Have you ever wondered what it’s like to live in a chateau? Nearly half of France’s 44,000 heritage sites are castles in various states of repair and author Catherine Scotto embarked on a journey to find out who lived in these medieval fortresses, and what they were like inside…
From the moment that Jean-Louis Remilleux took in hand the extraordinary feat implied in its preservation, Digoine, nestling in its vast Burgundian demesne, can once again reveal its splendor. The château invites us to take a nostalgia-free deluxe promenade through the universe of this captivating art collector.
The Never-Ending Story
Remilleux is a lucky man. A former journalist who currently produces the TV program Secrets d’Histoire, he explains his success as follows: Before buying Digoine in 2012, he had owned the Château de Groussay (just west of Versailles), the celebrated residence of Charles de Beistegui, which he sold after ten years of passionate loving care. In order to be able to afford Groussay he had sold a small eighteenth-century house in the Berry region. He started from nothing—but not everything can be explained by chance.
A great lover of decorative art, whose expertise and aesthetic make him the envy of his profession, he is a prudent collector whose taste was formed at a very early age in the flea markets of Paris and London, as well as in auction houses. “I’ve done the only thing I know how to do: please myself,” he explains by way of justification, accusing himself of a bulimic urge to acquire the inordinate number of books, items of furniture and works of art that surround him. Jean-Louis Remilleux has found in the Château de Digoine an endless playground, endowed with hundreds of hectares of land, a pond, and several outbuildings, which he is restoring with gusto.
But this is a man for whom nothing is set in aspic. In September 2015 he sold off part of Digoine’s furnishings to Christie’s. “When I run out of space, I sell something off. Rather like being at the casino, where you cash in your chips and leave. I am fond of my possessions, but they are not human: they remain objects.”
Within five years the empty spaces left by these sales have already been filled up again. The decor of each room is executed with exquisite taste, the fruit of feverish trips to antique shops, or the painstaking study of auction house catalogs. Remilleux never tires of telling the story of his finds; to follow him through the maze of his château is to be guaranteed protection against boredom.
Every piece of furniture, every painting and every ornament provides the backdrop to an enthusiastic digression, peppered with hilarious anecdotes that cannot fail to amuse the listener. A natural storyteller, he considers himself both lucky and lazy, but is a man of true culture notwithstanding, combined with a strong will. “Ornaments, whether taken separately or together, besides the fact that they are poems, are a way for the connoisseur to express himself in secret, to whisper secrets to all and sundry,” as Paul Morand aptly puts it in L’Enfant de cent ans. Jean-Louis Remilleux’s residence is far more than a pretty interior.
Everything had to be started from scratch in the case of Digoine; fortunately, the sale of Groussay, coming as it did as a sort of miraculous manna from heaven, rendered the task that much easier. “I’ve been here ten years now; who knows, perhaps one day I’ll grow tired of it. People are prisoners of family ties. As for me, I didn’t inherit a château and can sell it if the fancy takes me. I like to vary my pleasures.”
A diversionary tactic? It’s difficult to imagine Jean-Louis Remilleux abandoning the peaceful Charolais-Brionne countryside…
The Story of Digoine
The lords of Digoine had owned the terrain that bears their name since the eleventh century. Following the marriage of Marie de Digoine to Robert de Damas, the ancient medieval castle began to take on the aspect we recognize today. The Damas of Digoine thought big: the construction had to be rock solid. Two imposing towers protected the north façade, while two others were constructed at the end of the south esplanade, enclosed by dry moats.
When the wealthy Reclesne family bought the demesne in the eighteenth century, the castle was turned into a château de plaisance. Transformations, in which architect Edme Verniquet played a key role from 1750 on, lasted fifty years. The founder of the School of Fine Arts in Dijon and a friend of Buffon, Verniquet had participated in the laying out of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, as well as designing several imposing townhouses in the capital.
Throughout his career the architect was responsible for designing a dozen or so châteaux in his native Burgundy, including that of Digoine. Under his supervision the austere north façade was endowed with a double colonnaded portico, a pilastered top floor surmounted with a carved trophy (in the eighteenth century the term “trophy” referred to military exploits), and superb wrought-iron balconies. The metamorphosis reached its apotheosis with the entrance to the south façade, adorned with two high French windows and a neoclassical pediment. The two medieval towers surrounding the new construction were graced with lantern domes.
The first half of the nineteenth century saw Digoine at its most splendid. Its new owners, Count Aimé de Chabrillan, chamberlain to Napoleon, and Countess Zéphyrine Olympe de Choiseul Gouffier, heiress of Digoine, continued the transformation, adding a heated greenhouse, a library and a small theatre in which Jacques Offenbach and Sarah Bernhardt performed. The count, whom Remilleux nicknames “Le Beistegui de Digoine,” had benches installed in the vestibule, bas-reliefs, and consoles supported by legs carved in the shape of lions’ paws, designed by Clodion, which the Count had inherited: they came from the monumental nymphaeum of the Hôtel de Besenval (now the Swiss Embassy) in Paris.
Digoine was sold in 1908 to the Marquis de Croix, who bequeathed it to his descendants. When Remilleux bought the château in 2012, it was empty. However, he succeeded in buying some of its furniture during a large auction organized by auctioneers Beaussant-Lefèvre. Having made further improvements with the help of pieces from his own collection, he embarked on an enormous restoration: floors, paintwork, roof repairs, electricity, and the installation of cast-iron radiators. An additional, prestigious project is on the horizon: the restoration of the small amateur theatre, designed in 1842.
Extracted from French Chateau Style: Inside France’s Most Exquisite Private Homes Text by Catherine Scotto.
Images by Marie Pierre Morel.
Published by Prestel, 2022