The name is misleading! Impasse de Rue Neuve features some of the oldest properties in Bordeaux, not to mention cobblestones that have been in position since the 17th century. The name was actually coined in reference to the then-new mansion houses (“oustaus” in Gascon) that were built by noble families on neighbouring Rue Neuve around the Renaissance period.
Pictured above to the right, just beyond the archway, is the city’s oldest house, which historians consider to have been built in the 14th or 15th century. All that remains of the original fortified structure is a single wall and its Gothic-style twin arched windows. The ground-floor carriage entrance has long-since been bricked up. It is believed that the house once belonged to the powerful Soler family, who tussled for many years with the rival Colom family for influence in Bordeaux.
On the other side of the archway lies a courtyard where a 16th-century mansion house still stands tall and proud: l’Oustau de Carle. It first belonged to Jean de Carle, president of the Parlement de Bordeaux court of justice, but went on to be owned by the wealthy De Lartigue family, originally from further south in Agen and whose daughter Jeanne went on to marry the celebrated political thinker, writer and philosopher Montesquieu.
Jeanne de Lartigue was born around 1689 and resided there until marrying Montesquieu in a quiet ceremony at Église Saint Michel on April 30th 1715. In between Montesquieu's long spells travelling around Europe, they went on to have two daughters together: Marie, born in 1717, and Marie-Josèphe-Denise, born in 1727. Although they lived in a château in Montesquieu’s birthplace La Brède, to the south of Bordeaux, Jeanne continued to oversee this family home on Impasse de Rue Neuve. It was there that she died there on July 13th 1770.
Maybe I haven’t been looking in the right places, but I’ve been unable to find any pictures of Jeanne de Lartigue, so we’ll have to make do with this eloquent description attributed to the De Lartigue family biographer Jean Paillot: “Jeanne was both extremely ugly and extremely wealthy” (“fort laide et fort riche”). In his 1887 book about Montesquieu, Albert Sorel was more subtle: “She was more candid than she was beautiful, and was shy rather than charming” (“Elle avait plus de candeur que de beauté, plus de timidité que de charme.”). Oh, and as if all of the above wasn’t enough to contend with, she also had to live with the nickname “Jeanne la Boiteuse” due to her prominent limp…
The house itself still looks as elegant today as it must have on the day it was completed. Above two ground-level arches which would have provided shelter for horses and carriages, the living quarters extend over two storeys. The top floor is fronted by an ornate wooden walk-way/balcony (recently restored apart from the central pillar) while, on the stone wall of the first floor, the sculptures of two impressively muscular male and female figures in Roman-style attire can be seen. It is thought that they represent the original owners of the premises, Mr and Mrs de Carle. Given the levels of illiteracy at the time, these sculptures could be regarded as the house’s nameplate.
Guttering has been added to the roof in recent years. In Medieval times the water would simply flow off the roof and onto the ground, where it would naturally run to the centre of the alleyway, down the impasse and onto Rue Neuve itself. En route, it would pass under a sturdy door in the archway, positioned there to keep the courtyard safe from the world outside, which was notoriously dangerous after dark.
And that is where we too will leave Impasse de Rue Neuve, but not before saluting a statue of the Virgin Mary positioned at the start of the cul-de-sac, in an alcove which was previously home to a statue of St John the Baptist. There's nothing quite like a bit of spiritual encouragement to cushion the blow of returning to the 21st century!
- Find it: Impasse de Rue Neuve, Bordeaux