Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)

A 19th century dandy
Prosper Mérimée
Portrait de Prosper Mérimée vers 1850, par le peintre Jacques-Simon Rochard - Crédit : Musée Carnavalet Histoire de Paris

The 19th century was a period of transition and instability during which France underwent political and economic upheavals. Two empires, three monarchies, two republics and three revolutions followed one another ! Modern society was being established.

It was in this context that Prosper Mérimée was born on 28 September 1803 into an intellectual family of the upper middle class. This socialite, in turn dandy, globetrotter, novelist and state official, would be distinguished in many fields.

A  tireless traveller

At the end of the 17th century and in the 18th century, the young people of aristocratic families or of the upper middle class left to make their grand tour of Europe. At a time when people liked to travel and discover picturesque provinces, these cultural and educational journeys were financed by their families. Young people (men) visited universities, museums, and outstanding historical, artistic and natural sites. Prosper Mérimée participated in this movement made famous by Stendalh in the pages of his collection Memoirs of a tourist.

Prosper Mérimée travelled throughout Europe and made numerous trips to England, Italy and Spain. It was during one of his stays that he became friends with an aristocratic Spanish family, the Countess and Count of Montijo, the parents of the future Empress Eugenie. Thanks to this friendship, he would naturally find his place at the court of Napoleon III.

An author and a courtier

His travels took him as far as Constantinople. They would provide source material for his literary works and it was during these peregrinations that he wrote many short stories. From his stays in Corsica, he wrote Colomba and Mateo Falcone between 1829 and 1840. Through these characters, he described a population proud of its identity and faithful to the code of honour.

La Vénus d'Ille, a fantastic short story written in 1835, refers to his passion for archaeology, while Victor Hugo describes a fantasised and flamboyant Middle Ages in Notre Dame de Paris.

Prosper Mérimée was elected to the Académie Française in 1844. He read his works and gave presentations at the salons of the imperial couple. In 1857, to entertain the court, he subjected the emperor and his wife, as well as academics and novelists, to his famous dictation exercise. All of them made many mistakes, except Metternich, the famous Austrian ambassador, who made only three.

The inspector of Historic Monuments

In 1834, Prosper Mérimée succeeded Ludovic Vitet as Inspector General of Historical Monuments. Its role is to inventory and protect the French built heritage threatened by the passage of time. As early as 1837, he proposed the creation of a seven-member commission for historical monuments. At the beginning, it drew up lists of monuments and notable sites, from Prehistory to the Renaissance. The architects attached to the Commission monitor the building sites and ensure the maintenance of the buildings registered on the lists.

It was in this context that Prosper Mérimée collaborated with Viollet-le-duc, the most famous architect of the 19th century, well known for his audacious and controversial restorations.

 The Fortress of Chinon saved by Mérimée

In 1840, the Fortress of Chinon was classified as a historical monument, but the ruins were dangerous and in 1854, the municipality requested the demolition of the buildings.

It was in this context that a charming countess, Madame de la Roche-Jacquelein, owner of the château d'Ussé, asked for Mérimée's intervention to avoid the demolition of certain parts of the château. Correspondence was established between them. Here are some excerpts from these letters :
I arrived three days ago from Berlin and found the resolution of the Chinon Town Council. I immediately wrote three pages of my best prose and took it to my minister. I do not expect much good to come of it ; I hope, however, to stop the immediate demolition, but the matter must be resolved by a certain number of thousand francs, a number greater, I fear, than you seem to believe ; and we are poor as Job. Please believe, however, that I will do everything in my power to ensure that your wishes are fulfilled. In addition to all the glorious memories that are attached to the castle of Chinon, it has very particular charms for us antiquarians, and it would be to tear out our hearts to demolish it." 
"I've just returned from Chinon. The natives seemed to me very eager to keep their castle as long as it doesn't cost them anything. They say that it is going to fall on them ; and they well deserve this fate, because it was them who tore off its facing to use to make stairs. Consider them to be more thieves than vandals."

Thanks to the intervention of Prosper Mérimée, the demolition project was stopped and a grant was awarded to The Fortress of Chinon for the restorations that began in 1857. If Mérimée had the ability to intervene in Chinon, it was thanks to his relations at the highest level of the state (he was very close to the family of the Empress Eugénie since his youthful travels).

The tribute to the French pioneer of Historic Monuments

Like the 19th century itself, conservative but turned towards the future (creation of the railroad network, great Hausmanian works in Paris, etc.), Prosper Mérimée was a man of his time.

In 1978, the Ministry of Culture paid tribute to him by creating the Mérimée Database (this database inventories the French architectural heritage). Posterity will retain the image of the pioneer of the Historical Monuments Commission rather than that of the writer.

Bibliography :
MALLION (J.), Prosper Mérimée, the Countess de la Roche-Jacquelein and the castle of Chinon, BAVC, VII, t.10, 1976, pp. (1051 - 1059)