After more than a century, a French country gentleman’s last wishes are being honored in that nation. Louis Mantin toiled for years as an unremarkable civil servant on behalf of the town of Moulins until, when he was 46 years old, he inherited a fortune through his father’s will. Mr. Mantin immediately thereafter set about the work of aesthete and patron of culture, and the first serious step was his house.
Mr. Mantin’s patrimony financed the construction of a country mansion in the very center of Moulins, a site formerly occupied by the ducal palace of the Bourbons, French aristocracy with claims to both that country’s and Spain’s royal thrones. He filled the house with imported tapestries, paintings, and porcelain; commissioned sculptors and woodworkers; and had installed his burgeoning – and fittingly eccentric – collection of Egyptian artifacts and oddities, prehistoric flints, oil-lamps, and medieval lock-and-keys sets.
Desirous of renown in his own life and the next, Mr. Mantin’s own will provided for the curating of his home and for its preservation as a museum for the people of Moulins. The only stipulation: the house must remain shuttered for one century. Mr. Mantin died and the house remained as he requested for 100 years, sliding from memory to local legend until authorities found the inclination – and the money – to renovate and re-open the manse this year. Mr. Mantin’s great-niece Isabelle de Chavagnac recently told the BBC: “The house was gradually forgotten by the world. But not by the people of Moulins.”
The result is a picture of the French country squire at leisure, circa 1900. Skulls and other Masonic curios, stuffed game birds, the latest in fin-de-seicle domestic gadgetry (electricity, flushing toilets), and a sense of antiquarian grandeur imbue the place. Explains Ms. de Chavagnac: “Here, everybody was waiting for the day when 100 years would have passed and the house would have opened once again. It is odd how the collective memory of a place never dies.”