be reinvented distastefully, by impoverished owners, whimsical idealists with more money than sense, unscrupulous property developers chasing the quick buck, neophyte interior designers who got their styles and budgets mixed up, self-appointed architects who bit more than they could chew, and the despicable curse of the cowboy builder who looted the riches and wrecked the dream, with the catastrophic consequences that such a potent combination of flawed talent entails: botched cosmetic surgery at 'best', deadly open-heart surgery at worst!

Some American properties like our case-study house (cf. top picture) have met an unfortunate and deadly demise called indivision, which plagues many a property, big or small in Corsica. A number of disagreeing/ divided heirs scattered around Corsica, France or the wider world fail to reach an agreement over the fate of a property which they each inherit in part. More often than not, such a property with multiple owners ends up in limbo, falling into disarray, i.e. decay. Let's not blame decay on the ravages of time for looters, professional or otherwise, are the main culprits. This is exactly what happened here. The mansion was eventually boarded up, albeit too late: more than 30 years after being abandonned. Plenty of time for looters (namely builders, architectural salvage dealers, antiques dealers, and private individuals) to mercilessly dismantle it down to the husk of its bare walls. The walls may be bare and the rooms empty but from the outside, you can make out that the ceilings are everything but bare, tantalising us with what once was. This revelation is a delightful and bittersweet insight.

The big reveal, observable with the naked eye from outside!
The ceiling through one of the south-facing windows on the first floor is shrouded in guipure.

And how exquisitely ornate the ceilings are! A welcome burst of colour, freshness and originality that breaks down the solemn, almost sinister-looking environs. As crept out as I felt, all by myself with only Tickle (my Jack Russell) as bodyguard and unlikely ghostbuster, I still relished on those glimpses of civilised, domestic, rural bourgeoisie bliss that my lens clumsily captured from afar. May I be forgiven for imagining a Balzac damsel in distress waving from one of the gaping windows. But no Rastignac shall dash to her rescue, I'm afraid.

Trompe l'oeil painted ceiling, Erbalunga, 2009 (pict source)

In Corsican society, painted ceilings were a status symbol, a tangible sign of social advancement and financial achievement, in other words material prosperity. As a rule of thumb, the more ornate the ceiling, the more coins in the coffers... Built in the early 1860s, our case-study house has additional kudos; in 1869, Empress Eugénie (the wife of Emperor Napoléon III) stayed over for the night!

'L'Impératrice Eugénie entourée de ses dames d'honneur au Palais de Fontainebleau', by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, 1855 © Photo RMN-Grand Palais, Domaine de Compiègne/ Daniel Arnaudet.
ibid, (detail of Eugénie) © Photo RMN-Grand Palais, Domaine de Compiègne/ Daniel Arnaudet.

Here is how the story unfolds. Empress Eugénie's ship was returning from the Suez Canal opening ceremony and got caught in a storm. It took shelter in a safe harbour off the northern Corsican coast. The Empress disembarked upon the recommendation of one member of the crew who originated from the village off the harbour. Along she went (up what is now referred to as the Chemin de l'Impératrice) on an impromptu visit to the village and met its inhabitants (including my great great grand parents), all gathered to welcome her. The Empress was so touched by the warm welcome that she bestowed the village church a magnificent white and pink Carrara marble balustrade, for which she would receive undying gratitude and appreciation.

Our ceiling bird of Paradise as he appears through the window.
I flipped him over for a better appreciation of his plumage!

Now let's take a look at my close-ups. I have pushed the capabilities of my Sony digital camera (not a DSLR although I mean to purchase one) as far as they can accompany me in photographic prowess by wide and large. The limited capabilities have been tested to the limit here, hence do pardon the mediocre result. We manage nonetheless to work out the rough lines of the meticulous ceiling decor, albeit in a truncated fashion since the photos were taken from outside. A peek of note: vignettes featuring exotic birds (a magnificent bird of Paradise which I originally mistook for a parrot, see above) and floral fronds that celebrate the promised land of The Americas. We note scalloped medallions that may be holding a monogram or insignia, but which the blurred photographic renderings make it impossible to decipher. We have ceiling roses and trompe-l'oeil stucco motifs that recreate 3D frescoes.

My heart breaks over this house. I have witnessed its long, steady and unrelentless demise in my 40-plus years of visiting the family village in Corsica. I have only trespassed its grounds twice (and felt terribly bad every time!): a few days ago for a few snatched photographic moments, and six years prior, on my mum's insistence. We had ventured beyond the gardens and tiptoed into the vacant, door-less property, witnessing its pitiful state. Curiosity got the better off my mum as she dragged me upstairs but I could not go beyond the top of the staircase to the first floor. I felt a malaise that crippled me to the point of fretting. It was as if I could feel the pain of the place standing in its graceful desolation, its mute, interiorised sorrow and bitter abandonment. I felt like we didn't belong there, that we were intruding upon a forced introspection. I dashed down the stairs and ran outside. I left the house but I felt the house in me, an odd feeling that has never quite left me.

All I want is hook up a crystal chandelier to that ceiling rose!

My grandma remembered the house when it used to be lived in, happy, vibrant and ordained, in its elegant demeanour, with its prim and proper wooden shutters, painted green, its charming picket gate and well-kept grounds. Now it stands orphaned, wrecked and dishevelled. The grapevine regularly delivers news of the house being saved and redeveloped, magically bouncing back into life thanks to some mysterious samaritan, whoever they might be. Like Sleeping Beauty waiting for her prince, I am enclined to believe that fairytales have a way to materialise when - and only when - we put our heart and soul into it. And fairy godmothers busy themselves around like pollinators, sprinkling the magic pollen - financial magic that is - to make dreams happen. May the grand dame be resurrected into life for it needs - and so deserves - its happy ever after!

Sources: (1) Palazzo photography by Mirabelle Design Inspiration. (2) Unwinding off the scenic coastal road north of Bastia, the villa palazzo in Erbalunga embodies the archetypal colonial retreat. Photography by Michel Roux, via Destination Cap Corse. (3) Palazzo Altieri (also known as Villa Henri), is located in the northern Corsican town of Bastia. Unaccredited painting, via the Altieri family genealogy website, Famiglia Altieri. (4) Château Stopielle, an architectural bijou nested up a mountain off the tourist map, with a seaside view to die for! Photography by Angela Perigot, via her blog E Quale Simu. (5-6) Ceiling fresco photography by Mirabelle. (7) Austere exteriors are not necessarily a taster of what awaits you inside a property, as testified here in the charming coastal resort of Erbalunga, with this sublime trompe l'oeil painted ceiling. Photography by Le Blog de Cath. (8) 'L'Impératrice Eugénie entourée de ses dames d'honneur au Palais de Fontainebleau', by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, 1855 © Photo RMN-Grand Palais, Domaine de Compiègne/ Daniel Arnaudet, via L'Histoire par l'Image. (9) ibid, detail of Eugénie © Photo RMN-Grand Palais, Domaine de Compiègne/ Daniel Arnaudet, via ibid. (10-12) Ceiling fresco photography by Mirabelle. (13) Palazzu Nicrosi has recently reinvented itself as a guest house. Its original owner made his fortune in Alabama (U.S.A.) in the space of 22 years, and had the palazzo built upon his return to Corsica. Pictured is one of their salons, under the watchful eye of Mr. Nicrosi.

The Palazzu Nicrosi was built after its owner made a fortune in Alabama, U.S.A. (pict source)

*Palazzo (in Italian), or Palazzu (in Corsican) is a palatial home, a maison bourgeoise. Corsican dialects are etymologically close to Italian, as they share commonality in terms of history and geographical proximity. The northern Cape dialect is very close to Tuscan dialect.

Further Reading:
  • [French article] Built in 1875, Château Stopielle is one of the most ravishing palazzi that is and which I had the privilege to visit nearly 5 years ago. The exuberantly-decorated family home is for sale and a local governmental agency is raising funds in order to purchase it so as to preserve the coveted estate's invaluable history which is testament to the socio-economical history of the Cape area of the island.
  • Corsican Interiors and Exteriors by Mirabelle, is an introduction to Corsican living, with a brief reference to the American palazzi.
  • From Home to Rubble in Sixty Years, a two-part article I wrote on my sister blog La Baguette Magique in 2011. A first-hand insight into the ravages of indivision and the organised pillage of older properties, as witnessed through the pillage of a house... which my family owns.