Diane de Poitiers returns to her grave…
Diane de Poitiers is one of the foremost ladies of the French Renaissance. As the mistress of King Henri II, twenty year her junior, she wielded immense political influence. She was given the royal title of Duchesse de Valentinois, and much of the crown jewels. The palatial chateau of Anet was built for her in the midst of her late husband’s vast estates, and another one, Chenonceau, belonging to Queen Catherine de Medici, was transferred to her.
Diane was reaching the age of sixty, but the King’s devotion remained unabated. Her power was undisputed until Henri’s untimely death during a joust. This dramatic turn of events shifted power to his widow, Catherine de Medici. Diane was invited to retire to her chateau of Anet, after surrendering Chenonceau and the crown jewels.
I have visited Anet, which retains to this day much of Diane’s spirit. Her exquisite taste is still on display in every architectural detail, and the interwoven DH monograms, for Diane and Henri, are omnipresent. So are crescent moons and stags, symbols of Diana, goddess of the hunt, after whom she was named. The King wore her colors, black and white, chosen as a reminder of her widowhood, as he rode to his death on the jousting field.
Her contemporaries marveled at her miraculously youthful looks. She used the most expensive age-defying technique of her time: daily doses of a gold elixir. Less surprising for us, she followed a strict exercise regimen: regular horse riding and frequent swims in nearby rivers. But the most wonderful recipes can only delay the inevitable, and she died at the age of 66. She was buried in a black and white marble tomb, in the funeral chapel her daughter (by her husband) built for her next to the chateau. There she lay undisturbed for over two centuries.
Then, a few years into the French Revolution, the destruction of royal tombs became the order of the day. Diane had been too close to royalty for her remains to be left in peace. Her embalmed body, perfectly preserved in her best clothes, was exhumed and extracted from its lead coffin, along with those of two of her grandchildren. Put in sudden contact with oxygen, soft tissue decomposed rapidly, and her blonde tresses detached from her skull. Her bones were then taken to the town churchyard. A century later, a monument was built on the spot.
In 2008, the site was excavated, and the remains of an elderly woman and two children found there were examined by Dr. Philippe Charlier, coroner. A scientific team conducted a battery of tests, including radio carbon dating and the superposition of the adult skull with known portraits of Diane. Everything points to a positive identification, including the traces of two leg fractures, due to horse falls. Still more intriguingly, the gold content of the bones is 250 times higher than normal! Diane’s gold potions were not a legend… In fact, they may well have killed her.
Back to the present: this coming Saturday, the 29th of May, her remains, for the second time since 1565, will be interred in state in her marble tomb at Anet. Here is a program of the accompanying celebrations. Even if you cannot attend, I highly recommend a visit of Diane’s still gorgeous chateau of Anet.