How’s Bayou? Wishin' for a Titian
Years ago, I took a lesson home from a London stageplay, Lettice and Lovage, that featured a sanguine Maggie Smith in the role of a bored tour guide at a British Stately Home. In the first scene, she recounted an accurate history of the Lord of the Manor to yawning tourists, but soon she had goosed the storyline to the point where enthusiastic visitors were swooning over the image of LOTM leaping from the top of the grand staircase, flourishing a sword, to ward off invaders (or something like that).
Periodically, when we hire new staff, or acquire new objects at Madewood, I'll do a walkthough of the house to acquaint everyone with details of new pieces, relay new bits of the history of Madewood, or answer questions. It's also a great time to debunk any myths that might have creeped into our informal tour of the mansion.
At the end of one of these sessions a decade or so ago, one of our most notorious tour guides Gerald “'T Boy” Bourgeois (who merits a column all to himself at a later date) stood staring at the large painting of a distressed and bare-chested maiden that hangs across from the staircase in the entrance hall.
I sensed a Maggie Smith Moment coming down the pike.
"Tell me, Mr. Keith," 'T Boy intoned in his mellifluous Cajun accent. "Is dat da Mona Lisa?"
Well, no. But was this, I wondered, what our octogenarian guide, who had distinguished himself in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, was telling our visitors?
Four years after Mother acquired Madewood, the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, predecessor of the New Orleans Museum of Art, held a deaccessioning sale. The 1968 sale catalogue was replete with items that, Mother reckoned, would fill walls and spaces at Madewood quite nicely. So there she sat, paddle in hand, fighting for pieces that were deemed by museum officials either duplications, or not quite museum quality.
And there were toss-offs as well, like the huge, elaborately carved frame, denuded of most of its gold leaf, torn strips of canvas with a ghostly faded image of Mary Magdalene barely clinging to the warped stretcher bars. Just right for that big space by the stairs, she must have thought. Might even be kind of interesting with a piece of contemporary art in it.
Enter Florian de la Mey Nesossis. A giant of a man with a fin-de-siecle name, Florian had elevated the oft-maligned trio of black velvet, glow-in-the-dark paint, and black-light fluorescent tubes to new heights in his dioramas, created as part of his job at Michoud in the 1960s both to illustrate what the moon landing might look like and to woo reluctant government officials into keeping the funds flowing by wowing them with his otherworldly, sensory-overload imagery. (Lunar-Landing-Conspiracy Theorists take note: This could be the smoking gun you've been looking for.)
Mother knew Florian from his purchases at Dixie Art; and, when she acquired Madewood, Florian, along with his wife May and two daughters, were regular weekenders in the country, cheerfully scrubbing floors, washing walls and preparing large family-style meals in our inpromptu kitchen. It was Florian who decided to bring the pressure washer into the ballroom, and it was he who decided that those ragged strips of canvas could be restored to at least a semblance of their former glory.
No one actually expected the sewn-together strips of canvas to yield a full-blown Titian, but Florian was convinced that it might be by a student of the master, and therefore well worth the restoration attempt. So off it went to his studio, where it must have seemed out of place among the glowing paints and black lights. But it looked quite spiffy when he popped it back into the regilded frame, and we soon learned that it was a more-than-adequate copy by an 18th-century Italian painter known only as Salvadori of the original Titian that hangs in the Pitti Palace in Florence.
But the word was out that there was a priceless Titian sequestered in a plantation house along Bayou Lafourche, and local newspaper reporters descended on Mother for a scoop. The more she claimed it was just a copy, the more they decided she was just saying that to discourage theft or lower insurance rates. Finally, she told the most persistent reporter that her older sister had painted it, and that we were just trying to impress people. He left crestfallen and, fortunately, never filed the story.
But back to 'T Boy and the Mona Lisa.
No," I replied, "that's Mary Magdalene."
"Wit all dat hanging out like dat?" 'T Boy questioned, cupping his hands below his chest and shaking his head in disbelief.
"That's right," I continued. "The Bible tells us that she was on her way to the foundations department of Walmart to buy a new garment."'
T Boy shook his head again."You somethin' else Mr. Keith," he chuckled. "You know they didn't have Walmarts in the Bible."
I glanced up over 'T Boy's shoulder, and in my mind's eye I could see Eliza Foley Pugh, widow of Thomas Pugh, who commissioned Madewood, leaping from the stairway landing, sword in hand, chasing away those pesky Yankees.
With no help, I might add, from Walmart.
How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.