Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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JANUARY 30, 2012 9:26AM

Ancient Supermodels in a Renaissance castle

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venus debut 

A Neolithic Venus figurine 

This weekend, we left Paris to spend some time in a Renaissance-era castle where, among other things, we hung out with some prehistoric supermodels.  Sort of.

The suburbs to the west of Paris are full of beautiful 19th and early 20th century houses, greenery, and riverscapes.  They also have some impressive historical monuments. The most well-known is the Château de Versailles.  The château of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, just a few miles (but two very different train lines) from the former, is closely tied to its more famous cousin.

There actually used to be two châteaux here, and the Château Neuf (new castle), built in the 1570’s, was the inspiration for former resident Louis XIV’s Versailles. 

You can see the two castles, as well as the royal landscaping, in this model, located in the château’s chapel. The Château Neuf is the sprawling pink brick mass just above the two levels of colonnades.  The Vieux Château, which is still standing today, is far in the central background:


Unfortunately, the Château Neuf  was demolished in the 1660’s.  Today, only the Vieux Château (Old Château), first constructed in the 1120’s by Louis VI, then rebuilt and modified over the centuries, (its present appearance dates to 1539, under François I, whose initials and royal symbol are sculpted in places throughout the castle) and a portion of the grounds, laid out by famous landscaper André Le Nôtre, remain.  But this isn’t insignificant: the old château is a charming feast for the eyes.

 chateau 1

Since 2005, the beautiful château has housed the Musée d'archéologie nationale (the National Archaeological Museum).  Among its collection, which spans prehistoric times to the early Middle Ages, you’ll find other kinds of beauty.

But we have to get there first.

To do this, you need to take the RER A train line.  The RER is a network of suburban trains.  They’re easy to catch in Paris, and can be used for no extra fee if you take them from one stop to another within the city (this is often faster than taking the Metro, which, as opposed to the RER lines,  stops frequently).  To get outside the city, though, prices vary. 

Taking the RER is like going into another world.  Aboveground, you were probably surrounded by tree-lined boulevards and neutral-colored stone buildings, making up the harmony of Paris.  But the RER’s décor has stayed true to the era when it was constructed, the 1970’s. If the streets of Paris are classical music, down here it’s carnival tunes, or New Age jazz.

Here, in one station, you can see rows of boxed-in red plastic seats:

station 1 

station 2 


It takes about twenty to thirty minutes to get to Saint-Germain-en-Laye from the last station in Paris, Charles de Gaulle-Etoile.  When you emerge, you are immediately in a totally different time: Renaissance France.


The clipped and sculpted tree branches are typical of the French garden style.  They probably look even more impressive with their leaves.

 chateau from garden

A view of the château from the gardens 

This terrace, to the east side of the castle, probably hasn’t changed much over the centuries. But the view has!  Today, you can see the skyscrapers of La Défense, the business center just outside Paris (left) – and the Eiffel Tower peeks its head and neck over the hill to the right.


When you enter the museum, you can go into the castle’s courtyard, a repetitive harmony of stone and brick, broken only by one wall, which ingeniously integrates the high windows of the chapel, built by Louis IX (Saint Louis) in the 1230’s. 

courtyard 1


courtyard 2 

The chapel was probably stunning once, but unfortunately many of its windows, including an enormous rose window, no longer have glass, and have been covered with stone instead.  Outside, some centuries-old stone coffins are placed carefully around the base of the building.  This one no longer had a lid.  I found it sort of lovely to see clovers growing where a human body once lay.


The interior of the castle follows the brick-and-stone design of the outside, though in some rooms, it’s been modernized to fit the needs of the museum.  Here, in what was once the ballroom, a gorgeous, enormous fireplace remains.  On it you can see a bas relief sculpture of a salamander, the symbol of King François I.


What struck me most about the visit, though, and what often strikes me when I see ancient objects, is the connection we have with the past.  

This time, what I most felt connected to was the idea of beauty and adornment.

That morning as we’d prepared to leave, I’d put on heavy clothes, since it was cold.  I worried that I looked bulky or fat in them.  I combed my hair into a retro-looking style that the boyfriend likes. I tried to find a necklace that would add a little color to my gray-and-black ensemble, and chose some blue stone beads I’d bought at the annual Gathering of Nations Pow-Wow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, two years ago.  

In the museum’s prehistoric section, we came upon a display case of Venuses. 

venus 1 

A “Venus” in prehistoric art is a small (usually only a few inches high) stone female figurine whose prized feminine features (breasts, belly, thighs, hips, backside) are usually exaggerated, while details like the head/face, arms, hands, and feet, are played down, or even eliminated.  These figurines have been found in many prehistoric sites in Europe and Eurasia, and may be fertility talismans, representations of female deities, or even pornographic objects.  What I love about them is that they celebrate the female form in all its glory - and variety (there are even skinny venuses).  I’d gone to the museum feeling like my heavy layered skirts (I wore two!) weren’t flattering to my belly and thighs.  Those venuses put that thought right out of my mind.  I feel proud when I look at them, proud of my curves and of what they mean.  

 venus 2


venus 3


venus 4


venus 5 


venus 6


venus 7

I thought the curve of the thigh on this Venus was really stunning: 

venus thigh 


Ancient jewelry also nearly always moves me.  I mentioned my blue stone necklace.  In several display cases, including this one, whose objects date to the Neolithic, I saw jewelry that looked so similar to mine. 


It’s amazing how most of the necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings from ancient times look incredibly modern.  These rings and bracelets, from the Bronze Age, are a little more eccentric-looking, but still, if we saw someone wearing them today, we probably wouldn’t bat an eye.

 jewlery 2

Whenever I see jewelry and objects like these, I also can’t help but think of the person or people who owned them.  Long ago, they were clasped around the wrist or neck or finger of someone, long ago they touched skin that today is just bone, or dust.  In a way, these pieces make me imagine life more vividly than any other kind of artifact.  I touch the beads around my own neck, and feel connected to women who’ve lived before me.  We may not have understood each other in many other ways, from our language, to our culture, to our beliefs – but we all wore jewelry.  We could go through a market then or now and stop and admire the same pieces.

Speaking of pieces I admire, these fibulae (pins to hold a cape or scarf in place) from the 6th century AD, were found in the tomb of a Merovingian noblewoman. 


They’re typical of Merovingian/Visigoth jewelry of that time, from the form (birds were a popular favorite) to the cloisonné technique.  Though these might be a little more unusual-looking today, I’d still love to wear one, wouldn’t you? 

Before leaving the house that morning, I’d put a little concealor on a reddish area over my nose.  I’m not a huge makeup fan, but it is useful.  Ancient Roman women, on the other hand, LOVED make-up.  There was even a point when it became trendy to paint in the veins on your arms and wrists.  Unfortunately, like the pipes they ingeniously used to have running water, a lot of Roman make-up contained lead.  Many women had health problems due to this, though no one understood that at the time.  It’s common to see Roman make-up applying accessories in museums that have objects from this culture, but I saw something in this museum that I hadn’t seen before: Because Roman make-up came in powder form, you needed an instrument to mash it up and put it on your face.  I've seen other tools for this, I think, but this atypical choice surprised me: a well-sculpted marble finger! 

finger makeup applicator 

I just know that if I’d been a wealthy woman in Ancient Rome (or, in this case, Romanized Gaul (France)), this would have been something I would have HAD to have.  Every day I used it, I would have chuckled.  When you think of the role sculpture had at the time, depicting deities and powerful government figures, and that it could then be used for something so frivolous – that’s rather cheeky.  I wonder if the woman who owned this felt the same way?  I hope she got just as much delight out of it as I did looking at it nearly two thousand years later.

Ancient mirrors are another thing that intrigue me – and the boyfriend, as well.  Whenever we come upon one, we stare at its once-polished surface and wonder what faces it once reflected.  These objects, once perhaps cruel judges of aesthetic, are now powerless. 


mirror 1 

A Gallo-Roman mirror, from the early centuries AD.

mirror 2

A mirror from the Bronze Age 


We work so hard to be beautiful, but in the end, objects like these mirrors are sober reminders that physical beauty doesn’t last forever – though when we’re lucky, traces of it do survive, and come down to us through centuries and millennia, to admire and even connect with today.     



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Going to Saint-Germain-en-Laye was a challenge for me, IBS-wise. My day was even more wonderful because I made it there without a problem, and the return trip went well, too! Yipee! Thanks so much again to all of you who've shown me so much support and kindness regarding my current IBS struggles.
Hard to imagine so much history between the building and the ancient artifacts. Love going on your trips, Alysa!
You have such an eye for recognizing beauty and knowing just how to share it with your audience. Sometimes traces of that ancient beauty come down to us in shared words and pictures. And survive in people who haven't had the good fortune to see it in person. Beautiful post.
Awesome. Now I'll spend the rest of the day zoning out on fantasies of dueling in the Château Vieux, a la "Ascanio" (the Dumas novel). Which, to my way of thinking, recommends this post :-)
Hah! Glad you were able to make this nice day trip with your IBS challenge. It would have scared the crap outta me.


One of the things I was taken with in the museum in Malta, okay, two of the things: a tea-cup and a ladle. They dated from the time of the Venuses...Malta was evidently one of the centres of that culture. The soup ladle was, eh, a soup ladle. Couldda been in anyone's kitchen w.o. comment. The design was perfected, evidently, quite a few thousands of years ago. Ditto the teacup. Maybe they didn't have tea in it... But it was one of those cups that are wide at the top and taper gracefully to the bottom. Except for being a little grotty from many centuries in the ground, it wouldn't have even got a glance if you served someone tea in it.

Some of the other stuff in the museum was more mysterious.

Anyway, Malta had Venuses. There's the famous small sleeping lady, very fat, but graceful and stylistic, not like many of the lumpy Venuses. Also they have a gigantic fat lady - tho only the bottom half remains (the top half got gradually plowed away in some farmer's field). There were a number of sculpted heads - the female ones amused me. They were chubby with bowl-cut hair w. bangs. My thoroughly modern friend I was with is chubby with the exact same hair-do. It was...strange. Like, when you look at the Greek statues, their features, poses, drapery, etc., it looks of some other era. Staring at a disembodied stone head that looks like your friend, but is 8000 years old, that's somethin' else...

(Tho I've seen a few ladies who are as large and lumpy as those venuses...)

Oh one other thing, while I'm babbling away - this long-lost culture covered most of the land-mass of Europe and produced zillions of was a going concern, not a few savages in their straw huts (tho I saw some reproductions of those in Wales and they were very impressive....then we drove past a present-day village with the very same kind of wattle-walls and straw roofs!)


My second time admiring this post. I am amazed by the fibulae from 6th Century AD, especially - they look so new and modern. I love scarf pins and have a couple, none like them. You had a wonderful visitand congratulations on your 'victory', Alysa.
I swear some of those figures look like me..:)
I wish I had been with you.. We could have escaped, hid and lived there..:)
Jlsathre said it better than I could!
Alysa, this is so interesting. Love the mirrors (my have ancient thing is Roman glass). I know how hard it is to travel with gut problems (just did). Good for you for carrying on.
Wonderfully interesting article. I love the cape pins and wear one right now. What works of wearable art!
Dang! Above should say, "would wear one right now"!
Fascinating tour, Alysa. Great photos and narrative and delightful teaser in the title.
“This weekend, we left Paris to spend some time in a Renaissance-era castle where,
among other things, we hung out with some prehistoric supermodels. “
Gotta be your best first line….

What is old is new again, as they say. The jewelry would not make anyone bat the proverbial eye. In fact, to be expansive if you would indulge me, they say the USA is like some repeat of the Roman Empire, yes? Rise & fall & all that, obviously us falling now, due to moral decay & degeneracy & decadence & overall fatigue…

Cult of body. …hedonism with no foundation….

Anyway, I shall end ruminations there, and return to reality to say, this is one of your most fascinating paris posts…

“We work so hard to be beautiful,
but in the end,
objects like these mirrors are sober reminders
that physical beauty doesn’t last forever –
though when we’re lucky, traces of it do survive,
and come down
to us
through centuries and millennia, to admire and even connect with today. “

amazing connection. Well done…
I gotta get back to Paris some day and see more of what the city has to offer. Thanks for the tour and suggestions. :)
All very interesting. You know the neolithic model in your first photo asked, "Does this skirt make my butt look fat?" As for King François I, what type of king has a salamander for a symbol? Can you trust a king who wants to be identified with a little, slimy, marshland dwelling creature? Granted that description can be used for most politicians, except a salamander has some dignity.
I am so proud of your for even risking a venture out like that. I know exactly what tit takes to screw up that courage.

NOW. I love this post. You give us all a chance to see these artifacts up close. I always imagine the wearer/owners of jewelry and pottery. I wonder how closely their thoughts and worries mirrored ours. How do you get away with taking photos in museums?

What a fun sounding day! I'm glad you were able to get out and about...
Those Venuses are just so obviously instruments of pleasure.
That has always been my take on them. This culture revered women and fertility, why wouldn't these be desired objects of desire?
Every time has its beauty ideal, and I like this one better than ours -- but then I'm sure there were scrawny, less-curvy types that felt marginalized! (I'm glad you were able to enjoy the day without illness.)
Thanks for reading, guys. I’m glad you enjoyed this museum visit!

Harry’s – Thanks! I always love going on visits through history on your blog, too!

Seth – I’m glad I made you dream! And I’m not surprised you’re a Dumas fan!

Myriad – What you wrote was so interesting. Especially about your friend looking like a prehistoric sculpture. I agree with you: so many Ancient Greek statues look too idealized to be “real”, but sometimes, like with prehistoric art or even very realistic Roman busts of Senators, it’s so cool when you see someone who looks like someone you know – and very touching, too! That happened to us in Rome recently; we saw a sculpture that was the spitting image of one of the boyfriend’s cousins. It was a strange and touching moment, indeed…. As for everyday objects that look like ones from today, I’ve read that if we were transported back to a wealthy ancient Roman’s house, we’d basically have the same creature comforts, etc, as we do today. It’s crazy how some things haven’t changed in a long time!

Fusun – I can imagine you wearing those fibulae – I wish they made things like that today!

Linda – Ooh, that would have been so fun!

Lea – I’m glad you also got through traveling with stomach issues!

ccdarling – Thanks for reading. When I read your first comment, I imagined you wearing a dramatic and cool-looking cape, and fibulae! You shouldn’t have corrected yourself; it was quite the image! : - )

James – I’m glad you liked the first line, and I agree that there are definitely parallels between Ancient Rome and the U.S. I just hope we won’t fall anytime soon – bad as the US can be, there’s far worse out there….

ocular – My pleasure! I hope when you come back, we can meet!

Stim – My boyfriend read your comment, and said in an outraged voice, “But a salamander can resist fire!” I guess that’s the logic there (I never really thought about it, myself…).

Lezlie – Thanks so much for your kind words. Knowing you’re there with me in spirit helps so much. As for your question, at this museum they didn’t get really uptight about people taking photos. I think maybe it was because most of the things on display were either copies, or made of stone or other materials that wouldn’t be damaged by camera flashes, like paint or fabric would. But the boyfriend thinks maybe the guards just didn’t see me….

Just Thinking – Thanks, and I’m not sure what to think about the Venuses. Whatever they were used for, though, I just love the celebration of womanly forms.

Bellwether – I agree with you wholeheartedly about the Venus aesthetic. There are some that are on the skinny side, though, apparently, though they aren’t as common. The one in the photo before the text I thought was on the skinny side in terms of her upper body – she just has really big hips. I love that even in their voluptuousness, Venuses can be different. But yes, there probably were women who were jealous of them. Maybe they even rolled their eyes at their husbands’ admiration and tried to give them reality checks like, “We have to follow buffalo herds – who the hell do you think can sit around all day and eat and get that big? Really!”
What wonderful Super Models. And way cool makeup, jewelry, etc. I'd like to have some of that stuff, too. Thanks for showing and telling!
In the last couple of weeks, I've been listening to music from the "Notre Dame School" (12th-13th centuries, roughly). I had studied it in college, and graduate school, but it held no attraction for me until I walked into Notre Dame for the first time. The architecture from that period was the music's entire raison d'etre. Beautiful, lingering stuff.

Thanks for the tour!
Me too.
I love the celebration of those curves, that an artist loved and took care to depict a full-bodied woman, as if in reverence (pleasure theory aside...or not).
Thanks again for sharing your day!
Thank you for sharing all this beauty!
I love this piece of yours. All the pictures are amazing, as always, and I love the red seats in the Metro, the gorgeous castles, and those trees! But what resonates so much with me is how you talk about the objects that connect our experiences across time, culture, etc. It really is pretty amazing to see jewelry that appeals just as much in the 21st century as it did two thousand years ago. What's compelling about studying history and visiting museums is the exact thing you write about: connecting with the universals of human experiences. That's what makes me feel connected. Thanks for this wonderful piece!
loved this post! I felt the same way when a local museum had an exhibit on ancient Egypt--it was the jewelry that mattered, not the sarcophagi. thanks for writing!
This is a beautiful story - a drop of history
This is indeed a very beautiful story Papa Johns Coupons
The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company... a church... a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.Very beautiful article...Toilet Paper Coupons
The first time I saw a picture of the Venus of Willendorf I was ecstatic! Until that time I had no idea how sexy a really big belly could be! lol

Thanks for sharing. Your images are lovely.
I loved this timeless piece, Alysa. Such great writing and the photos are so evocative. Saint-Germain-en-Laye is going on my must-visit list!