For nearly four decades in the 17th and 18th centuries, this inconspicuous building on Rue des Tournelles in the Marais district was the home of a remarkable lady called Ninon de Lenclos, a courtesan who in her younger years had had numerous affairs with some of the most prominent men of the French aristocracy. Most of these affairs lasted only a few days or weeks, but her special talent was that most of her ex-lovers remained friends and supporters for the rest of their lives. Some later even sent their sons to her, for instruction on how to behave in intimate situations.
She divided her male admirers into three categories: the “payers”, the “martyrs” (those who pursued her but never had a chance) and the “caprices” (those she really liked at a particular time).
Starting in 1667, when she was 47 (or 44, depending on which of her birth dates you accept), she began hosting a daily salon in this building, her “five-to-nines” which attracted the crème of French literary and intellectual life. The composer Jean-Baptiste Lully was one of her guests, as were the dramatists Molière and Racine. Even Voltaire, at a very young age, was introduced here, and she was so impressed with his precocious intellect that she gave him money to buy books.
One of her lifelong friends was a younger woman, Françoise d’Aubigné, who had earlier hosted a salon in the same neighborhood with her husband, the poet Paul Scarron.
The friendship between Ninon de Lenclos and Françoise d’Aubigné must have seemed strange, since they had opposite public reputations. Ninon was perceived as a free-loving, free-living atheist and Françoise as a moralistic Catholic, but actually they had similar personalities:
- Both were intelligent, witty and well-read.
- Both hosted prestigious literary salons in the Marais district (in different decades).
- It even seems plausible that both had long, passionate love affairs with the same man, the Marquis of Villarceaux (also in different decades).
The two women remained friends even after Françoise d’Aubigné had become the Marquise of Maintenon and the second wife of King Louis XIV.
The shop on the ground floor of 34 Rue des Tournelles is now a boutique and showroom for water-pipes from a company called Airdiem. They have posted a sort of unofficial historical sign:
Ninon de Lenclos / (1620 – 1705) / Woman of letters. / Woman of power. / Symbol of the emancipated woman of the 17th century, Ninon de Lenclos held at this address the most prestigious literary salon of her epoch. In this Hôtel de Sagonne conversed and wrote: Lully, La Fontaine, Racine, Molière.
Actually this is not quite correct because the Hôtel de Sagonne is in fact a different building further down the street, at number 28.
Through the open window on the second floor we can see wooden beams on the ceiling of the second floor. This would seem to indicate that the house is quite old, but I’m still not really sure if it is the original house where Ninon de Lenclos lived in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Address: 34, Rue des Tournelles, 75004 Paris. Location on the Vélib’ map.
The house and the surrounding buildings
Here are two books about Ninon de Lenclos that I bought second-hand at the big Gibert Joseph book store on Boulevard Saint Michel.
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2017.
Next post on Françoise d’Aubigné: Saint-Cyr-the-School