Postcard from Toulouse, France: A far from humble home for city’s leaders

Above: Under renovation this past fall, the distinctive pink brick Neoclassical facade of the Capitole stretches across the entire eastern side of an impressive plaza.

The city government of Toulouse has headquartered itself on the same expansive plaza since the 12th century.

In the early 16th century, the people of Toulouse lived in fear of invasion by Spanish forces under the flag of King Charles V (1500-1556). The threat was ongoing because Charles V was at constant war somewhere on the continent as he tried to defend his multiple titles in a far-flung Hapsburg Empire. Charles simultaneously was King in Germany, King of Italy and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This powerful threat inspired city leaders to build what is now the oldest remaining governmental portion of its Capitole compound, a brick tower designed to protect the city’s archives and gunpowder. The tower often is referred to as Le Donjon, or The Keep. Le Donjon’s centuries newer belfry was added by the architect known for remodeling Notre Dame in Paris, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879).

As the governmental complex expanded, a handsome interior courtyard, named in honor of Henri IV (1553-1610), was built at the beginning of the 17th century and is characterized by alternating bands of brick and stone. The sculptural portals promote the importance city leaders felt Toulouse merited, both in terms of political power and the arts. Above one, captive slaves support the city’s coat of arms, with the Latin inscription below translating to: “Here Themmis gives the law to the citizens, Apollo the flowers to the poets, Minerva the palms to the artists.” Although Henri provided the city fathers with funds to complete the handsome courtyard, an early example of naming rights for sale, it is here that his godchild, Duke Henri II of Montmorency (1595-1632), was beheaded for plotting and leading an unsuccessful rebellion of nobles against Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642).

These early elements are all screened from the Capitole Plaza by the longer-than-an-NFL-football-field facade of pink bricks designed by Guillaume Cammas (1688-1777) and built in 1750. The resulting unification of earlier and new structures was spacious enough to permit the 1818 inclusion of an opera hall on its right side.

The interior art of the Capitole seems to reflect the desired fawning affection females should lavish upon city fathers and its successful sons, particularly in the Hall of the Illustrious. As an example, take the above photos of the sculpture of Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665), a famous mathematician of Toulouse. If I was ever presented with any of his enduring formulas in algebra, I’m sure I was left unimpressed, as with all of algebra. But in Toulouse, Fermat’s Last Theorem, which is xn + yn = zn has no non-zero integer solutions for x, y and z when n > 2, is represented as quite a chick-magnet.

The sumptuously ornate interior decorations of the Capitole certainly lend a glamourous touch to the civil wedding ceremonies mandated by French law.

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